Goa has always been associated with its magnificent beaches and salubrious pace of life. And, thanks to Bollywood, with churches and guitar-strumming Christians making merry. But what most people don’t know is that Goa is dotted with magnificent Hindu temples, some very ancient and which have survived the plunder and loot of Muslim invaders and Portuguese Catholic bigots and evangelists.
What is also not known to most people outside Goa is that it is a Hindu-majority state (Hindus form more than 70 per cent of the coastal state’s population) and that Goa’s original name was the Sanskrit Gomantak, or “Land of the gods”. In fact, Gomantak’s history finds elaborate mention in the Sahyadri Kaand (Sahyadri chapter) of the Skanda Purana. It says that Parashuram, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, stood on the Sahyadri Hills and asked the lord of the seas to retreat till the point where an arrow he would fire would land. The arrow fired by Parashuram fell at Baanhalli (“baan” means arrow in Sanskrit and “halli” is settlement), which is known today as Benaulim.
Parashuram also got Saraswat Brahmins (so called because they hailed from the banks of the ancient Saraswati river) to come to Gomantak. Ninety-six Saraswat families are supposed to have settled in Gomantak around 1000 BCE; 66 families took up residence in what is known today as Salcete area (Salcete is a derivative from “sassat” meaning 66), while the remaining 30 settled down in Tiswadi (“tis” is 30 and “wadi” means habitation). The earliest known matha (centre of religious learning) set up by the Saraswats was in Kushasthali (present day Cortalim) in 740 CE. The descendants of these Saraswat Brahmins then settled in new areas like Mathagram (present-day Margao), and Kardalinagar (known today as Keloshi). All the Brahmin families who came from northern India brought their family deities like Mangirish, Mahadeo, Mahalaxmi, Mahalasa, Shantadurga, Nagesh and Saptakoteshwar and established them in many temples in Gomantak.
Almost all these temples were either destroyed by Portuguese invaders and the Catholic clergy who accompanied them, or the deities were shifted by the devotees to safer places fearing attacks. The Portuguese not only desecrated and destroyed the temples, but also constructed churches over the ruins of the temples, often using wooden beams, stones and parts of the destroyed murtis (idols) to build their churches. One such is the main church at Benaulim named after Saint John the Baptist, that was built in 1581 over the ruins of the temple that stood at the site when Parashuram’s arrow is supposed to have fallen at Baanhalli.
Today, most of the existing temples are in the forested hills away from the sea coast which is dotted with churches. That’s because the Portuguese occupied areas along the coastline and not only destroyed all temples there, but did not allow a single one to come up in those areas until Goa was liberated from their clutches in 1961. These temples today are magnificent structures showcasing an amalgam of Indian temple, Mughal and Portuguese architectural styles and are a must-visit.
A parikrama of all the temples in Goa would take no less than four days, because visiting these temples is not only about worshipping the deities, but also revelling in their verdant surroundings and allowing oneself to indulge in architectonics. All of them have intricate sculptures and carvings dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. They also tell the traumatic tales of the persecution that their devotees faced from Muslim and Portuguese invaders and how they clung on to their faith despite allurements, torture and banishment.
Goa’s oldest, and the most striking, temple is the 13th century Tambdi Surla temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Set deep inside a forest (now called the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary) and about 65 kilometres (about an one-and-a-half-hour drive) from Panaji, this was built by Hemadri, a minister of the Kadamba-Yadava king Ramachandra who ruled from 1271 to 1309 CE. The lush green forests provide a spectacular backdrop to the temple made of black basalt stone carried across the mountains from the Deccan plateau. The temple, situated on the banks of the fast-flowing Surla river, could survive the Muslim invasions and the Goan Inquisition because of its remote location.
The drive to this temple is in itself an exhilarating experience, with the road snaking its way through thick forests enveloping the rolling hills. The temple, set amidst well-maintained lawns, faces east and the first rays of the sun shine on the deity — a stone shivalinga set on a pedestal. Four stone pillars with delicate carvings of elephants and chains support the stone ceiling that is intricately carved with lotus flowers. Bas-relief figures of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma with their consorts adorn the interiors and exteriors of the temple, whose topmost portion is incomplete. Two perforated stone lattice screens form the panels to the entrance of the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of this perfectly proportioned temple that stands at the foot of the Anmod ghat that connects Goa and Karnataka.
From the Tambdi Surla temple, which is in mid-east Goa, pilgrims generally head back towards Panaji and take a detour to the Mahalasa temple at Mardol in Ponda. The Mahalasa temple is a unique one because the deity is Mahalasa, the female avatar of Vishnu. Mahalasa is depicted with four hands carrying a trishul, a sword and severed heads of two demons, and standing on a prostate demon. She also wears the sacred thread. Vishnu took this form to lure away the demons from their evil acts and kill them. While the temple is an interesting synthesis of various architectural forms, it is the 21-tiered brass deepasthambham for lamps in front of the temple, whose serene interiors are adorned with the avatars of Vishnu and other gods, that is very impressive.
