Goa’s landscape that once stood out for its whitewashed churches, chapels, temples and temple towers is no longer the same – its temples are now a colourful, ubiquitous sight, but one lacking the state’s traditional architectural idiom.

Across the state, the temple architecture – which harmoniously blended elements of western Mannerist, Baroque and Rococco with Maratha, Deccan Sultanate or Bijapuri Islamic, and local Konkan vernacular building forms – is being demolished for renovation.

“In the name of jirondhar, or temple renovation, so many of Goa’s distinctive temples, and with it, their religious art, carvings, murals, sculptures, carved wooden pillars have been pulled down, and age-old schist idols immersed in rivers,” said Prajal Sakhardande, president of Goa Heritage Action Group. “In its place new concrete structures come up, with architectural styles that do not reflect Goa’s ethos.”

Goa’s temple ethos

In their 1983 essay on temple sanctuaries Goa – An Encounter, Saryu Doshi and PP Shirodkar wrote: “Unlike most Hindu shrines in other parts of India, the temples in Goa are not surmounted by a shikhara, but by a dome.... and reflects... an acceptance of Islamic and Christian architectural forms.” The tripartite division of the mandapa or hall, the transept-like area in front of the sanctum sanctorum, with side entrances in the form of small domed pavilions visible in temples, reflect a “familiarity with church architecture”.

The Goan temple lamp-tower is also unique, merging a Maratha form with elements of Portuguese Christian architecture. It is this layout which gives many temples built in that era an almost church-like appearance, while church iconography is similarly imbued with Hindu elements.

But Nagara and Dravidian styles are now beginning to dominate the landscape – with Alpha Vimana shikharas, Latina Nagara shikharas amd Dravida shikharas replacing the traditional Goan dome.

A history lecturer at a city college, Sakhardande says he has lost track of the number of times he has attempted to convince temple committees to retain old historic structures, and build afresh if they must, on adjacent sites. “We’ve been successful in a few cases, but I am sorry to say, neither the government nor some temple committees are interested in protecting this heritage,” said Sakhardande. He has a point.

Since the end of the Portuguese rule in Goa in 1961, temple reconstruction has taken place in two phases, according to a 2013 study by Leanne Alcasoas. The first phase, between 1961 to 1980, marked the renovation and expansion of grand community temple complexes. These opted to retain traditional elite Indo-European styles, creating a grandeur which rivalled the iconic Churches in the terrain.

The second temple renovation/rebuilding/building boom began in the late 1990s, and seems far more hectic and problematic according to conservationists. Politically, this period coincides with the growth of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state, and the rise of identity politics. Community consciousness and community worship replaced earlier practices of individual worship, requiring village temple halls to accommodate large gatherings. Political funding for religious structures, government funding to convert agricultural water ponds to religious immersion spots, became a political trend in this period, in direct co-relation to the intense political competition in a young state (Goa received statehood in 1987).

A temple in Arpora (before renovation).
The renovated Arpora temple.

With political and government funding, quaint small village house-like temples built of wood, laterite and tiled roofs are being modified to bigger concrete structures, while small roadside shrines are converted to proper temples, including in public government owned spaces.

In the process, according to Alcasoas, there has been a major shift in temple design in the last ten years – both in style and general approaches. The study noted the obvious – that contemporary temple design in Goa opts not for modern design, but for “historicist designs from different parts of India”. The renovations are retaining the interior elements of a typical Goan temple design, but making drastic changes in the shikharas or steeples, and facades to replicate historical Indian temples outside Goa, rather than traditional forms of temple structures from Goa.

So why are traditional regional Goan forms being eschewed in the redevelopments, in favour of pan-Indian styles?

Architects in the field proffer different explanations. Alcasoas’s study points out that 30% of the temples surveyed in the study were funded and built by new in-migrant communities to the state, and many of the surveyed temples were constructed by civil engineers working directly with artisans with no architects being involved.

Architecural historian Amita Kanekar suggested that the Goan style may be considered by some as not being Indian enough, because of its syncretic style. “You have to have a pride in your heritage,” said Goa-based conservation architect, Ketak Nachnolkar. “The moment you feel this monument style is inferior and this style is superior, then you are going to make a value judgement.” Nachnolkar’s restorations of old Goan temples, including the Mallinath temple, Marcel, and the Vetaleshwar temple, Veling, are notable projects. Even his new constructions retain the tiled, sloping roof, local house look for smaller shrines like the Krishna temple in Bambolim.

Shree Rudreshwar Temple, in Harvalem.

Money is another driving factor. “The entire construction industry works on cement and concrete,” Nachnolkar added. “The more money people have, the bigger the problem, because they go overboard, and want more unnecessary decoration and embellishment.” Nachnolkar’s conservation efforts attempt to retain the authentic historic character of temples, while sprucing them up, providing structural stability, adding parking and access for the aged and other modern amenities.

Architect Abhijit Sadhale, who specialises in renovation projects which aim to revive pre-Portuguese Kadamba-era temple crafts, iconography and architecture, feels the change is a result of wilful choice. “People on temple committees are choosy, they know exactly what they want and demand that architects produce that,” he said. “They have travelled to other parts of India and want to replicate the temple styles they see there in Goa.”

But modest local communities do not always have a choice in their temple’s design, when they have to rely on funding from government agencies with clueless contractors who pull down historic shrines to build afresh. In the past five years from 2012 to mid-2016, 25% of the Rural Development Agency’s 529 projects were related to temple and visarjan area works.

