The Forgotten Pillar of Death
Old Goa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The churches and cathedrals, old mansions and palaces, date back to hundreds of years, to the period when the Portuguese ruled Goa.Today, it is one of India’s smallest States, synonymous with idyllic beaches and azure waters caressing golden sands which give it a laid-back and carefree air, making it a 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. Once the Portuguese had established themselves in power, they set about ensuring that the locals adhered to their religious beliefs.After an initial period of indifference, the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1541 led to a mandate that all Hindu temples be closed. Subsequently, by 1559, over 350 temples had been destroyed and 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 the Hindus and others accused of being non-believers.The inquisition was the darkest and most dreaded chapter in the history of colonial Goa. After it was introduced in October 1560, the power of life and death of ordinary people lay in the hands of Christian priests.The Goa nquisition was even crueler than the European inquisition.
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.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.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 Portuguese administrators enacted anti-Hindu laws to encourage conversions to Christianity. Laws were passed banning Christians from keeping Hindus in their employ. Hindus were forced to assemble in churches to listen to preaching or to refutation of their religion. The Inquisition guaranteed “protection” to Hindus who converted to Christianity, thereby initiating a new wave of baptisms. In 1736, over 42 Hindu practices were banned, including the wearing of the Brahmanical shendi (ponytail), wearing of caste thread, greeting people with Namaste, wearing sandals and growing of the sacred basil or Tulsi plant in front of their homes. People who were sentenced in the inquisition trials, were forced to work in galleys and gunpowder factories for many years.
In the first 200 years of the Portuguese rule, Goa came to be called as ‘Goa Durado’ (Golden Goa) as the trade and economy was booming. The huge churches and cathedrals that can be seen at today is the result of the construction spree during the Second Golden Age of Goa. Elegant mansions in the countryside were built by the Portuguese nobility most of which still stand. The first printing press in Asia was establishedin Old Goa in 1556, mostly for printing bibles and tracts.
It is estimated that by the end of the 17th century, ethnic cleansing of Hindus, Muslims and Jews resulted in an exodus which left only 20,000 non-Christians out of the total population of 2.50 lacs. On the faintest suspicion of heresy, thousands were killed during the 252 years of the Inquisition.
Over the years, this dark period of the history of Goa has been pushed in the realms of history. Many scholars and historians who wrote about the black deeds during the inquisition were barred.In fact leading Christian theologists of Goa have also claimed that ‘Hindus’ did not exist in the region during the pre-Portuguese era.
Victor Ferrao, dean at the state’s most renowned Rachol Roman Catholic seminary, has said that the scores of temples demolished by the Portuguese colonists from 15th century onwards were not Hindu temples, but belonged to different “independent cults and religions which were often at war with each other”. He also says that historical claims of forced conversions and demolishing of temples during the Portuguese rule were essentially to be found only in “narratives of the post-colonial historiography mainly authored by the Hindu historians in our days”.
A large section of authors and historians insist that Goa has been described in ancient texts as the land reclaimed by Sage Parshuram, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, from the sea and that the state was once called ‘Konkan Kashi’ or the Benares of the South.
Most of this recent historical obfuscation stems from political motives. Christians account for nearly 30 per cent of Goa’s 15 lakh plus population. The BJP has been cozying up with the Church, which is the spiritual and religious beacon to nearly one third of Goa’s population and a key vote bank. In fact, tacit support of the Goa Church was one of the key reasons why the BJP swept the elections in 2012 in which it had fielded an unprecedented eight Catholic candidates. The Catholic swing towards the BJP ensured that the party’s victory with an absolute majority, an unheard of electoral feat in Goa, where a hotchpotch is the norm.
Among the many monuments and structures of Old Goa, a black basalt pillar called the Pelourinho Novo (new pillory) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The pillar is currently situated at a major junction on the highway, skirting Old Goa. The tall and slender column is a very intriguing relic which quietly narrates a tale of woe. In local parlance it has always been called ‘Hatkatro Khambo’ literally meaning a pillar where hands were chopped.
Unlike its other monumental counterparts in the heritage town, this pillar is not a protected monument; which means that neither the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) nor the Directorate of Archives and Archaeology, Government of Goa, have the official right over this monument.
The pillar has a very debatable history. It is regarded as the ‘Pillar of Inquisition’, and finds mention in many available accounts of the inquisition.The ‘HatkatroKhambo’ stands as a mute spectator of the horrors of the inquisition let loose by the Portuguese ecclesiastical authorities on the Hindus. Non-believers (read Hindus) were tied to it and their limbs were dismembered. The pillar was said to be originally located near the Bom Jesus Basilica and was shifted to the outskirts years ago. The pillar now stands in the centre of a widened road; attempts by the state government to shift it had met with opposition from locals, including the church.
The pillar is a relic of an ancient temple and going by some portions, it appears to be from the Kadamba era, circa 12th – 13th century AD, a period when the Portuguese had razed several temples and used the pillars, capitals, doorframes and window to decorate their own structures.
An inscription on the pillar lends credence to the belief that it was originally the pillar of the old temple, most probably the ancient Shiva temple of Saptanath in Malar area of Divar. The Saptanath temple had been erected by Madhav Mantri, a Minister of the Vijaynagar Kingdom in 1431 A.D. which was subsequently destroyed during by the Bahamani rulers in 1471 and later by the Portuguese. In 1515, Fr. Andre Corsali, a resident from Florence while writing from India, had described it as one of the best Temples he had ever seen and that its sculpture and architecture far surpassed the European stone ornamentation. The stones of this temple had been widely used for the construction of the churches and convents at Old Goa. The exquisitely carved pillar was probably a Deepstambha of the temple.
Today, the “HatkatroKhambo” is nobody’s baby. Given the option, the BJP led government would be only too happy to remove it and then relegate it to obscurity. Most of the Goa Inquisition’s records were destroyed after its abolition in 1812. It is impossible to know the exact number of those put on trial and the punishments they were meted. The “HatkatroKhambo” too should have been destroyed, it has risen sphinx like from the ashes, raising a lot of heat and dust.
The government is under tremendous pressure to declare it a national monument and shift it from the present site. Hindu groups have held protests at Panjim and Old Goa, demanding that the Pillar be declared a protected monument and relocated to a safe spot.
by Anil dhir
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