Z Axis 2016: Of Architectural Heritage and Contexts



‘Everything is our heritage’, was one of the memorable statements made at Z Axis 2016, the second conference on architecture organised last month by the Charles Correa Foundation (CCF) in Goa. It was said by Chinese architect Yung Ho Chang, while speaking about how he looked for inspiration to ancient China, Soviet-era China, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, Modernist Germany, and all buildings anywhere. At a time when attempts are on to force people in Goa and India into nationalist straitjackets of what is ‘our’ culture, diet, language, history, etc, it was refreshing to hear an argument for global heritage, even if only from the limited realm of architectural practice.


And it is limited. Architecture may include all buildings, but the practice of architecture, or what architects (are expected to) do, touches only a small fraction of them. According to Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum, winner of this year’s Aga Khan Award and another speaker at Z Axis 2016, as many as 90% of buildings are built without architects.


Even so, thinking about architectural practice is useful. Because the apparently tiny 10% comprises the big projects, the public ones, the expensive ones, and almost all the problematic, wasteful, and destructive ones. We architects desperately need to look critically at what we’re doing, if not stop doing it. The annual conference begun by the CCF in 2015 is thus a very welcome event.


Like most such events, the two editions so far have been uneven, in content as well as diversity, with almost no women speakers in 2015, and non-upper caste and local (Goan) speakers noticeable by their absence both times.


The 2015 conference, on the state of the city and titled Great City… Terrible Place, still set a high standard thanks to stellar presentations by two architects: Kunlé Adeyemi and Santiago Cirugeda. Nigerian Adeyemi’s firm NLÉ (At Home) works with local communities to develop projects like the award-winning Floating School of Makoko, part of a settlement once condemned as a slum. Spanish ‘guerrilla architect’ Cirugeda went further, challenging practically everything architects normally stand for. His architectural firm, Recetas Urbanas (Urban Recipes), is famous for reclaiming public spaces for communities in Seville, with low-cost and self-build projects in which the architect plays the role of facilitator, not for design or technical issues – those are handled by the community – but to deal with the law, politics, and bureaucracy.  Architecture is obsessed with beauty, said Cirugeda, when the really important things should be people and social function.


It was an electrifying presentation, especially for a conservative patron-driven profession like architecture. The discomfort in the student-filled auditorium was palpable, giving the lie to the idea that students love revolutionaries.


There was nothing quite as exciting at the 2016 conference, Buildings as Ideas, intended as a tribute to the late Charles Correa. At the outset, Rahul Mehrotra spoke of how Correa ‘reached into history to tradition’ as the context of Indian architecture. Some of the other presentations also touched upon context, in the realm of form, materials, landscape, as well as tradition. Too many however remained with beautiful-buildings-in-beautiful-settings, with far too many of the vacation homes, art galleries, and monuments that have given architects such a bad name.


Architecture is really a pathetic profession, admitted Chang at one point. ‘We don’t really contribute much, when we could do much more.’ One practise that seemed to buck the trend was that of Hunnarshala Foundation in Kutch, described (in absentia) by its founder, Sandeep Virmani. Hunnarshala’s focus is community-driven projects that are sustainable and make the most of traditional knowledge. One of its aims has been to revive and modernise traditional techniques of building, and train people, often villagers, in them. Some of their students have built successful careers in building techniques and even worked abroad. It has also been trying this—i.e. applying modern science to traditional community knowledge—in water-harvesting, animal husbandry, and other areas.


Hunnarshala thus stood out as a different kind of architectural practice, working with non-elite communities and their need of better shelter and jobs. Its focus on tradition, however, raises questions. How does the strengthening of a village’s traditions affect its normally casteist, patriarchal, and parochial culture? Was it better for marginalised castes and women when traditions were strong, or weak?


