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Updated: April 10, 1996 05:00 PM GMT
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During a recent pilgrimage, some 100,000 people have visited a shrine dedicated to a Catholic convert from Hinduism martyred for his faith 244 years ago in southern India.

Hindus formed more than 60 percent of the people who visited Devasahayam Pillai´s shrine during the Feb. 23-March 3 pilgrimage, according to Father George Ponnaiah, parish priest of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Aramboly.

Pilgrims poured oil and milk over a stone cross erected on the spot where Pillai was shot dead as ordered by the king. They also collected the oil and milk to drink or apply to their bodies as medicines.

Childless couples and mothers praying for marriage for their daughters brought coconut saplings as offerings. A village woman, Rani Stephen, claimed her three-year stomach pain and diarrhea stopped after drinking the oil.

Father Ponnaiah said some 500 people a day visit the shrine and Father A. Gabriel, who heads the canonization process, said they sent to Rome the case of a lame Hindu boy, 13, who walked after seeing a vision of Pillai in 1990.

P.S. Edwin Benets, 18, said his seven-year skin disease disappeared after several visits to the shrine.

As Kottar diocese observed the anniversary of Pillai´s martyrdom Jan. 14, Bishop Leon Tharmaraj of Kottar said that although the Church has not declared Pillai a saint, area people have venerated him for nearly 250 years.

The bishop appealed to the people to continue to pray for his canonization.

The hero of many Tamil folk dramas, Devasahayam was born Neelakanta Pillai into a Hindu high-caste Nair family in 1712 in Kanniyakumari district, some 2,900 kilometers south of New Delhi in the then kingdom of Travancore.

Pillai was in charge of a royal temple. His tryst with Christianity began after he met a Dutch general, who was the king´s military adviser. Pillai was baptized Lazarus in 1745, but people called him Devasahayam (God´s help).

The period witnessed many low-caste conversions to Christianity to escape taxation and social oppression. Missioners were seen as liberators.

When Pillai´s conversion and association with missioners and low castes angered high-caste priests and the king, he was imprisoned and tortured for almost three years.

According to Father B. Wilson, a researcher into Tamil folk drama of the 19th century, Devasahayam Pillai identified with the poor and oppressed and challenged the unjust social order.

"By converting to Christianity, Devasahayam Pillai identified with low-caste people and challenged the caste system, upper-caste Hindus and the king," he added.

Pillai was taken around the villages on an old buffalo and daily given 30 strokes with a bamboo stick. They filled his eyes and nostrils with pepper and forced him to stand in the sun and drink polluted water.

As torture failed to bend Devasahayam´s resolve to remain in his new faith, the king ordered his execution on a small hillock on Kanniyakumari´s border with Tirunnelveli district.

According to tradition, when Devasahayam Pillai was shot dead a rock fell and produced a sound similar to the tolling of a bell. Reportedly, the rock still produces that sound when struck with a stone.

After his death, villagers took Devasahayam´s body to St. Xavier´s Cathedral near Nagercoil and it was buried there. The tomb remains in the church center.

The Kottar bishop has set up a tribunal to pursue his canonization, but so far not much has happened. Father Gabriel said an early short biography of Pillai was given to the Vatican in 1778.


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