INTRODUCTION




📌 Born : 23 April 1712
Palliyadi, Nattalam, Kanyakumari District, Kingdom of Travancore.

 📌 Died : 14 January 1752 (39 Yrs)
Aralvaimozhy,  Kingdom of Travancore.

📌 Venerated : Catholic Church Latin Rite

📌 Beatified :  On December 2, 2012, Angelo Amato delivered a speech at St. Francis Xavier's Cathedral in Kottar, Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, India on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI.

📌 Canonized : 15 May 2022, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City by Pope Francis

📌 Feast Day : 14 January

📌 Major Shrine : St. Francis Xavier's Cathedral, Kottar, Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, India

📌  Attributes : Tied up in chains, Praying on knees before execution

📌Patronage : India, Persecuted Christians




Also known as
  • Neelakandan
  • Neelam
  • Nilakandan
  • Nilam
Devasahayam Pillai, was born Neelakanta Pillai and baptized as Lazarus on 23 April 1712. He was an Indian layman and martyr of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis canonized him as a saint on 15 May 2022.

Early upbringing :

Neelakandan Pillai was born on 23 April 1712 in Nattalam, which is located in Travancore (now known as Kanyakumari District). He was born into an affluent Hindu Nair family. His father, Vasudevan Namboodiri, was a Namboodiri Brahmin from Kayamkulam in present-day Kerala state. He served as a priest at the Adikesava Perumal Temple in Thiruvattar, which is situated in the present-day Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. Neelakandan's mother, Devaki Amma, hailed from Thiruvattar.

In adherence to the matrilineal tradition followed by the Nairs during that time, Neelakandan was raised by his maternal uncle instead of his father. His family held significant influence in the royal palace of Maharaja Marthanda Varma, the king of Travancore. As a young man, Neelakandan entered into the service of the royal palace. His exceptional abilities and dedication caught the attention of the palace, leading to his appointment as an official under Ramayyan Dalawa, the Dewan of Travancore.

Transition to the Christian Faith:

In 1741, Captain Eustachius De Lannoy, a Dutch naval commander, received orders from the Dutch East India Company to lead a naval expedition. The objective was to capture and establish a trading port at Colachel, which was under the control of Travancore. However, the Dutch were defeated in the Battle of Colachel by the forces of Travancore. De Lannoy and his assistant Donadi were captured and imprisoned, while their men either lost their lives or were taken captive. Later on, De Lannoy and the other Dutchmen were pardoned by the king of Travancore, but with a condition. They were required to serve in the Travancore army. Over time, De Lannoy gained the trust of the king and eventually became the commander of the Travancore army, the very forces that had previously defeated him. He introduced European military tactics, trained the troops accordingly, and brought in new weaponry and gunpowder. As a result, Travancore won numerous battles under his leadership, leading to the annexation of neighboring territories. During their influential positions in the King of Travancore's court, Devasahayam Pillai and De Lannoy developed a close relationship. De Lannoy's Christian faith intrigued Devasahayam, and he took the opportunity to enlighten him about the faith. This eventually led to Devasahayam Pillai's conversion in 1745. He adopted the name "Devasahayam," which translates to "help of God" in Malayalam, the local language.

Baptism :

Devasahayam embraced the Christian faith and was baptized at the Roman Catholic sub-parish church in Vadakkankulam village, located in the present-day Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu. The Jesuits, led by Rev. Fr. R. Bouttari Italus S.J., had a mission there. Neelakanda Pillai, his original name, was then changed to "Lazar", but he is more commonly known as Devasahayam in Tamil and Malayalam, which means God's help. Pillai was already married to Bhargavi Ammal from Kunchu Veedu, Elanthavilai, Mayicode in Travancore State. She was baptized alongside her husband and given the name "Gnanapoo Ammaal" ("Flower of Knowledge", equivalent to Theresa in Tamil and Malayalam). Due to concerns about potential backlash in Travancore due to her conversion, she decided to settle in Vadakkankulam village. Eventually, other members of Devasahayam Pillai's immediate family also received baptism.
Orders issued on the basis of accusations and charges:
According to historical records from the church, it is stated that the Brahmin chief priest of the kingdom, along with the feudal lords, members of the royal household, and the Nair community, falsely accused Devasahayam before the Dewan, Ramayyan Dalawa. These accusations revolved around Devasahayam renouncing Hinduism and abandoning Hindu beliefs. Such an act was considered a grave offense, leading to Pillai being stripped of his position in the Travancore administration and subsequently arrested. He endured three years of imprisonment, during which the European powers exerted immense pressure on the king of Travancore to secure his release. Eventually, orders were issued for his exile. Initially, he was to be publicly humiliated by being made to ride backward on a buffalo and paraded to the Kuzhumaikkad border, where he would be set free to enter Dutch-controlled territory. However, the original royal order was modified, and Devasahayam was instead taken on the back of a buffalo to the Aralvaimozhy border, which was closer to the capital, Padmanabhapuram. There, he was subjected to torture by ten different royal officers, following the advice of the ministers, before finally being released into a mountainous forest area. On the other side of this forest lay the kingdom of the Pandya kings, who were traditional rivals of Travancore.

