By the end of the tumultuous 16th century, Goa was home to the most cosmopolitan big city in the world and at the centre of a giant maritime empire that stretched from Africa’s coastline to Japan. It was larger than contemporary London, Paris or Lisbon, the main hub of international trade in the Indian Ocean and the most important cultural crossroads yet developed between East and West. Chillies, potatoes, corn, and tobacco entered India via Goa, along with Asia’s first printing press, modern medical school, and countless other imports. The colony generated enough profits to fund construction of the Se Cathedral, still the largest church in Asia, and the imposing Convent of Santa Monica, which remains the continent’s biggest.
As quickly as it developed, the commercial heyday of the Portuguese Indies flickered out, after a flurry of Dutch, and then English, incursions and the loss of vital trading posts thousands of miles to the east. Succeeding epidemics drove the port’s society into the agricultural hinterland, ocean trade declined precipitously, and colonial authority lapsed into long centuries of torpor punctuated fitfully by bouts of vigorous proselytisation.
In the Old Conquests, the first Indian territories ever to pass into permanent European control, an entirely new and original society emerged over time, a many-layered hybrid of Iberian tastes and Konkan conditions, flavoured by myriad crisscrossing trade routes. Goan food reveals Malaccan and African techniques, many Latin American ingredients, all artfully synthesised by local predilections into a unique and cosmopolitan cuisine. This was a profoundly globalised society centuries before the term was invented, the most storied crucible of sustained cultural exchange between Europeans and the Orient.
The best illustrations of this complex aspect of Goan history are the grand country mansions built by the native aristocracy of the Estado da India. The four iconic private palaces are revealing multidimensional evidence of tremendously fluid cultural interplay. They also testify to the typically Iberian pattern of colonialisation that relied on highly favoured local elites.
Like their Spanish cousins, the Portuguese administered overseas using the ancient Roman mechanism of latifundia, or large landed estates. Important native collaborators, staunch mestiço allies and loyal compatriots were granted vast estates and virtual fiefdoms in the new colony by fiat; they became an instant class of devoted intermediary rulers. As Goa lost commercial lustre, as the imperial court’s interest shifted to Brazil, this homegrown native elite steadily gained power and great influence, and eventually became trusted colonial administrators for their masters, serving widely across the Portuguese holdings, especially those in Mozambique and Angola. As they flourished, this ambitious class of landowners competed to construct mansions with an emphasis on maximum luxury and formality. The front rooms were specifically planned for lavish entertainment, for balls and banquets and concerts, for showy receptions that were imagined to be exactly like those in faraway Europe.
Even more than the British and their pompous Raj, the Portuguese relished, and cultivated, ritual and ceremony. The façades of the great colonial houses of Goa are carefully mannered in the style of quintas (country estates) all across South America, and Iberia, all ostentatious symbols of the grandee lifestyle. But venture beyond the carefully laid-out front rooms, and the innermost architecture betrays steadfast Indianness, kitchens and nurseries and store-rooms laid out for local convenience, in accordance with Konkan conditions. In between the classic European façade and the unshakeably subcontinental private quarters is an evolved and heady dialogue between the cultures in form and scale, the give and take revealed anew in furniture and fabric, and in delightfully fanciful murals.
Of the significant houses in Goa, the Solar dos Colacos in cramped ancient Ribandar has the most unique orientation. Unlike other formal mansions in the Old Conquests, it’s unimpressive when seen from the narrow road that snakes past the front door towards Old Goa. That’s because important visitors still arrive at the house via the jetty; this lovely building sits on the lip of a prime bend in the Mandovi river. When the mansion was built, the main transport artery in Goa flowed right in front of its formal garden; the prized setting and imposing tripartite design bestow the whole structure with subtle markers of prestige. It is really a show house, all the interior detail planned for formal entertainment inch-by-inch, a sophisticated set piece, with elaborate bandstand and broad dance floor.
The visitor is instantly bewitched on entering Solar dos Colacos, with lights winking off the Mandovi river that flows along beyond the arched windows, with an undisturbed vault of open sky visible above the lush islands across the water. The building feels comfortably solid yet quite ethereal; it’s wholly unique but still familiar, a perfect illustration of the Indo-European aesthetic compact.
With that sole exception, the other important Goan quintas are scattered in the fertile agricultural hinterland, particularly in the southern taluka of Salcette, where a large aristocracy of converted upper castes maintained particularly good relations with the Portuguese and were rewarded with exceptional trust and considerable estates. As many households acquired ranks and letters of nobility for favours to the regime, the advantages of such recognition came attached to real responsibilities. And none of these was more important that the need to demonstrate complete fidelity and adherence to approved European tastes. Very often, these grand houses look like completely unaltered European imports, identical replicas of an architectural tradition developed thousands of miles away from Goa’s tropical climate.
So, it is not surprising that the eye-poppingly gigantic Menezes Braganza Mansion in Chandor is a classic, if exceptionally elongated, casa de sobrada (double-storied house), a detailed copy of the style then prevalent in Europe. In Portugal, the two stories were developed by the nobility in order to keep an upstairs/downstairs divide between servants and family. In Goa, where there was no such social requirement, the design was just blindly duplicated as a status symbol.
