Devasahayam: The First Martyr For Jesus Christ In Travancore

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Bibliographic Information
Journal Conference Proceedings of Educational Paradigm, Systems and Strategies
Title Devasahayam: The First Martyr For Jesus Christ In Travancore
Author(s) Raj, Pushpa
Volume 1
Issue 1
Year 2014
Pages 1-6
DOI 10.21016/ICEPSS.2014.14031
Full Text Crystal Clear mimetype pdf.png
URL Link
Keywords St. Thomas, Devasahayam, Marthanda Varma, St. Thomas Mount, Vasco-da-gama
Chicago 16th Raj, Pushpa. "Devasahayam: The First Martyr For Jesus Christ In Travancore." Conference Proceedings of Educational Paradigm, Systems and Strategies 1, no. 1 (2014).
APA 6th Raj, P. (2014). Devasahayam: The First Martyr For Jesus Christ In Travancore. Conference Proceedings of Educational Paradigm, Systems and Strategies, 1(1).
MHRA Raj, Pushpa. 2014. 'Devasahayam: The First Martyr For Jesus Christ In Travancore', Conference Proceedings of Educational Paradigm, Systems and Strategies, 1.
MLA Raj, Pushpa. "Devasahayam: The First Martyr For Jesus Christ In Travancore." Conference Proceedings of Educational Paradigm, Systems and Strategies 1.1 (2014). Print.
Harvard RAJ, P. 2014. Devasahayam: The First Martyr For Jesus Christ In Travancore. Conference Proceedings of Educational Paradigm, Systems and Strategies, 1.

Abstract

Travancore was the first and foremost among the princely states of India to receive the message of Jesus Christ. According to tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle came to India in 52 A.D. He made many conversions along the west coast of India. It had to the beginning of the Christian Community in India from the early Christian era. He attained martyrdom in 72 A.D. at Calamina in St. Thomas mount, Madras. He was the first to be sacrificed for the sake of Christ in India. During the close of the second century A.D. the Gospel reached the people of southern most part of India, Travancore. Emperor Constantine deputed Theophilus to India in 354 A.D. to preach the Gospel. During this time the persecution of Christians in Persia seemed to have brought many Christian refugees to Malabar coast and after their arrival it strengthened the Christian community there. During the 4th century A.D. Thomas of Cana, a merchant from West Asia came to Malabar and converted many people. During the 6th century A.D. Theodore, a monk, visited India and reported the existence of a church and a few Christian groups at Mylapore and the monastery of St. Thomas in India. Joannes De Maringoly, Papal Legate who visited Malabar in 1348 has given evidence of the existence of a Latin Church at Quilon. Hosten noted many settlements from Karachi to Cape Comorin and from Cape Comorin to Mylapore. The Portuguese were the first European power to establish their power in India. Under the Portuguese, Christians experienced several changes in their general life and religion. Vas-co-da-gama reached Calicut on May 17, 1498. His arrival marked a new epoch in the history of Christianity in India. Many Syrian Catholics were brought into the Roman Catholic fold and made India, the most Catholic country in the East. Between 1535 to 1537 a group of Paravas were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese. In 1544 a group of fishermen were converted to Christian religion. St. Francis Xavier came to India in the year 1542. He is known as the second Apostle of India. He laid the foundation of Latin Christianity in Travancore. He could make many conversions. He is said to have baptized 30,000 people in South India. Roman Congregation of the propagation of Faith formed a Nemom Mission in 1622. The conversion of the Nairs was given much priority. As a result, several Nairs followed Christian faith particularly around Nemom about 8 k.m. south of Trivandrum. Ettuvitu pillaimars, the feudal chiefs began to persecute the Christians of the Nemom Mission. Martyr Devasahayam, belonged to the Nair community and was executed during the reign of Marthandavarma (1729-1758). It is an important chapter in the History of Christianity in South India in general, and of Travancore in particular.

Introduction

Birth and Nativity

Nattalam is situated near Padmanabhapuram, an ancient capital of Travancore Kingdom. In the Central place of Nattalam there was a house called Elangam Veedu located near the Maruthakulam. Devasahayam was born in the Elangam Veedu Nair family in the year 1712. Devasahayam’s original name was Neelakantan, literally the word Neelakantan means ‘Blue necked’. According to the Nair custom, the individual’s initial relationship is to his mother and through her to other kinsmen. This system is called by the people as ‘Marumakkathayam’. The elite Nayars opposed this system. Therefore, the Marumakkathayam system was abolished by the enactment of Nayar Regulation of 1925. Neelakantan was educated according to the rites of the Nair family. While Neelakantan grew up into an adult, his parents searched for a bride for him. It is from Mekkode on the banks of Valliyar river that Neelakantan married Bhargaviamma, a Nair lady.