Alternative customs and convictions:

Devasahayam Pillai endured a grueling journey from Padmanabhapuram Palace to Aralvaimozhy, escorted by soldiers over the course of several days. Regrettably, Pillai was subjected to harsh treatment akin to that of a criminal during those times. His body was adorned with red and black marks, customary for such individuals, and he was deliberately paraded through densely populated areas while seated backwards on a water buffalo, symbolizing Yama, the lord of death in Hinduism. This distressing ordeal involved daily beatings with eighty lashes, the application of pepper to his wounds and nostrils, exposure to the scorching sun, and the provision of only stagnant water to drink. During a pause at Puliyoorkurichi, not far from the Padmanabhapuram Palace of the Travancore king, Christians believe that God quenched Pillai's thirst by causing water to flow through a small hole in a rock, precisely where he had knelt to pray. To this day, the water hole can be found within the premises of a church in Puliyoorkurichi, approximately 15 km from Nagercoil. Furthermore, it is believed that the leaves of a neem (Margosa) tree in the village of Peruvilai, where Pillai had been bound while en route to Aralvaimozhy, possessed healing properties that cured the illnesses of the sick in the village and its surroundings. Numerous other miracles are attributed to Devasahayam Pillai.

Death :

In 1752, the King and his Dewan ordered the deportation of Devasahayam from Travancore to the Pandya country at Aralvaimozhy. He was released in the forested hills near Aralvaimozhy, where he began deep meditations, attracting people from nearby villages. According to Christian sources, high caste Hindus conspired to eliminate Devasahayam. There are accounts suggesting that soldiers attempted to shoot Devasahayam in the forested hills but were unable to do so. He then took the gun, blessed it, and returned it to the soldiers, allowing them to shoot him if they desired. The soldiers fired at him five times, and his body was left near the foothills at Kattadimalai. Devasahayam Pillai passed away on 14 January 1752 at Kattadimalai in Kanyakumari district. His body was later retrieved by locals and taken to the church at Kottar, now Nagercoil, where he was buried near the altar inside St. Xavier's Church, now the diocesan Cathedral. Following the burial of Devasahayam Pillai, numerous Christian pilgrims have visited his tomb at St. Xavier's Church in Kottar, offering prayers.

Process of canonization :

In 2004, upon the request of the Diocese of Kottar, the Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council (TNBC) and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) recommended Pillai for beatification. Some Hindu organizations opposed this recommendation, arguing that there was no evidence of religious persecution in Travancore during that time and that Pillai was executed for sedition. However, historical documents from Pillai's lifetime reveal that the conversion of court officials to Christianity was not tolerated. On June 28, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to issue a decree regarding Pillai's martyrdom, granting him the title of "Venerable." On December 2, 2012, a beatification ceremony and declaration of martyrdom took place in Nagercoil, in the Diocese of Kottar, Southern India. The ceremony was presided over by Cardinal Angelo Amato, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, acting as the papal delegate. Pillai became the first Indian layman, not affiliated with any religious institute, to be elevated to the rank of "Blessed" according to the canon law of the Catholic Church. On February 21, 2020, Pope Francis recognized a miracle attributed to the intercession of Devasahayam, paving the way for his canonization. He is the first Catholic in India, who is neither an ordained minister nor a religious, to be officially recognized as a saint. The Vatican announced on November 9, 2021, that Pope Francis would canonize him on May 15, 2022. On the fifth Sunday of the resurrection, May 15, 2022, Pope Francis elevated Devasahayam Pillai to sainthood along with nine other candidates.

