One of the most spectacular of all monuments in Goa, reproduced on innumerable travel brochures and advertisements is the St Augustine tower in Old Goa. This highly visible landmark, a 46m-high tower served as a belfry and formed part of the facade of a magnificent Church.
Out of the more than twenty fabulous churches which once existed in the old city of Velha Goa, only ten remain today. And of these four are actually chapels. The churches were located on and between seven hills around the Velha Goa region.
The Monte Santo (Holy Hill) at Velha Goa was the site for the monastery of the Augustinian order, attached to which was the enormous church of Nossa Senhora da Graca (Our Lady of Grace). The Tower and Church were built in 1602 by the Augustinian friars who arrived in Goa in 1587.
The tower is one of the four towers of St. Augustine Church that once stood at the site. Initially built of laterite and colossal in size, almost forty-six meters high, it had four storeys. The Tower was meant to serve as a belfry and the Church had eight richly adorned chapels and four altars and a convent with numerous cells attached to it.
The construction of the building began more than 400 years ago and was finished between the years 1597 to 1602. The name of the designer of this magnificent piece of construction is not known, but he is thought to have been Italian.
Incidentally, the construction was begun in the same year as the arrival in Goa of Julio Simao (1565-1641) who was himself influenced by the great Spanish architect Juan de Herrera (1530-1597). Simao was the chief architect of the Indian colonies of Portugal having been appointed by Philip II, ruler of Spain and Portugal between 1580 – 1598.
When it was completed in the 16th century, the grand Nossa Senhora da Graca Church was recognised as one of the three great Augustinian churches in the Iberian world, the other two being the Basilica of the Escorial in Spain, St. Vincente de Fora in Lisbon.
On entering the church, the visitor would have a glimpse of the grand retable of the high altar, with its large gilt tabernacle sheltered within an arch, through a screen of arched piers. Vestiges of most of these piers were visible until recently; they supported a spacious choir which could have accommodated a large number of Augustinian monks.
The nave of the Church now lies open to the sky, under whose broken arches locals sometimes gather and talk. Covering the vast nave was a barrel vault, whose enormous weight unfortunately hastened its collapse.
The church was abandoned in 1835 due to the repressive policies of the Portuguese government, which resulted in the eviction of many religious orders from Goa.
The church fell into neglect and the vault collapsed in 1842. The church’s demise began with the collapse of this vault. The body of the church was soon destroyed, but the facade remained intact.
The tower’s huge bell was moved in 1871 to the Church of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Panjim, where it remains and can be seen and heard today. In 1931, the facade and half the tower fell down, followed by more sections in 1938 leaving only half the tower that is seen and visited by thousands of tourists today.
This remnant, the renowned St. Augustine’s tower is all that remains of what was once one of the largest buildings in Goa – The Augustinian Monastery.