The original Mahalasa temple that stood at Old Mardol or Velham (also known as Verna) was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1567. The idol of Mahalasa was smuggled away and kept hidden at its present location (which was outside Portuguese control) till the new temple was constructed in the late 17th century and the idol consecrated there. Sunday is an especially good day to visit this temple since the deity is taken out on a palanquin around the temple.
Quite near Mahalasa temple is the Lakshmi Narasimha temple at Veling, about 45 kilometres from Panaji. Dedicated to Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, the deity here is Narasimha — the half-man half-lion form which is the fourth incarnation of Vishnu. This temple also tells the tale of Portuguese perfidy: the original temple was at Sancoale village in Salcete, but fearing its destruction by the Portuguese, the deities were shifted to Veling and consecrated at the present temple in 1567. The idol at this temple is a unique one. Carved out of black stone, it has Vishnu reclining on the body of Sheshnag with Lakshmi at his feet. Though the temple looks unassuming (compared to some other temples in Goa) from outside, the interiors are adorned with rich carvings inlaid with precious metals. When lit by lamps in the evening, the inside of the temple glows surreally.
Another unique temple is the Ramnathi temple at Ramnathim in Bandivade, about 22 km from Panaji. Ramnath is the incarnation of Shiva whom Lord Rama prayed to before he entered Lanka to bring back Sita. Ram-nath means god of Ram. The original temple was established by the Saraswat Brahmins at Loutolim in Salcete, but the deities were shifted to the present site across the Zuari river by devotees fearing destruction by the Portuguese in the mid 16th century. The present temple was formally established about 450 years ago. Like other temples established by the Saraswat Brahmins, this too incorporates the panchayasthan system where, apart from the principal deity (Ramnath), there are other deities — Shanteri, Kamakshi, Lakshmi Narayan, Ganapati, Betal and Kalbhairav. The temple is grand and very well-maintained. The silver-plated door to the garbhagriha has some beautiful scenes carved on it.
The most famous temples of Goa are, however, the three Shantadurga temples in Pernem (north Goa), Kavlem (central Goa) and Fatorpa (south Goa). Devi Shantadurga, locally known as Shanteri Mata, is a manifestation of goddess Durga and is widely worshipped by Goans. The Puranas have it that there was once a quarrel between Shiva and Vishnu. It got so fierce that Brahma requested Parvati to intervene. She did so in the form of Shantadurga, and placing Shiva on her left hand and Vishnu on her right hand, she settled the quarrel. Shantadurga is shown holding two serpents in her hands; the two serpents represent Shiva and Vishnu.
According to some local legends, Shantadurga of Keloshi (now known as Quelossim) went to Sankhawal (known now as Sancaole), a village in Salcette, to kill a demon called Kalantak who was harassing Brahmins. She killed the demon and was given the title of Vijaya by the grateful locals. A temple dedicated to Vijayadurga was erected at Sankhawal, along with two other temples dedicated to Shantadurga and Lakshmi Narasimha. But during the Portuguese Inquisition and the mass destruction of temples in Sankhawal by the Portuguese, the deities were shifted. The Lakshmi Narasimha temple was burnt down on 15 March 1567, and days later, the Vijayadurga temple was also razed to the ground. The immovable stone deities were broken down into small pieces which were used for the construction of churches.
The Saraswat Brahmins who took away the movable idol of Shantadurga and escaped from the Portuguese established the new temple at Kavlem in Ponda, about 33 km from Panaji. The present temple was built between 1713 and 1738 CE. It is a grand structure with pyramid-shaped shikharas rising from the roofs of the facade and the sabhamandap (assembly hall) and has Roman-arched stained-glass windows, splendid chandeliers, finely-carved gate posts and a balustraded flat dome. The deity is taken out on a golden palanquin on special occasions.
Another Shantadurga temple is at Pernem in Dhargalim, about 27 km from Panaji, and was built in 1550 CE. This is one of the few temples that escaped destruction by the Portuguese. The goddess here is known to have been moved from the house of Shree Kichkar of Taliwada, Mapusa to Sanquelim, which was a part of the Maratha kingdom of Sawantwadi at that time. It was later shifted to its present site at Dhargalim which was then a principality of the Sawantwadi kingdom. This temple is located in the midst of breathtaking natural surroundings.
