A Courageous Convert and a Living Legend

Author: John Elphinston

A Courageous Convert and a Living Legend

John Elphinston*

Cardinal Angelo Amato beatifies Indian marytyr Devasahayam Pillai

The beatification of India's first married layman and martyr is important not only for Asia but for the millions of Christians who suffer in silence for their faith around the world. On Sunday, 2 December [2012], in the Diocese of Kottar, Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints — on behalf of Benedict XVI — beatified Devasahayam Pillai (1712-1752), from the Kingdom of Thiruvithancore, today the Kannyakumari district in Tamil Nadu, India.

"Martyrdom and the vocation to martyrdom are not the result of human effort, but the response to an initiative and a call from God, they are a gift of his grace, which makes one capable of offering one's life for love of Christ and of the Church, and thus of the world". These words of Holy Father Benedict XVI (General Audience Catechesis, 11 August 2010), are fully applicable to the life, sufferings and the valiant death of the Blessed Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai.

Many may not have even heard the name Devasahayam Pillai, a mid-18th-century martyr of the Kingdom of Thiruvithancore, half of whose territory constitutes Kannyakumari district, Tamilnadu, South India. Devasahayam Pillai was born to an affluent and prosperous Hindu, Nair family (landlord and warrior caste at the time) in the year 1712 in a small hamlet called Nattalam. His name was Nilam or Nilakandan, and "Pillai" was a popular nomenclature referring to his high caste and social position. As a boy he learned Tamil and Malayalam, the languages of the people. He also studied Sanskrit, Hindu scriptures and trained in the traditional martial arts, archery, Varmasastra and the use of weapons. He became a high official in the palace, in charge of Nilakandaswamy Temple at Padmanabhapuram and an official in charge of the royal treasury, collecting materials for the construction of forts, payment of wages, etc. He married Bhargaviammal, a bride from an equally prominent Nair family.

Nilakandan Pillai experienced heavy losses of property and cattle which caused him great perturbation. Finding no relief in the performance of religious rituals to placate his family deity Bhadrakali in every possible way, he sought counsel from Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy, a Dutch Catholic military officer, who was arrested by King Marthandavarma after the Dutch were defeated at the Port of Colachel in 1741. De Lannoy instructed him about the mystery of God's loving providence in affliction, the Christian meaning of suffering in the Book of Job and the redemptive suffering of our Saviour. Nilakandan Pillai was impressed by Job's absolute confidence in God in the face of unbearable tragedies. Convinced of the truth of Christian mysteries, Nilakandan Pillai expressed his desire to be baptized, fully aware of the extreme consequences which might befall him. Fr Giovanni Battista Buttari, a Jesuit Missionary at Vadakkankulam, about 30 kilometers away and outside the King's domain, instructed him for nine months and baptized him on 14 May 1745. At baptism he received the name "Devasahayam" which is a Tamil rendering of the biblical name Lazarus, which means "God has helped".

Having joined the Catholic community, Devasahayam Pillai returned home and continued his office at the royal palace for four years carrying out his duties with his usual efficiency and conscientiousness. On the side, he also started an apostolic mission of evangelizing people, including his own caste. His first convert was his wife Bhargaviamma. Highly educated and deeply rooted in the ancestral religion, at first she resisted but finally yielded to the grace of God. She took the name "Gnanapu" which is a Tamil rendering of "Theresa". His continuous and courageous propagation of the faith, spreading the Good News, leading many to conversion and to Christ, while performing his high office at the King's palace angered the
Brahmins. The neophyte also mixed and mingled with people of every status and caste disregarding all caste distinctions. He threw away the symbols of his "high" caste (Ponool), ate and lived with people of "low" birth and returned to his office in the palace as a polluted person according to their custom and belief. He even dared to challenge the Brahmins in respect of their superstitions and heinous and inhuman oppression of the oppressed castes — among whom the vast majority were the Christians of the coastal Travancore. His new life became a cause of serious concern for all in the court and among high caste Hindus, who became his bitterest enemies. They accused him of the crime of betrayal, apostasy, contempt of religious practices and of insulting the Hindu gods, the Brahmins and the royal throne. Some even tried to woo him back from his new faith. But he showed great fortitude and firmness and even boldly declared that he was willing to be tortured and put to death for Christ.

The King, whose main preoccupation was preserving military and political tranquility in the Kingdom, finally gave in to the hostility of the royal coterie and caste Hindus against Devasahayam and let them have their way by dismissing him from office and had him arrested and put in a narrow prison on 23 February 1749. The following day he was condemned to death by the King, to be eliminated as "an enemy of the state". Before execution the King again gave a fresh order to take him around through the most important and populous towns of the Kingdom for his ignominy. He was paraded in all the important towns in the Kingdom in a most shameful manner, seated backwards on a buffalo with an Erukku flower garland around his neck, his hands tied behind his back and the executioner holding the end of the rope by which the prisoner was bound in his left hand, and a sharp raised sword in his right hand. This was the ultimate kind of shame and mockery at that time.

