Dream-like, yet elemental, Goan homes preside over a lush green paradise. The warm and humid climate blurs the distinction between indoors and the outdoors. Shaped in response to the fecund tropical conditions and long years of colonial rule, Goan architecture is enriched by the European experience, yet deeply rooted in local culture.
Ranging from simple mud houses to grand mansions displaying an agglomeration of Mannerist, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic influences, Goan homes are a palimpsest of architectural styles and influences. In home after home, one will encounter delightfully syncretic architecture and elaborate interiors that blend pre-existing Hindu and Maratha motifs with European styles introduced by the colonising Portuguese in the 16th Century.
The broad elements of Goan houses are a mixture of Indian and Portuguese styles. Homes that are Portuguese in origin are usually two-storeyed and façade oriented. Those of Indian origin are single-storeyed with a traditional courtyard based orientation.
Between the two, there is wonderful mixing and marrying of ideas, resulting in nuanced, hybrid architecture that is both impressive and inspiring. For example, the two-storeyed house in which the top story is functional while the ground floor is merely ornamental.
It was Portuguese custom to segregate the lower storey of the house for the household staff and retainers. In the Hindu home the servant quarters were typically located at the back of the house, and therefore the bottom storey became shorter, until it reduced to an ornamental high-platform adorned with decorative arches, pilasters and colonettes.
For a better understanding of the Goan eclectic idiom of house-building one may look at ways in which the local population adopted styles and precedents set by the Portuguese as well as the aspects in which the local identity asserted itself in shaping and adapting the influences passed on by colonial rulers.
In an assertion of the local Goan identity, the erection of a columned porch with seats built into its two sides, called Balcao, became commonplace in the 19th century. In time, the Balcao was extended to include the façade of the entire house effectively screening it from rain and the hottest midday sun. Where on the one hand the covered porch with built-in seating conformed to the Indian ideas of decorum, it did so by extending the house into the public space—adapting to `open-minded’ western mores. It is an interesting vantage point to observe life go by, a feature used frequently by the lady of the house.
Another interesting and unique aspect of the houses one sees in Goa is the use of locally available building material such as laterite stone, in place of brick and lime plaster, which makes for sturdy and durable structures. Additionally, in many homes, readily available mother-of-pearl is used to line window shutters. The window shutters are particularly enchanting. The shiny iridescent patina of the shell lends luminosity to the spaces that glass —increasingly used to replace shell-—is not able to replicate.
Something has to be said about the bright colouring and unabashed love for pigment here. In the early days of Portuguese rule, only churches and other religious structures were permitted to use white to colour their exteriors. Domestic residential structures automatically adopted bold and sensational colours achieved with the use of vegetable and natural dyes.
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Chandan Dubey is a Mumbai based writer, art critic and photographer.
She is deeply interested in conservation architecture and urban planning.
She blogs at Girl About Home