Thiruvananthapuram: Senior members of the Travancore royal family, Princess Gouri Parvathi Bayi and Princess Gouri Lakshmi Bayi wrote a letter to Pope Francis over the canonisation of Devasahayam Pillai, expressing their anguish about the ‘sustained campaign against former Maharaja of Travancore Sree Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma’ in connection with the incident.
Pope Francis officially cleared Blessed Lazarus Devasahayam and six others for Sainthood on May 3, 2021. Born on April 23, 1712, in the village of Nattalam in Kanyakumari District, Neelakanda Pillai served in the Travancore Maharaja court. He met a Dutch naval commander, who initiated him into the Catholic faith. In 1745, he assumed the name ‘Lazarus’, meaning ‘God is my help’.
According to Vatican, “His conversion did not go well with the heads of his native religion. False charges of treason and espionage were brought against him and he was divested of his post in the royal administration.” A note issued by the Vatican in February 2020 said Pillai was imprisoned, subjected to harsh persecution and later executed.
Ruling out this baseless narrative of the church, the Royal family members said that though King Marthanda Varma and his successors ruled Travancore as Vassals of the Deity, they never discriminated against their subjects belonging to other religions.
“Christians were indeed beneficiaries of their generosity. Maharaja Marthanda Varma himself “gave tax-free lands” to the Varapuzha Church (TK Velu Pillai, Travancore State Manual, Vol I, p 16). Similarly Maharaja Sree Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma, Marthanda Varma’s immediate successor, “met the expenses of building the Udayagiri Church at the request of D’ Lannoy and granted a salary of one hundred fanams to the vicar.” (TK Velu Pillai, Travancore State Manual, Vol I, p 16). On learning about the numerous benefits Christians had received from the Maharaja, Pope Clement XIV, in 1774, sent a letter to him “thanking him for his kindness towards the members of his Church resident in Travancore.” (V Nagam Aiya, Travancore State Manual, Vol 1, p 387). In a message to Maharaja Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma on his 60th birthday, Pope Benedict XV speaks of “the great equity and benevolence” the Maharaja has shown towards the Catholics of Travancore. The Pope then assures the Maharaja that he will not have “better and more loyal subjects than the Catholics” (From ‘Addresses Presented on the Occasion of His Highness The Maha Raja’s Shashtiabdapurthi). There are any number of examples to show that the orthodox Hindu Rulers of Travancore were tolerant of all other faiths,” reads the letter dated June 5.
“The narrative that Neelakanta Pillai alias Devasahayam Pillai was executed because of his conversion into Christianity is absolutely baseless. As V Nagam Aiya notes: “It is difficult to believe such a story as this. It looks to my mind most improbable on its face. It is one evidently started by the later converts, from a habit of apotheosizing their ancestors or heroes so common among our people. For the Belgian officer Eustace de Lannoy was the Commander-in-Chief of the Rajah’s forces and had great influence with him and would not have allowed a convert who took instruction from himself to have been imprisoned or shot. Lannoy’s influence with the Rajah was so great that he made him wage war against the Anjengo Chief to obtain his daughter in marriage for himself.” (Travancore State Manual, Vol II, p 129 – 130). So Nagam Aiya concludes that “the story of Devasagayam’s martyrdom may be dismissed as apocryphal.” (Travancore State Manual, Vol II, p 130),” the letter further stated.
In fact, the letter stated, Devasahayam was punished for high treason. His association with the enemies of Travancore like the Dutch and disloyalty to the Crown could never have been condoned. Against Devasahayam, there were other allegations of serious nature, which we are intentionally avoiding.
Citing the historical facts, the Royal family requested the Pope to set the record straight regarding the negative references against the erstwhile king and Travancore kingdom. “Please be aware that by furnishing all this information and with much more available, we are not trying to stand in the way of the Church’s wishes and decisions. However, we feel that we have to request you to set the record straight regarding the negative inferences against our ancestors. In the name of fairness and historical justice, we are sure that suitable papal action will ensue,” the letter concluded.