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Goa's Golden Age

It was cool inside the reception room where we sat, the tall windows framing the dappled forest around the house. The house, Miranda explained, had been built out of the profits from the large areca plantations his ancestors owned in Goa, and it had been lived in almost continuously since then—a rare event in India, where history and weather, acting separately or together, manage to intrude upon the most secluded and well protected of domestic spaces.

Miranda's ancestors were Brahmans who had migrated to Goa from northern India at an unknown date and then had come to own large tracts of the extremely fertile land. As with all Goan Christians who have Portuguese-sounding names, they were given the name Miranda by the Catholic priest in charge of converting them.

"Why did they convert?" I asked Miranda.

"Intimidation, I suppose," he replied.

Many landholding Brahman families had indeed converted on pain of dispossession. Aggressive evangelizing by the Jesuits and the Franciscans had ended the brief period of religious tolerance that followed the Portuguese conquest of Goa in 1510. The great bard of Portugal's empire, Luíz Vaz de Camões, records, in his epic poem The Lusiads, the growing fanaticism of Vasco da Gama's encounter with a Hindu temple in the city of Calicut (now in the state of Kerala).

Da Gama had actually mistaken the temple for a church, and the image of a Hindu goddess inside for that of the Virgin Mary. But Camões, who traveled to Goa during the height of the Christian repression of Hindus, had no doubts about what Vasco da Gama had looked at and felt: "The carvings were repulsive . . . Christians, used to seeing God portrayed/In Human form, were baffled and dismayed."

Certainly, the Portuguese were dismayed and repulsed enough to attempt to destroy all the temples in the territory originally conquered by them. As a result, there are few temple buildings that date back further than the 19th century in the coastal areas of Salcete, Ilhas, and Bardez. But the Portuguese chose, for pragmatic reasons, to maintain the special caste and class status of the Brahmans. Only Brahman converts were allowed into the new seminaries; the chieftaincy of Brahman landowners in villages was left unchallenged. So the caste system continued, with its special prohibitions and rules. As in the past, the Brahmans socialized only with the converts from their own caste, and until very recently there was no recorded instance of a highborn Catholic marrying into a family of low-caste converts.


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