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Exclusive photos: India’s joyous celebration of the canonization of lay martyr St. Devasahayam

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Anto Akkara - published on 07/03/22

Tortured for abandoning his Hindu faith and converting to Catholicism, Devasahayam was followed by an increasing number of devotees until his tormentors finally killed him.

Would you believe that the son of a Hindu temple priest and trusted soldier of a Hindu king could be declared a Catholic saint despite having been a Christian for less than seven years?

That is the amazing story of lay martyr Devasahayam who was canonized by Pope Francis on Mat 15 along with 10 others. This photo feature 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 insider to devout Catholic

Born in 1712 in Nattalam in the Kanyakumari district, Neelakandan Pillai embraced the Christian faith at the age of 33 while serving in the court of the Hindu king, Marthanda Varma who reigned over the peninsular south of India comprising parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala state where he had his palace.

The life of the elite soldier of the Hindu king took an unprecedented turn when he came in contact with Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy. The Dutch Catholic military officer had been appointed as “commander of the army” despite being a prisoner of war after a battle the Dutch lost to the king in 1741.

When Lannoy asked him why he seemed so gloomy, Neelakandan told the European about his misfortunes and loss of his property. The Dutch commander suggested he read the Bible, about the sufferings of Job, in particular. Soon, Neelakandan was sent to Vadakkankulam where Italian Jesuit Father Giovanni Baptista Buttari had been taking care of 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 shed his high caste status. Neelakandan rejected and opposed the discriminatory caste practices and mingled freely with “wretched” Dalits and others, and preached and brought them to Christianity. 

Sentenced to death

This infuriated even his own high caste family members who complained to the Hindu king about his betrayal of Hinduism and insult of gods and the royal authority. High-ranking palace officials joined in the cause against him, and the king sentenced Devasahayam to death on February 23, 1749. 

Numerous historical accounts of the life of the saint, 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 been 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 a buffalo’s back to humiliate him for forsaking Hinduism. 

“He was paraded to many towns and villages, both hands bound by chains, seated on a buffalo, with chili powder applied to his wounds, for refusing to give up the Christian faith,” said Fr. John Kulandai, the vice postulator for the canonization process and one of the foremost authorities on the life of the lay martyr. 

However, rather than become dejected and despondent, the condemned prisoner exhorted  Christians “to remain constant in their faith” and inspired them with miraculous healings during these parades, which were intended to intimidate his fellow Christians as well. 

Devasahayam, bound in chains, was frequently moved to different locations to prevent the crowds from reaching him to receive blessings and exhortations. Nevertheless, the crowds managed to reach him. At the same time, the officials entrusted with the task of persecuting him to a “slow death,” turned friendly and worked to ease his suffering, Fr. Kulandai told Aleteia.

Finally, the king ordered Devasahayam to be taken to the remote Aralvaimozhy gate (near the Kattadimalai mountains) “east of the kingdom and the place where criminals were often executed and thrown (down from the rocks) to be devoured by wild beasts,” writes Fr. Kulandai in his latest book, A Saint For Our Times: Martyr St. Devasahayam

The book was released on June 5, at the grand celebration marking the saint’s canonization, held near the site where Devasahaym was martryed at Kattadimalai. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the festivities, including over three dozen bishops led by Apostolic Nuncio to India Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli.

Fr. Kulandi described the day of the saint’s martyrdom: “Though the king wanted to keep the [execution] hidden from people, the news of Devasahayam’s presence at the fort spread and people started flocking the place.”

Soldiers had carried the weakened prisoner on wooden planks like an animal to the high rocks in the dark and shot him dead on the night of January 14, 1752, after granting him his last request for prayer. His body was dumped from the rocks. Though it was “forbidden to carry the body of executed persons,” Fr. Kulandai points out, when news of the secret execution reached Catholics five days later, “the mortal remains [were] gathered diligently and buried solemnly in the famous church of St. Francis Xavier” at Kotar.

A devotion that has lasted 270 years

That was not the end, but the beginning of a new chapter. Fr. Buttari, who baptized Devasahayam, summed up in his 1752 letter what took place: “Many used as medicine the earth on which he fell and gave up his soul to heaven.” 

Devotees started flocking to the site of his martyrdom and his tomb at the St. Francis Xavier Cathedral for blessings and healings. The martyrdom spot has become an elaborate shrine drawing hundreds daily while it has a residential facility for devotees to stay and pray for the blessings of the lay martyr.

Despite the Vatican stamp of canonization taking 270 years, the unprecedented devotion people displayed has remained steady from the beginning. Locations connected to the life of the lay martyr have been preserved and developed as pilgrim centers over two and a half centuries.

A pilgrimage in Devasahayam’s footsteps

At Puliyoorkurichi a magnificent church built around a rock, draws hundreds of Devasahayam devotees who drink and carry home holy water. Water continues to flow from the rock called “muttiyidichan para”(rock hit by knee) from which water had gushed out when a thirsty Devasahayam knelt in prayer for water while on his regular buffalo parades.  

Devasahayam’s house at Nattalam has been developed into a tourist attraction with a museum along with 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 detention there). The black granite cross at the sacristy of this church confirms its link to the life of the enigmatic saint. Every St. Devasahayam shrine has this trademark black granite cross.

Even the tomb of his wife, Bargavi Ammal – his first convert who became “Theresa” (in Tamil, Gnanapoo) — at the Vadakkankulam church cemetery has this trademark cross.

Any reader who visits the Wikipedia profile of St Devasahayam Pillai will be enthralled by the anecdotal incidents in the life of this lay martyr.

However, it is worth remembering that his surname “Pillai” isn’t valid anymore.  When the 2012 beatification decree carried his upper caste surname “Pillai,” Catholic groups objected, as Devasahayam had opposed the caste system and never used his high caste surname. Consequently, the Vatican deleted “Pillai” from the beatification decree and did not mention it at the canonization.

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