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Looking for St. Francis Xavier

Naresh Fernandes

“Francis no here. He go away,” the old man repeated, more deliberately this time, as if addressing a very slow child.

I wiped a bead of rain off my nose. This was a discouraging start to my weekend of discovery. I'd gotten up before dawn to board an early jetfoil from Hong Kong to Macau—the last vestige of Portugal's imperial past. Now, as I stood on the street in the village of Colaone, with a backpack and camera but no umbrella, a typhoon seemed imminent.

What's worse, the saint had gone missing.

I turned again to “Macau Churches,” a glossy pamphlet produced by the tourism bureau. St. Francis Xavier Chapel, a compact, baroque-style building, was said to contain “some of the most sacred relics of Christian Asia.” The brochure was tantalizing: “In a silver reliquary is a bone from the arm of St. Francis Xavier.” I tried to get more information out of the geriatric caretaker, but a sudden boom of thunder persuaded him to retire to his quarters.

I splashed back to the bus stop. This was my second setback. I'd hit the first a week earlier, on a hurried daytrip to Macau. The travel guide had said that Xavier's elbow was on display in the museum behind the remains of St. Paul's Church, an ancient stone edifice that was ravaged by fire in 1835. But my visit to the museum was a disappointment: there were plenty of chipped statues and pottery shards, but the relic was nowhere to be found.

This time I was determined to find the elusive humerus. After all, I've been following the saint's jigsawed body for twenty-five years. You might say I am obsessed, but I hardly have a choice in the matter: the much-mangled Jesuit left an indelible mark on my Indian family. Consider my name, Naresh Fernandes—part Sanskrit, part Portuguese. Vasco da Gama first landed on India's southwestern shore in 1498; over the next quarter century, Afonso de Albuquerque consolidated the network of outposts that da Gama had captured, laying the foundations of Portugal's maritime empire. Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries everywhere, came after them, recharting India's spiritual geography as his predecessors had recharted its land. Reflections of Europe's Iberian Peninsula still abound in Portuguese enclaves along India's western coast—Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra, Nagar Haveli, Vasai, and Bombay.

Most Indians call a potato an aloo, but thanks to Xavier, my fellow Bombayites use its Iberian name, batata. The Portuguese taught the people of Bombay to bake leavened bread (as Salman Rushdie once said, “East is East, but yeast is West”). In Goa, Portuguese missionaries set up Asia's first printing press and crafted the continent's first common civil code. They built grand cities and stately churches in the image of their homeland. “Quiem viu Goa, escusa de ver Lisboa,” it was said. “If you've seen Goa, you don't need to see Lisbon.”

For many, the bearded visage of Xavier, Portugal's most famous missionary, is also the face of Portuguese colonialism in India. But Xavier wasn't Portuguese at all; he was a Basque nobleman whose mission took him through Portuguese trading posts around the world. A friend and follower of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, Xavier is said to have vowed, “If I ever forget the Society of the Name of Jesus, may my right arm be forgotten.” He never forgot. His right arm is now a Christian relic on two continents.

Xavier departed for India in 1541 as the pope's special envoy to Asia. The trip lasted thirteen months; Xavier spent six of them in Mozambique, waiting for favorable winds. When he reached Goa, the priest set about preaching and baptizing; he promptly established the College of St. Paul. Later, he made his way down the southern Malabar coast. He reported that his outstretched arms sometimes grew weary from blessing so many people. But after three years in India, Xavier's zeal began to flag. He was hampered as much by the Portuguese soldiers in his entourage as by opposition from local rulers. (The Catholic Encyclopaedia denounces the soldiers' “bad example and vicious habits.”) Disappointed by the unreceptiveness of upper-caste Hindus, Xavier headed for East Asia. Ten years later, in 1552, he died at age forty-six in a southern Chinese hamlet named Sanchuan—a Chinese approximation of the Portuguese “São João,” or “St. John.”

* * *

In his eagerness to set sail, the captain of a Portuguese ship is said to have abandoned Xavier's corpse on the beach. The trade winds abruptly ceased, stranding his vessel in the bay. The captain dispatched a party of sailors to the shore; the breezes resumed as soon as they brought Xavier's body aboard.

They transported him to the Malaysian town of Malacca, the first major Portuguese settlement on their route. Xavier was buried there, but not for long. Worshipers soon credited him with miracles of healing, and the Society of Jesus decreed that his bones should be exhumed and sent to Goa. Then the seat of the Patriarch of Asia, Goa was known as the Rome of the East; it was a better resting place for a possible saint than Sanchuan or Malacca.

