Did you know that Jews existed in Goa around the 16th Century? Garcia de Orta was one of them

Yes, Jews existed in Goa around the 16th Century. Mostly Portuguese Jews. Forced to convert to Christianity due to the inquisition in Spain, many moved to the Portuguese colony of Goa. Garcia de Orta was one of them. According to reports, though he converted to Christianity, he secretly practised Judaism.  One of the most illustrious Jews who lived in India, Garcia de Orta was a physician, herbalist and naturalist, He pioneered tropical medicine, pharmacognosy and ethnobotany.  Having received favour from the then Portuguese Governor, he was free to carry out his experiments and practice herbal medicine.

Garcia de Orta
Garcia de Orta pic credit: Município do Porto

He authored many books on medicine but all were burnt (owing to the fact that he was Jewish), except for one, a book on the simples (herbs used singly) and drugs published in 1563 Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India, the earliest treatise on the medicinal and economic plants of India. This was later translated into Latin and used as a standard reference text on medicinal plants.

Garcia de Orta died before the Goa Inquisition began but in 1569 his sister was burnt at the stake for being a secret Jew and based on her confession his remains were later exhumed and burnt along with an effigy. Memorials recognising his contributions have been built both in Portugal and India.


Today, Jardim Garcia de Orta in Panaji (Goa’s Capital city), is one of the only reminders of Garcia.The Garden was built in 1878 but named after the famous botanist only after Portugal became a Republic in 1910. That was long after Garcia’s death.

Being Chief physician at the Royal Hospital Goa, Garcia was able to maintain a botanical garden of his own close to the hospital. Though his residence and garden have vanished over time, a map of the area sketched by a Jewish architect  Joshua  Benjamin exists. “This map prepared by Joshua Benjamin, a Jew and former chief architect of the government of India in the late 19th century was given to me by Jewish researcher, Nissim Moses,” Ivar Fjeld, a Goa-based Norwegian researcher said.

On Tuesday, 2/5/2017, an Israeli delegation was seen exploring a parking lot, about 400 metres west of St Francis of Assisi church in Old Goa, as it looked very possibly the site of Orta’s villa and garden according to the map.

“There are two possibilities. The house may have been located near the fountain behind the post office. Or the site could be near the parking lot,” says K K Muhammed, former regional director, ASI, Delhi.

The Israeli team, Muhammed and Fjeld examined the map together, as it cited Orta’s residence on the northern side of the first junction to the world heritage site from Panaji.

Currently, growing interest in Jewish heritage in India and the evidence of a small Jewish community that existed in Goa in the 16th century is drawing researchers, Israeli archaeologists and scholars.

Information credit: ToI, Wikipedia

Picture credit: Cleartrip

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