Blessed Devasahayam Pillai (1712–1752)
Martyr Blessed Devasahayam Pillai was born in the year 1712 at a village called Nattalam to Vasudevan and Devahiammai in a nair community which was considered a high caste in a caste divided society.
His original name was Neelakandapillai. He married Bargaviammal. From his early childhood he was a learned man well versed in Malayalam Tamil and Sanskrit. He was an expert in the ancient Indian martial arts.
As a young man he was employed at Padmanabapuram palace when King Marthanda Varma was ruling the state. He was very loyal to the king and as a result he was holding number two position in the palace. He was entrusted with the responsibility of supervising the construction of Udyagiri Fortress. He was held in high esteem by the King Marthanda Varma and the people of the country.
Blessed Devasahayam Pillai (1712–1752), born Neelakanta Pillai in southern India, is a beatified layman of the Catholic church. Born into a Hindu family in the 18th century, he converted to Christianity and is considered a martyr of the Christian faith. Pillai was an official in the court of the king of Travancore, Maharaja Marthanda Varma, when he came under the influence of Dutch naval commander, Captain Eustachius De Lannoy, who instructed him in the Catholic faith. He is believed to have been killed by the then Travancore state for upholding his Christian faith.
In 2004, at the request of the diocese of Kottar, Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC) and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) recommended Devasahayam Pillai for the process of beatification to the Vatican. This initiative was objected to by some Hindu groups that there was no evidence of religious persecution in Travancore during that period, and that Pillai was executed for sedition. However, documents dating back to the period of Devasahayam Pillai show that conversion of court officials to Christianity was not tolerated.
On 2nd December, 2012, a ceremony of beatification and declaration of martyrdom was held in Nagercoil, in the Roman Catholic diocese of Kottar in Southern India presided by Angelo Cardinal Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, acting as papal delegate. Devasahayam Pillai is the first lay person to be elevated to the rank of “Blessed” in India (the step preceding raising a person to Sainthood under the Canon Law of the Catholic Church).
Account of life according to Roman Catholic tradition
Devasahayam Pillai (named Neelakanda Pillai at birth) was born into an affluent Nair–caste family at Nattalam in the present-day Kanyakumari District, on 23 April 1712. His father Vasudevan Namboodiri, hailed from Kayamkulam, in present-day Kerala state, and was working as a priest at Sri Adi Kesava Perumal temple in Thiruvattar in present-day Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. His mother Devaki Amma hailed from Thiruvattar in Kanyakumari District. In the Nair matriarchal traditions of the day, Devasahayam Pillai was raised by his maternal uncle, and was inculcated with Hindu beliefs and traditions early on.
Devasahayam’s family had much influence in the royal palace of Maharaja Marthanda Varma, king of Travancore, and Devasahayam went into the service of the royal palace as a young man.:12 His capabilities and enthusiasm did not go unnoticed in the palace, as he was soon put in charge of state affairs as an official under Ramayyan Dalawa, the Dewan of Travancore.:55-56
Conversion to Christianity
In 1741, Captain Eustachius De Lannoy, a Dutch naval commander, was sent on command of a Dutch naval expedition by the Dutch East India Company to capture Colachel, a port under the control of Travancore, and establish a trading post there. In the battle (Battle of Colachel) that followed between the Travancore forces and De Lannoy’s men, the Dutch forces were defeated and the men were either killed or captured. Eustachius De Lannoy, his assistant Donadi and a few other Dutch soldiers were captured and imprisoned.
De Lannoy and the Dutchmen were later pardoned by the king, on condition that they serve in the Travancore army. De Lannoy later earned the trust of the king and went on to become the commander of the Travancore armed forces, winning many battles and annexing various neighbouring territories to Travancore.
It was during their influential roles under the King of Travancore that Devasahayam Pillai and De Lannoy became well acquainted. De Lannoy’s Christian faith interested Devasahayam and De Lannoy enlightened him on the faith, leading to his conversion in 1745.