When the parade was over, he was then handed over to soldiers for execution. Left under the open sky, he was tied to a neem tree with fetters, hugging the tree with his legs bound in chains so that he could not move, sit or stand or recline. He was exposed to the hot burning sun, heavy rains, very cold wind and sometimes was almost submerged in the slush. He endured these most grievous sufferings for seven months. In the midst of so much suffering, his only sorrow was the delay of death and his only fear was that he might lose the crown of martyrdom. Far from requesting or desiring to be set free from chains, which he did not allow the guards to remove them, and when the guards gave him a chance to escape, he simply refused.

Chained, he led a worthy and exemplary life of virtues, prayer, penance and mortification. Every morn-
ing and evening he took time for contemplation and often during the day, he prayed briefly and read books of piety, especially on the life of the saints. In addition, he fasted every Friday and Saturday (he was martyred in the middle of the night, between both days). He was always obedient to the priests and whenever possible, he confessed his sins and received Holy Communion with the utmost devotion. During imprisonment, only thrice could a priest make his way to him in the dead of night. His lifestyle coupled with the fame of miracles brought him many in great numbers and procured for him such veneration. He proclaimed Christ to all of them. Many who denied faith for fear of execution were persuaded by him to courageously return and repent. There are also many miraculous events because of the Martyr. He was brought to a small place called Puliyoorkurichy where, overcome by thirst, he planted his elbow on a rock, from which spouted water that he drank. This rock continues to give water and even now many people visit this fountain. Because of the prayers of Devasahayam, the jailer and executioner who was without a child for a long time obtained a child during his imprisonment in Peruvilai and became friendly with him.

The efforts of the guards to forbid the crowd from speaking to Devasahayam or from approaching and listening to him were in vain. The soldiers reported this to the King, from whom soon they got the order to secretly execute him. Finally, after three years of gruesome torture, he was taken to a secret prison at Aralvaimozhi, where condemned criminals were sentenced to death by the King. He had to be killed quickly and secretly because the Catholics began visiting the Servant of God in large numbers. The Government officials kept the place and the date of his execution secret for fear of popular unrest. Finally, a little before midnight between 14 and 15 January 1752, he was taken to the place of his execution. As he was lying totally exhausted and unable to walk, he was carried by the soldiers to the nearby hill, kattadimalai. There he knelt and prayed intensely. The marks left by his knees and elbows can be seen even today. There he was shot dead by the soldiers. As five bullets hit him, he uttered for the last time, "Jesus save me". His body was cast away in to the forest to be torn up by the wild animals.

He had spent almost three years in fetters. Priests diligently tried in vain to in get hold of his body. At last, on the fifth day his bones were found shorn of flesh. His tongue was lying apart, incorrupt. They were gathered diligently and buried in front of the main altar of the famous church of St Francis Xavier, the present day Cathedral of the Diocese of Kottar. When the Bishop of the diocese heard of the heroic death of the Servant of God, he decreed that the Te Deum be sung in all churches in gratitude to God for "the palm of martyrdom" obtained by Devasahayam Pillai.

Soon after his death, the places connected to his life and death became important places of pilgrimage by all people. Many interior villages of the present district of Kanyakumari witnessed mass conversions to Catholic faith following his death, just as the mission work of St Francis Xavier was the main cause of conversions of the people along the coast. The name "Devasahayam" became one of the popular names for Catholics and non-Catholic Christians in the region. Following his martyrdom, he became a living legend and a venerated hero for the people of the region of Tamilnadu, Kerala, Sri Lanka and even beyond. Several narrations, poetry, folklore, stories and dramas were attributed to him depicting his heroic life and martyrdom.

Anyone who becomes acquainted with the outstanding life, conversion and martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai must be totally perplexed as to why this famous and venerated martyr has been proclaimed a blessed after two and a half centuries. Why 260 years of delay on the part of everyone for promoting this cause? It is impossible to comprehend that in 18th century Devasahayam, a married layman, five days after his death, was buried in front of the main altar of the famous church of St Francis Xavier, unless he was popularly revered and even venerated during his life and after his death as a holy man. Still more remarkable, Devasahayam is like St Paul (an orthodox Pharisee who embraced Christ being fully aware of the inevitable consequences), an orthodox high caste man, who embraced Christianity for noble intentions, being aware of its extreme consequences to the fullest extent and lived and propagated his faith right where he was, in the royal court, an environment which was completely under the control of fanatically orthodox
high caste people. In such a challenging situation he shed his blood, as a revolutionary, aggressively speaking for Christ and against the orthodoxy's superstitions and extreme inhumanity.

The call to holiness is for everyone. But, in the history of the Church the vast majority of saints are from the class of religious men and women. In this context, the beatification of the first lay, married martyr in India, becomes a significant one. His sanctity is not only important for today's universal Church, but also his zeal, courage and suffering can grant firmness, fortitude and solace to millions who are still silently suffering persecution in different parts of the world. Devasahayam paid the price for his faith in Christ even to the extent of radically renouncing anti-Gospel, anti-Christian values like caste system and other dehumanizing evils. His beatification is a call for all of us, now more than ever!


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 December 2012, page 11

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