Every Goan knows what happened next: when the Malacca crypt was opened, more than three months after Xavier had died, his body was fresh and intact. A gravedigger accidentally brushed the corpse with a spade; blood and water flowed forth. Jesuits in Rome heard this news and knew they had a candidate for canonization. They ordered Xavier's right arm cut off so that they could inspect a piece of the body themselves. That limb still lies in the Church of Gesu, in Rome. But somehow the elbow—the object of my quest—had come loose in Macau.

The bulk of Xavier's body eventually made it to Goa's Bom Jesu Basilica, where it still rests, some fifteen feet above a side altar, in a glass-and-gold casket. In 1782, to quell speculation that the body had decayed and been replaced with the embalmed remains of a church attendant, the relic was hauled down for the faithful to worship. This ritual is now called the Exposition, and it is performed once a decade.

Some pilgrims consider the Exposition an opportunity for pilferage. A Portuguese woman once bit off Xavier's big toe when she bent to kiss the body; her offense was discovered when blood and water once more flowed forth. The purloined digit is now on display in a monstrance next to the casket. When Graham Greene visited Goa in the 1960s, he said that the toe "and other dubious portions in bottles of spirit . . . reminded me of those you see in the windows of Chinese in Kuala Lumpur advertising cures for piles."

My first acquaintance with Xavier came when I was five, on a family vacation. We were visiting the Church of St. Paul's in Malacca, where the Portuguese sailors had originally buried him. I remember twilight, a roofless house of worship, and my mother whispering to me about a miracle. Four years later, I caught up with Xavier's trail again, this time on vacation in Goa. My great-uncle, Father Arthur Fernandes, had been rector of Bom Jesu in the 1960s and still had keys to the private rooms. One hot morning he marched us through the sanctuary and hauled Xavier's vestments out of an ancient wardrobe.

The closest I ever got to Xavier was in 1994, when I returned to Goa to cover the Exposition for Indian television. Up close, wrapped in golden robes, Xavier's body looked strangely intact. Although the hand and feet were shriveling, the face still had a nose and a little bit of skin.

The event attracted pilgrims from around the world: from Mozambique, Britain, and Canada the faithful came to worship “Goencho Sahib,” the Lord of Goa Thousands queued to kiss the body. They were set upon by salesmen proffering postcards, some depicting Xavier's torso, others the entire corpse. As the line inched forward the hawkers shouted, “Half body! Full body! Half body! Full body!”

* * *

For several hundred years my maternal forebears have lived in Bandra, the predominantly Roman Catholic suburb of Bombay. An uncle once explained the culture of Bandra to me: “If you go climb to the top of Mount Mary and throw a stone, it is bound to hit either a pig or a Pereira.” Until then, neither our neighbors' fondness for pork nor our own Portuguese surnames had struck me as unusual.

In St. Peter's Church, near our home, a mural shows Xavier praying in a cave. He is holding a crucifix, and a sword is lodged in the ground nearby. I remember a sodality meeting where an altar boy asked the priest why Xavier carried a weapon. Nobody had considered the possibility that our ancestors had been converted by force. The priest thought for a moment. “To fight off wild animals,” he finally said.

Bandra became a Portuguese possession in 1534, and records suggest that most of its inhabitants converted to Christianity by 1603. Bandra is best known to many Bombay residents for Mount Mary's Church, which commemorates the Virgin's birthday with a weeklong fair every September. Thousands of people—mostly Hindu—flock to the church for the celebrations. That isn't surprising: thanks to Hinduism's pantheistic genius, Mary has joined Mumbadevi, Mahalaxmi, and Prabhadevi as one of the seven Mother Goddesses of Bombay. Christians light candles in front of the statue of Mary while Hindus leave offerings of bright marigold flowers as they would in a temple.

It was not until the nineteenth century that Goans—like my father's family—migrated to Bombay in great numbers. Goa had few industries, and the only institutions of higher learning were the medical school (the oldest in Asia) and the seminaries. In Goa's upper-class Catholic households, the eldest son usually became a priest, the second usually became a doctor, and the third usually left to seek his fortune in Bombay or Africa. For working-class Goans, Bombay offered employment in the “ABC” jobs they are known for today: ayahs (maids), butlers, and cooks.