Minister in the Court of Marthandavarma

Marthandavarma (1729-1758) is generally regarded as the creator of modern Travancore. He succeeded to power in the year 1729, at the age of twenty three. He came to know that, there was a Nair Hindu, who belonged to Nattalam village, who was a highly educated person in theology. It made the Raja Vanchi Marthandan give a place to Neelakantan in his court.

Steward at Neelakantaswamy Temple

Padmanabhapuram is situated almost a mile north of the Udayagiri fort, in the Nagercoil – Trivandrum Highways. Upto 1744 Padmanabhapuram was called as Kalkulam. It has an old palace and many temples. It also had a fort covering an area of nearly 187 acres. Marthandavarma rebuilt the historic temple of Neelakantaswamy at Padmanabhapuram. After learning all the efficient talents of Neelakantan, Maharaja appointed him as the steward of Neelakantaswamy temple at Padmanabhapuram. He was also managing the affairs of the Maharaja’s Palace at Padmanabhapuram. Soon Neelakantan emerged very popular since he made good relation with the Maharaja and his court ministers.

Troubles in Neelakantan’s Home

The family as a whole has to suffer a lot of troubles and turmoils. All the members of the family including Neelakantan were very much worried about these developments. The head of the family decided that, the sudden loss of all these things was mainly due to the anger of his family Deity Bhadrakali. The people of that region were of the view that, it was the anger of their Deity. So, as a remedy to all those unhappy events they carried out various forms of celebrations to honour their family Deity, Bhadrakali. Yet there was no relief to the suffering family.

Battle of Colachel 1741

The expansion of Travancore under Marthandavarma (1729-1758) posed a threat to the European powers in Travancore. At the commencement of the reign of Marthandavarma, Malabar was divided into a number of Principalities and they were constantly at war with one another. The Dutch who were waiting for an opportunity to put an end to the growing power of Marthandavarma interfered in this conflict. The activities of the Dutch Governor Van Imhoff provoked Marthandavarma very much. He collected his forces and attacked the Dutch and the Illaiyatattu forces. The combined armies of the Dutch and Illaiyatattu Svarupam was completely routed and the Raja re-occupied the territory.

The Dutch immediately took steps for a final attack against Marthandavarma. Their idea was to land an army at Colachel and to seize the territory from there to Kanyakumari. On 10th February 1741 the Dutch landed their forces a little northward of Colachel after a heavy bombardment. Towards the close of May, that is on 27th May 1741, Maharaja commenced the attack. The Travancore forces carried their works very near the Dutch Stockades and kept a continental watch over the sea. On 7th August 1741 a red hot ball fired from the Travancore side, fell into the barrel of gun powder and caused a conflagration in the stockade and the whole rice supply was consumed by it. Unable to get any supplies from their ships, the Dutch were forced to surrender. The Travancore army laid siege to the fort and took three hundred and eighty nine muskets, a few pieces of cannon and a large number of swords. Above all, the Travancoreans captured twenty four Europeans as political prisoners, and all of them were shut up in the fort at Udayagiri. Among the political prisoners, Eustachius De’Lannoy and Donadi impressed Marthandavarma.

Udayagiri Fort

The Udayagiri fort is located on the main southern road, ten miles to the north western side of Nagercoil. It was one of the important military stations of the state. The Dutch prisoners were imprisoned at Udayagiri fort. De’Lannoy also stayed at Udayagiri. Seeing the extraordinary skill and administrative power of the Dutch prisoner, King Marthandavarma authorised him to supervise and construct a strong fort at Udayagiri. The administration of magazines and arsenals were also entrusted to De’Lannoy. In the meantime, Neelakantan was working as Steward in the Neelakanta Swamy Temple, as well as the pay master. In due course De’Lannoy and Neelakantan became good friends.