The third major Shantadurga temple is known as Shantadurga Kuncolienkarin and is located at Fatorpa in Quepem taluka, about 52 kilometres from Panaji. “Kuncolienkarin” means “from Cuncolim”. The original temple was at Cuncolim, where the local market stands today. During the 1570s, the Portuguese destroyed the temple, but the idol of Shantadurga was taken away to the village of Fatorpa, which was outside Portuguese territory in those days and remained so for almost two centuries. A new temple was built here. During the 18th century, Fatorpa was absorbed into Goa as part of the Quepem taluka. Incidentally, the first revolt against the Portuguese rule took place in Cuncolim, where Jesuit missionaries, who were involved in evangelisation, were attacked and killed by the locals. In retaliation, the Portuguese destroyed the temple and imposed many sanctions on the non-converts.
This temple was reconstructed during the reign of Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shahuji. A major attraction here is the impressive and massive doorway called the “mahadwar” (great gate). The temple has a big gold-plated kalash (vessel) built on the main dome with ornamented designs. The garbhagriha has two statues of Shantadurga, one in a sitting position and the other in standing position. The ashtadhatu (eight-metalled) idol of the goddess in standing position is called Darshanamurti because the devotees take darshan daily.
Yet another very attractive temple is the Shri Dattatreya temple at Sanquelim, about 29 kilometres from Panaji. This is another temple that survived the murderous Portuguese evangelists and is dedicated to Bhagwan Dattatreya, the trimurti that is the combined form of the Holy Trinity. The temple’s striking architecture, its marble interiors, intricate carvings and extensive craftwork make it a must-visit. This temple’s unique features are cows (symbolising earth) and four dogs (depicting the four Vedas) that are also worshipped by devotees.
A little distance away is the Sapta Koteshwar temple at Narve. This temple is considered to be one of the six holiest shrines dedicated to Shiva in the Konkan. Sapta Koteshwar was one of the main deities of the Kadamba kings. According to the Shiva Purana, seven holy sages set out to worship Shiva at a place where five holy rivers met the sea. They prayed for seven crore years and Shiva finally appeared before them and agreed to establish himself at that spot and became known as Sapta Koteshwar (“sapta” means seven and “koteshwar” is god of crores).
This temple has a chequered history. In 1352, the Kadamba kingdom was attacked and conquered by Bahmani sultan Alauddin Hasan Gangu, who destroyed the original temple. In 1367, Vijayanagara king Harihara defeated the sultan and restored the temple. In 1560, the temple was again destroyed by the Portuguese and a chapel erected in its place with material from the demolished temple. The shivalinga became a well shaft till some devotees took it away across the river to Bicholim where it was consecrated. A new temple was built by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
To the east of this temple, at Nagargao in Valpoi, is a major shrine dedicated to Brahma. Most people know that the only temple dedicated to Brahma is at Pushkar in Rajasthan, but Goa too has this temple, which has a tall and elegant, beautifully-chiseled idol of Brahma dating back to the 12th century.
The temple was originally located at Karmali village in Tiswadi. When the Portuguese invaders came close to the village in 1541, the locals took the idol out of the village to Satlari. But when Satlari was also conquered by the Portuguese in 1781, the idol was once again taken to Valpoi and then to the Nagargan forests where it was installed on the banks of a stream. The deity is known as Brahma Karmali after the Karmali village where the original temple was located.
A unique temple in Goa is the Marcela temple, about 17 km from Panaji. This is the only temple in India where Krishna is worshipped with mother Devaki as Devakikrishna. This temple was originally located at Choodamani island and the idols of the principal and affiliate deities were taken away to avoid destruction by the Portuguese to Marcel and consecrated at the present temple. The black stone idol of Devaki holding an infant Krishna is a striking one.
About 37 km from Panaji in North Goa stands a temple that has a strong Northeast India connection. The Shri Kamakshi temple is linked to Kamakhya temple in Guwahati; the idol of Kamakshi is believed to have been brought from Kamakhya and was installed at Raia at Salcete. The deity was shifted to Shiroda, where the temple is now located, between 1564 and 1568 to escape the Goan Inquisition. A huge mahadwar leads to the Kamakshi temple complex known as Thal. The temple is crowned by an octagonal two-storied tower bearing a striking resemblance to a Buddhist pagoda with a golden kalash perched on its peak.
The temple faces east, has a large sabhamandap, a tall deepasthambham and a holy water tank. Inside the temple, there is a square-shaped chowk and the sanctum sanctorum with the deity Shri Kamakshi in all her splendour. The other deities in the temple complex are that of Shantadurga, Lakshmi Narayan and Rayeshwar (Shiva).
Among the other important temples in Goa are the Chandreshwar Bhutnath temple at Quepem, the Damodar temple at Zambaulim, and the Mallikarjuna temple at Canacona in south Goa. What sets the temples in Goa apart is their unique architecture. They are a treat for the eyes, and for the soul as well.
There is, thus, much more to Goa than its beaches and churches, many of which have been built over destroyed temples and with material looted from the temples. Goa’s dharmic side is what most visitors to the tiny state miss out on since they know little about it.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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