Bombay had long since passed into British possession by the time the Goans arrived. Portugal had given the city to England as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II in 1661, although Bandra—on the mainland, across a creek from the seven islands of Bombay—remained in Portuguese hands for another 110 years. When Bandra was finally made part of British India, its Christian inhabitants took to their new rulers as easily as they had taken to the old. Soon they were speaking English, even at home; many became minor functionaries in the colonial administration.

But the influx of Goans didn't go over well with the older Christians; they felt threatened by the competition for high-paying jobs and responded by identifying with the Crown. To celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria's coronation in 1887, the Christians of Bombay sent her a charter: they praised the stewardship of the British East India Company in their city, and adopted a new nationality. Henceforth they would be East Indians, subjects of Victoria's realm—unlike Roman Catholic Goans. Some of them Anglicized their surnames as well, and people who had once shared my name fractured it into a constellation of cognates that sounds like the conjugation of a French verb: Ferns, Ferens, Fernand, Ferdinand.

During my childhood in Bombay, I found none of this unusual. But as a teenager, studying sociology and economics at St. Xavier's College, I began to feel marooned in the wash of history, like the narrator in “Conversation Piece,” by the Goan poet Eunice de Souza:

    My Portuguese-bred aunt
    picked up a clay Shivalingam
    one day and said:
    Is this an ashtray?
    No, said the salesman,
    This is our god.

* * *

Not long before my arrival in Macau, Police Chief Antonio Marques Baptista had stormed into a seedy hotel and captured "Broken Tooth" Koi, the territory's most notorious gangster. Koi had gone too far when he planted explosives in Baptista's car: the chief's golden retriever sniffed out the bomb, and Baptista went ballistic.

But incarceration hadn't curtailed Broken Tooth's villainy. On the jetfoil from Hong Kong I read that Koi's henchmen had blown up a radar station the night before. There were daily shootings and bombings. Newspaper headlines called Macau “the Wild East.” With the handover of Macau to China only months away, longtime Portuguese residents were leaving in droves, and the colonial administration had lost interest in governing. Gangsters were filling the vacuum. When the crime wave started to cut into the tourist trade—two thirds of Macau's revenue came from tourism—the chief of security told visitors that they weren't at risk: Macau mobsters were excellent marksmen. I didn't feel reassured.

The chaos in Macau contrasted sharply with the efficiency of the British departure from Hong Kong in 1997, but also with the relatively calm end to Portuguese rule in India in 1961. Despite the turmoil, though, Macau seemed hopelessly familiar to me, like a little piece of Goa on the southern tip of China. I wanted to explore it further, so I left my bag at the hotel and tramped through the alleyways and avenidas by the harbor, making my way to the docks. Macau, like many a Portuguese colony, takes its name from the water. The name “Bombay” may derive from “bom bahia,” the Portuguese for “good bay.” But “Macau” comes from the Chinese: “A-Ma-Gau,” the bay of the goddess A-Ma.

It was still raining. I wandered the city under a cheap plastic poncho, admiring buildings painted in Iberian yellows and whites that reminded me of home. Macau seemed to have as many liquor shops as Goa, all owned by Chinese named Fernandes or Pereira or D'Souza. I found the Garden of Camões, named after the sixteenth-century poet who wrote Os Lusíadas, the epic of Vasco da Gama's voyage to India. Little is known about Luís de Camões, but the verisimilitude of his descriptions is thought to derive from a journey he made around the Cape of Good Hope during a seventeen-year banishment from Portugal. He is said to have lived in Goa and Macau: Goa forgot him, but Macau has commemorated his residence with a park. Under the trees, in the rain, a clutch of old men hunkered under their umbrellas, intent on a game of mahjong.

Hong Kong and Macau, forty miles apart on opposite banks of the Pearl River estuary, were footholds for trade with the Chinese city of Canton (now Guangzhou). Ruy de Duto Patalim, who headed the first Portuguese mission to the region in 1513, reported the promises of the Orient: “amber, pearls, all kinds of satins and damasks and porcelains, brocades and such things.” But while the British colony of Hong Kong flourished, first as a port and then as a financial hub, its Portuguese counterpart fared less well. When the mercantile economy of the eighteenth century gave way to the industrial revolution, Macau slipped into decline.