Neelakantan becomes Devasahayam

Fr. Simon Carvalho had founded a mission station at Nemom, in the year 1708. From there the mission extended the work in the areas of Vadakkankulam, in the Tirunelveli Frontier of South Travancore. From 1713 to 1775 Vadakkankulam Holy Family Church was under the control of Nemom mission. From 1741 to 1751 Fr. Buttari was in charge of the Vadakkankulam Church. During this period, Neelakantan was sent by De’Lannoy to Vadakkankulam with the recommendation letter. After finishing all preliminary works Fr. Buttari come to baptise Neelakantan. The baptism took place on 14th May, 1745. His God Father was Gnanaprakasam, a Christian of the Vadakkankulam Church.

The name Neelakantan was changed into Devasahayam. At that time, Devasahayam was thirty two years of age. Later Devasahayam joined the congregation at the Holy Family Church. The real baptismal name of Neelakantan was Lazerus, in Tamil it means Devasahayam (God’s help).

Conversion of Devasahayam’s Wife

Devasahayam now wanted to convert his whole family into Christian faith. He first selected his wife as the first from his family. Devasahayam received the sacraments very often, and he wanted to share his happiness with others. He tried to make new converts to Christian religion. His wife did not follow the teachings of Christ. Day by day, there was a change taking place in the mind of his wife. Finally Fr. Buttari gave baptism to Devasahayam’s wife and gave her a new name Thiresa. Thiresa in Tamil means Gnanapoo.

Reconstruction of Vadakkankulam Church

During the year 1749 Father Buttari wanted to reconstruct the Vadakkankulam R.C. Church. The priest was in need of some timber. His Reverence thought that, if he got the support of Devasahayam, the work would be done without any difficulty. Father Buttari begged Devasahayam to go and ask the Prime Minister Ramaiyyan for the wood required for the construction. To fulfil the request Devasahayam made the necessary application to the Government and he liked to talk with his Dalava. One day Devasahayam stood before the Dalava. When the Dalava saw Devasahayam, he threatened him and warned him that Christianity would soon be exterminated from the state. He did not grant the timber, but he entered into discussion with Devasahayam.

The Report of the Brahmins

Marthandavarma devoted his rule by dedicating the whole state to God Padmanabhaswamy. In Travancore history it was called by the name Tiruppadidanam. In this period some Brahmins went to the court of Maharaja, and requested that, Devasahayam, an officer of His Highness Government, had embraced the Christian religion and was insulting the Gods, Brahmins and the royal throne itself. The Maharaja, a friend of Brahmins pondered over the complaints and sent for his Chief Minister. Immediately he came to the court, and the Raja enquired about Devasahayam. The Raja came to know of the conversion of Devasahayam to Christianity.

Orders to Arrest Devasahayam

King Marthandavarma got annoyed and he summoned his ministers and held discussions with them. The ministers also wanted to take vengeance against Devasahayam. After consulting his ministers, Raja commanded the soldiers to bring Devasahayam. Soldiers were immediately despatched to Padmanabhapuram and they communicated to him the royal order for arrest. Devasahayam obeyed the order at once. He required some time to meet his friend De’Lannoy and he sent a messenger to Udayagiri. As soon as the news reached, De’Lannoy was upset. De’Lannoy at once went to Padmanabhapuram, and met his friend Devasahayam and advised him.

He was arrested on 23rd February 1749. Devasahayam was taken in front of the king. The Brahmins also assembled there to witness at the proceedings against Devasahayam. Singaram Annah, the personal secretary of the Maharaja, made very serious charges. Marthandavarma advised him to give up Christianity, and warned him, that if he failed to accept the Royal order, he would cut his body into small pieces and give it to the vultures. Devasahayam replied calmly that, if he wanted to cut the body into pieces, he could do it. At last, Marthandavarma lost his temper and ordered the servants to put him in prison.

Devasahayam at Thiruvithancode Prison

As per the orders of the king Marthandavarma, Devasahayam was put in the prison, at Thiruvithancode. Christians and Hindus from various places visited him to listen to his discourses. The crafty devises of the authorities to make Devasahayam renounce Christianity failed, and they sought vengeance. On many occasions the Brahmins tried to make him smear his forehead with ashes. They tried to induce him to recite the mantras of the Hindu religion. Devasahayam refused to comply with their wishes and their demands.

