House of Chandor

Published : Apr 06, 2007 00:00 IST

How a family's devotion helps conserve one of Goa's grandest colonial mansions, the Braganza house in Chandor.


"I AM a granddaughter to this house. When I was a little girl, I used to stay here in the holidays with my grandmother. I would play many games with my cousins, games like hide and seek, games with balls and dolls and so on. But we were not allowed to play inside the house. At that time life was quite different. The house today is not even one tenth of what it was in those days. We used to follow the aristocratic life of Europe. We had 12 permanent staff: butlers, maids, cooks, gardeners and so on. Everything was kept in style. The house was known as the corner of Europe."

Aida de Menezes Braganza, 90, represents the eighth generation of the Braganza family in Goa. She lives in her ancestral home in Chandor village in south Goa, one of the grandest of the State's colonial mansions. The house, which is shaded by a row of palms at the front and a fruit orchard at the back, has a 28-window, two-storey facade and flanks the full length of one side of the village square. It stands out amidst the tumbledown, tin-roofed houses near by, and only the whitewashed Portuguese-style Catholic church, gleaming in the midday sun, competes with it for attention. This is not surprising, for the house of Chandor was connected to both the rise and the fall of the 451-year rule of the Portuguese in Goa.

It is Aida's son, Claudio de Menezes Braganza, 56, who takes me around the house. He spends half a year in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the other half in Goa helping his mother with renovations. According to him, Portuguese influence reached Chandor in the middle of the 16th century. In those days, a wealthy, influential and educated Hindu family by the name of Desai held sway in the village panchayat. But with the advent of the Jesuit mission led by St. Francis Xavier in 1542 and the Inquisition soon after, the family was forcibly converted. For the next three centuries, the family worked closely with the government of Portugal. Pleased with its efforts and owing to its financial, social and intellectual status, the Portuguese awarded it the name of the last royal house of Portugal, Braganza.

The Goan Braganzas reached their financial and social zenith in the 19th century. Francis Xavier Braganza, Aida's great-grandfather, was a lawyer and developed into rice fields and coconut groves the properties leased to the family through the Portuguese aforamento (long lease) system. In 1848, he was knighted by Queen Maria II and King Ferdinand II of Portugal; he was also granted a service of the royal household and issued the royal coat of arms by the Council of Nobility in Lisbon. A similar title was conferred on his cousin Antonio Elzario Sant Anna Perreira in 1882. Although the house of Chandor stands on the same spot as its 16th century Hindu counterpart, the architecture of the Braganza mansion today and the antiques contained within it bear the imprint of these two men and their European lifestyles.

We enter the house through a door underneath the 13th and 14th windows. A huge stuccoed balcony hangs over our heads. Large ornate windows were the norm in Portugal so that returning sailors might identify their houses from the ships. In colonial Goa too, design served a similar purpose - to mark out houses in an era in which symmetry was the norm, and to identify the social status of their inhabitants. The exterior today is white, but Claudio remembers that the Braganza home was painted in a refined and elegant cream earlier. The choice of colour was informed by social custom - houses were considered "undressed" unless painted - but it had as much to do with the unwritten Portuguese rule that white, being associated with the Virgin Mary, was reserved for churches.

We climb two flights of stairs and are presented with two doors that divide the house between the two knighted families, to the west Menezes Braganza and to the east Perreira Braganza. The west wing opens into a grand salon in deep green. This and the two master bedrooms behind it formed the original structure of the house. The visitor's salon, the study, the library, the ballroom and the present dining room, which are framed around a courtyard, were added in the 17th and 19th centuries.

The mansion is awash with aristocratic statements and rare treasures. Rare porcelain from Macao brought by the English and Dutch East India Companies peppers the walls. There is a huge coconut brought from Seychelles and two thick porcelain vases that Claudio assures me belonged to St. Francis Xavier himself. The floors change from room to room: the visitors' salon has Portuguese tiles, the library Flemish wood, and the ballroom Italian marble. There are crystal chandeliers from Venice and Belgium. Some windows are made of coloured glass from Venice and some of scraped and laminated oyster shells found on Goan beaches. The ballroom is fashioned after Louis XIV's Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles and a set of dining chairs is carved with the same "rose" design as those found in the dining room of the Buckingham Palace. There is Goan silver, Portugese silver and British silver. A wedgewood dining set, an East India Company dining set laced with gold, and ivory and ebony from China and Japan are kept in glass cases down the length of the dining room.

The mansion houses the biggest private library in Goa: 5,000 books in English, French and Portuguese. Elaborately carved wooden furniture in rosewood and teak, some carrying the initials FXB, of their flamboyant owner, adorn all rooms of the house, whether beds, tables, chairs or the florid love seats in the library.

