It became an unparalleled church history event when Devasahayam was canonized by the Pope at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on May 15, 2022. If we look at the history of the saints in the global Catholic Church, we can see that most of them are priests or monks. There are very few in the global Catholic Church who have been elevated to the rank of a saint from the common people. The fact that Devasahayam from India was enshrined on the altars is certainly a matter of pride for every Indian. Although born a non-Christian, and adorning a high position in the royal court, he renounced his position for the sake of his faith. Church of India has taken great pride in Devasahayam, the most valiant martyr of Christ who endured a great deal of persecution, ridicule, and insults for Christ. Born on April 23, 1712, in Nattalam, Tamil Nadu, he was martyred at the age of 40. Like Saint Thomas, who preached the gospel in India, Devasahaym was a valiant martyr and thus became the pride of India. His first name was Neelakanta Pillai. He was the chief in charge of the Padmanabhapuram Palace.
Childhood and parents of Saint Devasahayam
Devasahayam’s parents are Vasudevan Namboothiri and Devakiyamma. Vasudevan Namboothiri, a native of Maruthamkulangara in the Kollam district, came to the place Nattalam as a poojari (priest) at the temple. Although the language life there was a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil, Devasahayam (Neelakanta Pillai) spoke Malayalam at home. When we see the image of Devasahaym in white robes and kneeling, we are immediately reminded of Kerala culture. Neelakanta Pillai also first worked in the temple at Padmanabhapuram. A trained martial artist, Neelakanta Pillai later rose to become a military official and King Marthanda Varma’s loyalist. He married Bargaviammal at the age of twenty-seven and began family life.
De Lannoy -the one who paved the way for faith
In his post as the chief in charge of Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma Maharaja, Neelakantan unexpectedly learned about the gospel and accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. This was due to his friendship with De lannoy, a Dutch naval commander. Neelakandan Pillai befriends De Lannoy, a Catholic, while he is a military official. This was due to the war with the Dutch. In the Battle of Colachel, the king defeated De Lannoy, the general of the Dutch East India Company. The Battle of Colachel was between the Indian kingdom of Travancore and the Dutch East India Company. The king, amazed at the captain’s fighting prowess and character, made him commander of the bodyguards. Realizing his military prowess, the king commissioned him to train and upgrade the Travancore army. Neelakanta Pillai was his assistant in these works. It was the friendship between this general and Neelakanta that made Neelakanta Pillai a Christian.
Neelakanta shared with Lannoy some of the misfortunes that happened in the family and expressed his sorrow. To comfort Neelakanta, Lannoy, a staunch Catholic, told the story of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible. Job’s story was an answer to why the righteous have to endure so much. Job’s life story did bring much comfort to Neelakanta Pillai. Thus, Pillai became acquainted with the Holy Bible. He was attracted to Christ and believed in the suffering and resurrection of Christ.
Neelakanta Pillai was introduced to the Jesuit Missionary Fr. Jovanni Bouttari by Lannoy. At that time Fr. Bouttari was working as a vicar in Vadakkankulam, outside the borders of Travancore. Neelakanta’s decision to become a Christian was firm, but Fr. Bouttari was not ready to baptize him immediately. He sent Neelakanta to a upadeshi (counselor or spiritual teacher) named Jnanaprakasham Pillai. Jnanaprakash Pillai, also known as Chidambaram Pillai, was one of the first Christians to be baptized in that area.
After a few days of prayer and fasting, Neelakanta Pillai approached Fr. again. He insisted on becoming a Christian. Neelakantan also said that he was ready to endure any persecution to prove his faith. (He later applied it in his life). He was baptized on May 14, 1745, by Rev Fr. Bouttari at Vadakkankulam Church. The name he adopted at that time was Lazar. The word ‘Lazar’ means ‘God helped’. The word Lazar means Devasahayam in the Tamil language. Hence the name Lazarus’ equivalent Tamil word ‘Devasahayam’ was fixed as his name. Jnanaprakasham Pillai was the godfather of Lazar.