By the orders of the king, Devasahayam was given thirty stripes daily and chilly powder was rubbed as usual. One day when he was being buffed with pepper, he opened his eyes and requested the soldiers to throw some pepper in his eyes. He thought that, by doing so, God will forgive the sins committed with his eyes. One evening the soldiers, either due to oversight or pity, did not rub him with chilly powder. Devasahayam humorously remainded them that, because they did not apply the medicine as usual, he was feeling uncomfortable. Devasahayam asked the soldiers to execute the royal orders. Enranged at this reminder, the soldiers beat him with canes, applied a larger quantity of chilly powder and made him sit under the hot sun. While he was at Puliyoorkurichi, he was so thurst. He asked water to drink. But it was not given. So he hit the rock and the water burst out and drank it. This place is even today called as “Muttidichanparai”.

Devasayaham at Aramboly

King Marthandavarma ordered his men to take Devasahayam to Aramboly hand cuffed and fettered, that he be starved and kept in prison that he be guarded by soldiers day and night and that no one be allowed to go near him. He was taken to Aramboly, seven miles from Nagercoil and was tied to a Portia tree by iron chains. During the first ten days Devasahayam was very much tortured. He was not able to sit or lie down. He was exposed to nature. After suffering for ten days he was thrown under a palm roof. He was not given anything to eat or drink.

Large numbers of people, disregarding the instructions of the soldiers, went near Devasahayam and talked to him. Many offered him money and food. People requested him to pray for their needs. There also he performed miracles. The sick regained health and the irresolute of mind became steady. Those who visited him were heathens, whom he exhorted to detest the fictions of their false Gods, exposed to them the mysteries of the Holy Faith, and sent them away pleased and satisfied. The King’s own doctor a man well skilled in his job-witnessed that, miraculous cure of various infirmities and diseases were obtained by several people through the prayers of Devasahayam.

Devasahayam had to spend more than one year in that prison, where he was attacked by fever for several days and was compelled to give up Christ. The soldiers wanted to remove him from the stocks, but Devasahayam refused and declared openly not only that he was content, but that he wished to die for Christ. Everyday especially in the evening and in the morning he had a fixed time for prayer. At prison he made himself a preacher of the Christian religion and did not cease to inculcate eagerly the new faith on all Hindus, to give advice to the Christians, and to read ascetic books and particularly the life of saints. Through his advice, he positively influenced many, who for fear of the persecution had abandoned the faith.

Order to Kill Devasahayam

The chief of the soldiers informed that the soldiers were guarding not a prisoner, but a most virulent follower of the Christian faith and a most learned preacher to a numerous audience of persons of all conditions. He also alleged that, “Devasahayam is exercising some magic influence on the people. Everyone who listens to him acts according to his words. He is uttering imprecations against the Brahmins and the royal family. He is uttering some prayers and the sick are healed. Large number of Hindus are becoming Christians and are rediculing the Brahmins. If he be not immediately put to death, his religion will spread prestige of Brahmins and of the Hindu religion itself will come to nought”.

The King, seeing that all his shifts to prevent this concourse of people to Devasahayam had proved futile, ordered, “Let Devasahayam be secretly taken to Kattadi Malai, a hill about six furlongs from the place where he is kept tied to the tree and he be shot to death”. The chief soldier went back to Aramboly. For two or three days he did not tell any one about this order. Eight days before his death, Devasahayam called his wife and exhorted her to abide steadfastly in the faith, for which he was going to suffer martyrdom. He suggested to his wife not to remain in Travancore after his death. He asked her to leave for Vadakkankulam and spend the rest of her life there. She was shedding tears and was overtaken by emotions.

On Friday 14th January 1752 the chief of the soldier came there and sent some soldiers to bring Devasahayam before him. The soldiers told Devasahayam, that the maharaja had ordered that he be taken to another place. Devasahayam replied calmly, “You need not hide anything to me I know where you are going to take me. So let us go”. The chief officer had already despatched some soldiers to Kattadimalai with instructions to get ready with everything for the execution. As per the orders, Devasahayam marched towards Kattadimalai. Soldiers surrounded him and forced him to walk fast. As he could not walk quickly with fetters and manacles, the soldiers passed a stick across them and carried him to Kattadimalai the place of execution. On arriving there, he asked for a short space to recommend himself to God. With their permission, he knelt down and prayed to God. He lifted up his eyes towards heaven in silent prayer for a short while, and then turning to the soldiers he said, “Dear friends, my prayer is over. It is the time for you to do as you have been told”.

