The palace has been razed to the ground. Hordes of chattering tourists walk over the site now, clicking selfies against the massive white-washed facade of Saint Catherine’s Church in Old Goa. Children crowd around an ice-cream cart. Couples canoodle under an ancient banyan tree nearby. No traces remain of the dreaded ‘Vhodle Ghor’ or the ‘Big House’ as it was referred to in hushed tones by the terrified people of Goa, except a few moss-covered blocks of laterite stones that lie scattered in the grass. Those stones are the only surviving witnesses of the bloodiest chapter in Goan history — that of the Goa Inquisition.
Return to the ruins of the Palace of The Inquisition in the evening, after the last busload of tourists has departed. Sit a while on a laterite block as the sun goes down. If you are sensitive enough, you can still hear the terrified screams of hapless victims being tortured inside the ‘Vhodle Ghor’ by the Inquisitor’s court. In 1560, the erstwhile palace of Adil Shah, the sultan of Bijapur, in Old Goa was turned into a terrible torture chamber with the addition of a chapel, the residence of the inquisitor, more than 200 windowless prison cells and many torture chambers.
Not many people outside Goa know about the terrible Goa Inquisition. The Inquisition was introduced in Goa in 1560 by the then Portuguese king Joao III at the behest of Francis Xavier, the Jesuit monk whose mummified remains lie in a Church just across the road from the site of the Palace of Inquisitions. Inquisition lasted in Goa till 1812 – a period of more than 250 years! It was temporarily abolished in 1774 by the relatively moderate Marquis De Pombal, but was reinstated promptly in 1778 after his fall from grace. Under the inquisition, thousands of people, both men and women, were arrested on charges of heresy and subjected to inhuman torture. Many were burnt alive at ritualistic public spectacles known as autos-da-fe.
The court of inquisition was set up as a royal tribunal, headed by a judge answerable only to the king based in Lisbon. One of the first acts of the inquisitor’s office in Goa was to forbid public practice of the Hindu faith. Hindus were forbidden to worship their Gods and Goddesses in public. In 1566, a vice-regal order prohibited Hindus from constructing temples or repairing old temples. In 1567 the Portuguese started destroying Hindu temples. In Bardez district alone, more than 300 temples were razed to the ground and Churches built in their place.
All Hindu rituals including marriages, thread ceremonies and cremations were banned by law. All people above 15 years of age were forced to attend Christian preachings. The palace of inquisition became a torture chamber for Hindus, Jews, Muslims and even for converted Christians who clung to their Hindu customs and traditions. More than 42 Hindu customs were considered heretical, including wearing the sacred thread, wearing a tilak on the forehead, greeting people with a Namaste and removing of slippers outside a place of worship.
Historian Alfredo de Mello describes the Goa Inquisition as a collection of ‘nefarious, fiendish, lustful, corrupt religious orders which pounced on Goa’. According to François Pyrard de Laval, a Frenchman who lived in Goa between 1608-1610, the Goa Inquisition was more severe than the one practised in Portugal. The most authentic account of the tortures of the Goa Inquisition comes from another frenchman, a doctor named Dellon, who was imprisoned at the palace of the Inquisition. He describes his experiences in his book ‘De Relation L’Inquisition De Goa’. The translation of this book is a part of the famous Goa historian A. K. Priolkar’s seminal work on the subject.
For me, the Goa Inquisition was not just a sterilised remote term to be read in history textbooks. My own family had borne the brunt of the Inquisition. My ancestors had to leave behind their village, their land and all their wealth to save their faith. As their original village Nagoa was destroyed by the Portuguese under the religious command of the fanatical Jesuit priests, my family moved to Cuncolim and started a new life. They made a choice to not surrender their faith. Some others chose otherwise. Converting to Christianity meant official patronage and a good life. The Court of Inquisition guaranteed “protection” to Hindus who converted to Christianity and gave them rights over the lands of people who had chosen to leave their homes rather than convert to Christianity.
In 1583, all temples in my own village of Cuncolim were destroyed by the Portuguese army under direct orders from the court of Inquisition. The proud warriors of my village were not ones to suffer in silence. They led an armed rebellion on 25 July 1583 against the Portuguese. Five Jesuit priests and 14 local converts were killed in the attack. Enraged by this, the Portuguese sent a massive army that burnt and pillaged the village and unleashed unspeakable atrocities on the people. The local warriors still did not give up. They merely hid in the surrounding forests and attacked the Portuguese forces using guerrilla tactics. The Portuguese then tried to be cunning. They invited the leaders of the revolution for talks at a nearby fort and in a stunning act of treachery, sixteen unarmed chieftains were brutally massacred by the Portuguese. Only one escaped by jumping into the river. The sacrifice of the chieftains of Cuncolim is still remembered in Goa as its first ever freedom struggle.
The effects of the Goa Inquisition are felt in Goa till today. There are families torn forever into two, one branch still carries the ancestral Hindu name while the other bears a Christian name. Churches exist where temples once stood.
A few days ago, the Catholic Church apologised for its role in the horrific 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A church statement officially accepted that its members planned, aided and executed the genocide, in which more than 800,000 people were brutally massacred. In 2015, Pope Francis had apologised for the “many grave sins” committed by the Church against the indigenous people of South America while speaking in Bolivia. Before that, his predecessor, Pope John Paul II had apologised to the Muslims for the crusades and to the Jewish people for the anti-semitism of the Catholics that had aided the holocaust and for the involvement of the Church in African slave trade.
When will the Catholic Church apologise for the terrors of the Inquisition it inflicted upon the people of Goa?
By Shefali Vaidya
The writer is a freelance writer and newspaper columnist based in Pune.