Some of these concerns were illustrated in another presentation, also connected to Hunnarshala, by Bombay architect Sameep Padora. It included varied urban projects, a village temple, and a community centre for Dalit Buddhist workers in a factory, the last in collaboration with Hunnarshala. The temple was presented as an exercise in form, ignoring its role of institutionalising caste, while the community centre had a floor made of – guess what? – cowdung. This extremely fragile, rough, and smelly flooring, once traditional for the village poor, was chosen because of the tight budget, said the architect. However, he added, it connects the users to the building since they have to redo it themselves every fifteen days.


But would he or Hunnarshala ever offer this ‘connection’ to the users of their other projects? Then why here? Could it be because of the social location of these users as so-called ‘low’ castes? Or the fact that, in caste society, cow dung and cow urine are traditional ways of purifying space supposedly polluted by the ‘low’?


Some answers were to be had from South African architect Ilze Wolff, who spoke of buildings as bad ideas. Her focus was the Apartheid-era Modernist architecture of an old factory building in Capetown. Pointing out how discrimination based on race, gender and class could be ‘read’ in the architecture, in the separate spaces, differing sizes of space, and differing qualities of space, Wolff too spoke of the importance of context in architecture, but what she meant was the social context, of race and gender.


In South Asia, the social context is caste. Charles Correa had spoken of how all Indian architecture is connected, whether vernacular, Modernist or monumental. One important connect is this context of caste. It is visible all over the place, but especially readable in traditional building and settlement types. This is probably why elites here, architects included, feel so attached to the latter. Our heritage might be the whole world, but what we hold on to reveals our own social location.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 10 October, 2016)


From Sateri to Navdurga, and Worshippers to Sevekaris



At the foot of the entrance stairway to the Navdurga temple of Marcaim, a banner waves in the wind. On it, in Nagri-scripted Konkani, is:


Amchi murti, amkam zai!
Mullchi murti amkam zai, hich amchi vhadlikai
Ganvkar saglle ek zavya, amchi murti ami rakhum-ya

(We want our idol!
We want the original idol, for it is our pride
Unite Gaonkars, we have to protect our idol!)


The temple has been in the news of late for the dispute between the GSB Mahajans and the bahujan villagers, which began over the temple idol. The Mahajans, who wanted a new idol, claim the temple is theirs and built when they migrated to Marcaim. The villagers say that the Mahajans are Mahajans only because they were able to use their privileged caste position to register under the 19th century Lei das Mazanias. The temple, they say, actually belongs to the village. The villagers also took over some rituals that were earlier the privilege of the Mahajans alone, like the palki procession in which the idol is carried through the village along a specific route. The Mahajans responded by declaring all rituals cancelled till further notice.


The dispute is before the courts. But a visit to Marcaim reveals a many-layered worship, which is at once deeply connected to the bahujan communities and non-brahmanical deities, but in a casteist fashion.


The temple itself is built in the syncretic style of many Goan shrines of the 17th-early 20th centuries and still retains some of this distinctive old ambience, including the basilican (i.e. church-like) plan, arched windows, and a Renaissance dome over the sanctum, along with pitched roofs elsewhere. Much of this has however been rebuilt in concrete and altered in the process, either subtly (like the roofs), or crudely (like the large ugly window-eaves), or even completely (like the new secondary buildings).


The syncretism in any case is limited to the temple’s architecture, for its functioning is as brahmanical as ever. All the functions and rituals of the temple need bahujan participation, the villagers say. But this participation is never equal or free but always based on caste. There are drums in the temple lobby, beaten only by the Gomantak Maratha Samaj caste. There are the gold- and silver-clad inner doorways, created by the Chari caste. The priests all belong to the Bhat caste. And only they and the GSB Mahajans enter the sanctum, even today. In fact, the bahujans who contribute to the temple’s functioning are called sevekaris (servants).


The temple’s influence extends through the village in many ways, but always hierarchically. E.g. rituals like the First Harvest, for which rice is specially cultivated near big tallem (pond) known as the Tallembandh, see the harvest offered first to the temple and the Mahajans, and only then other houses in the village.


