In Holy Epiphany

Its almost that time of the year and what better way to celebrate it than finding a strange association with Christmas and write about it. Christmas and New year has always been about epiphanies for me – what I have done with my life, what to do next, resolutions, and so on. So it was a strange sense of deja vu for me when I came to know about the Holy Epiphany, a festival that is unique among the scores of Christmas festivities that is celebrated in Goa. Commonly known as the Feast of Three Kings or Festa dos Reis, the festival is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays. ‘The Three Kings Feast’, another moniker for the occasion is the official commemoration of the arrival of the Magi. Traditionally, Roman Catholics celebrate Epiphany on January 6, while Orthodox Christian faiths celebrate on January 19.

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi

Appearing only once in the story of Jesus’ birth, the wise men from the East made a lasting impression in the Christian imagination, as well as ended up being one of the greatest themes of European religious art. Many Christmas carols make mention of the three kings, who follow a star and come to pay homage to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. In the Bible, they are not called kings, and their number is not specified—instead they are “wise men from the East.” According to the Book of Matthew, a bright star led the magi from the east until it stopped “over the place where the child was,” and “upon entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 1:24). The magi knelt down for the baby Jesus and “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Later tellings of the story identified the magi by name and identified their lands of origin: Melchior hailed from Persia, Gaspar (also called “Caspar” or “Jaspar”) from India, and Balthazar from Arabia. Their gifts had special symbolic meanings as well: gold signified Jesus’ status as “King of the Jews;” frankincense represented the infant’s divinity and identity as the Son of God; and myrrh touched upon Jesus’ mortality. 

Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco The Procession of the Magi, rom the east wall of the Chapel of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence

While most of Goa seems to be onboard this joyous occasion, the most colourful version of the 10-day fiesta are held in Reis Magos Church at Verem in the Bardez taluka in North Goa, the village of Chandor in South Goa, and at Our Lady of the Mount in Cansaulim in South Goa. Celebration is done through re-enactment of the biblical story of the three wise men, who came to visit to the new-born baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Epiphany or the Twelfth Night is said to mark the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. Epiphany also means manifestation and celebrates the disclosure of Goa in human form as Jesus Christ.

The feast is organised at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, also known as Nossa Senhora Dos Remedios, on top of the Cuelim hill – referred locally to as Remete Saibinicho Dongor. The privilege of organising the feast is given to the Vangodd of the Gaunkars (the indigenous Goans) of the Communidade of Cansaulim, Arossim, and Cuelim, for the help they rendered to the early Church. The chapel was founded by Fr Gonsalo Carvalho, a Jesuit priest in 1599 and is affiliated to St Thomas Church, Cansaulim. Our Lady of the Mount is considered as the protector of people, especially the married couples who cannot conceive children, and seek blessings from her when they want children.It is believed that those who pray in this chapel receive sacred blessings and protection. There are some records that state the temple was built on the site of a temple which was demolished under the Portugese regime. Because of the sacred location, many Hindu devotees also participate in the feast with equal joy and vigour.

Three Kings Church, Cansaulim

The last day of the fest is celebrated in a unique fashion where 3 small boys aged between 8 and 10, chosen from the neighbourhood villages, are dressed up in elaborate clothings to represent the three Kings who introduced items for child Jesus. They start their journey from their respective homes, along with the retinue of attendants, led by a little boy beating the drum to the top of the Chapel. The first stop for the king from Arossim is in front of the chapel of St Lawrence where the chaplain says a small prayer and blesses them. From there, the Three Kings go up the hill on three different traditional pathways called Paz but at the end of the feast they descend through one separate common way. They attend the Feast Mass, and then leave the chapel, stopping at different places for blessings and rest. The journey finally ends at St Thomas Church, where Laudate is sung and three Bonderam (flags) are waved from right to left. Then they depart for their homes, taking different paths.

At Verem, the feast of the Three Kings is celebrated at Reis Magos Church in Verem. The Royal Church, another moniker for the Reis Magos Church, is said to have been erected during the 16th century. It is said the each Viceroy who arrived in Goa, would disembark here before stepping into the capital at Velha Goa (today’s Old Goa). Viceroys who died in Goa were buried here as and marked with commemorative slabs.

A similar enactment and procession is undertaken by the local youth at Verem. The procession starts from the church and goes around the village.

In Chandor, three young boys either selected or volunteers from the villages, decked in royal attire and holding gifts and seated on horses enact the journey of the Three Kings. The procession starts at the chapel of our Lady of Piety on Monte Cota, and ends at Nossa Senhora de Belem Church, also known as the Church of Our Lady of Bethlehem which was built in 1645, where they attend the high mass and present their gifts. It is said that earlier, the kings were brought down the hill sitting on buffaloes.

Nossa Senhora de Belem Church, Church of Our Lady of Bethlehem

The star of this feast is the King’s cake, Rosca de Reyes. The shape of the cake is a circle with candied fruit and nuts on the top to represent the jewels of Magi’s crown. A tiny Jesus is also hidden inside the cake. And whoever receives the cake with the Jesus doll has to host the Candlemas celebration in February.

Goa has always been a popular as a prominent beach destination. But beyond the hype of clubs, parties and beaches, Goa has slowly started capturing attention as a go-to stop for slow living. And best way to enjoy the slow living is to immerse yourself in the local culture and traditions. There’s no more off -beat and immersive than taking part in Holy Epiphany, quite literally!

You can also explore Goa in my latest post. It will give a context to Goa’s multi-faceted historical spectrum.

Further readings:

Related (and not-so related) Posts:



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