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Cuncolim The land of festivities, art & the braves

Sanjeev V Sardesai

We come to the end of our journey through the village of Cuncolim, recounting the chieftains’ attack and the martyrdom of five priests on July 15, 1583.

When we look at history, we must note that in the mid-sixteenth century Goa’s borders were not yet formed. The present day borders took shape only after 1788. At the time of the Cuncolim incident, the Portuguese had a hold only over the talukas of Tiswadi, Bardez and Salcete (including Mormugao). Cuncolim was the village along the southern border of the Salcete taluka.

The dreaded Inquisition Tribunal at Old Goa, led the Dominican Order with the approval of the Portuguese administration was instituted in 1560. However, even the highest of Portuguese administrators were powerless against the Tribunal’s decisions. The objective of its institution was to streamline the process of evangelisation and to stop the reversal of those converted ‘Novo Cristao’s’ or new Christians, from reverting to their old customs and traditions.

Despite this objective, the Tribunal’s unchecked actions generated a wave of fear among all the people. This also led to an indiscriminate destruction of Hindu temples, which until then enjoyed religious freedom. It is said that “in one night (read as within a short period) almost 242 Hindu temples were razed to the ground and the religious icons (idols and lings) were defiled”.

This unchecked destruction was fuelled by the religious orders and the Portuguese forces, especially those located at the Rachol Fort. This led to many devotees of respective temples fleeing the land with their religious icons into neighbouring safer areas of Ponda and Bicholim. They settled in Veling, Mardol, Priol, Shiroda, Narve, etc. Some such as Sri Mahamaya from Nagoa to the south of Verna even fled outside Goa into Karnataka, to save them from defilement and sacrilege.

This relentless incursion of the foreign power in their ancient faith was abhorred by the local populace; they were left with no choice but to remain silent spectators or escape into the neighbouring lands. This also led to a retaliatory feeling amongst many; but the sheer fire power of the invaders was a deterrent.

About 23 years later, the Tribunal decided to extend their arm to the south of Goa, along the borders of Salcete – Cuncolim, Assolna, Chinchinim. These acts have been very beautifully recorded in a small book titled ‘Historia de Cuncolim’ by Lingu R Dalvi. The book is available in English and makes for a good read.

They had the support of the Fort of Assolna which played a major part in the culmination of the Cuncolim Chieftain’s attack. Today, no trace of the fort remains; in its place stands the impressive Church of Our Lady of Regina Martyres, with one of the finest sculptures of Jesus Christ flanked by the Apostles.

On July 15, 1583, a group of priests Fr Rudolph Acquaviva, Fr Alphonsus Pacheco, Fr Pero Berno, Fr Antonio Francisco and Br Francisco Aranha left Margao after a mass at Holy Spirit Church to proceed to Culawado in Cuncolim. With them were two young boys Domingos from Cuncolim and Affonso most probably from Margao. Two other Portuguese gentlemen, Goncalo Rodrigues and Domingos de Aguiar and a small contingent of armed staff also accompanied the group. Their main objective was to identify locations to erect churches in Cuncolim and the nearby villages of Assolna, Veroda, Velim and Ambelim.

Known for their bravery, the people of Cuncolim led by the sixteen chieftains, angered by the destruction of their religious edifices had plans to exterminate these priests, in vengeance. Armed with swords, spears and bows and arrows, they pounced on the unsuspecting contingent and cut them down. The bodies were then thrown in a nearby pond. Today at Madicotto, a chapel dedicated to St Francis Xavier is erected on this spot. It has a well, covered with a marble slab revered as the site where the bodies of the five priests were found. The reports from the surviving Portuguese who managed to reach safety, states the horrendous manner the priests were killed.

Though the Portuguese administration was seething with anger, they could not underestimate the tact or the guerrilla type attacks in the forested areas, if they took military action. Hence they decided upon a sinister ploy. They sent an invitation to the 16 chieftains to the Fort of Assolna for a peaceful parley and to sort out any misunderstandings about the incident. When these 16 chieftains arrived at the Fort, the gates were closed.

One of the chieftains realised the threat and asked to use the toilet, from here he escaped jumping into the River Sal, flowing nearby and is said to have escaped to Karwar. The other chieftains were cornered and brutally killed. The people of Cuncolim have erected a huge and an impressive Chieftains Memorial at the very place where the five priests and the contingent were killed.

Every year on July 15 the people of Cuncolim commemorate the sacrifices of the 16 chieftains at the Martyres memorial at Culwado. The names of these Chieftains are: Calgo Naik alias Kalu; Moluco Naik alias Molu; Aga Naik alias Wagh; Santu Chattim; Ramgaro alias Rama; Khampru Naik; Shabu Naik; Topi Naik; Jhang Naik; Polputto Naik; Bozro Naik; Shanta Sheth; Vithoba Naik; Yesu Naik; Guno Naik and Jivlo Naik.

You can see the relics of the five priests at the right hand altar at Bom Jesus Basilica in a safe in the sacristy at Old Goa.

A Chapel dedicated to the martyred priests is also built near this memorial and is said to be on the site of the original temple location of Sri Shantadurga Kunkolienkarin. Later a plinth was erected nearby, to welcome the icon of the deity during the famous Sontrio Festival, when the 12 Vangdis travel the path taken to flee the persecution.

When you see the structures at Toliembhat and Madicotto, remember that you are in the ‘land of braves’ who were the first in India to retaliate against a foreign power!

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