The Persistent Shadow of Faded Grandeur

October 2, 2011

Old Goa

Any engagement with Goa and Mumbai inevitably stumbles across its Portuguese history. In Goa its in your face and omniscient, in Mumbai its hidden and unexpected. Either way this past reinvents itself and sustains its influence in the places it once touched, embraced and dominated. In its persistence lies a tale that is worth hearing.

One of the most striking aspects of post-colonial societies that have had relations with Portugal, is that their habitats and architecture have continued to be an inspiring part of contemporary building practices. Not as monumental backdrops, but as practical models and templates of distinctive and desirable ways of living. A lot of this is reflected in the human scale of old villages and urban precincts, walking friendly neighbourhoods and the enmeshing of cultural and economic histories with building practices.


The family House of the Sardesai, a upper caste Hindu family, in the village of Savoi Verem, North Goa.

Historically, all of the following factors contributed to the dynamic presence of the colonial imprint in these spaces; the older time-period at which Portugal touched lives, mostly the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the way in which traditional, European style building and architectural practices fused with local traditions and carried on being practiced and the contrasting templates of their habitats when compared to non-Portuguese neighbouring regions, which made them distinctive.

For example, in predominantly British colonial Mumbai, where Victorian architecture dominates imperial memory, the older Portuguese inflected neighbourhoods stand proud as counter-points, becoming the most treasured and desirable neighbourhoods in this hyper dense megalopolis. The trendiness of Bandra is directly connected to the East-Indian (old Portuguese converted local Christians) villages that miraculously survive modern day aggressive urban practices. Under threat, but bravely putting up a fight is Khotachiwadi, that Portuguese – Coastal – Konkan architectural fusion, comprising of several homes and bungalows belonging to the East-Indian community.

The East Indian village of Gorai, North Mumbai

These Portuguese inflected neighbourhoods open up a new vocabulary of evaluating contemporary urban practices, that built upon traditional European and local artisanal practices and allowed for a very innovative way of dealing with contemporary challenges. At best, when Mumbai’s villages evolved through a conscious understanding of this legacy, they produced beautiful, livable and modern neighbourhoods. When these practices were not recognized or validated, they became perceived as slums.

The dynamism of the favelas of Brazilian cities, the streets of Macau, the villages of Mumbai, the diffused urbanism of Goa, the cosmopolitan legacy of Maputo in Mozambique and parts of Angola, all of these together make for a story that has much to teach the world about architectural and urban practice today. A practice that is facing many challenges – from the pressure of dealing with rising populations, questions of sustainability, and financial manipulation and mismanagement of architectural practices.

Khotachiwadi, South Mumbai

The Institute of Urbanology, located in Aldona, Goa is engaged in exploring the relationship of this history to contemporary urban practice. If this story stimulates  your imagination, do get in touch…