St. Devasahayam: A Unique Lay Martyr

Historical accounts abound of incredible anecdotal incidents, including miracles, when the lay martyr was being tortured publicly for refusing to recant his faith during the mid-18th century.

(Clockwise from left) Devotees take a photo at the martyrdom shrine of St Devaashayam. Portrait of Devashayam under glass  at his baptism church at Vattankuliam. Devotees have written their names on the glass for prayers. Anto Akkara poses for a photo at  St. Devasahayam's martrydom spot. Relaid tomb of St. Devashayam on his canonization at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Kotar
(Clockwise from left) Devotees take a photo at the martyrdom shrine of St Devaashayam. Portrait of Devashayam under glass at his baptism church at Vattankuliam. Devotees have written their names on the glass for prayers. Anto Akkara poses for a photo at St. Devasahayam's martrydom spot. Relaid tomb of St. Devashayam on his canonization at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Kotar (photo: Anto Akkara / National Catholic Register)

KOTAR, India — Among the 10 blesseds elevated as saints by Pope Francis on May 15, St. Devasahayam from the southern tip of India remains unique for many reasons. 

The Hindu convert was Catholic for less than seven years.

This profile of Hindu soldier Neelakandan Pillai, now St. Devasahayam, is based on the biographical booklet written by Italian Jesuit Father Giovanni Baptista Buttari, who had baptized the high-caste solider at the age of 33 and remained his spiritual mentor until his secret execution in 1752.

The Jesuit missionary has recounted dozens of incredible anecdotal incidents, including miracles when the lay martyr was being tortured publicly for refusing to recant his faith in the 1750s. 

Born in 1712 in an upper-caste Hindu family, Neelakandan completed traditional education in Sanskrit and martial arts before he joined the army of King Marthandavarma of Travancore in 1729. The king expanded his control to the southern tip of India in present-day Tamil Badu state, comprising the present Kotar and Kuzhithurai Dioceses.

In 1741, the Hindu king’s army defeated the Dutch and took several prisoners of war, including Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy, a Dutch Catholic military officer, whom the king later elevated as commander in chief “to modernize” the army in European style.

Meanwhile, soldier Neelakandan had impressed the king with military skills and was elevated as his close officer at his royal palace, at Trivandrum, the present capital of southern Kerala state.

Finding Neelakandan “melancholic” (in the words of Father Buttari), Lannoy queried him, and Neelakandhan shared the “losses” he had suffered: property lost, bulls dead and failed crops.

“God tests faith through suffering,” the Dutch commander Lannoy told the Hindu soldier after narrating the story of Job. 

Neelakandan started reading the Bible and wanted to embrace the Christian faith. Since the local clergy were worried about incurring the Hindu king’s wrath if they baptized him, they sent him to Father Buttari, who had been taking care of a vibrant Catholic community of more than 9,000 souls at Vadakkankulam, nearly 45 miles away from the king’s palace. 

Though Neelakandan wanted immediate baptism, Father Buttari, who had arrived in India 1737, arranged catechism for him for months; the priest baptized him on May 17, 1745, at Holy Family Church at Vadakkankulam and gave him the name Devasahayam (meaning, in Tamil, “Lazarus, God has helped”).

Despite strong opposition from his in-laws, Devasahayam’s first convert was his wife, Bargavimmal, who became Theresa (in Tamil, “Gnanapoo”).

Soon, Devasahayam started sharing the Christian faith and denounced the caste system that banned upper castes from interacting with lower castes, who were called “polluted people.” His own furious relatives accused him of causing misfortune on the family and even complained to the king of his betrayal of Hindu religious practices and gods and his authority. 

As a palace official, Devasahayam heard Prime Minister Ramain Dalava of the kingdom ordering a letter be sent to regional governors to persecute and reconvert Christians. Devasahayam challenged him to begin the persecution of Christians with him: “Why lose time, if you want to send Christians to exile? Begin with me.”

Hearing constant complaints from the upper castes decrying conversions to Christianity, the king decreed that only Dalits (low castes) and fisher people could become Christians and was angry with the upper-caste Devasahayam embracing the Christianity, defending it and spreading it. Hence, on Feb. 23, 1749, Devasahayam  accused of being a “most virulent defender of the Christian faith,” was condemned to death by the king.

In his booklet, Father Buttari included several incidents about how the order to execute Devasahayam could not be carried out, even after he was taken to the execution spot. Such delays were deemed miraculous.

Later, Father Buttari wrote that a “report went to the king that on the death of Lazarus some great misfortune would befall the Kingdom.” 

Thus, Devasahayam was not executed; his incarceration continued for three years. As a condemned prisoner, he was always in chains, as reflected in his depiction in statues and portraits. 

Even when he was paraded through Christian areas on buffalo back, with chili power applied to his bleeding wounds to humiliate him for refusal to recant his faith, Father Buttari said: “He encouraged the Christians to pray for him and said their garlands of flowers were more precious than golden necklaces from the king.”

Though high-caste Brahmins “put pressure on the king to chain and keep him exposed to nature to weaken him,” Father Buttari noted, those who interacted with Devasahayam were touched by his “cheerfulness in persecution.“ Soldiers who were supposed to starve and torture him turned “most affectionate and courteous,“ allowing the people to meet him and care for him, despite being told to keep him in isolation.

Devasahayam was forced to endure having a trunk of a large tree stuck between his knees while chained to ensure he could not sit or lie down for months. As Father Buttari recounted, royal officials “promised honors and riches if he abjured his faith.“ But the saint cheerfully rejected these entreaties, and “to everyone that came to visit him, he spoke of God and invited them all to remain constant in their faith.”

The holy convert went on evangelizing, and those who came to see him kept giving him food and money; with the excess, Devasahayam undertook charity work while imprisoned, healed the sick and preached the Gospel of Christ. 

“When the king [was] informed that [a] great multitude of both Christians and pagans flocked everyday to the prisoner,” Father Buttari said, the king commanded that Lazarus should be banished to the far ends of his kingdom. 

So the prisoner was taken to remote Kattadimalai, 45 miles from the royal palace at Trivandrum, where he was secretly executed during the evening of Jan. 14, 1752.

When the execution was finally approved by the king, one of the commanders (without considering the consequences for himself) offered Devasahayam help to flee. Rather than flee, the condemned man sent messages to Father Buttari and Dutch commander Lannoy, who had led him to Christ. Just before the execution, Devasahayam made a request for prayer, and after that, he said: “I have done my duty. Do yours as you have been told,” Father Buttari wrote.

And his holy legacy endured.

“Many boast of having obtained miracles from Lazarus,” Father Buttari pointed out.

In his concluding remarks, the Jesuit offered explanation for why thousands still flocked to the shrines of the lay martyr, especially to his martyrdom spot: “Many used as medicine the earth on which he fell and gave up his soul to heaven.” 

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