The remains of an old church, a martyred queen from Georgia, Portuguese friars and an empire builder from Persia. The story of how the relics of a Georgian queen found their way to Goa, thousands of kilometres away, is quite a tale and it spans a period of 400 years!
The story starts in the ruins of a once-grand church – the Church of St Augustine in Old Goa – and a search that started 25 years ago.
Ketevan (1560-1624 CE) was the queen of the Kakheti kingdom in Eastern Georgia in the 17th century. Born in the royal house of Mukhrani in Georgia, she was married to David I, the King of Kakheti, who ruled for only two years, from 1601-1602 CE. She then served as Regent for her son, King Teimuraz.
During this time, the Safavid king, Shah Abbas of Persia, was greedily eyeing the predominantly Christian Georgia. In 1614, to avert the threat of a Persian invasion, King Teimuraz was forced to send his mother Queen Ketevan and his two sons Prince Alexander and Prince Levan, to the Safavid court as hostages.
While the two princes were tortured to death, Queen Ketevan was kept as a prisoner in Shiraz for around a decade. In 1624, as a warning to King Teimuraz, Shah Abbas ordered that the 60-year-old Queen Ketevan convert to Islam and join his harem. The queen refused and was therefore tortured to death with hot pincers, according to contemporary accounts of Safavid historians, on 13th September 1624.
A group of visiting Portuguese friars from the Augustinian order, a Christian religious sect founded by St Augustine, had witnessed the queen’s public execution in the town of Shiraz. They retrieved her body and took it to Georgia, where she was buried by her son King Teimuraz at the Alaverdi monastery in Eastern Georgia.
Her tragic death and refusal to convert and renounce Christianity made Queen Ketevan a martyr and she was canonised as a saint by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
In 1723 CE, as threats of attacks on Georgia by Safavid Persia loomed, it was decided that Queen Ketevan’s relics be moved from the Alaverdi monastery to a safer location. However, while this was being done, there was an accident and the horse that was carrying the relics fell into the Aravi river. The relics could not be recovered and it was believed that all had been lost.
The relics were believed to have been lost
Fast forward 250 years, to 1973, and the publication of a book on Queen Ketevan by Portuguese-Armenian historian Roberto Gulbenkian. The book created a storm, especially in Georgia and the then Soviet Union (of which Georgia was a part). Dipping into contemporary Portuguese accounts, Gulbenkian had discovered that the Augustinian friars had taken fragments from the hand of the martyred queen and buried these relics in Goa.
The Medieval Catholic Church had a great veneration for the relics of saints. The friars had hoped that taking Ketevan's relics to Goa would help in the spread of Christianity there. From 1980 onwards, teams from the Soviet Union began visiting Goa to find the relics. They zeroed in on the ruins of the Church of St Augustine in Old Goa.
Today, the church of St Augustine is dilapidated, a portion of its once magnificent tower looming over remnants of a once magnificent shrine. Gazing at these ruins today, it is hard to imagine that this was not only one of the largest and richest churches in Goa, but also one of the grandest churches of the Augustinian order in the world. The church, whose construction began in 1572, was designed by an Italian architect. Its complex included eight chapels, a convent and an excellent library.
The glory days of this church ended in 1835, when the Portuguese government launched a crackdown on all the different religious orders in Goa. All the movable and immovable property of the St Augustine Church was confiscated and the friars were expelled from Goa. By 1938, the church had completely collapsed and was reduced to a ruin.
After Goa became a part of the Republic of India, the ruins of the St Augustine Church came under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. In the 1970s and 80s, when the search for the relics of Queen Ketevan started in Goa, the teams working to find them had limited clues. All they knew was that the relics were buried in a box near the second window of a chapel. Since the church had eight chapels and almost nothing remained of them, the search did not yield any result. However, in 2005, the team found a few fragments of bones, generating considerable interest.
The bone fragments were sent for DNA testing, and it was found that they belonged to a U1b Haplogroup, which is a genetic population or a group of people descended from a common ancestor. The U1b Haplogroup is not found among contemporary Indian samples. It was also confirmed that the bone fragments belonged to a woman.
To further validate the findings, samples from 30 Georgians were collected, some of whom did reveal the U1b Haplogroup. Finally, in 2013, it was made public that the bone fragments found in the St Augustine Church did belong to a woman of Georgian extraction.
The relics of what are believed to be Queen Ketevan are kept in a casket in the Archaeological Museum in Old Goa. They also travelled to Georgia in 2017, where they are revered. Since 2016, the Ketevan World Sacred Music Festival is held in the church, each year, remembering a Georgian queen’s unique connection with this ruined church in Goa.
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