Like many of its neighbours, the Menezes Braganza building was altered in the 18th century as family fortunes improved. The renovation united two distinct structures; the united complex now presents the visitor with a truly stunning edifice, complete with immense galleries and deceptively complex interior. The mansion façade is famously monotonous and it does strike the eye as almost exhaustingly endless, but you can’t escape the grandeur imparted here by sheer scale. This is a monumental house, but in the end it is far too preoccupied with its own importance to strike an expressive chord with the visitor. You leave feeling a bit drained; all that imposing repetition carries a leaden weight. There is an undeniable grandeur to its sheer scale and careful symmetry, and the mansion is inarguably lavish, but it does feel slightly soulless in the end, as most minute copies of a distant original tend to be.
Its spiritual doppelganger sits frostily in the compound of the Viscondes de Pernem, the Hindu family that proved essential custodians of Portuguese rule in the New Conquests. By 1880, the Deshprabhus were such invaluable colonial proxies that the King of Portugal was moved to bestow them with a title previously reserved only for native Portuguese in the Indies. The honour meant that these newly minted noblemen had to play ceremonious host to grand foreign delegations, compelling the construction of a brand-new fairy-tale palace opposite the huge traditional family stronghold. This guesthouse is the most extravagant structure from the period in Goa, wildly ostentatious in scale, style and interior detail. It flamboyantly sports three stories, even if the third level is inconvenient to reach. The layout is rigorously unleavened by concession to Indian aesthetic sense or local customs, every single element in the building caters to a perception about European tastes, from the formal entrance all the way to the immense dining hall with its upstairs gallery lined with arched 20-foot windows. Dozens of colourful murals are painted along this upper level, meant to resemble imported country scenes when viewed from below. The individual paintings are lurid and fanciful, a very revealing series of dream-like images.
A remarkable steam-powered aeroplane belches fumes in the corner of one; violently blue-watered canals abut castles bristling with dozens of improbable turrets in others. Ladies with parasols wander cobblestoned lanes in the shadow of snowcapped mountains—it’s imagination run riot, delightful Konkani visions of unseen Europe. These amazing murals are meaningful analogies for the guest palace itself. The entire confection is a skin-deep representation of dimly perceived and alien culture. It’s unquestionably grand, and really quite beautiful in many parts, and the very big statement leaves the visitor quite suitably stunned, yet you still leave with an odd feeling that it’s all rather unsatisfying and incomplete.
And so on to the opposite end of the spectrum, you enter hopefully into the ravishing Figueiredo house in Loutolim, where an entire spectacular wing has been miraculously preserved against the depredations of time. That part of this marvellous house is a note-perfect period piece, composed with exquisite refinement, with century-old muted tempera colours still untouched on the walls and a truly magnificent collection of furniture still standing exactly where it has remained for generations.
You feel instantly privileged to enter, almost overwhelmed by the impeccably detailed good taste, your eye roving pleasantly from the stunning arcaded verandah, to the rose bushes in the courtyard, and all the precious antique Chinese porcelain. This is a building of tremendous character, an immaculate flower grown from soil made up of centuries of complicated interaction. Like most of its contemporaries among the great houses in Goa, the Figueiredo mansion is still a family home.
But unlike the others, it has somehow resisted adulteration; the collection has warded off dismemberment and ruin. This alone makes the house remarkable, the superb quality of everything inside sets it apart in a category by itself, the unquestioned queen of Luso-Indian cultural artefacts. It’s all museum quality from top to bottom, a vital composite cultural institution preserved intact from the colonial era, the finest living expression of the distinctive Indo-Portuguese aesthetic. Fittingly, it still houses the heroic lady of the house, the selfless Georgina Figueiredo whose steadfast trusteeship has delivered her legacy perfectly intact right into the 21st century.
It’s just half an hour from the airport with its roaring jets that deliver two million tourists a year to Goa, but the visitor to this agrarian corner of Loutolim dips briefly into a more gracious past, when Indian men and women played at being European lords and ladies and eventually competed with them in wealth and power, where boys raised on robust Konkani transitioned to orations in liquid Portuguese. It’s where courtly Georgina Figueiredo and her elegant sister Maria de Lourdes still serve homemade limonada and rich fruit cake to properly scheduled visitors, amid the gorgeous draperies and paintings, and carefully arrayed furniture. And as the sun nears the horizon, and soft evening light becomes suffused with the colours of sunset, long shadows creep along highly polished floors, and your conversation slows. It’s the precise moment when days turn to night, when silences lengthen and pools of darkness flow into each other, and time frays at the edges. Dozens of industrious weaver birds retreat back to nests in imposing palms overhead, the Figueiredo mansion settles comfortably back into the gloom.
Here you can’t escape the feeling that everything important is properly looked after and in exactly the right place. History’s maelstrom churns on unstoppably, but this moment is forever timeless.