The fortunes and future of the house changed with the death of Francis Xavier Braganza in the last decade of the 19th century and the subsequent flight of the royal house of Braganza from Portugal in 1910. Francis Xavier had no sons and hence nominated his first grandson Luis as his heir. Contrary to the Portuguese custom, whereby the maternal name is followed by the paternal name, Luis took his maternal name Braganza alone as his surname. Luis de Menezes Braganza (1878-1932) was an enlightened, self-taught man of letters and a fearless critic of the Portuguese colonial regime. In 1900 he collaborated with like-minded personalities to publish the first Portuguese-language newspaper, o Heraldo, which became an important source of criticism and social change. In 1911, he started bringing out his own newspaper, o Debate. He also brought out a fortnightly titled Pracasha.

In 1928, the Catholic authoritarian Antonio De Oliveira Salazar entered the Portuguese government as Finance Minister; he went on to become the country's Prime Minister in 1933. Salazar's new Constitution stymied civil liberties, including the freedom of expression. This prompted Menezes Braganza, a member of the Portuguese Parliament from Goa, to put forward this motion in the Government Council on July 3, 1930: "Portuguese India does not renounce the right that all peoples have of attaining the fullness of their individuality to the point of constituting units capable of guiding their own destinies, this being the birth right of their organic essence".

Claudio Braganza proudly shows me the study room adjacent to the library. Menezes Braganza must have penned his editorials sitting at the late-19th-century wooden desk, surrounded by pictures of his family and friends. His portrait, painted in thick oils, has pride of place in the grand salon. Aida Braganza shares her childhood memories of her uncle: "He was a well-known person in Goa and all political meetings were held here. Intellectuals used to gather here to exchange views. He tried his best to get autonomy for Goa but Salazar refused. Salazar also stopped the press and closed the newspaper that my uncle ran. He was very depressed with all that and died in 1938."

In 1946, Aida married her cousin, one of Menezes Braganza's four children, and became the lady of the house of Chandor. Though the properties were divided amongst the children and the income was much reduced, the house remained an important intellectual hub.

Another of Aida's uncles and Menezes Braganza's brother-in - law was Tristao de Braganza Cunha (1891-1958), popularly known as the Father of Goan nationalism. He founded the Goa National Congress Committee in 1928. He published a booklet Four Hundred Years of Foreign Rule and a pamphlet Denationalisation of Goa, both of which highlighted the oppression forced on the Goan people by the Portuguese and drew messages of support from many in the National Congress, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, and Subhas Chandra Bose.

Aida remembers the anxieties of her first year in the house: "My uncle was at the head of the liberation movement and one of my sisters-in-law, Bertha de Menezes Braganza, also worked in it. They used to have their meetings here. Sometimes there was a heavy police presence. The Portuguese police would hammer them. On July 10, 1946, they were holding a commemoration for my father-in-law in the house. No one could talk because the police were so rough and the meeting was dissolved. I was not much into politics but I had to look after these freedom fighters. This house was big, so sometimes we used to hide them. At that time the ground floor was like a godown, all the old things were kept there, and it was difficult for outsiders to find their way."

Amid the cries of `Jai Hind' that reverberated around Goa in August 1946, Tristao de Braganza Cunha was arrested, tried by a military tribunal and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment in the Fort of Peniche, Portugal. The whole family was blacklisted and hence they fled from Chandor to Bangalore.

On December 19, 1961, Goa was liberated from Portuguese rule by the Indian Army. Tristao de Braganza Cunha, who returned to India in 1953, died in exile in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1958, just three years before the colony was freed. But his family was free to return.

When Aida returned to the house in 1961, she found that "it was completely dilapidated". "No one was staying here except the maids, and three months of monsoon rain every year took its toll, especially on the ceilings of the ballroom and the dining room. We had lost a lot of furniture and jewellery. This house was maintained by the income from lands, but we lost them in the land reforms of 1962." "

In 1983, having put her children on their feet in Bangalore, Aida came back to Chandor and began to restore the house. The walls, originally painted in vegetable dyes, were carefully repainted to match the exact colour and designs of yore she remembered. The roof and floors were redone and gradually the house came to have some sort of order again.

But maintaining the house remains an expensive exercise. With little help from the Goan government and no support from other organisations, Aida opened the house to the public.

In 2005, she and her children formed a trust for the house. It is not enough; Claudio is looking for an organisation that will partner them in what he describes as "the living museum of Goa's heritage".

Once a subject in all the activities of the State, the house is now an object. Once it might have been vilified as the house of collaborators or held up as a shining example of revolutionary modern India; today it is looked upon dispassionately by observers who live beyond its history. But, like any history, the history of the house of Chandor is a history worth understanding.

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