Anthills, known as roin or Sateri, have long been considered sacred by the indigenous communities of Goa. There are two Sateris in Marcaim, in different vados. One is near the Tallyambandh, on a GSB-owned property. Nearby is a Sateri temple and another to Vetal, another non-brahmanical diety. This Sateri and its temple used to be frequented by villagers earlier but have now been walled around, making public access difficult. The second Sateri is located with its own little temple at Tallyamkhol, another tallem at the foot of a hill in Parampaivado. This Sateri remains accessible to all, for the land here belongs to a Christian bhatkar. This is where Navdurga’s palki procession ends, to return over the hill back to the temple.


There have been attempts to change things, as when a grand new gateway was recently built along the palki route in the village. Funded by bahujan devotees from one of the village vados, it carries a plaque naming the vado. There are similar new gateways at the temple proper which also prominently bear the names of funders—GSB ones—which have not caused comment. But here the palki route was apparently altered, to avoid passing through the bahujan-funded gate.


Curbs are now being put on older ways of participation, probably as a result of these challenges. E.g. the bahujans would put up decorations at the Tallembandh for the yearly Sangod ritual, but now a new metal fence prevents their entry.


All in all, it is clear that the Mahajans are fighting to maintain their privilege and power, in the face of a growing bahujan challenge. The real question is about the focus of this challenge. Marcaim’s worship of the goddess Navdurga appears to be an overlay on the bahujan Sateri and other non-brahmanical gods, co-opting these and their worshippers into the brahmanical world but as inferiors. The bahujan stand however seems to be that this brahmanical temple, with its ‘original’ idol, is native to the village and belongs to them; only the GSBs are outsiders. The problem with this stand is that it challenges the Brahmins but not brahmanism. For, can a brahmanical temple—which is casteist not just in practice but also theory, being backed by all the casteism of the Shashtras, Stutis, and Smritis—ever oppose brahmanism?


The real need is not to fight Brahmins, but to challenge Brahmanism in every form. Otherwise faces will change, but nothing else. This is going to be a long battle, but one small step in it could be to put up another banner outside the temple with the same slogan in, not the baman bhasha, but Romi Concanim, or Marathi, or English.


(With thanks to Ashwinkumar Naik)


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 22 September, 2016)

Why is the Children’s Court Neglected?



The Children’s Court was set up in Goa in 2004. It was visualised as a child friendly space where children against whom crimes were committed by adults would feel safe to speak and have their concerns addressed and issues validated. In such a Court, the best interests of children were to be the primary focus.


This meant many things. For one, it meant that the way the presiding officer, that is, the judge, approached the case had to be different from the way the cases of offences under various laws had to be approached. There had to be a different way of dealing with or handling complainants/ victims/ witnesses. There had also to be a jurisprudential shift.


There was also the question of the physical environment in the place. It is well known that generally the spatial arrangements as well as the clothing in the Courts feel intimidating, more so for children. That is why the Judge in a Children’s Court is expected not to wear the grim clothing that he or she is otherwise expected to wear.  The environment has to be light, with appropriate colour effects as well as addressing the issue of scale. This of course need not be construed to mean that matters must be taken in a lighter vein. The Child against whom a crime is alleged to be committed is already carrying the baggage of being violated. There is already heaviness on that account.


It was out of all these concerns for a violated child that a special legislation for Goa’s children was lobbied for and came to be enacted in 2003 as the Goa Children’s Act. But the machinery envisaged under it which included a Children’s Court was not set up. It took a petition from Bailancho Saad to get the Court set up and functioning in 2004. After that also, it was only with persistent lobbying that a full time presiding officer was assigned to the Court in 2014.


While the Court was required to have a presiding judicial officer of the rank of a Sessions Court Judge, the same was set up under the Directorate of Women and Child Development, and the staff was allocated to it from that Department. This meant a hard grind for the staff and those at the helm, as it meant that the staff who otherwise handle administrative matters in a Government Department were required to be trained to handle ‘court work’, as it is called.