The changes that Christianity made to Devasahayam
Following his conversion to Christianity, Devasahayam has been charged with three offenses by local authorities-betrayal of God, betrayal of caste, and betrayal of state. One of the main reasons for the hostility towards him was racism. After his baptism, Devasahayam dealt with people without racism. He interacted with the lower castes without looking at caste discrimination and untouchability. The change in Devasahayam could not be accommodated by the upper castes and high officials. Devasahayam was working at Udayagiri Fort at this time. There were many changes in his character and demeanor. He treated everyone with kindness and firmly believed that they were all children of God.
In the early days of his baptism, Devasahaym had the most conversations and discussions with his wife. Naturally, Bhargavi had a lot of doubts and fears. The first was whether the poojas performed so far were in vain. The other was the obstacles that would arise in social life if one accepted the belief that ‘all are one’ without any caste distinction. Devasahayam was able to answer everything with conviction through the Word of God. Soon Bhargavi Ammal also converted to Christianity. Bhargavi Ammal adopted the Tamil name of Theresa, ‘Jnanapoo’. Devasahayam Pillai’s immediate family members were also baptized later.
In conversion to Christianity, the couple underwent a life-changing experience that influenced others to convert to Christianity. In addition to training them in the faith, Devsahayam took the initiative to accept them into the church. All this created unrest in the royal palace. Ramayyan Dalawa, the then Prime Minister, could not bear these changes. Not only that, but the authorities were upset that they were not following their traditional customs. He is accused of taking wages from the royal palace and betraying the country. They asked him to abandon Christianity. But no force could separate him from the love of God he had experienced. Love for Jesus made him ready to endure anything.
In the midst of endurance
When it became clear that Devasayam would not agree, the indictment went before the king. Believing that conversion was a mistake, the king imprisoned Devasahayam on February 23, 1749. Yet he remained a Christian. He was tortured in Travancore jail for almost three years. Authorities said that if he left the Christian religion he would be given higher ranks but Devasahayam did not accept it. The subsequent convictions were horrific. In addition to persecuting Devasahayam, the persecution was a warning to those who had converted to Christianity. Thirty times a day, he was beaten with a cane, and the wounds inflicted on the body were treated with chili peppers. The stinking garland was placed around his neck and carried on the buffalo’s back, mocking him. The torture did not end there either. When he fell off the buffalo, they dragged him along the road. Chili water was boiled and steamed by him. He was tied to a Neem tree for seven months. During those seven months, he endured wind and heat. Devasayam’s attitude toward suffering was the golden mark of his holiness. Through a life of unwavering faith, zeal, and courageous endurance, he deeply embraced the crucified Jesus. That is how Devasahayam became the pride of India. The king was angry that he did not change his mind. The king decides not to let Devasahaym in the land and orders the soldiers to kill him.
In the end, Dhevasahayam was taken to the Puliyoor kurichi forest by the soldiers to be killed. He became thirsty during the severe persecution and Devasavayam begged the servants for a drink of water. They did not give water. But not so, it is said that he was given dirty water but he did not drink it. He was thirsty anyway. Devasahayam hit the rock with his elbow and immediately sprayed water from there. It became a fountain. He drank water from it. Today, that rock is known as ‘Muttidichan para’.
‘Muttu’ means ‘elbow’, ‘edichan’ means ‘to hit’ and’ para’ means ‘rock’. ‘Muttidichan’ is a Malayalam word that means to hit with the elbow. The soldiers did not tell him that he was being taken to a mountain (Katadimala) in the forest to be killed. But he knew it. The soldiers were amazed when he told them that he was waiting for this day. Before his death, he only asked the soldiers only one thing. He said he should be allowed to pray. The soldiers allowed it and he knelt there and prayed for a long time. Signs were left on the rock where he knelt and prayed. After the prayer he told the soldiers that my work was done, now it’s yours to start with. The soldiers pulled out their guns, filled with ammunition, and then fired at him. But the guns do not work. The soldiers panicked. It is believed that Dhevasayam’s help eventually came to their aid. Devasayayam bought guns from them and blessed them. After that, the guns were activated. He died there. He was martyred on January 14, 1752, at Katadimala, after being tortured and humiliated. Soldiers returned the body there for the wildlife to eat, but the locals buried it according to religion. Burial was in front of the altar of St. Xavier’s Cathedral, Diocese of Kottar. It must be the first time that a layman has received such respect. Now the Holy Church is also officially recognized that holiness.
