A lot of Goans and non-Goan continue to sell “Goan houses with Portuguese architecture”. This could not be farther from the truth.

Goa is part of a heritage created through beautiful amalgamation of the many cultures that built their homes in the state. They are fascinating treasure troves of stories, interesting artefacts, wonderful motifs and so many more secrets that leave us wide-eyed and gaping!

To delve into this further, Heta Pandit, author of books such as Houses of Goa and many others, helped us explore Goan homes, brick by brick. The one thing that stood out is the unique architecture of Goan homes. They’re neither Indian, not Portuguese, but a delicate mix of multiple cultures spanning over Europe and India.

Did you know that Goan houses weren’t built by architects, but by homeowners themselves? They worked with masons and build their homes from scratch.

This blog looks at Goan houses and all the elements that make them unique:

  1. Balcao
  2. Rajangans
  3. The arts in Goan homes
  4. Windows of Goan homes
  5. Kulaghars
  6. Hero stones
  7. Colours

BALCAOS, GOA’S SIGNATURE ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENT

a red goan indo-portuguese house with balcao
A typical Goan balcao on the heritage walking tour in Madgao. Can you see the small seat at the end of the stairs?
PC: Lester Silveira (thebalcao.com)

“Balcãos are the inside outside spaces in most Goan houses.” says Heta. According to her, it’s not an European but very much an Indian feature. These porch-like structures with their own special seats are built at the entrance of a house. They’re popular not only in Goa, but throughout India, going as far as Gujarat where they’re known as “otla”. Within Goa, Hindu homes in Vaploi and Sattari also boast of “sopo” or “otta” that are similar to the balcão, but are known by different names.

small house in goan village Valpoi
Sopo seen during the heritage tour in Valpoi, in Laxmi’s home

The idea of a Balcão is to provide a sitting space and a “social screening device” to the residents of a particular home. Elders can gossip with neighbours, sip tea and greet anyone that passes on the street and interrogate strangers who’d come to the house. If these strangers passed the test, they’d be let into the main home. Even then, vendors such as the poders (bread seller), the nustekann (fish vendor), and the rest were taken around to the back of the house. 

rural house with tiled rooms and a front yard
A balcao in a home in Canacona. Can you notice the difference in the number of steps and the small seat too?

Not only did the  balcão serve as a screening device, but the number of stairs leading up to the balcão could be attributed to the owner’s status in society.  Apart from that, it was also said that the balcão was a more male-dominated area while the Rajangan, the internal courtyard, was for the women of the house.

a goan house with corridors and courtyard
  A gorgeous Rajangan seen on the walking tour in Bandora
PC Shriyash

RAJANGAN – THE GOAN COURTYARDS & BALLROOMS

a large empty courtyard within a house and tulsi vrindavan
A tulsi Vrindavan in the courtyard is a significant aspect of Goan Brahmin homes. This is a house found on the heritage tour in Canacona.

A fine example of the fusion between Western and Indian architecture, the Rajangan retained its position even in the homes that were influenced by the West. These Rajangans were used to plant fruit trees, for processing/drying food, for light, air and ventilation, and for all kinds of flowering plants as well. 

a grand well-decorated room inside a house with chandelier
A dazzling Sale found on the houses of Chandor heritage trail in Goa – these were used as ballrooms and even dining rooms. 
a small chapel inside a property
Chapels in the Postcard hotel in Cuelim

What’s more, most Goan homes boast of gorgeous chapels, shrines or even devghars (hindu prayer rooms) inside the house. Some houses would designate special corners while the larger homes have entire rooms for prayer.

ART IN GOAN HOUSES

intricate wall fresco with people on it
Fresco found in Goan homes on the heritage tour of Canacona

Goan homes are bedecked in intricate patterns, most of which have withstood the test of time and some which have succumbed to ruin due to neglect. Art such as kaavi, azulejos, frescoes have been an integral part of Goan homes, amplifying its beauty. Kaavi is art created by plastering a wall, curing the plaster with water every four hours for two days, etching designs into the plaster and filling them with kaav, that is a mixture of red laterite and charcoal powder; Azulejos, commonly found in Christian homes, are created by hand-painting blue designs (primarily floral) over white glazed tiles.; frescoes are designs painted into wet wall plaster, illustrations narrating scenarios and characters from real life.

House of Doctors written in blue on a white tile, in ajulezos style
Name plates like these are common outside Goan homes. This is a classic example of azulejos – blue patterns on white tiles.
church altar with magnificent blue ajulezos designs
Art inside a church in Candolim.

WINDOWS OF GOAN HOUSES

There are certain fascinating stories that are etched in the structure of the windows of a Goan home. For instance, the use of mother of pearl shells to cover up the windows. As mentioned previously, Goan homes were majorly designed inwards, i.e. the courtyards, the art on the walls and even the windows. The Hindu homes had smaller windows that were either very high or low to evade the passerby’s gaze. They principally depended on these courtyards for light and ventilation. 

window of a house of Goa closed up with white oyster or mother of pearl shells
Window found on the heritage tour in Benaulim is covered up with mother of pearl shells.

As the architecture changed with the change in the culture of the people that occupied Goa, the windows became more outward looking as well. They shifted to the centre and were more open to let the light in. The inhabitants who were uncomfortable with this new design chose to cover up the windows with mother of pearl (or oyster) shells that were easily available and adjusted well to the weather.