Also , as a temporary measure, when the Court was set up, it was housed in a regular Government building. Buildings are not mere structures. They have to be designed for the intention for which they are going to be used. That was not at all the case with the Goa Children’s Court which did not meet the requirements of architecture and design.


Apart from there being limited space for the Court, which brings along with it its own difficulties, such as difficulties locating the items associated with the crime, which have been attached in the case (muddemal), there was also the question of access. Access is certainly about physically reaching the Court. But access is also about not being subject to intimidation, or feeling intimidated on the way to the Court.That is why, it was visualised that the child complainant/victim should not have to compulsorily face the accused as happens in other cases, while at the same time ensuring the rights of the accused to a fair trial and cross examination of the child, albeit in a sensitive way.


This aspect of access is far from being taken care of in the Children’s Court in Goa.  In the sense that while inside the court, due precaution is taken, the very structure of the building is such that before entering the Court, the child and the accused could very well be in the same lift or on the same staircase, instead of separate entrances, thereby making a mockery out of that salutary provision in the law of the child not having to face the accused.


In the rest of India, it was about a decade later that the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, (POCSO) came into force. This new law also required Courts designated as Special Courts for specifically handling sexual offences against children. Already under POCSO, Delhi has at least four designated Special Courts with special child-friendly buildings, which meet architectural design requirements suited for distressed children. Goa could have been a model for the rest of India, but Goa’s children are yet to get a proper Children’s Court building, thirteen whole years after the Goa Children’s Act.


What is worse, is that the administration does not seem to be helping. It has notified Courts of the rank of Sessions Courts to be the Special Courts under the POCSO Act, but the Children’s Court is seemingly ousted. This puts the clock behind for the trendsetting work that Goa and its civil society did to pave the way for sensitivity and effective prevention and deterrence regarding crimes against children. It is about returning to the routine spaces instead of making the existing Court space more child-friendly.


While infrastructure is fancifully thrown around by the Government for areas that they possibly stand to gain from, are we to conclude that the Children’s Courts and their positions are too hot for the Government to handle? Why else this wilful neglect?


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 16 June, 2015)

No Bamboo Banawing!



Guadua Bamboo Timarai Beach Resort in Costa Rica by Ing. Alejandro Restrepo. *You may use our pictures on blogs or websites, provided that you credit us with an anchor link to: Guadua Bamboo

On a recent visit to the Konkan Bamboo and Cane Development Centre (KONBAC) at Kudal, I came to know that there has been a drastic change in strategy to promote bamboo as construction material. Rather than endorsing bamboo as an affordable material for the poor, especially to build cost-effective houses, it is now being popularised as a material that satisfies the upwardly mobile elites’ fad of sustainability. Although the desire to replace unsustainable materials is laudable, the question is whether these projects, using bamboo, are truly as sustainable as they claim to be? Moreover, there also arises an issue of appropriation of material culture, especially of the poor in tribal areas by the dominant elites.

One of the strongest criticisms of the appropriation of the architecture of the poor has been made by the sociologist Anthony King, who writes that the rich often appropriate the architecture of farmer’s cottages (farmhouses) for their vacation homes (which are usually their second or third home). These elites, King observes, only absorb the aesthetics of a farmer’s house and not their lifestyle. The problem of the cultural appropriation of marginalized cultures without assimilation of the marginalized population seems to be prevalent everywhere. Raising the issues of cultural appropriation of hairstyles is a recent video titled Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows by Amandla Stenberg. There are many similarities between hairstyle and architecture. Both are about identity, and clearly about style. In so many ways, hairstyles are, in fact, a form of architecture. Stenberg’s major criticism is that white Americans love black culture more than they love the black people.The video demonstrates how hip-hop and pop have been appropriated from African American culture especially in terms of hairdos such as pleats, cornrows and so forth, while continuing with the racist hatred towards black people. These hairdos, as Stenberg notes, are ways in which black hair is kept from knotting. Stenberg laments that while these hairdos are stereotypical of the community, when white Americans adopts them, they turn into high fashion. This is a similar way in which vernacular architecture gets appropriated when architect claim them as ‘contemporary-vernacular style’. While the rich appropriate the poor farmer’s cottages to model their vacation-homes, these houses are always fitted with appliances and systems (air-conditioning etc.) needed for the comfort of upmarket modern living, which the vacationers cannot do without. Additionally there is also a failure to acknowledge the role of vernacular people, the ones who have championed the use of sustainable materials and forms in the first place.