Even before his death, his divinity had made him famous. People had already testified that he was a saint. Like gold in a fire, Devasahayam melted in the throes of brutal torture, completely cleansed of all impurities, and was offered to Jesus.
Devashayam’s parents were Malayalees, and there are also Malayalees behind his proclamation of sainthood. Attempts to elevate Devasahayam to this position were accelerated in 1986 when Pope John Paul II visited India and proclaimed the Blessed Sacrament of Sr. Alphonsa and Fr. Chavara. Father George Nedumangad SJ, a Malayalee priest working in Rome has been appointed as the Postulator of the canonization process. In 2012, Devashayam’s martyrdom was officially recognized by the Church.
Devasahayam Pillai’s holiness of life
Devasahayam Pillai’s holiness of life was widespread in and around Kanyakumari during his lifetime. Many wonderful stories were spread all over the country in connection with this. The change and conversion in him and his wife attracted many to that religious belief. Many people were attracted to him because of his interaction with people without any caste prejudice. He was sentenced to death and many people visited him while he was in prison. News spread that there were many miraculous healings for all who visited Devasahayam. It is said that the royal servants who persecuted Dhevasahayam inside and outside the jail suffered various kinds of harm. The people believed that the unjust persecution of Dhevasahayam was behind the epidemics that were rampant there at that time.
Wonders of Katadimala
Katadimala, the holy land where Devasahaym’s last footprints were located, is not only a place of pilgrimage but also a tourist destination. Katadimala is a beautiful place of natural beauty. Many believers and tourists come here every day. Pilgrims also flock to the Kottar Cathedral where his body is buried. The saint is pouring out blessings. Those who have been cured testify that even chronic diseases are cured. The Vatican has miraculously acknowledged the testimonial of a family a baby who was pronounced dead in his mother’s womb at the age of seven months, was found alive as a result of praying to Devasahayam.
Devasahayam is said to have been shot at the spot where the cross is seen in the picture. He was shot and fell from the rock and died. At the same time, a rock fell and its voice rang out like a bell. Since there were no churches there, the locals came to find out where the bell rang. The locals found Devasahayam’s dead body and buried it at Kottar St.Xaviers Cathedral. It was the nearest church in those days. From the burial of Devasahayam at the altar of the Cathedral, it can be assumed that he was accepted as a saint at that time. We can also see the rock that he kneeled on before he died and prayed. At that place, the devotees poured oil, burn wicks, and extracted the oil, which is believed to have formed the pits at such a depth. The bell-ringing rock that fell that day still amazes visitors. If you tap on it, you will hear the sound of bells.
The first Indian martyred Saint
Only Devasahaym has the title of the first Saint martyr from India, and the first layperson to become a saint from India. The life of Devasahayam is a testimony to the life of many who are weary of the hardships and persecutions of the faith. Devasahayam tried to find paradise in his tribulation as Jesus embraced the cross. Persecution was not a difficulty but a gift to Devashayam, who carried Jesus in his heart. Devasahayam, who was martyred like Saint Thomas, deserves to be called the successor of Saint Thomas. Like Saint Thomas, Devasahayam was a victim of religious hatred. Without any doubt, we can say that the martyrdom of Devasahayam is one step above the courage of St. Thomas. Devasahayam’s ultimate wish was to be given time to pray when he was about to be killed. That Christ spirit and courage should be an inspiration to us too. Let us pray to him to stand firm in the faith. The sainthood of Devasahayam Pillai is certainly a matter of pride for every Indian.
Image Credit: Google
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