In the mid 1880s, Portugal decided to legalize gambling in order to keep Macau solvent, and casinos remain one of the territory's greatest sources of wealth. I had heard that at the Hotel Lisboa, a concrete monstrosity on the waterfront, women of ill repute troll the gaming tables for clients. But I was unable to see for myself: I was turned away at the door because I was wearing shorts.

I decided to meet with Dr. João Amorim at the Fundação Oriente, a Portuguese cultural council whose activities are funded by casino taxes. I asked Dr. Amorim how the Portuguese felt about losing the last outpost of their once-mighty empire. A middle-aged man with a scholarly air, Dr. Amorim drew decisive lines in the air with his index finger to trace the distinctions between British imperialism and Lusitanian colonialism. The British, he said, will always be remembered in their colonies for exploitation and plunder, and their failure to nurture social and cultural links with their subjects. Portuguese soldiers, on the other hand, were encouraged to wed local women. “That's one of the reasons people in Macau don't resent us the way Hong Kong people resent the British,” he said.

Dr. Amorim described how the Portuguese administration was rushing to build museums and restore historical sites before the handover. Critics noted that the Portuguese had neglected Macau for centuries and argued that the sudden rash of construction would exaggerate the Lusitanian legacy. But Dr. Amorim viewed the refurbishment as a parting gift “to a longtime lover.” He explained: “If the Chinese are going to benefit from Macau and attract tourists here, they're going to have to emphasize the uniqueness that's the result of its colonial past.” In Hong Kong, the British also tried to leave their “longtime lover” a last-minute parting gift: democracy

Dr. Amorim then discoursed upon the importance of Christianity—and Saint Francis Xavier—in the Portuguese conquest of Asia. I mentioned my search for Xavier's elbow, and he laughed. “Catholic superstition,” he said. No, he didn't know where the bone had gone off to. And neither did he care.

* * *

These days, Christians are under attack in India. Churches have been burned in the hills of Gujarat; church workers assaulted in Kerala; Mother Teresa's nuns beaten in a Bombay slum. Last year in Orissa state, an Australian missionary and his two sons were torched to death as they slept in their jeep. I'm convinced that the hate campaign is the work of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP party line is a harsh equation: since only Hindus can really be Indian, Indians can only really be Hindu.

The violence triggered a firestorm of debate among South Asian journalists in the U.S. Most were appalled, but a few argued that Indian Christians had it coming—after all, they'd converted people by force. One journalist raged that missionaries had “tricked poor villagers into becoming Christians by offering them goodies.” He was referring to Christian primary schools and health clinics, basic institutions that the Indian government is still unable to maintain in many villages.

One response to the killings was particularly troubling. Christians are unpatriotic, a critic declared, because they renounced India when they renounced Hinduism. Indian Christians have “extraterritorial allegiances,” he insisted. In a time of crisis, they would prove more loyal to the commands of their leader in the Vatican than to the laws of New Delhi. His conclusion took the long view, reaching back through 450 years of history: “Xavier's bastard children are antinational!” In fact, the Roman Catholicism that Xavier brought from Portugal was just a new variant of a religion that has been an Indian faith for ages. Historians have dated the first flourishing of Christianity on the subcontinent to A.D. 52. According to legend, the apostle Thomas brought the new religion to India soon after Jesus' death, preaching the Good News to Jewish spice traders in Kerala. These Indian Jews proved impervious, but the apostle did convert thousands of others before being martyred in Madras. Almost two thousand years later, his crypt remains a popular site for pilgrims.

* * *

Macau has always fascinated me. My great-grandfather traveled from Goa to Macau, returning with the two exquisite porcelain umbrella stands that still decorate my parents' living room. Blue-and-white carp chase each other across the shiny surface of the pediments, darting under stately bridges, pagodas of perfect symmetry looming in the background. After the Portuguese first settled Macau in 1557, they placed the peninsula under the supervision of the viceroy of Goa; Goans have been in southern China ever since. Before I set out on my own trip to the territory, I consulted the notes of Dr. Mário Leão, who had lived in Macau in the seventeenth century and noted that many of its priests were Goan. Macau remained under the nominal control of the Archbishop of Goa well into the nineteenth century.

