Sunday, July 22, 2001

Born in Georgia, killed in Persia, found in Goa
Author: Meenakshi Rao
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 11, 2001

She was the Queen of Georgia in difficult times; she was the prisoner of the Shah of Persia in an even more volatile era; she was publicly executed in Persia after she refused to convert to Islam; a devout Christian, she was bestowed sainthood by the Pope way back in the 17th century. Today, she lies buried, unknown and unsung in the ruins of a Goa church, on the same street as the much more venerated St Xavier. Four centuries later, Queen Ketevan's nation is clamouring for recognition to their toughest icon, an icon who stood tall in the face of Islamic expansionism and defeated all efforts by the Shah to change her religion.

Thanks to the efforts of Georgia's honorary consul in India, K S Dhingra, a top-level team of experts from faraway Georgia is all set to land in Goa in a bid to trace the remains of their saint and Queen who is said to be buried in the St Augustine chapel in Goa since 1622.

legend goes that after the Iranian Shah Abbas I plundered Georgia, he massacred 60,000 people on September 22, 1624. Churches were devastated, icons and crosses broken up and jewels given to the Shah's concubines. The Shah took away Queen Ketevan as a slave, put her in his harem and repeatedly forced her to embrace Islam.

According to an account by contemporary Augustinian Fathers who witnessed her execution in Persia: "The officials lit a fire and inserted iron pincers into it. They stripped the Queen from her neck to her waist and taking the red hot pincers, they tore away the flesh from her delicate body with great cruelty until at last the Queen fell half dead to the ground, continuing to invoke 'Our Lord' with courage.... They finally strangled her to death by a bowstring."

The gory execution was, among others, witnessed by some Portuguese missionaries. The next night, the remains of her almost charred body were stolen by the St Augustine Portugeas Catholic missioners and hidden for three long years.

Finally, in 1627, the remains were brought to Goa and buried there in the St Augustine De Grasa Church.

Since then, several teams have come from Georgia and searched in vain for the exact location of her grave.

The first evidence of her presence in Goa surfaced in 1633 when a letter was published on the martyrdom of Queen Ketevan in England.

Archives say she is supposed to have be buried near the mummified remains of St Francis Xavier and that she was interred "to the right of the altar" of the St Augustine Church.

"The problem is," says Dr PP Shirodhkar, who led the last excavation of the church in 1998, "if you stand facing the altar the right side becomes the left side. It is a confusing mystery. We are sure she is somewhere. But so far we have not been able to locate her."

The original monastic complex collapsed long ago, leaving only a 46m bell tower. Excavators in 1988 found 54 grave slabs, but none bore Ketevan's name

But the Georgians haven't lost hope. Merab Chachua, Deputy head for division for Asia, Australia and Pacific countries, says Georgia wants to give her a full state funeral. "Queen Ketevan was declared a saint and figures in school curricula. We would like to have her back," he said.

The spot the queen operation though will take time. Meanwhile, the Georgians plan to renovate the location and make it worthy of a queen and a saint. "The idea is to first locate the remains of St Ketevan and then put up a memorial there," says Deputy cultural minister Zviad Chumburidze.

The search is expected to resume this month.

Till then, may Queen Ketevan rest in peace.