A Note from the Owner (this was mostly written around 2000, so a little outdated!)
The story of the restoration of Siolim House was both very eventful and very rewarding for me. The house was not meant to be a hotel but a restoration project without an objective for it. Today the fact that it is in active duty at the service of its guests and staff is a wonderful result of the work of many years of all of us here.
History and Architectural Style
Goa was probably the place where the West met the East for the first time ever. It had been a colony for almost 500 years by the time it was liberated forcibly by Indian army action in 1962. Although there was a time Goa was referred to as 'Goa Daurada' (or Golden Goa) or the Rome of the Orient, for much of the past 300 years it had been in severe decline. The quintas and other magnificent buildings built in the 16th century when Goa was the capital of a vast colonial empire were a manifestation of the period in which the Portuguese controlled much of the commerce between Asia and Europe. The converted higher classes - the Brahmans or chardos, built many of those houses and although the homes and public buildings were clearly influenced by Portuguese colonial architecture, they retained concepts related to traditional Hindu organisation and family structure that never disappeared even after five centuries.
However the decline of Goa began soon afterward, and with it the magnificent buildings began to disappear. The reason for this was probably that the Portuguese found themselves strategically cornered with the British who controlled Hormuz in the West and the Dutch who controlled the Malacca straits. For this reason the Portuguese decided to concentrate their energies in other areas, in particular in Brazil and Africa, and Goa began to suffer from neglect.
The first model of reference for the Palaces of Goa was the 'Cha' style of architecture. Pietro della Velle who visited Goa in 1632 speaks of "strong and simple buildings without much ornament" when referring to the pure and austere Cha style. This was followed by the Italian Manierist influences during the period of Goa Daurada in the 17th Century.
It was during the 17th Century that Siolim House was built. Initially houses were built in the typical two storey Casa de Sobrado style, very much in line with houses of Portuguese nobility in Portugal. Siolim House is a Casa de Sobrado. The other major form that existed was the Casa de Patio, which was built on only one floor around a traditional courtyard. This form of Portuguese colonial architecture existed only in India and not in the other Portuguese colonies.
Siolim House is situated in Siolim Village, situated in the Northern Part of Goa on the river Chapora. Siolim was situated on the border of the Portuguese-controlled part of the county of Bardez. Beyond this the lands were subject to frequent attacks by the armies of Adil Shah, the Sultan of Bijapur, who sacked the territories of Bardez and Bijapur in 1654 and 1659. Once again in 1667, the Maratha troops of Sambhaji attacked the county. Frequently there were raids by the Ranes, a sort of military aristocracy who dominated the lands beyond the borders. Rich landowners were frequently the victims of such raids, and Siolim House was not spared. The towers on the house showed the owners ambition of it being a strong house.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when there was relative stability, the family prospered and was given a large part of the village - in particular the ward of Wadi which extended all the way to the village of Chapora. The Chapel built outside the home was a testament to the power and importance of the family. They enjoyed special privileges and were made members of the Portuguese colonial administration. During the 18th century, a member was even sent to Macao as the Governor. During the early part of the 19th Century one member was a governor of Mozambique in Africa. The other name of the house by which it is well known in the village - 'Mosmimkar' comes from this - in Konkani it signifies "person from Mozambique"
I have been interested in architecture since long and also in the way of living of times past in these parts of India. As a child I grew up in different parts of India, due to the fact that my father was an officer in the Navy, However the places I enjoyed living the most were places like Goa and Cochin, where one felt an inescapable feeling of the mixing of old of new.
I did not inherit Siolim House – but purchased the house in 1996. I was at that time 26 and lived expatriated in Amsterdam where I was working for a large bank.
From the age of around 23-24 I had begun searching for a property to restore in Goa with much interest. We would holiday in Goa, while I would roam the countryside looking for old houses, that represented something very beautiful and nostalgic for me. I wonder why, perhaps it was something that represents a kind of life that existed in India everywhere at one time - the large house, the close family, the slow village life, summer holidays, the seasons of India - hot summers, rejuvenating monsoons, and sparkling winters. At that time, there was very little interest for these crumbling buildings (unlike now!)
I very much enjoyed those searches, as I got to know some of the most interesting places in the territory. I finally saw Siolim House while driving by. Even though I had no idea of whom it belonged to, I decided I would pursue it. It was much much larger than what I was looking for, but I was driven only by the idea of rehabilitating the house, and dream of one day staying there.
I jumped in and walked through the bushes to a very dilapidated house, with plants growing inside and even cows using the property as a shelter.
The trail to find the owner and then negotiate the property turned out to be one of the most incredible processes I had ever undertaken. It began in the nearby village of Assagao where the owner before the current one lived and ended in Compton, California, passing through Lausanne in Switzerland!
It turned out that only one unmarried son who is now 95 (then 75) and a spinster daughter, now passed away now remained of the family, which had owned Siolim House since the very beginning.
The house had been sold some six years earlier to a doctor who was married to a Goan lady from Morjim. This doctor had planned to move to Goa, but at the last minute decided to move to the US. However he had never returned, and the house had fallen into a terrible state of disrepair. For some years the old owner helps maintain the place but then gave up. All the furniture in the house that had been sold with the house disappeared, probably to be resold in the Antique shops of Bombay.
It took all of six months to find the owner, which was like finding a needle in a Haystack. Without any references except the city he lived in five years before, and his name I was able to trace him and find him in California. It then took six more months to negotiate the purchase!
Goan houses have to be repaired after each monsoon, as the rains in Goa can be quite violent. Siolim House had withstood six successive monsoons with no maintenance. There were huge holes in the roof and the walls and timber were very badly damaged. The rear part of the house had suffered structural damage, and a large part of the roof had fallen. That part been unlived in since fifty years and had been weakened even before.
