Goa is synonymous with idyllic beaches, azure waters caressing golden sands and exquisite churches and mansions dating back hundreds of years to when the Portuguese ruled Goa. There is a laid-back and carefree air to the place, which is everyone’s favourite holiday destination. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, the lucrative spice trade transformed the once sleepy, palm-shaded Indian port into a multi-cultural city of elegant palaces, churches and gardens. In Portugal, this is still referred to as the golden age of Goa. But there was a darker side to the story because this was also a time when fear stalked Goa, when torture and mass executions were rife.
Once the Portuguese had established themselves in power in Goa, they set about ensuring that the indigenous people adhered to Portuguese religious beliefs.
After an initial period of indifference, the arrival of Christian missionaries led to a mandate that all Hindu temples be closed in 1541. Subsequently, by 1559 over 350 temples had been destroyed and private idol worship was banned. When Francis Xavier, the infamous missionary, demanded the setting up of the Goa Inquisition, a religious tribunal for suppression of heresy and punishment of heretics, things rapidly deteriorated for Jews, Hindus and others accused of being non-believers.
The dreaded Inquisition had already left its bloody footprint in Spain, where it was established in 1478 and was abolished in 1834. Set up in Goa in 1560, it was the age when the power of life and death of ordinary people lay in the hands of Christian priests.
Through brutal torture, people were required to pass the ‘act of faith’ (auto-da-fe) by being stretched out on the rack or being burnt at the stake.
This has been documented in the historical bestseller, Guardian of the Dawn, by Richard Zimler, who called it the “machinery of death”.
A particularly effective method of coercing people was dismembering children limb by limb in front of their parents whose eyes were taped open till they agreed to convert.
The most tragic fate fell on the Jews who had settled in India. Many had been compelled to flee Spain’s bloody persecution of the Jews to Portugal, where they had assumed new identities as Christians though they secretly practised their faith. When the Inquisition came to Portugal, Jews found themselves in danger again and many fled to India to rebuild their lives though they still took care to hide their identities under the guise of practising Christians. But the Goan Inquisition again placed them in harm’s way.
In Old Goa, the palace of Adil Shah was converted into an Inquisition House, where a wooden table, overseen by a crucifix, was where the dreaded interrogators sat to interrogate the accused. Many Hindus fled with their deities across the Goan border to Ponda, where they built new temples. Ponda is today known as the Temple Town.
The faintest suspicion of heresy, such as being in possession of a small idol or whispering a Hebrew prayer over the grave of a loved one, was enough for the clergy to arrest people and torture them in special Inquisition prisons.
After being arrested and tortured in dungeons, so called heretics were kept in shackles by priests to make them divulge names of friends and family who had been party to their ‘heretical’ practices. Prisoners who refused to confess or give up their beliefs in Hindu or Jewish ‘sorcery’ were strangled by executioners or burnt alive in public Acts of Faith which lasted up to 1812, when the Inquisition was finally abolished.
It is estimated that by the end of the 17th century, ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Muslims meant that there were less than 20,000 people who were non-Christian out of the total Goan population of 2,50,000.
Ironically, Francis Xavier, the fanatical priest who was primarily responsible for bringing the Inquisition to Goa and ordering the torture of tens of thousands of Hindus and Jews, was canonised by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.
Francis Xavier’s embalmed remains are today kept in a silver casket inside the Bom Jesus Basilica and are brought out for public viewing every ten years. Ironically, the thousands who throng to view his body and seek blessings are blissfully unaware of the terrible atrocities inflicted on their ancestors hundreds of years ago.