Lay martyr’s 300th birth anniversary observed in India

In a rare gesture eight years ago, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India endorsed his canonization cause.

Kottar (Kanyakumari): Today, April 23, marks the 300th birth anniversary of Devsagayam Pillai, a Catholic convert from Hinduism who the Church claims was martyred for his faith.

Special prayers were held at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Aramboly, a parish under Kottar diocese that has a shrine dedicated to the layman who is now a Servant of God.

In a rare gesture eight years ago, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India endorsed his canonization cause.

That was the first official attempt to have an Indian layperson declared a saint. It was also the first time the bishops’ conference directly took up a canonization cause.

All Indians who have been declared blessed until now were Religious or priests.

Kottar diocese in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, where Pillai was born, initiated his canonization cause and set up a diocesan tribunal for the process in 1984.

In 1990, the diocese sent to Rome the case of a lame Hindu boy, who walked after seeing a vision of Pillai, to speed up the process.

However some historians have challenged the bishops’ move, saying the Church based its case on “historical inaccuracies.”

According to Church accounts, Pillai’s conversion upset King Marthanda Varma, who ordered his arrest and imprisonment.

When three years of torture failed to make him abandon his new faith the king ordered his execution in 1752.

He was executed at a place that now comes under Kottar diocese.

Historian A. Shreedhara Menon, who claimed to have studied the king’s 29-year reign, dismissed the Church version as a “concocted story” and “figment of imagination.”

He said he found no evidence of religious persecution during King Varma’s rule.

Another historian, M.G.S. Narayanan, said there was no army chief with the name Pillai during Varma’s regime.

He urged the Church leaders not to “tamper with history for the sake of making someone a saint.”

P. Parameswaran, another Hindu historian, said the king executed Pillai for tampering with palace records, but not for converting to Christianity,

The hero of many Tamil folk dramas, Devasahayam was born Neelakanta Pillai into a Hindu high-caste Nair family on April 23, 1712.

His tryst with Christianity began after he met a Dutch general, who was the king’s military adviser. Pillai was baptized Lazarus in 1745, but people called him its Tamil term, Devasahayam (God’s help).

According to Father B. Wilson, a researcher into Tamil folk drama of the 19th century, Pillai identified with the poor and oppressed and challenged the unjust social order.

After his arrest, Pillai was taken around the villages on an old buffalo and daily given 30 strokes with a bamboo stick. They filled his eyes and nostrils with pepper and forced him to stand in the sun and drink polluted water.

He was executed on a small hillock on Kanyakumari-Tirunelveli border.

According to tradition, at the time of execution a rock fell and produced a sound similar to the tolling of a bell. Reportedly, the rock still produces that sound when struck with a stone.

After his death, villagers took Devasahayam’s body to St. Xavier’s Cathedral near Nagercoil and buried it there. The tomb remains in the church center.

Some 1,000 pilgrims from various religions, most of them Hindus, visit his shrine daily, according to diocesan officials. The pilgrims pour oil and milk over a stone cross erected on the spot where Pillai was martyred.

Childless couples and mothers praying for marriage for their daughters bring coconut saplings as offerings.