During that period, I learnt a lot of the history of the house. Siolim House is one of the last surviving houses of the 17th century in North Goa, built in the Casa de Sobrado style, mimicking the noble houses of Portugal. The front house was built first and the courtyard and back portion added 100 years later. It was built by a noble family who owned all the land around the house. The chapel in front was part of the property as well. The family was from the Saraswat Brahmin class but had converted to Catholicism and served in the Portuguese empire as administrators from Macau to Mozambique.
Once I had acquired the house, I decided that it had to be protected and undertook emergency repairs. Following that, with the help of a local architect who agreed to undertake the civil work I began the restoration. The brief was simple - there was very little scope for creativity - the house was to be brought back using the finest and traditional materials but allowing for modern living.
Although the results of the restoration seem quite surprising for many, a lot of the work can not even be seen - for example the oyster shell window panes, using material and craftsmanship that has been lost for a generation, or the pure shell lime wall plaster that I insisted upon.
This intransigence was something our workers could not understand, when cement and modern materials were so easily available. One might add that pure lime is around four times the cost of cement, and I had to visit the last few remaining lime kilns across the river to procure the lime. There they made it from river shell that they baked in the kiln, and after it had passed through becoming quicklime (explosive!) it was useable for plaster.
For me however, I wanted to learn about building techniques in the process of restoring. I learnt that pure lime plaster made of crushed shells was resilient and healthy (anti-bacteriological properties). Furthermore the combination of using lime plaster with the stone mud filled walls was probably the most perfect way of building for the climate in Goa. In the summer it kept cool, in the monsoon, it stayed dry and in the winter, you were warm during the cool nights.
The 400 year old tiles used in the kitchen that were being discarded by the chapel in front and that we took gladly, or the patterned Marseilles tiles where for each tile you have to put coloured cement into the intricate moulds with the help of a spoon! We had exiting tile designs recreated in some cases and in others we used designs from the Colonial Fazendas we had seen in Brazil, during our research.
I visited some of the finest properties in Lisbon and Porto like York House, tried to understand a lot about the styles. I even met up with Helder Carita who wrote the first book on "Palacios de Goa" – he had sketched the house but could not photograph it because of the poor state it was in. Helder showed me photographs of it as a ruin.
Where I needed a more modern side to the decor I took inspiration from Brazilian Fazendas or even the Mediterranean. But not much - I needed to keep the style quite pure. The style of Indo Portuguese civil architecture was very much monastic – white walls with very little adornment. It did not favour the embellishments of later renaissance or Italianate style architecture in Europe.
As the entire restoration of Siolim House was done with a view to it being a home, we were very generous in our use of space. In a building that had 24 rooms there are today only seven suites and seven bathrooms. No necessity was felt to cram rooms in, and so there are spacious public areas and several very large halls! No walls were broken except for the one around the courtyard to open it up. Otherwise one room was made into a bedroom the other into a bathroom and so on.
Two and a half years later, after some very detailed restoration work, we finally completed the property and then began furnishing it. Again I travelled throughout India looking for the right kind of furniture.
It took time to do up Siolim House, but we have never been in a hurry. My advice to everyone who undertakes a passionate project is to do it slow – only then do you get the results you need. We were in no hurry to ‘recover’ the investment and never looked at it that way. We were driven by a desire to bring it back to life, and now only am I beginning to feel that the house is beginning to exude the warmth that I had dreamt of. It is in fact the result of people coming through the house. That was very much the objective and only now I feel we are getting there.
Our Other Restoration in Goa 2003-2005
In 2003 we bought and restored another Palace in Old Goa, ‘Solar Souto Maior’. It was a huge project – a house from 1585 and the last palace remaining from the days of Goa Dourada. It was built of granite stone, and we needed to be very faithful to original features and style. During this very successful restoration we were able to learn new techniques and retain all the original features. Below are pictures of that project. It was made to be a cultural center, as it was a significant pieces of architecture, a house built 75 years before the taj mahal. I restored it with all my remaining money and it would have a cultural center, a cafe, an event space, outdoor emphitheatre for events, a shop for treasures we sourced from all over India
The only other buildings that remain from that period are the UNESCO heritage churches, basilicas and Cathedrals. It took two and a half years, and the idea was to make it into a cultural centre, with indoor and outdoor spaces to visit. There was a wonderful historic terraced garden and an orchid and ginger garden, an outdoor amphitheatre for outdoor events. Indoors we transformed the spaces to create a large café, an art gallery, a lounge area, a tea room featuring India’s most prestigious teas and a home décor shop with lovely and rare things from here and there. However after a year or two, I realized that I was good only at the restoration and not at running the place. Each aspect required a curator, a manager, a merchandiser, etc. Therefore I sold the place. We can show you pictures and provide information on the project if you like,
I am presently 50 years old, and my home base has been Goa. but alos Paris, Amsterdam, London, Zurich and NYC. In 2000 I set up an investment firm and presently at this firm work between Europe and India, and moved to Barcelona. I do enjoy travelling between these places but love it the most when I return to Siolim.
A final word about our staff.
We have been very particular to hire staff from our village or surroundings and many of them have been with us from the beginning. We are very much a family and have developed an ethos that respects the home and the occupants and the people who take care of it. All this you see is because of the genius of someone who dreamed of the building of the house in 1645. Today the fact that it supports around 20 local families, and provides a home and some pleasure to a stream of guests from around the world is an endless source of satisfaction and joy to its caretakers and reward enough for us.
In 2001 Siolim House, built in 1675, was a finalist in the Asia Pacific Awards for Restoration by UNESCO, and received an Award of Honour. I hope enjoy reading this review that appeared in the New York Times on 7 February!