Religions of Goa

Three great religions – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam-are represented in Goa, and they play a vital part in the daily lives of the population. Indeed, some religious festivals, have become elevated to such a stature that they are among the region’s main cultural events, while temples and churches provide a focus for social as well as a devotional life.

Roughly speaking Christian Goa encompasses the center of the state; the coastal region of Tiswadi, Salcete and Bardez Talukas. This area is still littered with whitewashed churches and wayside crosses, and its houses are very much in the Portuguese mould. The Hindu heartland lies in the hilly interior around the town of Ponda, and to the far north and south of the state. These areas were acquired relatively late in the colonial era, and have retained a more obviously Indian feel. Islam has almost entirely died out, with only a small remaining community, in Valpoi, Sanguem and Sparsly spread out in the state.

Hinduism

The product of several millennium of evolution and assimilation, Hinduism was the predominant religion in Goa long before the arrival of Christianity, and is today practiced by two thirds of the region’s population. A whole range of deities are revered, which on the surface can make Hinduism seem appear mind-bogglingly complex, but with a loose understanding of the Vedas and Puranas -the religion’s most influential holy texts -the characters and roles of the various gods and goddesses become apparent.

Christianity

Roman Catholicism was imposed on Goa by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, spread by proselytizing missionaries, and zealously upheld by the dreaded Inquisition, which weeded out heretics and ruthlessly persecuted any converts deemed to have lapsed into “pagan” ways. The Inquisition’s chief weapons were the infamous autos da fe’s, or “acts of faith” in which individuals suspected of heresy were tortured, and, if found guilty, burnt at the stake. In later years, Hindus and Muslims were allowed to practice their religions openly, but by this time Christianity had firmly taken root. Today, a little under a third of the total population is Christian, and the state trains priests and nuns in its seminaries and convents for service throughout India.

The spiritual heart of Christianity in Goa is the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, which houses the sacred relics of Saint Francis Xavier – the region’s patron saint. Every ten years, his corpse, which for centuries remained miraculously incorruptible, is exposed for public veneration: an event witnessed by tens of thousands of pilgrims. St. Francis Xavier was against Indians entering the clergy, but his opposition was ultimately ignored, and the region’s church has long been staffed by native Goan’s, some of whom are even in line of canonization.

Islam

Islam was originally brought to Goa in the eleventh century by Arab merchants, who played a pivotal role in maritime trade along the Malabar Coast south of Goa. Encouraged by local Hindu rulers, wealthy Muslims erected mosques and put down roots in the region, practicing their religion freely. However, this period of peaceful coexistence came to an abrupt end in the thirteenth century with the arrival from the northwest, of marauders from Delhi and Deccan. By the fourteenth century, an intolerant brand of Islam was in the ascendancy, as the raiders made permanent settlements, forcing out the Hindus, whom they regarded as heathen idol worshipers. The Bahmani conquests of the mid-1300s finally brought Goa under Muslim rule, with temples razed and their deities banished to the relatively inaccessible foothills of the Western Ghats.

While Hinduism weathered the religious persecution of the Portuguese era, Islam petered out almost completely in Goa, and today only a vestigial Muslim community remains. Distinguished by their half-beards and skullcaps (the women wear enveloping veils called burqas, or long shirts and pyjama trousers known as shalwar-camises), most live in and around Ponda, where the state’s main mosque, the Safa Masjid, is located.

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