P. Sandeep Kumar
Director, Center for South Indian Studies (CSIS)
The Catholic Church recently declared Devasahayam Pillai, purportedly belonging to the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, a blessed martyr. The fundamental arguments of the church to declare Pillai as a holy martyr naturally kindle doubts about the validity of their claims.
Prior to the formation of the state of Travancore in 1729, there existed a small kingdom named Venad. It was during the reign of Umayamma Rani, the Queen Regent at Venad in 1677-1684, the Dutch established a factory in Kalladain 1682. But the relationship between the Rani and the Dutch was not at all cordial. Hence the Dutch were not even allowed to trade in Venad. Nevertheless, the Dutch secured pepper by offering a bribe to the local people of Venad, says some reports. Interestingly the same Rani allowed the English East India Company to build a fort in Anjuthengu in 1696. In 1729, Anizham Tirunal Marthanda Varma became the ruler of Venad, and the state of Travancore was formed. Dutch adopted a policy of intervention in the internal affairs of Travancore and annoyed King Marthanda Varma. Soon the strained relationship between Travancore and the Dutch culminated in a war in 1741. The Travancore forces decisively defeated the Dutch in the battles. In the battle of Colachael, the Travancore forces even captured many Dutch soldiers as prisoners of war. One among them was De Lannoy, a Dutch naval commander. Later, under the influence of Travancore King Marthanda Varma, De Lannoy joined Travancore forces and became an important figure in its military history. During his days in the Travancore army, one Neelakanda Pillai acted as the translator for De Lannoy to understand Malayalam.
According to church chronicles, this Neelakanda Pillai was converted and baptised by the Jesuit missionaries as Lasar. But he was later executed by the religiously intolerant Hindu King and his officials after falsely implicating him.
Religious Tolerance of Travancore Kings and Story of Devasahayam Pillai
There was one Neelakanda Pillai in the Travancore army, and he was executed under the charges of treachery. But there is no conclusive evidence to prove that, this Neelakanda Pillai and Lasar or Devasahayam Pillai is the same. Even if these two are of the same person, the ground for the execution of Neelakanda Pillai was not religion but treachery. As per the Church narratives, Neelakanda Pillai is identified as Lasar, or later Devasahayam Pillai. The church narratives try to assert that the only reason behind the purported murder of Pillai was his conversion to Christianity. By doing so, the church is trying to undermine the illustrious legacy of Travancore rulers as far as religious tolerance is concerned.
Incidentally, De Lanny was a Christian, and the King had no objection to appointing him to the Travancore army. Further, King Marthanda Varma gave total religious freedom to De Lannoy. According to T.K. Velupillai, Kaarthika Thirunaal Rama Varma or Dharma Raja, and The Maharaja of Travancore after Marthanda Varma met the expense of building Udayagiri church at the request of De Lannoy and granted a salary of 100 Panams to the Vicar. According to the chronicles, when the capital was shifted from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram in 1795, Margret, wife of De Lannoy, demanded a church. An area in Travancore named Kunnukuzhy was granted to her for the same purpose. Also, the daughter in law of De Lannoy demanded a church be built in Travancore. A place in Pettah was given for the construction of a church. Moreover, the tomb of De Lannoy, his wife and his son are well preserved even today in Udayagiri fort.
The King even made tax exemptions for the lands he gifted to the Church at Varappuzha. There were also Christian populations in Travancore who didn’t face any issues with Marthanda Varma. Also, in his letter dated 2nd July 1774, Pope Clement XIV to the Maharaja of Travancore appreciates his kindness towards the members of his church resident in Travancore. His gestures towards the Muslim subjects were also of benevolence, not only to Christians.
From all these incidents and evidence, it is clear that the King had no issues with any other religions or Christianity. He was a person of religious tolerance. In this historical context, it is hard to believe that a king and his kingdom famous for their religious harmony has killed Devasahayam Pillai just on the issue of religious conversion.
Interestingly, Devasahayam Pillai was captured for the first time for looting money but was released later. He was converted in 1745, and four years after his conversion, i.e., in 1752, he was killed. If at all, Devasahayam Pillai needed to be murdered for conversion, the King would have never waited for these many years to kill him.
According to T.K. Veluppillaiin Travancore State Manual, the capital punishment is awarded to crimes for inciting or committing acts of insurrection, pre-meditating or attempting the death of the Raja, Murder and Gang robbery. Moreover, in Travancore, the death penalty was conducted only by hanging. The body was displayed in a public cage and was called Chitravadham, and this practice was named Kazhuvettal. Never in the history of Travancore, there existed the practise of execution by firing, which the church claims that happened to Devasahayam Pillai. Nagam Aiyya in State Manual records that as a palace official, Nilakanda Pillai was detected tampering with political secrets, on the strength of which action must have been taken against him. If he was indeed Devasahayam, Baptism could not have had anything to do with his death. According to A Sreedhara Menon, not even a single case of persecution was recorded in the history of Travancore in the name of religious conversion. On the basis of historical evidence, we can conclude that the story of Devasahayam is nothing but a well-concocted story and a figment of the imagination.
Religious Intolerance of Jesuit Missionaries
Church narratives mention that Devasahayam Pillai was converted and baptised by the Jesuit missionaries. In fact, the Jesuit missionaries are the real force behind the concocted story behind Devasahayam Pillai depicting the Hindus as religiously intolerant. Unfortunately, in a race to prove the Hindus as a religiously intolerant social group, the Jesuits forgot their history of intolerance. A mere glance through the history of the world will give you compelling evidence to reveal the dark side of missions. India is a perfect example. The arrival of Jesuits to India was part of colonising missions. In the initial days they were acting like fifth column of the Portuguese colonisers. The figurehead of Jesuit missionaries in India Francis Xavier, himself is notoriously known for his religious intolerance. During his days in India, he made concerted attempts to destroy and desecrate temples in the name of idolatry, infringing on Hindu religious sentiment. In 1545, Xavier wrote a letter to King John III of Portugal, his sponsor and requested him to establish the House of Inquisition in Goa to torture anyone who refused to convert to Christianity in India. Francis Xavier was a vital cog in the genocide of Goan Hindus, which claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people. Further, a large number of Hindus ran away from Goa to free them from religious persecution. Not only Hindus but even Buddhist religious institutions were targeted by these Jesuit Christians. The destruction of a Buddhist pagoda in Nagapattinam is a glaring example. It was constructed in 1006 CE during the reign of Raja Raja Chola I and was demolished by the Jesuit Missionaries in 1867. Dilapidated reminiscences of this Pagoda are visible in museums today.
The same Jesuits now depict themselves as victims and the Hindus as intolerant villains. This is nothing but a distortion of historical facts and victim shaming. If they have an iota of intellectual honesty, the Jesuit missionaries should come forward to apologise for their bad deeds during the colonial days and they should also take a vow that they will stay away from molesting the Indian traditions.