In his book, The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard argues that a suburbanite who aspires to move up into a higher class usually does so by buying antiques – symbols of old social position brought with new money. Essentially, he argues that the upwardly mobile class signal their social standing through material signs such as antique furniture, works of art, and so forth. Today, it is materials like bamboo that are being pressed into the service of consumption, because they give the image of sustainability. Using bamboo is fast becoming fashionable as appearing sustainable can symbolize that one has truly arrived in the elite world. Bauldrillard further discusses that every object has two functions – to be put to use and to be possessed. While a plastic chair in a living room can be put to use, it never seem to be dearly possessed, whereas the antique voltaire, may at times not even be used but is dearly possessed as an object. The argument for the bamboo is similar. The rich use it in an attempt to possess it as an object rather than utilising it functionally. It seems that the dominant cultures intermittently stoop to peripheral ones in order to appropriate from them, without the guilt of further marginalizing them. The violence is doubled as the poor are made to believe that there is legitimacy in the marginalized culture only when there is a sanction of it by the dominant ones.

The use of bamboo as ‘sustainable’ material in the construction of elite houses is also problematic because of the cost and distance of procuring it, as it is usually not locally available. Holistic sustainability has to factor in the ecological implication of transporting materials, plus the carbon footprint of the air-travel that the ‘designer’ architect would spend on travelling to the site. Moreover, even if sustainable material is used for the building of a second or third home, then the very idea of sustainability is defeated because sustainability has to be about satisfying only the primary needs of living and not about luxury.

It is not that architects and clients should completely ignore bamboo as a sustainable building material. In fact, organization like KONBAC have resorted to the marketing of bamboo to elites because there is no culture of building in bamboo in our society. Today, bamboo should not be a material of choice but that of convenience and compulsion. What is then required is a system of making bamboo easily available by creating a network of bamboo farmers, as KONBAC claims to have done. It is also important that the government create bamboo forests in close proximity to urban areas so that its transport from the source to the site is sustainable. Building in bamboo should not be about style but that of real ecological and social responsibility.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 24 April, 2016)

Zaha Hadid and our Starchitect Culture



The death last week of Zaha Hadid saw expressions of grief from both the architectural world and the general global media. Because Hadid was not merely a highly successful architect but a ‘starchitect’, one of the tiny group of the world’s most sought-after architects who are also global media celebrities in their own right. Along with others like Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Norman Foster, the Iraqi-born and London-educated Hadid was an international brand, whose prestigious projects, with their trademark gravity-defying forms, included a cultural centre in Baku, museums in Milan and Glasgow, an opera house in Guangzhou, and the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics. A winner of the top international awards for architecture, like the Pritzker in 2004, the 2016 RIBA gold medal, and the Stirling prize (twice), she was also celebrated for being the first woman, the first Muslim, and the first person of colour in this largely white man’s club.


One could question the last though, about whether Hadid’s success really made any difference to most other women or Muslims or coloured people. It’s like Nooyi becoming the president of Pepsi, touted in the Indian media as a victory for Indian women. But what difference does it really make if elite women, be it a Nooyi or an Indira Gandhi, reach the top? Not much; India at least still remains a terrible place for most women, especially Dalits and tribals, aspire though they might to change their lives. In fact, those who aspire often have to pay a terrible price for their dreams, like Delta Meghwal, the 17-year-old Dalit girl who also died last week. Meghwal wanted to be a teacher but was raped and killed in her own college in Rajasthan last week; the news barely merited coverage by the press.


