“It is referred to as Goan-Portuguese style of architecture”, an architecture student told me, when I commented on the houses in Goa. The houses are one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Goa. Often painted in sunny yellows and sky blues, they did not look like the houses I had seen in the rest of India. With tiled roofs held up by wooden rafters, long balconies in the front and large windows, they looked ‘foreign’ old-world European, but not quite, for there was also something quite Indian in the materials used and the craftsmanship. “Well, if you want to know more about this style of architecture go to the Museum of Houses of Goa”, I was advised.
Located a few kilometers from Panaji, I had to cross a deserted one-lane road along the Mandovi River to get to the Museum of Houses of Goa. “You will know when you’ve reached your destination because the museum looks like a ship.” were the only directions the architecture student gave me. Sure enough, at the end of a long road I came across an odd-looking building that looked something of a ship complete with a bow at the hull. The museum has three floors with a spiral staircase in the center, and using pictures, it tells the story of the evolution of the Goan home.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese, most houses were made of mud with thatched roofs. The homes looked inwards towards a courtyard and had small windows. With the conquest of Goa by the Portuguese in 1510, the development of the Goan home changed dramatically. Newly converted Christians were encouraged to adapt to a European lifestyle. Goans who travelled to Europe returned with new ideas. The newly-built Catholic houses were almost the opposite those in pre-Portuguese days. They looked out onto the streets, had covered porches, large windows and were decorated with architectural ornaments. However, they did not cut off their Indian roots completely, and incorporated many features, leading to a unique Goan-Portuguese style of architecture.
Armed with this newfound knowledge on Goan homes I decided to take a trip down to Chandor. About an hour’s drive from Panaji, Chandor is home to one of the best heritage homes in Goa, the Menezes-Braganza House. The Menezes-Braganza House is a private home and the family traces its roots back to the 16th century.
The family converted to Christianity during the Portuguese inquisition in the 16th century and thereafter worked closely with the Portuguese. In return, they were rewarded with the name of the last royal house of Portugal, ‘Braganza’, and land leased to them under the Portuguese ‘aforamento’ or lease program. The family cultivated their land into rice, coconut and sugarcane plantations and became one of the most prominent families in Goa. However, after the 1961 liberation of Goa and with the advent of land reforms in the 60s and 70s, the family lost most of its land and with it, their source of income.
As soon as I reached Chandor, I knew where the house was. It is the largest house close to the center of town. With 24 windows facing the main road and painted white, it is hard to miss. I was later informed that the house used to be cream-colored, in deference to white only being used by churches during Portuguese times.
Ms. Pereira, a small framed woman, with short white hair, wearing a printed green dress and slippers, greeted me at the door. She referred to herself as “the lady of the house”. She spoke in a soft whisper and slowly took me around her home pointing out various items. It was obvious she was quite accustomed to showing her home. In fact, it she knew the exact moments when to pause and expect a question.
She patiently explained how the house was built in three stages, starting in the 16th century with the last stage completed in the 19th century. You cannot tell from the outside, but the house is divided into two homes. The east wing belongs to the Pereira-Braganza family and the west wing to the Menezes-Braganza family. Ms. Pereira spoke about the changing fortunes of the family not with any disappointment but just as facts. She walked me through the ballroom pointing to the hurricane chandeliers from Belgium, the rosewood furniture from France and Germany and pointed out how the carvings on some of the chairs were similar to the ones at Buckingham Palace. I then went to the Braganza side of the house. Similar in style but better maintained, it was easy to let my imagination wander to times gone by. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures of the Menezes-Braganza home.
Although there is a lot of decay and deterioration visible, you can still see the grandeur of the house and stories it holds. And while the Menezes-Braganza house is not the typical home of an everyday Goan it is a prime example of an era gone by. Most of us may not give much thought to the architecture of one’s home, but in many ways architecture helps to tell a story about our past and also helps shape our communities.
Features of a typical Goan/Portuguese Home
The Balcao: This is the most important feature of the Goan house. It resembles a porch and functions as an outdoor living space with benches to sit down and catch the breeze while watching the world go by. It also helps to serve a social purpose; in earlier days, people of a lower caste were entertained outside the house and placed on a seat or step as per their social standing.
Use of Colour: During Portuguese rule an owner could be fined if his house was not painted. So paint they did, usually with bright, dramatic colours such as lilac-blues, sunflower-yellows and ruby-reds. No one painted their house all white. White was associated with purity and was used only in churches. Goan Hindus respected this practice resulting in colourful neighbourhoods all around.
Compound Walls: Property was enclosed with stone walls, and owners expressed their individuality by using elaborate designs.
Windows: Glass came to Goa as late as 1890 and remained expensive, so windows were covered with mother-of-pearl shells. Use of mother-of-pearl shells gave windows a warm translucent look from the outside and reduced the glare of the sun inside the home.
Shutters: These were later added to windows. They provided extra security at night or when the family went out.
The Sala: A large room called the hall was the first room one stepped in on entering a Goan home. This space was used for entertaining guests and was usually the largest room in a home.
Altar: In wealthier homes, you will most likely find a private chapel but most Goan homes will have an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary made of the best wood they can afford, usually rosewood or teak. Besides serving as a marker that the family was Roman Catholic, the altar was a spot where the family gathered together at the end of the day to offer their prayers.
Read the full feature on Prismma Magazine
Brian D’Souza is based in Goa.
We featured his Boston apartment on Prismma here