devasahayam: Devasahayam, the patron saint of subordinates | Kochi News

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By: Georges Jacoby
Handcuffed and dressed in a traditional white cotton veshti (dhoti) with gold kasavu (zari) trim, Saint Devasahayam (Lazarus) brings a typical South Indian motif to the iconography of the Roman Catholic martyrologist. He is the first Indian lay martyr married in India, exalted today in the Litany of Saints of the Universal Catholic Church as Pope Francis canonizes him in a solemn ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City .
Devasahayam, who lived as a neophyte Christian for only seven years – the last three years he was imprisoned and tortured for his faith – was shot at the age of forty on January 14, 1742 at midnight, while he was in the custody of soldiers of the ancient kingdom of Travancore at Kattadimalai hillock located today on the Nagercoil-Tirunelveli highway in Tamil Nadu. Born into a high-caste Hindu family, Neelakanda Pillai (Devasahayam’s original name before his baptism) was drawn to the Christian faith under the influence of Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy, the Belgian-born Catholic general in chief of the Travancore army. , a former Dutch naval commander who surrendered with 23 of his men to Marthanda Varma during the historic Battle of Colachel in 1741.
Knowing well the antagonism of the orthodox Brahmins who controlled the administration of Travancore to Christian evangelization, De Lannoy sent Neelakan dan, who ardently wished to be baptized at the age of 33, to Father Giovanni Baptista Buttari, a Jesuit missionary Italian from Namon. Mission to Vadakkankulam outside the limits of the kingdom of Travancore. Upon baptism on May 14, 1745, he was given the name Devasahayam, which is a Tamil interpretation of the biblical name Lazarus, which means “God has helped.” Having joined the Catholic community, Devasahayam first brought his own wife to faith. , who took the name Gnanapu, which is a Tamil interpretation of Thérèse. Devasahayam mingled with people from all walks of life regardless of caste distinction and threw away the symbols of his ‘high’ caste, ate and lived with people of ‘low’ birth. Powerful people, including Ramaiyan Dalawa, the Prime Minister, and other senior officials tried to win him back, but Devasahayam showed great courage in expressing the firmness of his faith and even boldly declared that he was ready to be tortured or even put to death for Christ. The king ordered his arrest and on February 23, 1749 he was imprisoned. Later sentenced to death by the king, he was tortured, paraded in many towns and villages, both hands bound by chains, seated on a buffalo, garlanded with Erukku flowers as a sign of shame. Finally, he was taken to the prison of Aralvaimozhi, on the border between the kingdoms of Madurai (kingdom of Pandiya) and Travancore, then killed in Kattadimalai.
Seven days after the execution, Christians from Kottar and Vadakkankulam who were looking for the holy remains of the martyr, found the skull, knee bones and some pieces of small bones left by the wild animals, and took them to the church of Kottar, originally built by St Francis Xavier. Bishop Clemens Jose Colaco Leitao, the Portuguese Jesuit missionary who administered his vast diocese under the Portuguese dispensation of Padroado, upon hearing of the martyrdom, ordered that the church bells of all the 190 parishes of the diocese be rung and the hymn Te Deum be solemnly sung. in thanksgiving to God for the great grace of martyrdom brought to the Church by Devasahayam.
It was not until 2003 that the canonization process for Devasahayam began at the diocesan level in Kottar, the promoter of the sainthood cause. Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him blessed in 2012. The pivotal “miracle” that was essential for the final stage of the canonization of Blessed Martyr Devasahayam was reported in 2013 in Kanyakumari near his hometown. It involved the revitalization of a 28-week fetus, certified and declared “intra-uterine fetal death”. The lifeless fetus was in a “transverse lying” position at the time of the CT scan. The mother began to pray to the Martyr, drinking water from the well of Devasahayam’s house in Nattalam. After an hour, the mother felt that she was feeling better. During an immediate check by the medical team, it was confirmed that the heartbeat of the fetus had been detected again. After three months, she delivered a healthy male baby and the child was christened Devin Joe.
With the living tradition that has kept alive the unofficial “cult” of the martyr for the past 270 years, which had transformed him into a menial folk hero among downtrodden and downtrodden communities across a vast swath of land in Tamil Nadu and of southern Kerala, he was popularly known as Devasahayam Pillai. Even the official Positio document for canonization and the Declaration of his Martyrdom bore the “caste” appendix, Pillai. Christian lay leaders and eminent personalities had asked Rome to remove the indication of caste from the name of the blessed as it was manifestly anti-Christian, against the constitutional and judicial provisions of India and above all because he had to give his life due to the brutality of the caste system that prevailed in the Hindu kingdom of Marthanda Varma, who had dedicated his rule to Lord Padmanabha. The Congregation of Saints in Rome decreed in 2019 that the Martyr’s name in the official canon should no longer bear the Pillai caste appendage.
The division of castes and communities that prevailed during Devasahayam’s time is thriving in Indian society today and to a large extent in the Indian Church as well. In these days of religious fanaticism, the canonization of Devasahayam is significant as he is exalted as a saint for social equality, calling on all of us to build a society without caste and without social discrimination.
(The author has edited the recently published collective monograph Saint Devasahayam: Sacrifice and the Crown of Glory)


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