“The biggest damaging schemes in Goa are the MPLAD and RDA,” said Sadhale. “I’ve often been telling people don’t construct temples under the MPLAD and RDA schemes because you have the worst kind of contractors and some engineers sitting and designing. The worst part is they all mean well.” Villagers sometimes end up unhappy with the end result, preferring their old open, airy structures, but by then, it is too late.

The state department of Archives and Archaeology, whose duty it is to maintain historicity, maintains a total of only 51 monuments on its protected list. This leaves scores of historic shrines open to drastic interventions. Its apathetic attitude towards ancient sites and sculptures, crying poverty and a lack of resources is hardly helpful. It has been left to citizen’s groups to enter the arena and challenge the drastic alterations of historic regional temple monuments.

The Gothic tulsi vrindavan outside the Shree Mahalsa temple, Mardol.
The demolition at the Shree Mahalsa temple.
The new tulsi vrindavan.

The Goa Heritage Action Group, for some time, valiantly tried to preserve the old from being lost forever, pitting them more than once on the opposite side of the debate with the Sadhales who want a 10th century Kadamba revival, while the 17th century surviving monuments stand endangered.

In 2006, GHAG went to the high court to prevent the 18th century Mallikarjuna temple in Shristhal, Canacona, from being renovated. The high court initially stayed construction, but GHAG lost the case, when the Department of Archives and Archaeology de-notified the temple from its list of protected monuments, Sakhardande told Scroll.in.

The department did the same for the Gopinath temple in Netravali and GHAG lost that case as well, though it managed to have the 12th century Gopinath idol shifted to the Goa State Museum. The Bramhanimaya temple, Caranzol/Sattari, the Navdurga temple, Poinguinim (Canacona), Nageshwar temple in Priol, the Shantadurga Ballikarin temple in Balli were among the eleven temples changed, despite GHAG’s efforts, Sakhardande said.

Abhijit Sadhale, a member on the government’s conservation committee, said that when temples are still in use by the community, their development rights have to be balanced with the needs of conservation. “Some things are bound to change... The rules of the International Council on Monuments and Sites have to be balanced against the Hindu rule book on temple building.”

Abhijit Sadhale and his architect father KD Sadhale are at the forefront of a good number of temple projects in the state, including the Rs 4 crore grand reconstruction of the Mahalasa Narayani temple at Verna, at the original site of its sacking by the Portuguese in 1567. A politically and culturally significant project, it recently saw BJP President Amit Shah make a special visit to the temple. Another ongoing project is the rebuilding of the Saptakotishwar Shrine in Fatorpa, South Goa, where work is underway to raise funds and reconstruct a granite stone shrine to revive the Kadamba Nagara style.

An old temple.

Studies generally divide Goa’s temples into several periods from rock cut prehistoric shrines and folk shrines to standalone temples that were built during the pre-Portuguese Kadamba Dynasty era in the middle of the 10th century to the 13 century, in basalt stone and/or schist and laterite. The second phase occurs between the 17th century, when a neo romanisation in temple building, saw even the Marathas build temples invested with western Mannerist forms, where the dome came to replace the pyramidal tower over the sanctuary.

Organised temple complexes made their appearance from the 18th to mid 19th centuries, achieving a syntheses of Neo-Roman and Maratha motifs, combining Baroque and Rococo styles with Maratha forms. When local architects established their own idiom to build monumental domestic structures from the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries marked the fourth phase.

What makes Goa’s surviving temple architectural style distinctive and important, according to Dr Gritli von Mitterwallner is “...the graffiti decorated Hindu temples of Goa which form a local idiom, which has assimilated foreign elements, transforming them harmoniously into a synthesis of unique character”. The intermingling of the three cultures which were active in Goa – Hindu, Muslim and Christian – are seen across the temples of Goa. Muslim art and culture are visible both on pre-Portuguese and Portuguese era shrines, where temples are roofed by typical Muslim domes. Muslim influence also reached the village temples in the New Conquests in southern Goa, traceable in the wooden pillars of their mandapas, which are often decorated with the ten incarnations of Vishnu, capped by Islamic cinquefoil arches.

The church-like facade of an old temple.

In temple entrance arches and niches, “elements of both intruding cultures, Muslim and Christian, have been harmoniously blended. Cusped arches, flying angels, bunches of grapes, inspired by the altar-pilasters of Goan churches, kirti-mukha masks and Hindu deities form a pleasing whole”, wrote Mitterwallner. He adds that locally imbibed graffito art, with its origins in the Italian Renaissance period, “represents the most important contribution Goa has made to the regional arts of India”, with the technique spreading northwards to Savantwadi in Maharashtra and south to Ankola, Sirsi and Sadashivgad.

However, GHAG has had some successes. It managed to stop the flawed renovation of the 12th century Saptakoteshwar temple, in Opa (Ponda) the Ravalnath temple in Palye, Bicholim; the Laxminarayan temple, Narve; the Badhami and Kadamba temples in Zarme, Sattari. They were also partly successful with the Mohini temple, Sadolxem, where some heritage elements were retained, said Sakhardande. In other instances, ancient schist idols were either retrieved by the Goa Museum staff from the river bed, or were handed over after the temple renovation.

Still, there is only so much that a small group can do, given the caste and political connotations of the rebuilding projects. By one estimate, around half of Goa’s village temples have undergone a transformation. Photo archives may soon be all that is left of a distinctive architectural style.