On Devasahayam’s acceptance of the Christian faith, he was baptized at the Roman Catholic Latin Rite church at Vadakkankulam village (in the present Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu), where the Jesuits had a mission under Rev. Fr. R. Bouttari Italus S.J.:281 Neelakanda Pillai, his name at birth, was then changed to Lazar, although he is more widely known by the Tamil & Malayalam translation Devasahayam (meaning God’s help). Pillai was married by this time to Bargavi Ammal of Travancore. She was also persuaded and converted to Christianity by her husband. His wife was given the baptismal name of Gnanapoo Ammaal (equivalent to Theresa in Tamil & Malayalam). Fearing reprisal in Travancore against her religious conversion, she chose to be a migrated-resident of this village. Some of Devasahayam Pillai’s immediate family members also received baptism later, after being converted to Christianity.:68-69
Orders based on accusations and charges
Church chroniclers say that the Brahmin chief priest of the kingdom, the feudal lords, members of the royal household and the Nair community brought false charges on Devasahayam to the Dewan, Ramayyan Dalawa.:282 Pillai was divested of his portfolio in the administration and was later accused of treason and of divulging state secrets to rivals and Europeans. He was later arrested and tortured for three years. After his execution orders were passed, he was initially ordered to be taken on a buffalo to Kuzhumaikkad, where he would be executed.:41-42  But the original Royal order was altered later to finally to be taken on a buffalo back to Aralvaimozhy border for a meaningful punishment of banishment after carrying out a series of tortures by ten different karyakkars on the advice of the ministers.:42-65
Other traditions and beliefs
Devasahayam Pillai was marched from Padmanabhapuram Palace to Aralvaimozhy by soldiers, over the period of a few days. Pillai was treated like a cruel criminal and as was customary in those days for very cruel criminals, his body was painted with red and black spots, and was intentionally marched through populated areas, sitting backward on top of a water buffalo:283  (the mythical vehicle or vahana of Yama, the lord of death in Hinduism) through the streets of South Travancore. As a method of torture, he was beaten everyday with eighty stripes, pepper rubbed in his wounds and nostrils, exposed to the sun, and given only stagnant water to drink.
While halting at Puliyoorkurichi, not far away from the Padmanabhapuram Palace of the Travancore king, it is believed by Christians that God quenched his thirst by letting water gush through a small hole on a rock, the very place where he knelt to pray. The water hole is still found in the compound of a church at Puliyoorkurichi, about 15 km from Nagercoil.:54 :285
It is also believed that the leaves of a neem (Margosa) tree in the village of Peruvilai, to which he had been tied while being marched to Aralvaimozhy, cured illnesses of sick people in the village and around. Many more miracles are attributed to Devasahayam Pillai.:286
In 1752, the original order of the King and his Dewan was to deport him from Travancore, into the Pandya country, at Aralvaimozhy. He was let off in the forested hills near Aralvaimozhy. There, he is believed to have begun deep meditations, and the people from the adjacent villages began visiting the holy man. Christian sources allege that at this time, high caste Hindus plotted to do away with Devasahayam.:134
Some people believe that the soldiers went up the forested hills and tried to shoot Devasahayam, but were unable to fire; after which he took the gun in his hands, blessed it and gave it back to the soldiers to shoot him to death, if they wished to. The soldiers took the gun back and fired at him five times. His body was then carelessly thrown out near the foothills at Kattadimalai.:285 :83
It was at Kattadimali in Kanyakumari district that Devasahayam Pillai died on 14 January 1752. His mortal remains were interred near the altar inside St. Xavier’s Church, Kottar, Nagercoil, which is now the diocesan Cathedral.:285
According to the report submitted by the then Bishop of Cochin (under whom Kanyakumari church was then functioning) in 1756 CE, the Christian martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai was promptly intimated to Vatican. Prominent witnesses to his saintliness and martyrdom include Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar.
