Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Pre-Portuguese Christianity in Goa

25 August 2012, Goa. The visit to Fr Almir at Grace Church, Chorao, near the Madel Ferry to Ribandar, was extremely interesting. Julian had been mentioning the existence of a Seminary in Chorao, but I had never ever heard of such a thing, so I discounted it straightaway. What a surprise to find a drawing of a magnificent seminary precisely at Chorao, hanging in the little sitting room of Grace Church Rectory. Fr Almiro said that the ruins were still visible, but that the property, which belonged to a Christian bhatcar now, was filled with Hindu tenants who were naturally unwilling to leave. The bhatcar seems to have some intention of returning the property to the Jesuits, to whom it had originally belonged. Probably because of the plague, the seminary was eventually shifted to St Paul’s in Old Goa. Eventually that seminary or college also fell into ruin.

Another interesting piece of conversation with Fr Almir was about pre-Portuguese Christianity in Goa. There is a huge church of St Bartholomew in Chorao, overlooking one of the inlets of the Mandovi, and facing the Pomburpa church. The Chorao Seminary was also facing the river, as is evident from the drawing. Fr Almiro was very enlightening on this point: he said the main mode of transportation in those days was water, and so naturally the biggest and richest houses faced the river, as also the churches and seminaries. Chorao was the abode of the fidalgos, until the plague, and of rich Christian bhatcars. There were almost no Hindus at the time, according to him, and no Muslims at all. (He did not seem to have heard of the old temple near the Divar ferry in Chorao, however.)

So back to Bartholomew and pre-Portuguese Christianity in Goa: Fr Almiro said he believed this was true. When the Portuguese came, they found local Christians dating from Bartholomew and Thomas. They accepted them but destroyed all traces of their pre-Portugese Christianity. Unfortunately, Bartholomew had degenerated into Betal. The Portuguese heaped ridicule on Betal, which is why the familiar ditty:
Nagdo Betaro, xetan bhounvtalo
Xetcarachem mut pieun ghara ietalo.
I remembered this ditty from childhood days, but I had always heard it as “nagdo petaro”. It would seem the right thing is Betaro, or Betal or Vetal.

Despite this, there is indeed a church to St Bartholomew on the island, and it must count as one of the oldest churches in Goa, seeing that the Portuguese first settled on the islands, Ilhas. There is of course another one in Betal-batim in South Goa, or at least a famous altar to St Bartholomew, which, according to a recent editorial in the Herald, the locals still refer to as Betal or Sao Betal. And then the Aldona Church is dedicated to St Thomas.

The interesting thing is that Fr Almiro knew H.O. Mascarenhas, and had even met him in Madras in the old days, and it was from Mascarenhas that he learnt all these things.

He did not seem to know that St Francis Xavier, a few months after landing in Goa, wrote to Ignatius or to Rome speaking about the great devotion of the Goans to St Thomas, and asking for the possibility of celebrating the feast on 3 July…. Cosme Costa concludes that this devotion must antedate the Portuguese presence.

In addition, there is the fact of the surname Nazareth in Vaddem and around. Nazareth is not a Portuguese form, but an Anglicised form – of what? Probably Nozru – I remember Longinus Nazareth telling me that the old ladies of Vaddem would call him Nozrucho put, or Nordrucho put. Nozru – very close to Nasrani, which is the way Christians are still referred to in the Arabic speaking world.

And then the discovery of the St Thomas cross by Cosme Costa near Agacaim.


  1. Wanted to know if there is any book on this topic yet, if not there seems sufficient to explore and the Christian Studies Departments have some research work outlined here.

  2. have a look at this, which ... is from yours truly, at least some of it: