Devasahayam Pillai: An anti-caste crusader who was canonised

For Devasahayam Pillai, recently canonised by  Pope Francis, the enemy was caste.

And finally, with the canonisation, he will be known as Martyr Saint Devasahayam and not by his caste honorific Pillai. For a man who served food for all communities together in a common dining room, this is conceivably a dream realised.

“His name was Devasahayam, but people added the title Pillai because of the [Hindu] community in which he was born. The Vatican conducted an inquiry based on the request submitted by us and decided to drop the caste title,” said Fr. Kulandai, Vice-Postulator for the cause of canonisation.

Born Neelakanta Pillai to Vasudevan Namboodhiri and a Nair mother Devaki Ammal, he became Devasahayam, the Tamil rendering of Lazuras as “God’s help.”

He was referred to as Devasahayam Pillai when Pope Benedict XVI first made the announcement of his beatification on December 2, 2012. But the official press release on May 3, 2021, announcing Pope Francis’s decision to confer sainthood on him referred to him as Devasahayam.

Former IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam, who wrote a letter to the Vatican in 2017, made a strong case for dispensing with the caste title, saying he had never used it with his name.

Neelakanta Pillai before his conversion to Catholicism was an official of the Neelakanta Swamy temple in Padmanabhapuram in the Kanniyakumari district (now in Tamil Nadu). Though many incidents are attributed to his conversion to Christianity, there are no written documents to substantiate the claims. He was born in Nattalam in 1712 and shot to death at Aralvaimozhi in 1752

“Death of his wife is one of the reasons. The mental agony caused by the loss of cattle and properties is cited as another reason. They were passed through oral narratives. Vasap plays (Vaasappu in Tamil) which have their origin in Portuguese theatres, enacted in Kanniyakumari district and other parts, talk about his life,” said A.K. Perumal, who penned a biography of Devasahayam Pillai— Vedasatchi Devasahayam — in Tamil. Mr. Perumal also gave testimony to the Church when the process for his beatification was initiated.

Devasahayam Pillai was a friend of Eustachius Benedictus de Lannoy, the Dutch Army Officer, who trained the Travancore army in modern warfare after his defeat at the hands of King Marthanda Varma in the battle at Colachel. He rose to the position of the Commander-in-Chief of the Travancore Army and was known as ‘Valia Kapithan’.

“De Lannoy did not convert him. Instead, he sent him to Vadakkankulam, where higher-caste Hindus had already converted to Catholicism,” explained Mr. Perumal, who referred to the copy of a play on Devasahayam Pillai at the Sacred Heart College Library in Shenbaganur in Kodaikanal.

Asked about the basis for the alleged persecution of Devasahyam Pillai, when he was close to De Lannoy, Mr. Perumal contended he was targeted not for conversion, but for seeking to break the rigid caste system.

“In the first four years of his life as a Christian, he could lead a peaceful life. The next three years, he underwent persecution. He had served food to Dalits and other communities in a common hall which was said to have enraged the Ramaiyan Dalawa, the head of the Travancore’s administration. Another allegation was that he had sent teak logs for construction of a Church in Vadakkankulam. It has been recorded by Nagam Aiya in Travancore Manual,” said Mr. Perumal.

Mr. Devasahayam said the argument of Nagam Aiya “is a pure conjecture and character assassination.”

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 10:57:56 am |