Now, with time in Macau running out and my quest for Xavier's elbow still unsuccessful, I met up with the Figuerados. Each of the five Figuerado children played an instrument, as did their parents, Fortunade and Fatima. They were Goa's answer to the Trapp Family Singers. Their touring itinerary had taken them to the ends of Portugal's lost empire: from Macau to Lisbon, from the Azores to Brazil to Goa. Of the three Goan folk forms in their repertoire, I most admired the mando, which melds the earthiness of temple-influenced dekhnis (dance tunes) with the world-weariness of the Portuguese fado (ballads). The mando is essentially Goan: an Indian melody with a Western harmony.

My interest in the Figuerados wasn't only musical. I was fairly certain they would know the whereabouts of Xavier's elbow. But my encounter with Dr. Amorim had taught me that people were likely to view my obsession with suspicion. The trick, I realized, would be to ask the questions unobtrusively.

The Figuerados were friendly enough. Over tea, Fatima expressed some trepidation over the imminent departure of Portugal from this place she'd come to call home. In 1961, when the Portuguese left Goa, her husband Fortunade had decided to seek work in Angola. Fatima joined him there in 1972, only to leave for Venezuela when Angola became independent in 1975. Every year, to counter the dislocation of their itinerant existence, the Figuerados returned to Goa. “It reassures me that some things never change. Like the warmth of family, the affection of friends, the mango tree in the backyard,” Fatima told me. All the same, putting down roots in Africa, then South America, and then East Asia hadn't been as traumatic as one might think. “Everywhere we went, people spoke Portuguese and had surnames exactly like ours,” said Gabriel, the eldest son. “It's amazing how familiar the world can be.”

The family had decided to remain in Macau for the next few years, although Fatima was already thinking about retiring to Lisbon, where her daughters lived, where her husband and son had spent their student years. She'd be quite at home in Lisbon, she said. “The Portuguese have never made us feel as if we're different from them. They've accepted us as their equals.” Fatima sipped her tea. “But I don't feel Portuguese,” she admitted. “I feel Goan.”

I found myself waxing rhapsodic to Fatima: Xavier's fractured corpse was a metaphor for the diasporic nature of the Goan community. While on the one hand his dismemberment could be read as a signifier of the fragmented postcolonial identity of Indian Christians, I opined, it could also, on the other hand, symbolize the plunder of physical and psychic resourses by the imperialists. Xavier was the middle term between the colonizer and the colonized, a mirror onto our divided souls.

I realized that the whole family was staring at me. Embarrassed, I lapsed into silence.

“You know,” Fatima said finally, “we celebrate Francis Xavier's feast every year. All the Goan families in Macau gather in St. Joseph's seminary for mass on December 3.”

“Why in the seminary?” I asked weakly.

“Because that's where they store one of the relics of the saint,” she said. “Did you know that there was a piece of Xavier's arm right here in Macau?”

* * *

St. Joseph's, hidden away behind high yellow walls, sat on top of a steep hill. I was greeted by a young Chinese priest, Father Xavier. The seminary had been shut down because there were no more candidates for the priesthood in Macau. These days, the local diocese filled its churches with Portuguese-speaking priests from places like Goa.

The priest told me that Xavier's elbow had arrived in Macau in 1633 or 1634. It had been kept in St. Paul's, the church that burned down in 1835. After the fire, the humerus went first to St. Anthony's Church, then to the cathedral in Macau, then to this seminary. In 1978 it had been taken to St. Francis Xavier Chapel (the one with the surly caretaker), escorted by a procession of Chinese jazz musicians playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." The Macau tourism bureau brochure had been correct up to this point. But when the priest in charge of the chapel died in 1995, the relic was returned to St. Joseph's.

Father Xavier led me to a dusty back room cluttered with old crucifixes, chipped statues, and rusted censers. There, perched atop a dusty table, I finally found the elbow of St. Francis Xavier. It was about four inches long, coated in silver, and still sooty around the edges from the blaze at St. Paul's. I shot a few pictures in the semi-darkened room, trying to hold my camera steady as I sneezed from all the dust.

That night, I treated myself to dinner at the popular Solmar restaurant, tucking into its famed African chicken with pepper and chili. The dish could have come from a Goan kitchen. After an excellent glass of port, all was well with the world. They were playing a record by a tuna, as Macau's strolling folk musicians are known. A baritone was singing the tune Grandpa Alfred belted out at every Fernandes family gathering, but the familiar Portuguese lyrics to "A Minha Terra" had been translated into Cantonese. It was both East and West—and neither: a Latin strut with an Asian heartbeat. As dispersed and as perfectly whole as Xavier's body.

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