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Demystifying - Goan houses

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The artistic architecture behind the classic so called ‘Portuguese’ houses found all over Goan villages does not find its origins in Portugal –it’s an art style that belongs to Goan architects, craftsmen and masons.


The Portuguese conquered Goa in November of 1510 and the capital of Estado Da India (State of India) was transferred from Cochin to Goa in 1530. It was now the centre of small but numerous Portuguese possessions spread all over the orient. Goa was also a residence of the Governor or Viceroy and the Archbishop. It was the only place in the whole Portuguese empire to have a status very similar to that of Lisbon. The Portuguese rule under the King’s religious patronage extended material and financial support for the construction of a large number of royal buildings. To impress the colonial people, the greatness of power was expressed through architecture. 


A new way of thinking about characteristically Goan architecture was spreading through Goan Fidalgo society. There was a string of the so-called “Portuguese houses” being built by upper and middle class landowners or bhatkars who were powerful local Gaonkars – just like mushrooms blooming during the first monsoon showers! This distinct artistic architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries is christened “Portuguese houses” by tourist operators and tourists today, however, though found all over Goan villages, it does not exist in any town or village in Portugal or Portuguese-influenced countries! It represents an art style that belongs to Goan architects, craftsmen and masons commissioned by Goan landlords. 


These Goan houses were built using the locally available red laterite heavy stones and set in lime mortar placed not lengthwise but breadth-wise to create thicker walls. These massive walls were designed to keep the sun’s heat out in the summertime while retaining the internal heat in the winters. Big windows were provided in the high walls for the excess light to brighten the deep dark interiors. A layer of mud, jaggery and lime was used as a plaster for its walls originally which has now been replaced by cement in restoration work. The roof framework was clad with locally available tiles called Mangalore tiles. These gorgeous red tiled roofs had massive wooden beams locally called “pattyos” or wall plates. The length of these beams sometimes created a problem in transporting them through the villages and needed a small army of men to carry! This maybe one of the reason why such aristocratic family houses were built on riverbanks or close to the sea – to facilitate transport of this material by boat! 


Smaller wooden beams or “vashe” as they are called in Konkani which formed the rafters were used to change the slope of roof to drain rainwater away during heavy monsoon showers, along with Mangalore tiles which gives the distinct rust colour to Goan roof houses. The wisdom of Goan masons and craftsmen can be seen in discovering complex uses of simple material and demystifying natural cycles by irradiating light and dramatic treatment of space inside these noble houses. 


The traditional Goan architects and masons were not only astronomically accomplished with the knowledge of sun motion but used the display of sunlight to illuminate the interiors. With big doors and windows of typically rectangular halls and a long side of the building facing north or south thus taking maximum advantage of sunlight, this traditional architecture is designed in proportion to climatic conditions. The central outdoor space was called “Balcao” with seats built into its two opposite sides best suited for warm humid tropical climate with a distinct Goan identity of columned porches and long pillars imitating coconut trees in its natural surroundings. “Balcao” served as a shaded meeting place that introduced light and ventilation into the building. This space was oriented towards the south or north in most of the noble houses thus avoiding direct sunlight penetration for most of the year and is cooled by breeze which forms the natural ventilation strategy to achieve an air-funnel effect to the interior rooms and courtyard inside. 


Balcao was also an interesting vantage point to observe life go by, a feature used frequently by bhatkanns or ladies of aristocratic houses, an old Portuguese form of women empowerment. In some houses, window screens were fashioned to play a significant role with window panes made of translucent oyster shells called “karppa”( a oyster placuna placenta). These kadappas have been used from the time of arrival of the Portuguese motivated by the need to replace wooden shutters. It is used to illuminate the interiors of houses where social events could take place during the day. Very fine and straight oyster shells were inserted into wooden frames of window panes allowing the light to come in as if it were paper or glass panes. During the old conquest of the Portuguese rule, only churches and other religious structures were permitted to use a white colour or to whitewash their exteriors. The other residential structures automatically adopted bold sensational bright colours with the use of natural dyes. 


The Goan craftsmen observed the daily movement of the sun to choose these distinct bright colours – blue representing the sun rising amidst the turquoise mist of the morning sky, yellow being the radiant and magnificent colour representing the power of the afternoon sun and the flaming red as seen at sunset upon the horizon that quickly fades into the darkness. As we are growing more materialistic, we are losing these connections with nature that our ancestors observed; “nature” as being a manifestation of God. Curiously enough, when Goans part company with friends or relatives, we say “Yeta” which means “I am coming back” – the Goan way of expressing hope and believing in the cycle of nature!

Source : Planet - Goa

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