Birth and Boyhood:
The Servant of God Devasahayam was born in 1712. By birth he was a Hindu. and his name was Neelam (Nilam), also expanded as Nilakandan. He belonged to the royal Nair caste and therefore he is also pupularly known as Devasahayam Pillai. As a boy, he learnt Sanskrit and had traditional training in martial arts.
Youth and Marriage:
Nilam was brought up as a devout Hindu. Besides Tamil and Malayalam, the languages of people, he also trained himself in archery, Varmasastra and the use of weapons of war. He was made an official at royal court at Padmanabhapuram. He was respected for the sincerity of his person and firmness of mind, which made him dear to his colleagues and to the King Marthanda Varma. He married Bargaviammal of Mekkod, a neighbouring village.
Conversion and Baptism:
In performing his duties as a palace official, Neelam Pillai came in contact with a Catholic officer, Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy, a Dutch military officer, arrested by King Marthandavarma after the Dutch were defeated at war at the Port of Colachel in 1741.
At a particular stage of their relationship Nilakanda Pillai was found to be extremely unhappy and saddened. When De Lannoy enquired about the reasons for his sadness he narrated a series of tragedies that had overtaken his family. His bulls had died one after another and crops had failed, which meant tremendous financial loss for him and there was no way out of his sadness.
On hearing all this, De Lannoy narrated to him the Old Testament story of Job and demonstrated how God tested the faith of a good man through sufferings. Finding De Lannoy’s explanation reasonable and convincing, Nilakanda Pillai expressed his desire to become a Christian and requested De Lannoy to instruct him for baptism. De Lannoy sent him to Vadakkankulam, a hamlet outside the limits of the Kingdom of Travancore, with a letter to Fr. Giovanni Baptista Buttari,, a Jesuit Missionary, requesting him to baptize Nilakandan.
Fearing that Baptism would spell suffering and persecution, Fr. Buttari hesitated for some time to baptize him. Fr. Buttari examined his past life in order to instruct him and to test the maturity of his decision and the depth of his conviction in the Catholic faith.
This instruction continued for nine months. Finally, moved by the persistence of Nilakanda Pillai he baptized him at the church of the Holy Family, Vadakkankulam on 14 May 1745. At baptism the Servant of God was given the name “Devasahayam” which is a Tamil rendering of the biblical name Lazar, which means “God has helped”.
Life after Baptism:
Having joined the Catholic community, Devasahayam himself started exhorting others to receive Baptism and even converted some to Christian faith, one of them being his own wife who took the name “Gnanapu” which is a Tamil rendering of “Theresa”.
In his personal life, the neophyte Devasahayam mixed and mingled with people of all statuses and castes. Because of his newly found faith he disregarded caste distinction, threw away the symbols of his “high” caste, ate and lived with people of “low” birth and came to the palace-office as a “polluted” person. Noticing the marked changes in Devasahayam because of his Christian life, the high caste people accused him of the crime of betrayal and contempt of religious practices and of insult of gods, of the Brahmins and the royal throne.
Tested for faith:
Some Brahmins and court officials tried their best to woo the Servant of God back from his newly won Christian faith. But the Servant of God showed great fortitude in expressing firmness of faith and even daringly declared that he was willing to be tortured or even to be put to death for Christ.
Persecuted for faith:
The King, having been incited against Christians, arrested Devasahayam on 23 Feb. 1749 and put him in a very narrow prison. Soon condemned to death by the King, he was tortured in several ways. He was paraded to many towns and villages, both hands bound behind his back, seated on a buffalo facing backward, garlanded with Erukku flowers as a symbol of shame.
Some Miraculous events:
The Servant of God was brought through a small place called Puliurkurichy where overcome by thirst he planted his elbow on a rock, which gave forth water which he could drink. This rock continues to give water even today and People visit this fountain in large numbers.
Through Puliurkurichy the soldiers brought him to Peruvilai and detained him there for about 7 months tied to a neem tree. It is there that Devasahayam became friendly with the soldiers and was helped to meet the Catholic priests. He received Holy Communion from these priests. Thanks to Devasahayam’s prayer, the jailor (executioner) who was without child for a long time obtained a child.
From Peruvilai he was taken to the prison at Aralvaimozhi where the condemned criminals were sent for death by the King. It was on the border between the kingdoms of Madurai and Travancore.
His life during years of torture:
During the years of his arrest and torture, the Servant of God led a life worthy of a candidate for martyrdom. Every morning and night he spent certain time for contemplative prayer, and often during the day he turned to God in moments of brief prayer. He spent time also in reading books on lives of saints, and when people were around, he read them aloud for people to hear. He fasted on all Fridays and Saturdays in honour of the death of Christ and of Mary, the Mother of God.
When a priest visited him, usually at the dead of night, he confessed his sins and received holy Eucharist with utmost devotion. The priests were impressed by the joy and consolation that the Servant of God experienced.
Killed for Faith:
Devasahayam had to be killed quickly and secretly because Catholics started visiting the Servant of God in large numbers. The Government officials kept secret the place and the date of his execution for fears of popular unrest. Finally a little before the midnight of January 14, 1752 they took him to the place of execution. As he was totally exhausted and was unable to walk he was carried to the nearby hill called Kattadimalai. There he knelt and prayed for a while intensely. The marks left by his knees and elbows can still be seen today. Then he was shot dead by the soldiers with five leaden bullets, at midnight between 14 and 15 January 1752.
His body was thrown in between rocks and left there to be eaten by wild animals. His mortal remains were discovered by the Christians and buried in front of the main altar in the most important church of St. Francis Xavier, which is the present Cathedral of the Diocese of Kottar. While laypersons are not usually buried within a church, it is significant that the Servant of God lies buried in a most revered church, a fact that attests to the regard that the faithful and the clergy had towards his sanctity and towards the greatness of his martyrdom.
Devotion to the Servant of God
Ever since the death of the Servant of God, a lot of people, irrespective of caste or religion, started to visit the place of his death and prayed to him for favours. Soon a small church was constructed at Kattadimalai and was dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, in remembrance of his heroic death for Faith. The life of Devasahayam is being acted out in dramas, sung out in Villupattu and narrated in folklore. Thus the message of his life and death and devotion to him spread throughout Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Considering the Servant of God as a saint, several people began to name themselves as Devasahayam and this practice continues to this day.