The soldiers made him stand on a high rock on Kattadimalai, and without delay discharged three muskets at him. But none of the shots injured him fatally. They came nearer as the night was dark and fired two more bullets which wounded him mortally. Uttering the name of Jesus Christ and Mary, Devasahayam gave up his happy soul to God. A big rock rolled down at the moment of his death sounding like death knell. The only branch overshadowing the place of execution ever keeps fresh leaves. The rock in which Devasahayam prayed to God before his death bears the marks of his elbow and knee. Like Jesus Christ, Devasahayam received five wounds. Devasahayam was forty years old, when he was executed. He was a Christian for seven years. His unflinching faith made him a martyr of the earliest times of the Catholic Church of Travancore.

=='Conclusion=='

The persecution of Devasahayam lasted for three years. During these three years he bore all humiliations and contempts which Devasahayam believed as “three years of Divine constancy and fortitude”.

With the aim of converting the Nair community, The Nemom Mission was founded in the year 1622 by the Roman congregation of the propagation of Faith. As a result many people belonged to the Nair community embraced Christianity. It was opposed by the then Government, and by the feudal chiefs. The feudal chiefs played a vital role in the martyrdom of Devasahayam. After the order was proclaimed to execute Devasahayam, except the fishermen, all the Christians were compelled to leave the faith. Some people were tortured, others were banished. Houses of the Christians were banished. Their crops were destroyed or stolen. Many Churches were destroyed and raised to the ground. Women had their tali snatched away and their rosaries broken into pieces. As a penalty for receiving Holy Communion, their mouths were forcibly opened with a stick and cow urine mixed with cowdung was given to them to drink.

Though Marthandavarma was a benevolent ruler, he did not like Christianity to become another power among the high caste Nairs of His Kingdom. His strong actions put an end to the Nemom Mission and the Nair Catholic Community in Travancore disappeared. Marthandavarma personally had sympathy for Devasahayam. He postponed the execution of Devasahayam twice. Moreover he promised high post in His government if he renounced the religion. Devasahayam did not renounce and that was a complaint from the Brahmins to the king. They added that, Devasahayam urged the people to rebel against the king. The Brahmins played a unique part in the persecution of Devasahayam.

Ramayyan Dalava was another friend of Devasayaham. He immediately after the conversion of Devasahayam wrote a letter to him and he requested Devasahayam to give up his new faith. As Devasahayam was not obeying the advice of Ramayyan Dalava, he harboured vengeance in his mind. Singaram Annah, the palace Superintendent, and private secretary to His Highness also played a significant role in the persecution of Devasahayam.

The king ordered that De’Lannoy should not interfere in the internal affairs of the country. Though Maharaja appointed him as his general and entrusted many works to him, he was like a puppet in the hands of His Highness. Many chances were given to Devasahayam to escape from the prison. But he preferred death for Christ like a soldier to the king.

References:

Rev. Perroquinn. (1908), The History of the Vadakkankulam Christianity, p.73 (Unpublished manuscript, Sacred Heart College Archives, Shenbaganoor).

Memorial to Srimulam Popular Assembly, dated 3rd Vrichikam, (1903) D. Report of the Marumakkathayam Committee, 1908, Trivandrum, 1909, p.82.

The Regulations and Proclamations of Travancore, Vol.V, Nair Regulation II 1100, Section 2(2).

File No. D.Dis. 172/1925, dated 4th May (1925) Legislative Department, English Records Section, Kerala Secretariat, Trivandrum.

Extract from the proceedings of the meeting of the Legislative Council, dated 27th September (1916), File No.67/1920, Legislative Section, Kerala Secretariat, Trivandrum.

Savarimuthu Pillai, Devasahayam Pillai Cikamanimalai, leaf-3, (Sacred Heart College Archives, Shenbaganoor).

Matilakam Records, Curuna 88, leaf 42 (Directorate of Archives, Trivandrum).

Kunjan Pillai, P.N., The Defeat of the Dutch in Travancore, Indian Historical Records Commission Proceedings, Vol.XXI, p.72.

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Rev. Perroquin, The History of the Vadakkankulam Christianity, (1906), p.78 (Unpublished manuscript, Sacred Heart College Archives, Shenbaganoor).

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Bertrand, P.J., La Mission du madure (French), Lyon 1854, p.388.