The report submitted by the then Bishop of Cochin in 1756AD informed the Vatican about the Christian martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai, with witnesses like Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar. In 1780, Kariattil Ouseph Malpan petitioned the Vatican for Devasahayam Pillai's canonization. Church historian C. M. Agur noted in 1903 that although apostasy was not illegal in Travancore, it was not taken lightly, especially among the King's palace servants, leading to Pillai's martyrdom. In 1984, lay persons from the diocese of Kottar, including members of the Nagercoil Catholic Club, sought Devasahayam's beatification. This initiative was unusual for a layman, but he was known for his devotion to Christ. By 2004, after efforts by the Roman Catholic diocese of Kottar, the CCBI, and the TNBC, Devasahayam's beatification was recommended based on historical evidence. Bishop Chrysostom clarified that there was no intention of controversy in this decision.

Professor A. Sreedhara Menon, a renowned historian and writer specializing in Travancore, asserted that there were no documented instances of religious persecution in the kingdom's history. On the other hand, P. Parameswaran, the president of Vivekananda Kendra, a Hindu spiritual organization, accused the CCBI of attempting to offend Hindu sentiments. He referred to the Travancore state manual, emphasizing that Devasahayam, who was executed for sedition, was actually a palace employee involved in tampering with palace records and passing them to De Lannoy. Contrarily, Catholic records from that time indicate that the kingdom of Travancore did not tolerate palace officials converting to Christianity. In June 2012, Pope Benedict XVI officially acknowledged a decree from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, affirming that Devasahayam Pillai lived a life of "heroic virtues." This recognition marked a significant milestone towards his potential beatification, and he was henceforth referred to as "Venerable."

The process of Beatification and recognition as a Martyr :

Devasahayam Pillai was beatified and declared a martyr on December 2, 2012, during a ceremony held at the Carmel Higher Secondary School Grounds in Nagercoil, near his burial site in the Diocese of Kottar. The function was presided over by Angelo Cardinal Amato, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, acting as the Delegate of Pope Benedict XVI.

Various cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, religious individuals, and over 100,000 Catholics from across India participated in the grand ceremony, which included a Solemn Pontifical Mass.

Notable figures present at the altar included Cardinal Angelo Amato, Cardinal Oswald Gracias (Archbishop of Mumbai), Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo (Archbishop of Ranchi), Cardinal George Alencherry (Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), Baselios Cleemis (Major Archbishop of Syro-Malankara Catholic Church), Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio (Apostolic Nuncio to India), and Bishop Peter Remigius (then Bishop of Kottar).

Devasahayam Pillai holds the distinction of being the first lay person from India to be beatified by the Catholic Church.

On the same day of Devasahayam Pillai's beatification in the Diocese of Kottar, Pope Benedict XVI addressed pilgrims in Rome. During his Angelus Message, the Pope acknowledged the event in both Italian and English. In Italian, he stated:

"Today in Kottar, India, Devasahayam Pillai, a faithful layman who lived in the 18th century and died a martyr, was proclaimed Blessed. Let us join in the joy of the Church in India and pray that this newly Beatified sustain the faith of the Christians of that great and noble country."
He then addressed the crowd in English:
"I welcome all gathered here today to pray with me. I especially greet the people of Kottar who celebrate today the beatification of Devasahayam Pillai. His witness to Christ is an example of that attentiveness to the coming of Christ recalled by this first Sunday of Advent. May this holy season help us to center our lives once again."

Canonization :

Pope Francis acknowledged a miracle ascribed to the intercession of Devasahayam on 21 February 2020, paving the path for his canonization (sainthood). The Vatican declared on 9 November 2021 that the canonization ceremony would occur on 15 May 2022, and the canonization of Devasahayam and eight others transpired in St Peter's Square on that specific date.


Points of attraction:

Devasahayam Pillai's final resting place is within the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier in Kottar, located in Nagercoil. Following his declaration of martyrdom and beatification, his tomb underwent restoration and beautification. In the small town of Vadakkankulam, situated in the Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu State, India, various items belonging to Devasahayam Pillai, including his clothes, are preserved in a church. These belongings are publicly displayed on the 15th of August each year, coinciding with the feast of the Assumption of Mary. Additionally, his wife was laid to rest in the cemetery there. Puliyoorkurichi, which is found along the Nagercoil-Trivandrum highway, is the location of the water fountain that is believed to have quenched Devasahayam's thirst. On the Nagercoil-Tirunelveli highway lies Aralvaimozhy, the place where Devasahayam met his tragic end. At the specific spot on the hillock known as Kaattadimalai, where he was killed, a peculiar phenomenon occurs - when struck with a stone, a rock produces bell-like sounds.