The church historian C. M. Agur concluded in 1903 that although apostasy was never considered illegal in Travancore, it was not viewed indifferently, particularly in the case of the King’s palace servants, and this led to the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai.:285
In 1984, a group of lay persons from the diocese of Kottar, especially members of Nagercoil Catholic Club, once again took the initiative to seek the beatification of Devasahayam. This is unusual for a layman, but he is regarded as one who was totally devoted to Christ. Since the days of the interment of the mortal remains of Devesahayam Pillai in St. Xavier’s Cathedral of the diocese of Kottar many Christian pilgrims visited his tomb and offered prayers
After a series of initiatives by the diocese of Kottar and much deliberation, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC), later in 2004, duly recommended his beatification, following scrutiny of available historical evidence, in consultation with others. Bishop Chrysostom said that the CBCI did not intend any controversy whatsoever in moving this forward.
However, Professor A. Sreedhara Menon (1925-2010), a noted historian and writer on Travancore, said that no cases of persecution in the name of religious conversion were recorded in the history of the kingdom. P. Parameswaran, president of the Hindu spiritual organisation Vivekananda Kendra, accused the CBCI of an attempt to hurt Hindu sentiments. Referring to the Travancore state manual, he insisted that Devasahayam was a palace employee who was executed after confirmation of sedition, because he had tampered with palace records and passed them to De Lannoy.
Catholic records of the time state that the kingdom of Travancore did not tolerate palace officials converting to Christianity.
In June 2012, Pope Benedict XVI officially recognized a decree from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints stating that he lived a life of “heroic virtues” – a major step towards beatification – and Pillai was then referred to as “Venerable“.
Beatification and declaration as a martyr
Devasahayam Pillai was declared a Martyr and Blessed on December 2, 2012, at a solemn ceremony held in the Diocese of Kottar at Carmel Higher Secondary School Grounds, Nagercoil, near the place of his burial. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Angelo Cardinal Amato presided at the function as Delegate of Pope Benedict XVI.
Several cardinals, archbishops and bishops from India and elsewhere, as well as numerous priests, religious men and women and over 100,000 Catholics from all over India participated in the grand ceremony which included a Solemn Pontifical Mass.
Among the dignitaries officiating at the altar were Angelo Cardinal Amato, Oswald Cardinal Gracias (Archbishop of Mumbai), Telesphore P. Cardinal Toppo (Archbishop of Ranchi), George Cardinal Alencherry (Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis Catholicos (Major Archbishop of Syro-Malankara Catholic Church), Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio (Apostolic Nuncio to India), and Bishop Peter Remigius (Bishop of Kottar).
Blessed Devasahayam Pillai is the first lay person from India to be canonised by the Catholic Church.
On the same day as Devasahayam Pillai was declared a Blessed in the Diocese of Kottar, India, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the pilgrims gathered in Rome. During his Angelus Message the Pope mentioned the event in Italian and English. He said in Italian:
“Today in Kottar, India, Devasahayam Pillai, a faithful layman, who lived in the 18th century and died a martyr, was proclaimed Blessed. Let us join in the joy of the Church in India and pray that this newly Beatified sustain the faith of the Christians of that great and noble country.”
Then he addressed the crowds in English:
“I welcome all gathered here today to pray with me. I especially greet the people of Kottar who celebrate today the beatification of Devasahayam Pillai. His witness to Christ is an example of that attentiveness to the coming of Christ recalled by this first Sunday of Advent. May this holy season help us to centre our lives once more on Christ, our hope. God bless all of you!”
Places of interest
Devasahyam Pillai is buried in the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier at Kottar in Nagercoil.Devasahayam’s tomb in St. Xavier’s Cathedral of the Diocese of Kottar has been restored and beautified in view of the declaration of martyrdom and beatification.
Devasahyam Pillai’s clothes and other belongings are kept in a church in the small town of Vadakkankulam in Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu State, India. They are exposed at the church on 15th of August every year, the feast of the Assumption of Mary. His wife was buried in the cemetery there.
Aralvaimozhy, where Devasahayam was killed, is on the Nagercoil – Tirunelveli highway. At that spot on the hillock (called Kaattadimalai), devotees believe that rocks fell and were broken at that moment. One rock at the place makes bell-like sounds when knocked with a stone.
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