In the midst of BJP’s Goa conclave, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the world famous cathedrals in the state are once again locking horns over itsy bitsy bikinis that are a common sight in one of India’s oldest and most popular sea side destinations. The cathedrals are under the purview of ASI. The church administrators are opposed to worshippers coming to church in bikinis—a sight rare in other churches of the world. The ASI says it cannot ban the bikini. Caught in the middle is Goa’s BJP government. On the other hand, 4.5 million foreign tourists visited Goa last year; foreign exchange earnings
for the last three years were $43-57 million. The debate in Goa is whether the cathedrals are centres of worship or tourist destinations. The religion versus heritage conflict is mandating a balancing act by the state government between religious sentiments and foreign money.
The friction came to the fore after the authorities of the Basilica of Bom Jesus banned entry of tourists wearing “the” beachwear. Visitors coming to see the church are now screened and if a bikini-clad tourist appears keen on entering the 16th century baroque-style monument, they are asked to cover up with a shawl, provided by the church authorities.
The rules of exposure apply to both men and women.
“We are not stopping anyone from visiting the church. We are only saying that they will have to dress appropriately. One should not forget the fact that they are on holy premises,’’ said Fr Savio Barreto, Rector of the world famous basilica.
According to him, the church authorities were forced to take a stand following numerous complaints from believers about bikini-clad merrymakers ruining the sanctity and decorum of the religious place. “It is our duty to maintain the sanctity of this place of worship,’’ he said, insisting that no tourist had so far protested against the stricture that came into effect this month.
But the ASI is worried that the church ruling could hurt the image of Goa as a tourist destination.
“We are not denying the fact that the Basilica is a place of worship. But the church authorities should not forget the fact that it is being protected by ASI and is also one of the major tourist attractions of Goa,’’ an official said. He added that the ASI had sought the help of the political leadership to “solve” the matter as the issue was “quite sensitive.’’
So sensitive that it has put the ruling BJP government in a fix. “We are aware of the controversy. But it is a sensitive issue and has to be dealt with extra care especially because the state is ruled by a BJP government,’’ said an official with the State Tourism Department.
Goa now has a inflow of 2.6 million tourists every year. The government has already announced its plan to increase it to 6 million in the next five years by projecting it as a destination which has more than just “beaches and pubs”. Last year, revenue from foreign tourists was around `6,000 crore.
This is not the first time that the ASI and the Goan church authorities have locked horns on the same issue. Two years ago, the church authorities had threatened to ban the entry of bikini-clad tourists altogether. Then the matter was sorted out after ASI and church bodies reached an agreement allowing churches to put up signboards on dress code for visitors. However, the move did not work, as tourists continued to come to cathedrals in their beachwear, ignoring the advice on the boards to be appropriately dressed.
“We have been forced to take this decision as the signboards were not taken seriously by the tourists,’’ said a priest of the Basilica, which houses the relics of St Francis Xavier, patron saint of Goa who died in 1552. He pointed out that it is not just the churches which are trying to put a dress code in place. “A number of temples, including the Mangesh temple and Mahalsa Narayani Temple have already been doing this,’’ he said.
But ASI insists that there is no comparison between footfalls in the famous Goan cathedrals and the temples. “Moreover, they are not under the protection of ASI,’’ said the official.
In fact, bikini is an issue not just for religious institutions alone but also for ruling governments. At various points of time, successive Goan governments have moved to ban bikinis from beaches following law and order issues and pressures from local people, only to backtrack. After all, Goa’s positioning in the tourist maps as a beach destination was at stake.