Not all of Goa’s myriad ancient churches are concentrated in Velha Goa. A notable exception is the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church which is located in Panaji, the capital city of Goa. It is possessed of a singularly distinctive appearance thanks to the double flights of steps that zigzag across the hillside on which it is built
True to its name, the façade of this church is painted an immaculate, sparkling white. To the untrained eye, this might even belie the actual age and antiquity of this church.
This church houses the ancient bell that was removed from the Augustinian ruins of the Church of Our Lady of Grace. This bell is considered to be the second largest of its kind in Goa, surpassed only by the Golden Bell which resides in the Se Cathedral.
This bell was rescued from the ruins of the Augustinian church of Our Lady of Grace, on the Monte Santo and initially installed in the chapel at the Fort Aguada. However the decision was later taken to install it in this, a more prominent church, instead. The bell was so heavy (2250kgs) that they needed to reinforce the structure before it could bear the added load. It is now housed in a tall belfry atop the church and there is a sign attached to the rope which asks that the bell not be rung.
The stairway was modelled after that of the Bom Jesus de Braga, Portugal with one middle and four side landings arranged in perfect symmetry. The middle landing has a statue of Our Lady on a 5m high plinth that was installed in 1954.
The original construction on this site is believed to have been a chapel, built in 1541, so that sailors could give thanks to God for delivering them safely to Goa and avoiding the perils of the sea, before continuing their journey to Velha Goa.
This chapel was later rebuilt, in 1619, into the church that stands there today. The architecture of the present church is a beautiful blend of the Portuguese-Baroque and Goan styles. The imposing façade is distinctive with its two towers and even taller belfry. It can be seen from a great distance, and is sometimes known as the ‘crown’ of Panaji.
To reach the church, you have to climb 78 steps. This zigzagging double staircase was a later addition, added in 1871 after the land in front of the church was reclaimed, at the same time the pediment and belfry was strengthened in preparation for the installation of the heavy Augustinian bell.
The interior of this church is comparatively simple, especially when one compares it to the profusely decorated reredoses and carvings that one sees in the churches in Old Goa. However, the decoration has been skilfully and gracefully executed both on the main altar and on the two sub-altars which flank it.
The main altar is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, known as Nossa Senhora da Immaculada Conceicao in Portuguese. The altar on the right is dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary while the one on the left is dedicated to the Crucifixion of Christ. Read more +
The church is laid out in the orthodox cruciform fashion with a nave and a transept. The main altar has a bas-relief carving of the Last Supper of Jesus with his Apostles. The pulpit has a depiction of the descending of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The main altar is backed by a fantastically carved and gilded reredos, where the statue of St. Francis Xavier enjoys pride of place.
The two sub-altars are also noteworthy for the carving and gilt work and they are flanked by statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. In the southern part of the transept is the chapel of St. Francis Xavier, which is very popular amongst the visitors to this church.
On the 8th of December this church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception with great pomp and fervour. The celebrations are preceded by a nine day novena to Our Lady. The church is decorated with a profusion of lights and the vaulted ceiling is strung with blue and white flowers which reflect the colour scheme of the church (and of Our Lady).
After the feast mass the people go in procession with a brass band and the candle sellers come out in force, to sell their wares to the faithful desirous of making offerings to Our Lady to ask for her intercession. After the procession there is often a firework display while the band continues to play festive mandos and fados. People enjoy themselves, walking amongst the stalls selling miniature statuettes, souvenirs, garments, food and drink, to name just a few.
If you find the façade of this church familiar, that may be because it has been the backdrop for many a Bollywood movie shoot.
Poised as it is on the hilltop, this church has been variously described as the ‘Crown of Panaji’, a ‘great big wedding cake’ like structure and ‘a bride waiting at the altar. One cannot seem to go anywhere in Panaji without passing, or at least seeing this church. However, for the discerning tourist, it is well worth a closer look.