Archaeological find pays off after 25-year search

Devika Sequeira

1627. A hooded figure in rough spun dark woollen cloak fastened with a black leather cincture sets out on a perilous journey from Persia, surreptitiously smuggling out a revered relic. Was the journey—some 1500+ nautical miles—from Isfahan in Iran to Old Goa undertaken by boat across the Persian Gulf and into the wide Arabian Sea? Or did the Augustinian friar spend weeks and months journeying long distances riding and trekking through dusty roads and pathways?

If one stands at the heart of the ruins of the St Augustine Convent in Old Goa, one cannot but be overwhelmed by the weight of history. Some of the altars, tombstones and sarcophaguses here with Latin inscriptions, still hold human remains. Who were they? Which part of the globe did they come from? And how did their personal stories come to be intertwined so deeply with Goa’s political, religious and historical past?

Arguably the most compelling of accounts to have emerged from the intense excavation at the Augustinian site draws a trajectory between Georgia, Iran and the former Portuguese enclave, Goa. Or to put it in superintending archaeologist N Taher’s words: “Research, humanities and science combined in the St Augustine case to solve a 400 years old historical riddle”.

The riddle had to do with the 16th century Georgian queen and saint, Ketevan, whose relics were believed to have been retained in a sarcophagus within the St Augustine convent.

But it would take the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) “26 years to get to the truth”, as Taher says. Currently in charge of the ASI’s Hyderabad and Goa circles, it was Taher’s team that eventually “stumbled upon” the Georgian queen’s remains in 2004.

The relic hunt, launched by the ASI in 1988-89 on an official request from the Georgian government, had got nowhere till 2004. But in the process, fascinating facets of the Augustinian presence in Goa that had lain buried in the rubble of the Church of Our Lady of Grace for over 160 years, began to emerge with the excavation.

The Augustinians arrived in Goa in 1572. By the time of their forced departure following the expulsion of religious orders from Goa in 1835, the monks had set up what is believed to have been the biggest religious complex in Goa.

Frustrated by the fruitless search, the ASI considered the possibility that the Ketevan relic had been taken away by the expelled order. The martyred Georgian Queen was held in high regard by the church and her country for choosing to be executed rather than giving up her faith to convert to Islam.

“At this point (2004) we weren’t even looking for the remains but focussed on expanding the excavation and studying the site as a long term project,” says Taher.

Until the day they chanced upon the tombstone of Manuel de Sequeira e Matos. This led them to the find of a long bone—proved by DNA sequencing to be Queen Ketevan’s—and the coping stone of the sarcophagus (which now lies in the ASI museum).

“History has well documented the execution (in 1624) of Queen Ketevan of Georgia by the Persian Emperor Shah Abbas. Based on historical records, two Augustinian friars unearthed the queen’s remains and one of them brought the relic (the right arm) to the St. Augustine convent, around 1627-28,” Taher says.

The DNA analysis done at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, “proved conclusively that it is the Georgian Queen’s relic,” he said. The findings were published in the academic journal Mitochondrion last year.

But the story doesn’t quite end there. Involved in the process of the relic hunt every step of the way, the Georgian Church and authorities are asking for their saint’s remains to be returned with a portion of the lid of the stone sarcophagus.

The matter, Taher says, is before the Union Ministry of Culture. The bone is currently in safekeeping at the Hyderabad lab.

Archaeology, Taher argues, “is a romantic science”. It carries a cultural ethos that bridges countries. He is all for treating the St Augustine site as an open air museum and a platform to promote history for an international audience and spiritual tourism.

A martyred queen, and historical events enacted in three countries across two continents. Even fiction would find it hard to beat the stories from the past buried in the stones of St Augustine.

This article appeared in Timeline Goa, August 2015 issue

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