If you love to visit the heritage sites and have interest in history and historical monuments then you must visit Old Goa when you are in Goa. Today Panaji is the capital city of Goa but then in the Portuguese reign Old Goa was the capital city of Goa. Old Goa or Velha Goa (Velha means “old” in Portuguese) is a historical city situated in North Goa district in the Indian state of Goa. The city was constructed by the Bijapur Sultanate in the 15th century, and served as capital of Portuguese India from the 16th century until its abandonment in the 18th century due to a plague. It is said to have once been a city of nearly 200,000 where from, before the plague, the Portuguese traded across continents. The remains of the city are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Old Goa is approximately 10 kilometres east of the state’s present capital Panjim.
The name Old Goa was first used in the 1960s in the address of the Konkani monthly magazine, Dor Mhoineachi Rotti which was shifted to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in 1964. Postal letters were returned to the sender, as the name “Old Goa” was unknown then, according to then and long-time editor of the monthly, the great Goan historian late Padre Moreno de Souza, SJ.
The place is known as Saibachem Goem (referring to St. Francis Xavier as Saib means Master), The city was founded in the 15th century as a port on the banks of the Mandovi river by the rulers of the Bijapur Sultanate. The city was built to replace Govapuri, which lay a few kilometres to the south and had been used as a port by the Kadamba and Vijayanagar kings. Old Goa was the second capital after Bijapur of the rule of Adil Shahi Dynasty. It was surrounded by a moat and contained the Shah’s palace, and his mosques and temples. The city was captured by the Portuguese, and was under Portuguese rule from 1510 as the administrative seat of Portuguese India.
During the mid-16th century, the Portuguese colony of Goa, especially Velha Goa, was the center of Christianisation in the East. The city was evangelized by all religious orders, since all of them had their headquarters there. The population was roughly 200,000 by 1543. Malaria and cholera epidemics ravaged the city in the 17th century and it was largely abandoned; only having a remaining population of 1,500 in 1775. It was then that the viceroy moved to Panjim. It continued to be the de jure capital of Goa until 1843, when the capital was then shifted to Panjim (Ponnjê in Konkani, Nova Goa in Portuguese and Panjim in English). The abandoned city came to be known as “Velha Goa” (in Portuguese, ‘Old Goa’), to distinguish it from the new capital Nova Goa (Panjim) and probably also Goa Velha (also meaning “Old Goa”), which was the Portuguese name for the town located on the old site of Govapuri. Velha Goa was incorporated into the Republic of India in 1961, together with the rest of Goa.
Life in Old Goa, the principal city of the Portuguese eastern empire from 1510 until its abandonment in 1835, was anything but dull. Its rise was meteoric. Over the course of the century following the arrival of the Portuguese in Goa, the city became famous throughout the world. One Dutch visitor compared it with Amsterdam for the volume of its trade and wealth. However, its fall was just as swift, and eventually, plagued by epidemic after deadly epidemic – cholera, malaria and typhoid among them – the city was completely abandoned. Picture the scene. It’s 1760, and you’re lucky enough (and pious enough, given the dark penchants of the Inquisition) to be living in the most glorious city in all of Asia – the Rome of the East – filled with ornate cathedrals soaring at heights unimaginable to most people on the subcontinent. Then, suddenly, disaster strikes. All around, people fall ill, eyes bleeding, mouths foaming. Your neighbors die in their dozens, and then your parents, your cousins, your friends. You rush to the cathedral to beg God for help, but the deaths continue. The smell of decay hangs heavy in the hot, breathless air.
Today old Goa is just the remains of history. Old Goa contains churches affiliated to various congregations, including the Se Cathedral (the seat of the Archbishop of Goa), the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, the Church of S. Caetano, and notably, the Basilica of Bom Jesus which contains the relics of Saint Francis Xavier, which is celebrated every year on 3 December with novenas beginning on 24 November. The large palace of Adil Shah, surrounded by fort walls, towers and a moat was located here as well as many temples and mosques. Unfortunately none of these structures remain in existence today except for the ruins of the gateway to the palace.
Afonso Albuquerque – the founder of Goa – built the first church here, that of Our Lady of the Rosary. He also built the Se Cathedral, the largest church in Asia, that took 80 years to complete. The construction of Churches continued at a fast pace and eventually there were some 12 huge and magnificent churches and monuments roughly in an area of one square kilometre in Old Goa.
The city no longer bustles with crowds and trading people, but with a little imagination, you can picture the thriving city that used to be at the site. Early morning and late evening (till 5.30) are the best times to visit the site.