What I want to dwell on here, however, is the criticism that Hadid faced in the global media, despite being so successful, award-winning, and well-connected. The starchitects have been accused of being exclusively concerned with aesthetics, for working for and thus giving credibility to autocratic governments, and for projects that are over-expensive, insensitive to the social context (people were forcefully evicted for the construction of Hadid’s cultural centre at Baku), and exploitative of labour. As Mary Mcleod (Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Post Modernism to Deconstruction, 1989) put it, ‘That contemporary architecture has become so much about surface, image and play, and that its content has become so ephemeral, so readily transformable and consumable, is partly a product of the neglect of the material dimensions of architecture – programme, production and finance – that more directly invoke questions of power.’


Neglect of issues of production was blatantly visible in the Gulf states, the site of many glittering new starchitect projects amidst reports of abusive labour conditions. Hadid was in the news in 2014 for a report claiming labour deaths in the construction of her new football stadium project for the World Cup 2022 in Qatar. The project was however yet to start construction at the time and she responded with defamation proceedings that won her apologies from the concerned journal. But she was still criticised for her apparent lack of concern for the problem; there had in fact been a great many deaths on other football-related construction sites in Qatar. Hadid instead declared that construction worker deaths were not her problem but that of the government. ‘It’s not my duty as an architect to take care of it’.


Her stance was in sharp contrast to the many Middle Eastern and other artists who had earlier announced  a boycott of the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, where similar labour abuses had been reported.

It might however find some support in this part of the world. India is probably far worse than the Gulf when it comes to construction labour conditions. Laws ensuring minimum wages, weekly offs, safe working conditions, housing, and so on, are rarely if ever followed. Even here in Goa, we rarely see anything close to even the most basic safety precautions being taken on construction sites. Not surprisingly, the number of ‘accidents’ on construction sites are legion, and taken for granted. It’s only the big project disasters which cause embarrassment – like the Canacona building collapse or the recent Calcutta flyover collapse. These may lead to arrests of contractors and officials, but the basic labour conditions remain the same. Architects however rarely complain. Nor does the law see it as an issue that concerns architects.


Similarly, the criticism that Hadid faced for the displacement of people for her Baku project would never be heard here. Settlements of the poor are regularly uprooted in India for projects that will benefit others, sometimes on a huge scale like the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, or otherwise for resorts in Goa. But the architects whose designs come up on these sites are never questioned about the ethics of this system.


Thus, despite the absence of starchitect figures like Hadid, starchitect culture is the norm here. Because that’s precisely how the caste hierarchy of production works. Labourers are invisibilised, by employing them through contractors. The settlements of the poor are illegalised, and so not important. And it’s never the duty of the architect to worry about either.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 7 April, 2016)

The Bahujan Challenge to Goa’s Brahmanical Shrines


dsc05647Goa’s old temples need change, but they also need to be protected from change. There is no contradiction here: the change – or even revolution – they urgently need is in the realm of the social, political and economic; but connected to this is the issue of their unique Portuguese-era art and architecture, which needs protection. And the solution to both problems might be the same: the bahujan take-over of these currently savarna establishments, as is being attempted with the Navdurga temple at Marcaim.

Looking at the second problem first, there is no knowing what to expect at any of Goa’s old brahmanical shrines nowadays. A recent visit to the Mangueshi temple at Priol is an example. It was part of a trip to show some visiting students the syncreticism of Goa’s early modern architecture, which included visits to Old Goa and Ponda’s Safa Masjid. At Mangueshi, however, we found that the old Mulkeshwar temple had been completely rebuilt. The new temple is certainly grander (though somewhat like an upmarket Udipi restaurant), but is that a good reason to demolish an old structure, along with all the local history it contained?

