Goa’s heritage basilica goes in for repairs, thanks to a 1950s Portuguese folly

Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s penchant for aggresively pushing nationalistic ideology, especially in the colonies, isn’t really paying off in the long run for the state’s most important Catholic place of worship: the Basilica of Bom Jesus.

The 17th century church, which is a part of the Old Goa Church complex, once the seat of Portuguese power in South Asia, is crumbling thanks to an almost ‘Tughlaq-like’ decision taken in nationalist bombast by the Portuguese dictator in the early 1950s.

The decision involved ‘restoring’ heritage structures across Portugal and its colonies and to remould them superficially as ancient monuments representing the Iberian nation’s past glory.

Master Portuguese restorer Baltazar da Silva Castro, who was assigned the mission to ‘restore’ the Basilica in the 1950s, directed his workers to chip away at the plaster of the massive heritage structure in order to make it appear ancient.

“…a new cross was built on the back of the basilica; the major change in the religious complex was the removal of the lime plaster from the exterior facades of the basilica, leaving the stone (laterite) exposed to weathering effects and, at the same time, drastically changing its image,” says Joaquim Rodrigues dos Santos, a Portuguese scholar in his research paper ‘On The Trail of Baltazar Castro, A Portuguese Restorer in India’.

The basilica incidentally hosts the mortal relics of 16th century Spanish saint St. Francis Xavier, who is also considered the patron saint of Goa.

Seventy years later, the recklessness of Castro’s restoration strategy, has proved to be a bane for the Catholic clergy serving at the Church complex, who believe the Basilica walls may be close to caving in and urgently need repairs as well as a coat of plaster from the outside. Some of the stones embedded in the outer wall seem to crumble at mere touch, says Fr. Patricio Fernandes, the Basilica’s Rector.

“If you visit the Basilica and take a close look at the structure now, the stone has been irreversibly damaged by weathering, in some places there is a loss of detail and ornamentation or it has been badly disfigured,” Fernandes said.

Castro’s superficial intervention of doing away with outer layers of plaster on heritage sites, may have worked in Portugal, but in tropical Goa, the lashing monsoons and harsh summer weather appear to have taken a toll on the laterite stones, which the walls of the Basilica are made of.

“Due to its exposed laterite exterior and other factors like the rapid urbanisation of Old Goa and the unseasonal rain that Goa is experiencing all through the year the walls of the Basilica remain wet. The laterite stone gets saturated so much so that the water even starts dripping through the inside walls. This was something that never happened in the past,” the Rector claims.

Limestone plaster is the immediate remedy for the fatigued walls of the heritage Church, Fernandes said. “That is what global restoration experts have advised us to do for now,” he said.