Tortured for abandoning his Hindu faith and converting to Catholicism, Devasahayam was followed by increasing numbers of followers until his tormentors finally killed him.
Would you believe that the son of a Hindu temple priest and a trusted soldier of a Hindu king can be declared a Catholic saint when he has been a Christian for less than seven years?
This is the incredible story of lay martyr Devasahayam who was canonized by Pope Francis on Mat 15 along with 10 other people. This photo essay traces the footprints of the enigmatic saint, scattered over 100 miles across the dioceses of Kotar and Kuzhithurai in the peninsular tip of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
From Hindu palace initiate to devout Catholic
Born in 1712 at Nattalam in Kanyakumari district, Neelakandan Pillai embraced the Christian faith at the age of 33 while serving in the court of Hindu King Marthanda Varma who ruled over the southern peninsula of India comprising of parts of Tamil Nadu and the state of Kerala where he had his palace.
The life of the Hindu king’s elite soldier takes an unprecedented turn when he comes into contact with Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy. The Dutch Catholic military officer had been made ‘commander of the army’ while a prisoner of war after a battle the Dutch lost to the king in 1741.
When Lannoy asked him why he looked so gloomy, Neelakandan told the European about his misfortunes and the loss of his possessions. The Dutch commander suggested that he read the Bible, especially on the sufferings of Job. Soon Neelakandan was sent to Vadakkankulam where Italian Jesuit Father Giovanni Baptista Buttari looked after the vibrant Catholic community.
Following his baptism on May 17, 1745, after undergoing months of catechesis, Neelakandan became “Devasahayam” (the Tamil version of Lazarus, “God has helped”). Transformed, Devasahayam became an avid preacher, even in the king’s palace, and abandoned his high-caste status. Neelakandan rejected and opposed caste discriminatory practices and mingled freely with the “wretched” Dalits and others, preached to them and brought them to Christianity.
Sentenced to death
This infuriated even his own high caste family members who complained to the Hindu king of his betrayal of Hinduism and insult to the gods and royal authority. Senior palace officials joined the cause against him, and the king sentenced Devasahayam to death on February 23, 1749.
Many historical accounts of the saint’s life, including a letter written by Fr. Buttari who baptized Devasahayam, tell the miraculous story of how the execution could not be carried out despite the prisoner having was taken to the place of execution.
For the next three years, Devasahayam remained a condemned prisoner in chains and was taken around towns and villages on the back of a buffalo to humiliate him for having abandoned Hinduism.
“He was paraded through many towns and villages with both hands bound in chains, seated on a buffalo, with chili powder applied to his wounds, for refusing to give up the Christian faith,” the official said. dad. John Kulandai, vice-postulator for the canonization process and one of the main authorities on the life of the lay martyr.
However, rather than beating himself up and down, the condemned man urges Christians to “stay steadfast in their faith” and inspires them with miraculous healings during these parades, meant to intimidate his fellow Christians as well.
Devasahayam, chained, was frequently moved to different places to prevent crowds from reaching him to receive blessings and exhortations. Nevertheless, the crowd managed to reach him. At the same time, the officials responsible for persecuting him to a “slow death”, befriended and worked to relieve his suffering, the father. Kulandai told Aleteia.
Finally, the king ordered Devasahayam to be taken to the isolated gate of Aralvaimozhy (near the Kattadimalai mountains) “in the east of the kingdom and the place where criminals were often executed and thrown (from the top of the rocks) to be devoured by wild beasts,” writes Prof. Kulandai in his latest book, A saint for our time: holy martyr Devasahayam.
The book was released on June 5, during the grand celebration marking the saint’s canonization, held near the site where Devasahaym was married to Kattadimalai. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the festivities, including more than three dozen bishops led by the Apostolic Nuncio to India, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli.
Pr. Kulandi described the day of the martyrdom of the saint: “Although the king wanted to keep the [execution] hid from the people, news of Devasahayam’s presence at the fort spread and people started to flock to the place.
The soldiers had carried the weakened prisoner on planks of wood like an animal to the high rocks in the dark and shot him on the night of January 14, 1752, after granting him his last prayer request. His body was thrown from the rocks. Although it is “forbidden to carry the bodies of those executed,” Fr. Kulandai points out that when news of the secret execution reached Catholics five days later, “the mortal remains [were] diligently collected and solemnly buried in the famous Church of St. Francis Xavier” in Kotar.
A devotion that lasted 270 years
It was not the end, but the beginning of a new chapter. Prof. Buttari, who baptized Devasahayam, summarized in his 1752 letter what happened: “Many used the earth on which he fell as medicine and abandoned his soul to heaven.”
The faithful began to flock to the site of his martyrdom and his tomb at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral for blessings and healings. The place of martyrdom has become an elaborate shrine attracting hundreds of people every day, while it has a residential facility where worshipers can stay and pray for the lay martyr’s blessings.
Although the Vatican seal of canonization took 270 years, the unprecedented devotion shown by people has remained steady from the start. Places linked to the life of the lay martyr have been preserved and developed as centers of pilgrimage for two and a half centuries.
A pilgrimage in the footsteps of Devasahayam
In Puliyoorkurichi, a magnificent church built around a rock attracts hundreds of Devasahayam devotees who drink and bring home holy water. Water continues to flow from the rock called ‘muttiyidichan para’ (rock struck by the knee) from which the water had spurted when a thirsty Devasahayam knelt in prayer for water during his regular parades of buffaloes.
Devasahayam’s house in Nattalam has been turned into a tourist attraction with a museum as well as a chapel and parish church across the road. The elegant Holy Family Church at Ramanputhoor is said to have been built at one of the places where Devasahayam was imprisoned (he had a vision of the Holy Family while in custody). The black granite cross in the sacristy of this church confirms its link with the life of the enigmatic saint. Every shrine of St. Devasahayam has this black granite cross.
Even the grave of his wife, Bargavi Ammal – his first convert who became “Therese” (in Tamil, Gnanapoo) – at the Vadakkankulam church cemetery bears this mark of the cross.
Any reader who visits the Wikipedia profile of St Devasahayam Pillai will be captivated by the anecdotal incidents of the life of this lay martyr.
However, it should be remembered that his surname “Pillai” is no longer valid. When the 2012 decree of beatification changed his upper caste surname “Pillai”, Catholic groups objected, as Devasahayam had opposed the caste system and had never used his upper caste surname . Therefore, the Vatican deleted “Pillai” from the decree of beatification and did not mention him during the canonization.