But this is what is happening to old temples across Goa. What comes up in their stead are forms like those of the brahmanical temples in India, described by laypeople as ‘more Hindu’. This is precisely the reason for the replacement, although the official one is usually the need for expansion. Goan temple forms are indeed not Hindu, or rather brahminical, enough; they are brilliant examples of the European-Islamicate encounter. They often also show some pre-brahmin roots; Mulkeshwar, also known as Rakhandar, is supposed to be a non-brahmin or bahujan diety.

These temples thus can tell much about Goa’s rich cultural past, which however does not sit well with brahmin nationalism. Replacing them is good business of course; it provides the chance to create larger and grander Indian-style temples which attract the moneyed Hindu tourist eager to ‘consume’ religion (Meera Nanda, 2010). But replacing them also serves a political purpose: to erase Goa’s Portuguese, Islamicate, and bahujan past, along with its syncretic architecture and working traditions (Catholic artisans are supposed to have built these temples). And thus to invent a Goa that was always brahmanically Hindu.

It was just such an attempt, to change the old idol at the Navdurga temple, Marcaim, which has now blown up into a struggle demanding a different kind of change. Because the temple managements, so eager to demolish old architecture, art and icons, are the opposite when it comes to their own social, economic, and political privileges. For example, even today, none but the ‘mahajan’ families – all savarna — are allowed within the sanctum sanctorums of these temples. Prohibited from entry are even those members of the bahujan communities who work for the temple, doing everything from daily maintenance to playing the music during rituals; they are treated as ‘temple servants’. The same brahmanism prevails in rituals outside the sanctum. Along with this, menstruating women are denied entry anywhere inside the temple, as were foreigners some time ago. When questioned about all this, the temple managements claim that the temples are privately owned and thus free to limit public access.

But savarna hegemony over temples is not just an issue of religion. Some of these old temples are also landowners (bhatkars) who control vast immovable property as well as the lives of those who live and work there. Many of the latter have been unable to get their land deeds in their name to this day, with the result that they can be pressurised to continue with their humiliating ‘temple servant’ roles, using the threat of eviction.

Bahujan communities in Goa are unwilling to accept all this any more. The villagers of Marcaim have demanded that the Goa government intervene to ensure that the old idol is not replaced. They also want to know, they say, why the temples in Goa are considered the private property of savarnas, when temples in India are public temples. Their demand is that all who work for and worship at the temple should enjoy exactly the same rights and access.

This will not be an easy struggle, given the brahmanical nature of the Goan and Indian authorities. For example, the Supreme Court of India recently overturned the policy introduced by Tamil Nadu’s former DMK government to allow persons from any caste to apply for employment as priests. The court ruled that appointments should be according to the old ‘Agama Shastras’. With the brahmin-composed Agamas not surprisingly preferring brahmins, the ruling will preserve a brahmin monopolisation of this job. Would this court support a bahujan takeover of brahminical temples?

The other question though is, even if the savarna mahajans are defeated, will these temples really change into non-hierarchical and completely public spaces? Or will the only change be the replacement of savarnas by the more powerful among the bahujans? Let us not forget that Dalits are still barred from many of the ‘public’ temples in Maharashtra; people have even been murdered for entering. It was not for nothing that Dr Ambedkar advocated leaving Hinduism altogether; that is what some dalit-bahujan communities in Goa and India still opt for today.

For the moment, though, a good struggle is on, and one can only wish it well.

(With thanks to Ashwinkumar Naik for information on the Marcaim struggle.)

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 10 March, 2016)

How to Read Monuments



In her lecture titled ‘The Introduction to Ancient History’, delivered in August 2014, historian Romila Thapar – current D. D. Kosambi Chair at Goa University– suggested that there is a conceptual difference in imagining the past through historical monuments as compared to reading about them in historical texts. ‘Texts’ are abstract concepts, she explained, which must be ‘read’, their meaning understood, and only then can one locate their content in the historical context. In comparison to such abstraction, historical monuments have physical presence which can be seen, touched and felt. But one cannot simply visit a historical location and expect to be enlightened by the experience. An architectural appreciation of monuments requires meaningful engagement with their history and context. It is here that a well-researched guidebook can make a difference. One such book relevant to Goa is the recently released Portuguese Sea Forts: Goa, with Chaul, Korlai and Vasai (2015), by architectural historian Amita Kanekar.


