Lay Apostle and Martyr (1712-1752).
Devasagayam was born at Nattalam, near Nargercoil, Tamil Nadu, (India), in 1712 in a Hindu Nair family and his full name was Nilakandan pillai.History does not give any clear information about his parentage.It is common;ly believed that his father belonged to a Potti-Brahmin or Nair caste of Travancore.It is fairly certain that he was the scion of a rather well-to-do family and enjoyed a high social status.
Young Nilakandan had his primary education in his village school where he learned Malayalam, Tamil and sanskrit.being an intelligent youngster, he studied Hindu philosophy, especially the Upanishads. He was trained also in martial arts. Although he had inherited great wealth, he did not have the pomp and show usually associated with the rich. His own servants and the needy of the area always found in him a friend and benefactor. In due time he married a young Nair girl, Bhargavi Amma. Their married life was quite happy.
Disaster struck Neelakandan’s family in tragic events like sickness, loss of property, money etc. All his cattle were destroyed and natural calamities took away some of his relatives. They were convinced that it was all due to the anger of God and hence offered special pujas (Sacrifice) to placate the anger of the gods and goddesses. But Neelakandan found no peace in his mind. King Marthanda Varma of Travancore made him his minister and asked him to supervise the work and act as the trustee of the new temple which was dedicated to god Neelakanda Swami. The minister put his heart and soul into the work and did it with exceptional dedication and honesty.
India had commercial relationship with the Middle East as well as East Asian countries. Hence many commercial centres came up in the coastal region. The Dutch wanted to capture some of them and in 1741 they attacked Eraniyal, one of the most important commercial centres. King Marthanda Varma rose to the occasion and in the ensuing battle the Dutch lost at Colachal.
Neelakandan Pillai was introduced to the Catholic faith by Eustachius de Lannoy, a Dutch military officer, apprehended as a prisoner by King Marthanda Varma during the Colachal war. Subsequently Marthanda Varma took De Lannoy into his army and, with his help, modernized his army.
In 1745 Nilakandan Pillai was baptized by Fr Giovanni Baptista Buttari, sj, the parish priest of Holy Family Church, Vadakkankulam. His baptismal name was Devasagayam (Tamil rendering of the biblical name Lazarus, which means, God’s help). From then on, he walked 18 miles every day to attend the Holy Mass. He prayed for the conversion of his wife. After a period of doubt and hesitation she too received baptism from Fr Baptista Buttari and was christened Theresa (Tamil: Gnanappu).
Around this time, a persecution broke out against the Christians and a few Christians gave up their life for Christ and thus became martyrs. However, Devasagayam Pillai survived. He refused to perform the duties of his former faith and freely mixed with the Christians, who were considered as untouchables and unclean. This was a grave offence in Travancore. To add to this the new Christians started preaching the Christian faith and many became Christians. On 23 February 1749, Devasagayam Pillai was arrested and was taken to the court where Brahmins accused him of blasphemy against the Hindu gods. For these offences the king Marthanda Varma gave order to shoot him. He was shot dead on 14 January 1752 at Kattradimalai (now Devasagayam mount) after three years of imprisonment and cruel torture, which he bore with firm faith, deep love and great courage for Christ. Devasagayam Pillai was 40 years old at the time of his martyrdom. He had lived as a Christian only for seven years and three of these, he had to undergo constant persecution. After his death, the soldiers threw his body in the open for dogs to eat. But the body remained untouched for seven days. Some merchants found the revered body of Devasagayam Pillai and informed the parish priest of Kottar, Tamil Nadu. The parish priest with the help of some of the faithful buried him in front of the main altar of St Francis Xavier’s Church, Kottar.
The people of the locality always considered him a true and authentic martyr and often visited his tomb and received many favours through his intercession. At the request of people and clergy some attempts were made in the second half of the eighteenth century to introduce his cause of canonization. Unfortunately, the documents were lost in transit but nothing came out of it. Later, through the initiative of bishop Arockiasamy, then bishop of Kottar, the process of canonization of Devasagayam Pillai has been taken up. On 7 September 2008 Devasagayam Pillai was declared a Servant of God during a Solemn Mass held at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral Church,Kottar.
“Why should I run away like a coward? Is it not a grace to become a martyr? If Christ gave his life for my sake, why should I not give mine for Him?”
“O Jesus, my Saviour, You suffered in order to save mankind; forgive my sins and forgivce my enemies.Jesus, I offer myself totally to you.Mary my Mother, intercede for me.” -Last prayer of Devsagayam before his martyrdom.
This excerpt is taken from the book: Fragrances of Holiness in India. Available here.