Meet Devasahayam Pillai – Convert From Hinduism To Christianity & First Indian Martyr

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Blessed Devasahayam Pillai – The First Lay Indian Martyr
Blessed Devasahayam Pillai – The First Lay Indian Martyr

Popularly known as Blessed Devasahayam Pillai (God’s help), he was born Nilakandan Pillai (23 April 1712 – 14 January 1752) into a Hindu family in the then Kingdom of Travancore (in the present district of Kanyakumari, in Tamil Nadu) southern India.

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. 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.

Pillai, an upper-caste Hindu nair convert to Christianity, was an official in the court of the King of Travancore, Maharaja Marthanda Varma, he was very much loved by the king and was a good man who was faithful to his duty.

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.

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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.

Convinced of the truth about Christianity, Nilakandan asked for Baptism which he received in 1745 from the hands of Father Giovanni Battista Buttari, a Jesuit missionary, after nine months of preparation. He took the name Devasahayam, the Tamil translation of the biblical name Lazarus, which means “God has helped.”

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On the day of his Baptism, Devasahayam dedicated himself solemnly to Christ: “No one forced me to come; I came by my own free will. I know my heart: He is my God. I have decided to follow Him and will do so my whole life.” His life was no longer the same; Devasahayam dedicated himself to the proclamation of the Gospel for four years.

Persecution, Prison and Death

Devasahayam Pillai Statue in St.Xaviers Church, Kottar
Devasahayam Pillai Statue in St.Xaviers Church, Kottar

The heads of his native religion did not look kindly on his conversion to Christianity. He was threatened, beaten, mistreated, imprisoned and tortured uninterruptedly for three years. Despite his sufferings, Devasahayam remained firm in his faith. His wife, Bhargavi Ammal too became Catholic and she took the name Gnanapoo Ammal (Theresa). Their conversion antagonized upper-caste Hindus and King commanded Pillai to reconvert to Hinduism but he refused.

Noticing that his example caused many to do the same, the king ordered his arrest in 1749, charging him with treason and espionage. He was imprisoned, tortured and finally banished to the Aralvaimozhy forest, a remote border area of Travancore. According to Church documents, en route to the forest, he was beaten daily, pepper was rubbed in his wounds and nostrils and he was exposed to the sun and given only stagnant water to drink. He prayed to God weeping, and hit the rock with his elbow, which gave forth water in a miraculous way he could drink. This rock continues even today to give water and even now people visit this fountain in large numbers. Today people drink this miraculous water and receive God’s healing. This rock is called Muttidichanparai meaning the rock from which water gushed forth.

The last prison of the Servant of God before his valiant death was at Aralvaimozhy, at the gate of the kingdom on the east confines. Devasahayam was brought to that place so that people might not know where he was. It is there that prisoners could be put to death in secret. The order from the King was that people should not be allowed to meet Devasahayam at all. But when the news of his presence in Aralvaimozhy spread people from the surrounding Christian villages such as Periathazhai, Koothankuzhy, Manapad, Vadakkankulam, Thovalai, etc., streamed to him daily, “so much, that the garrison looked more like a populous fair than a solitary place”.

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The wife of the Servant of God Devasahayam came to meet him there. He consoled his wife who was all in tears and encouraged her to trust in Jesus Christ. Then he advised her to go out of Travancore and live at Vadakkankulam. She bade a tearful farewell.

Ramayyan Dalava, the prime minister and Singaram Annavi the Secretary, who had demanded the imprisonment and torture of Devasahayam Pillai, were disappointed and worried that Christianity might spread more if the Servant of God was allowed to live any longer. Therefore they planned to have him killed. They approached the king and reported that his orders were not obeyed and Nilakandan was preaching his religion. The prison guard was immediately changed and a jailer unfriendly to Christians and to Devasahayam was appointed. The guards were also changed. The new officials obtained from the king an order to execute Devasahyam Pillai secretly.

The Mid-night Execution

At the dead of mid-night on 14th January 1752, as he lay in a restless state of prayer and sleep, Devasahayam was awakened by the soldiers and ordered to come out to another place. He is said to have remarked: “You need not pretend. I know whither you are taking me. Let us go”! The venue they had chosen for the execution was on the fringe of the wild Aralvaimozhy forest. It was a deserted place, inaccessible to ordinary human beings. The spot was called Kattadimalai,(now called as “Devasahayam Pillai Mount) meaning the mountain with an unceasing flutter of winds.

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Devasahayam, being carried him like a hanging animal to Kattadi Malai
Devasahayam being carried like a hanging animal to Kattadi Malai

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.

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.

Since the days of the interment of the mortal remains of Devesahayam Pillai many Christian pilgrims visited his tomb and offered prayers.

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