In Goa, there seems to be a general disregard for, and the resultant mismanagement of, monuments, be they churches, temples, mosques or forts.There are many reasons for this, including the failure to see architecture as symbolic of specific colonial history, which is a point I shall return to. In the meantime, I’d like to suggest that what might help fill this lacuna is well-researched and accessible information about these monuments.


It is in this exact area that the Deccan Heritage Foundation, the publishers of Kanekar’s book, have identified their niche. They seem to bridge the gap between serious academic works and coffee table books, having commissioned established research scholars to produce popular guidebooks on the architectural heritage of the Deccan region. These books highlight the historical context of monuments while also being lavishly illustrated with photographs. This invariably helps in attracting readership, but also can help visitors to have a more informed engagement with the monuments.


Kanekar’s book is an effort to present a reliable historical narrative of the many Portuguese sea forts on the Arabian Sea coast of the Deccan, as well as the role of these structures in empire-building. This guidebook is not merely a pictorial one, but has a solid dose of history, both architectural and political, which helps the reader understand the role of these forts contextually.


In the introduction of the book, the author reminds us that “[t]he real Portuguese conquest was less of land than of sea-borne trade. Albuquerque is himself supposed to have reassured the Malabar ruler that the king of Portugal did not build forts to ‘take land’, but ‘to keep his goods and people secure’” along the coast (p.14). It is precisely because of the coastal nature of the Estado da Índia, that Goa’s cultural hybridity was further influenced. Kanekar points out that the Portuguese were never more than a small minority in the Estado enterprise. It becomes obvious, therefore, that most of those who manned the Estado ships, populated its towns, and fought in its armadas and militias, whether they were free or enslaved, might have been part-Portuguese, local Catholics, local non-Catholics, Deccanis, Bengalis or Asians and others of mixed backgrounds. This, Kanekar’s book posits, is still visible in the Luso-Arabic-East African-Asian traditions of the Roman Catholic communities living near forts of the erstwhile Estado today. Of the forts documented in the book, apart from those in Chaul, Korlai, and Vasai, the rest are located in Goa.


In terms of architectural appreciation, one of the important observations to be drawn from reading Kanekar’s book is that what sets the Portuguese sea forts of the Deccan apart is that they were designed with a special emphasis on geometry. While speaking at the launch of the book in December at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, George Mitchell, another architectural historian and member of the Deccan Heritage Foundation, informed the audience that the other forts in the Deccan were different from the Portuguese ones, as they had high walls that skirted around the group of internal buildings, without much emphasis on geometric design. The Portuguese sea forts on the other hand, evolved with a special emphasis on geometry, explains Kanekar. Forts are essentially architecture of walls – articulated, elaborated and reinforced for the purpose of defence. However, the arrival of cannons in the fourteenth century resulted in a change in the design of forts, originating during the Italian Renaissance. Along with an emphasis on geometry, there was now a greater use of earth ramparts, ditches, and earth slopes. While appreciating the history of Portuguese forts that survive today in Goa and elsewhere, we must remember that they are distinctly European examples of offence and defence that were adapted for local conditions.


While the book is successful in describing the many forts it has featured in great detail, its limitation lies in the fact that it is a victim of its format as a guidebook. It is unable to give us the layered politics of forts in history, nor how these monuments (and other Portuguese period architectural heritage) are perceived by Goans in contemporary times. Take for example the way in which temples from colonial times have been completely modified or rebuilt as part of revisionist efforts to bring Goa in line with a perceived sense of an ‘authentic’ Hindu-Indian past. Where deliberate disregard allows for the erasure of history and its architectural markers, the vacuum is too readily filled with fabrications. Nevertheless, books like Kanekar’s are useful in underscoring the past in the face of dereliction.


(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 3 January, 2016)