Glass wasn’t an option as it was introduced later and hence, expensive and using curtains would mean allowing the residents to bake in the heat and humidity! So the windows found themselves packed with mother of pearl shells with small glass pieces wedged in between for decoration.

The flat part of the shell is cut to fit into wooden window pane frames traditionally used in Goan homes. Window-pane oysters take about 4-5 years to mature fully when their muddy brown shells turn translucent white.

a large goan  house with small balconies in windows
Stunning saccadas in Chandor. The brackets below support the balconies

Another fascinating feature in the Christian homes are Sacadas,  small balconies that found their origin in a plague! This plague that took Old Goa, Goa’s capital before Panjim by shock, pushed its residents to move to Panjim. Fearful,  the people realised how important it was to “take the air”, and voila! Small, narrow balconies came into existence so one person could stand and enjoy the sea breeze. 

A closer look at the mother of pearl (or oyster) shell window seen during the Saligao heritage tour
window of a house of Goa closed up with white oyster or mother of pearl shells
An oyster shell window found on the Saligao heritage tour

What’s more interesting is that these windows grew on Goans, finding their way into church architecture as well. What was once a necessity became a design feature, copied in houses all over Goa, even where there was plenty of ventilation!

KULAGHAR

a goan temple with an attached water body
Kulagar around a temple in Bandora

A unique feature to Goan villages, a Kulagar is mainly for horticultural products, cultivated on a hilly slope through a terrace system. The major plantation in a kulagar is betel nut and banana. These are usually a part of temple lands, sometimes even hosting plants donated by devotees of the deity. For instance, in a temple in Bandora, the kulagar  is flush with an arecanut plantation donated by its devotees. Considered sacred it is assumed that this plantation belongs to no one but the deity.

HERO STONES, A REMINDER OF GOA’S WARS

stone with ancient carving in goa
Hero stones from Bandora and Canacona

Many grand homes around Goa with lavish backyards and courtyards have a very rare hidden secret – hero stones. Hero stones are erected in honour of a fallen warrior in a war and narrate the chain of events portraying his acts of valour leading to his end. If you regard them from bottom to top, you can easily figure out the stories they’re trying to recount. 

WHY GOAN HOMES HAVE A UNIQUE COLOUR

No better view than the homes in Fontainhas

Most Goan homes exult in bright and vivid colours on the exterior. If you notice, they’re usually typically dipped in vibrant yellows, reds, blues and greens. The older houses majorly sported these four colours. There was a pretty interesting reason behind these heritage homes being so. Churches had to be white to make them easily distinguishable.

The houses could have been any colour if not for the lack of availability of colours. Yellow was made from yellow ochre that was obtained by leaving lime to burn in a pit. The red came from laterite or clay, the blue from indigo and the green from mixing blue and yellow. Walking through a Goan street never disappoints as there’s always something that grabs your attention and leaves you gaping in awe of its beauty. 

SOME OTHER ELEMENTS OF GOAN HOMES

Pig toilets were another feature of Goan homes. Once popular in China, they’re now out of use for a long time.

PC Vinay

A house in Benaulim with sloping roofs, a rooster on top and Kadamba lions at the entrance. One can even see a magnificent coat of arms above the door.

The tiles, the pillars and other paraphernalia that goes into make roofs of Goan houses have their own significance and unique purpose. For instance, one finds copels under a Goan roof that serve as buffers between the roof and the wall. According to Heta, they not only serve in assisting ventilation and in warding of insects (the lime serves as an insecticide), but also as a status symbol in society.

The number of country tiles used in creating these copels would reflect the individual’s worth and ranking in the social hierarchy. Furthermore, Goan homes always raise questions about the ubiquitous shape of their roofs. Sloping roofs with the Mangalorean tiles became popular over time, replacing u-shaped roofs or burnt kiln roofs. Goa’s torrential rains made it a necessity to have sloping roofs to avoid collection of water.

a tiny house with sloping tiled room and entryway
Sloping roof in Valpoi

The roofs don’t end there. When one explores closely, one comes across rooster effigies on top of these roofs. Also known as finials, the Rooster was a symbol of Portugal and of honesty and innocence. Apart from these, mini soldiers, or soldados, lion, elephant or leopard statues adorn the gates of large Goan homes. The soldado represents the presence of a guard and the social status of the house owner.

The lions, it is said, date back to the Kadamba dynasty whose symbol it was. To spot a Kadamba lion on an European gatepost, belonging to a house that is a melange of both Indian and Portuguese architecture is the reason why Goan homes are just uniquely Goan and nothing more! 

A grand Hindu home whose front half is Portuguese and the back half very much Hindu.

FINAL THOUGHTS

All the architecture brought in by the Portuguese was modified by Indian artisans to meet their culture and tastes. Hence the term Indo-Portuguese is used to refer to all Goan architecture and should not be confused with Portuguese architecture, which cannot be found in Goa. No, not even the churches are entirely Portuguse. So the next time you’re driving around, we hope you’ll notice, not just the brilliantly coloured houses and the grand palatial exteriors, but also the traditional interiors and the kulagars and the grinding stones that make little girls ask interesting questions.

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