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I. Martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai, a Grace to the Church in India

Though the Christian faith on the Indian soil is almost as old as the Church itself, brought here by Holy Apostles Bartholomaeo and Thomas, one thing was lacking for the Indian Church, the blood of martyrs. Besides the Apostles themselves and some missionaries like St. John De Britto, SJ, the “Apostle of Marava Land”, there are no recognized martyrs from among the Catholics of India. St Gonsalo Garcia the first Indian to be recognized by the Church as a martyr, was born in 1556 at Vasai near Mumbai and did missionary work in Japan before being martyred there in 1597. He was canonized in 1862.1 But to this date, no Indian Christian is recognized as a martyr for having shed his/her blood for faith on Indian soil. The saying of Tertullian, that “Blood of Martyrs is the seed of Christians” could not be said of the Indian Church.2 There were indeed many sufferings for the Indian Christians, “but only one bravely reached the palm of martyrdom, whose name in Tamil is Devasahayam”3

Fr. Buttari, writes about this vacuum for the Madurai and Neman Missions:

  • «The unrivalled glory which is wont to shed a luster on new missions, viz., the effusion of blood for the faith, had been wanting to the Madura and Neman Missions.»4
Reflecting on this disappointment for the Indian Church and referring to the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai, Buttari says with a sigh of relief:
  • «At last in 1752 it pleased Our Lord to glorify our Mission with blood shed for the Catholic Faith by a certain Lazarus, who, a few years back, had already hastened to march under the banner of Christ.»5
Zaleski, the Apostolic delegate to the East-Indies, who collected the names of those people who had died for Christ, says “At last the day arrived when Devasahayam-Pullay was to gain the crown of martyrdom.”6 The martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai therefore was considered a timely grace for God for the Church in India and indeed as the will of God. The writer of the first biography, Fr. Saint Cyrr, SJ, writes:
  • «It was the will of God that, when Devasahayam Pillai completed 40 years since his birth, seven years since his baptism, and forty days short of three years since he was first imprisoned for his faith, he should be freed from prison here on earth and be welcomed into the heavenly mansions.»7
So, as the documents clearly say, for Fr. Buttari and to the people in the Mission, the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai brought great joy and consolation.8 The Bishop of the diocese marked the relevance of the martyrdom for those times by his gesture:
  • «Bishop of the Diocese of Kochin, learnt of the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai, he had the Te Deum sung at the Cathedral there, in honour of his martyrdom. Then, he celebrated High Mass in the Cathedral, and in his sermon to the large congregation gathered there, praised the heroic life of virtue and martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai».9
The importance of the martyrdom is further emphasized by the Bishop’s Ad Limina Visit Report in which he allots many pages to the event and he also wrote a pastoral letter in the very year of martyrdom on the virtues of the martyr and the significance of his martyrdom.10

II. Martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai as a Witness to the Christian Virtue of Dignity an Equality of Human Persons

Like every true martyrdom the “blood witness” of Devasahayam Pillai has it relevance for the Church at large and for the local Church in particular. Yet it has also special importance for India. “Martyrdom is the voluntary suffering or acceptance of death because of faith in Christ or another act of virtue related to God,”11 says Pope Benedict XIV. Nilakandan Pillai embraced Christianity in a time when casteism and slavery was very prevalent. Caste was present in the Church as well. But Devasahayam’s faith in Jesus Christ helped him to see humanity as one family. He not only believed in this equality of human persons created in the image of God, but he also put this faith into practice by treating all people equally.12

He violated the unjust caste laws and observations and moved freely with all and argued for the rights of those oppressed by the unjust caste system. This belief of his and its practice was a threat to those of the upper castes and they contrived to kill him after trying in vain to reconvert him to Brahminic Hinduism.

Therefore, about the Cause for beatification or declaration of martyrdom of this Servant of God we can certainly say,
  • «In seeking to honour Devasahayam, we wish to uphold to the modern, still caste-ridden society of our days, the ideal of human equality for which he had to die. Devasahayam was not, therefore, any individual martyr, but the dreamer of a new society to be born in Christ.»13
III. The Impact of the Martyrdom in the Church then

The first impact was a massive increase in conversions. Most of the villages where he had been taken on the mock cum torture parade “to terrorize the Christians” saw widespread conversions as soon as the persecutions stopped. Thus, the above quoted saying of Tertullian really became true: The blood of martyr Devasahayam Pillai became the seed of Christians of the interior parts of the southern Travancore, which was coextensive with the present diocese of Kottar. Secondly the places connected with his tortures and death, especially the place of his death became immediately a great pilgrim centre. Buttari, who wrote an account of the martyrdom of Lazarus writes,
  • «Many of the Christians and also of the pagans after Lazarus’ death asked and implored his protection in their afflictions and boasted of having obtained it according to their wishes. Many used as medicine the earth on which he fell and gave up his soul to heaven.»14
The third example for impact is even greater: The story of his martyrdom spread throughout the Tamil speaking world, including Ceylon. Within a few years after his death in many places in Tiruchy, Madurai, Theni and Dindugul districts, the Devasahayam Pillai Drama was introduced by Jesuit missionaries as a means of ongoing catechesis for the newly baptized Catholics (and to old Catholics). The texts of the dramas consisted of “many oral traditions and written accounts of the hero’s life and martyrdom, which were disseminated by the ballads and vernacular music dramas which recount the story of his martyrdom.”15 This was also true of Jaffna in Ceylon, where the first drama in folkloric poetry was written as early as 1776, just twenty four years after the martyrdom.16