Historic houses: the tales that Goan-Portuguese mansions tell

Rather than the crowds, chaos and beach parties that this coastal state is known for, Charukesi Ramadurai explores Goa's Indo-Portuguese architecture

The sprawling facade of the Figuerado mansion, with balconies running along either side. Courtesy Charukesi Ramadurai 
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Maria de Fatima Figueiredo de Albuquerque's distinguished family in Goa includes diplomats, lawyers and politicians. Her mother, Maria de Lourdes Filomena Figueiredo de Albuquerque – now in her late 80s and still active around the house – even served as a member of parliament in Portugal, representing the country's erstwhile Indian colony. However, what Maria de Fatima seems most proud of is her ancestral home in the Loutolim village of Goa, built in 1590, barely 80 years after the Portuguese first arrived.

“Our house is older than the Taj Mahal,” Maria de Fatima says when I visit for a tour of her home, comparing the family bungalow to India’s most famous attraction. But while the Taj Mahal is a monument, a forlorn ode to love, the Figueiredo House has been occupied, by the same family, for centuries.

The Figuerado mansion is home to ornate furniture carved by local craftsmen more than three centuries ago. Courtesy Charukesi Ramadurai

However, despite being continuously inhabited, this sprawling home of more than 4,500 square metres has been difficult and expensive to maintain, with past restoration work carried out in bits and pieces whenever the need arose. It was only in 2015 that Maria de Fatima decided to move back home to Goa after 25 years in Lisbon, where she worked as a senior executive for a fashion label, to help her mother with the restoration process. Today, her ancestral home is one of the Indian state's most interesting visitor attractions, far from the crowds, rave parties, flea markets and beaches that this small western coastal state is famous for.

There is a somnolence in the summer air as we drive through the narrow lanes of rural Goa, south of the capital of Panjim. Lush paddy fields line the roads and coconut palms sway in the gentle breeze. Occasionally, we see dense clusters of homes with red-tiled sloping roofs and open porches. A few children play games with rubber balls and wooden bats, while adults lounge on easy chairs, fanning themselves with newspapers.  

The Portuguese mansions scattered across the state are owned by Goans, but were built when the Portuguese controlled these parts, and include imported design elements. This is known as the Indo-­Portuguese architectural style, a mix of cheery Mediterranean elements and features that suit Goa's tropical climate, such as wrought iron balconies, ornamental windows, covered balcaos (porches) and long verandas. The Figueiredo House appears to be a classic prototype; a pastel blue central entrance is reached by following a fleet of stone steps, with a closed veranda extending out on both sides, like a torso with the arms spread out.

The mansion is now divided into three parts: the main residence, a museum where the family showcases its history through artefacts and furniture, and a newer wing that has been converted into accommodation. Large rooms tumble into one another in the main house, where Maria de Fatima tells me about the family's heritage before leading me into the museum for a tour. It is a repository of riches, from fine porcelain plates and Ming dynasty vases to glitzy Belgian chandeliers and elegant baroque furniture.

Artefacts on show in the Figuerado mansion. Courtesy Charukesi Ramadurai 

One of the lounge chairs, which is covered with intricate carvings, including Hindu deities on the headrest, catches my eye. This is when I learn that the Figueiredos were once known as the Podiars, and belonged to India's Saraswat Brahmin community. When they built the house, they had been newly converted by Jesuit priests. Maria de Fatima also explains how the craftsmen and artists working on the house were mostly from the local Hindu community, which meant they found it natural to carve idols on to the furniture and drape a sari over the marble Virgin Mary at the family altar.

The Figueiredos' story is fascinating, but is by no means unique in Goa. While most of India was still governed by the British, this small state remained a Portuguese colony. The Portuguese came to Goa in 1510 and only left in 1961, 14 years after India gained independence from Britain.

The Portuguese legacy lives on in Goa. While many of the older generation of Catholics in the state still speak Portuguese, the food, music, art and architecture are all distinct markers of the area's colonial past. A walk around Fontainhas in Panjim, known as the Latin Quarter, or a morning spent exploring the baroque churches of old Goa, provide glimpses of that past.

Colourful homes in Fontainhas, A neighbourhood in Goa that was heavily influenced by Portuguese influences. Courtesy Charukesi Ramadurai 

Then there are the massive mansions that were home to local families and which, in many instances, were abandoned when the owners moved out of the state, or left to decay because of a lack of money. But in the past decade or so, a few Goans have taken up the task of renovating and conserving these Portuguese homes.

Another such grand mansion in Goa is the Braganza House in Chandor, which also dates back to the 16th century and has been divided into two wings, each owned by a different branch of the original owners' family. The western wing has been restored to its former splendour and contains items similar to those in the Figueiredo collection, with its exquisite Ming vases, high-backed chairs and a private library of more than 5,000 books. In this case, the land on which the house stands was given to the family as a gift by King Luis I, who ruled Portugal in the 19th century.

This renovated mansion was once the home of a local church dean and has been fully restored. Courtesy Charukesi Ramadurai

Later in the day, I head to Goa's Quepem village to see the Palacio do Deao. The facade is a cheery yellow and white, with gardens ablaze with tropical flowers, and little stone gnomes and fairies hidden in the property's tall grass. Built in 1787 by Jose Paulo, the dean of the community church at the time, this house passed through several owners before falling into disrepair.

The current owner, Ruben Vasco da Gama (no relation to the famous Portuguese explorer, he laughingly explains), bought it with the intention of restoring it to its former glory as the home of an important man of the church. Almost all of the furniture and fixtures in the house have been sourced by Vasco da Gama and his wife, Celia, after carrying out extensive research on its history. Many of them are similar to the relics in the Figueiredo home, although not as ornate, and great care has been taken to showcase life as it must have been while the dean lived here. While this is not a guesthouse, there is a gazebo at the rear, where the owners cook and serve Indo-Portuguese dishes to visitors at lunch.

The preservation and renovation of old Goan-Portuguese mansions is both laborious and expensive, owners repeatedly tell me. But it is a task that seems to give them great pride and satisfaction – a sense of having done something to preserve Goa's distinct legacy.