Lazarus, An Indian Martyr (1712-1752)

May 17, 2022
Source: District of Asia
LAZARUS, AN INDIAN MARTYR (1712-1752)

The martyrs believed who lie buried everywhere in this basilica, and in all the churches of Rome, were persecuted as soon as they were known to be Christians. They were thrown into prison...our thoughts turn to the Mamertine prison, so close to us here, where Peter and Paul were put in chains because of their faith: And shall we be afraid to affirm our faith? We would not in that case be the true descendants of the martyrs, the true descendants of those Christians who shed their blood for Our Lord Jesus Christ in affirmation of their faith in Him. They, too, could indeed have said, "But, since all religions are of equal value, if I burn a little incense before an idol, what does that matter? My life will be saved." But they preferred to die, they preferred to be thrown to the beasts in the Colosseum, quite close to us here. So many, many martyrs were thrown to the beasts, rather than offer incense to pagan gods! (Mgr. Lefebvre, Rome, May 25, 1975)

In this historical land was Lazarus born, of pagan parents of the noble warrior caste of the Nairs. He was called Nilakandan " the blue-necked," an epithet of the goddess Siva. In the ancestral profession of arms which he naturally embraced, he excelled to such a degree that not only did he attain eminence over his fellows but won the favour of the King of Travancore—Martanda Varma, the founder of modern Travancore—and his ministers.

His happiness, however, did not remain long unmixed. Money matters, it would seem, clouded at times the serenity of the gay young officer, preparing his soul for the grace of conversion. One day, as Nilakandan walked about in a despondent mood, he was met by De Lanoy, a Belgian officer commanding the King's European contingent. De Lanoy gently asked him the cause of his melancholy. "The many losses. I have incurred in my domestic fortune," he answered, " break my heart; and now, to crown all, my best bullocks have died." Then De Lanoy, with a smile, said: "You think, perhaps, that God, who is both all-powerful and liberal, cannot restore to you the bullocks He has taken from you." And he told him the story of Job and began to expose to him the chief mysteries of our Faith. Nilakandan listened to all this attentively and with the greatest consolation of soul, acknowledged its conformity to reason, and promised to embrace the Catholic religion as soon as possible. After receiving the necessary instruction for baptism, he went to see Father J. B. Buttari, S.J., the missionary of Nemam (formerly a great Catholic centre in Travancore), and with the characteristic decision of a soldier asked to be baptized immediately.

The good Father, however, judged that the sacrament of baptism ought to be deferred, and in the meanwhile resolved to try his constancy in various ways. Finally, having found him constant and better instructed, he gave him the consolation of baptism in May 1745, and christened him Devasagayam Pillai (the Tamil for Lazarus).

After his baptism, the neophyte strove to fulfil all the Duties of a good Christian, and made it a habit to go frequently on foot to a church about six miles distant, there to recruit his strength with the Bread of Angels. Not content, however, with his own salvation, he took all possible pains to induce others to embrace the same salutary faith. Beginning with his wife, he urged and solicited her with prayers and arguments to give up the superstitions of the false gods she was worshipping; but, strengthened by the bad influence of her mother, she turned a deaf ear to her husband's solicitations. Her resistance grieved Lazarus not a little, but at last the hour of God came. The husband's constancy conquered the wife's obstinacy, and in the end, he brought her to the Faith, with such happy result that, not heeding her mother's tears and threats, she submitted herself to Christ's sweet yoke. Besides his wife, he won over some of his companions in arms, who under the standard of the Saviour fought for Paradise, a better pay than that given them by their King. Among them there was one, it appears, who, converted to the true religion by Lazarus's counsel and argument, stood so firm in it, that for its sake he counted as nothing the continual persecutions of his parents and relatives, and joyfully endured expulsion from caste, family, and clan, a great dishonour and ignominy in this country.

Not satisfied with these sacred spoils snatched from his fellow-soldiers, Lazarus attacked the King's own ministers and the teachers of superstition called Brahmans, and often argued with them, showing them clearly that their religion was nothing but fables repugnant alike to reason and chaste ears. This zeal 'stirred up the hatred of these people against him, particularly that of the Brahmans. One of these, a great favourite of the King, tried by every artifice and violence to compel Lazarus to give up his religion. But perceiving   he was only wasting his time and trouble, he came to threats, and gave Lazarus to understand tit that he intended doing everything in his power either to make him abandon the Faith or pay for his constancy with his head. To these menaces Christ's brave soldier answered boldly: "Do what you will, I will never yield; I will never basely abandon that Faith which I have acknowledged as true. You had better tell me that I must gird my loins with your sacred thread or die!" This cut the Brahman to the quick, for that thread which hangs from the shoulder, across the breast and under the arm (like a deacon's stole) is the Brahmans' badge of dignity. Lazarus's answer that he might as well be asked to use the Brahmans' sacred string to tie his loin-cloth could not but deeply wound his interlocutor. From that time, he determined to procure Lazarus's death, nor did he want any other incentive of accusation.

About that period Father Buttari had built a new church on a piece of ground given by the Rajah's heir apparent. He asked Lazarus to conduct a certain affair with the Prime Minister (also a Brahman) in connection with the building. Accordingly, Lazarus called on him and was engaged in talk, when two persons of low birth came in and bitterly denounced some Christians as having trampled their god, Pulleyar (the belly-god), under foot. On hearing this the Brahman flew into a passion, called his secretary, and dictated an angry letter for each of the provincial governors. On receipt of the letter, they were to compel all Christians to deny their Faith, take them to pagan temples to worship the idol, give them the ashes of cow-dung to rub on their foreheads, and tie round their necks flowers previously placed on some statue of their false gods; those who would not yield must be bound in chains and led to some fortress for torture. The letter had been written and signed by the Prime Minister, who had risen to entrust it to a soldier for despatch, when Lazarus, who for fear of adding fuel to the minister's indignation had so far kept quiet, rose to his feet, and addressing him modestly: "My lord," said he, "if the Christians must choose between apostasy and torture, know that I, too, am a Christian ; and before you deal with the others begin with me, who am of noble birth and in the King's service."

In answer to this the Brahman, pretending not to have known before that Lazarus was a Christian, repeatedly bade him deny the Faith. To the minister's threat of banishment, the neophyte answered that he would willingly go into exile, but that he ' would soon be called back by the King, who had allowed his subjects to embrace the new religion. The Brahman then poured forth insults against Christianity, calling it the Law of Parravans (the lowest caste of the land), adding that those who embraced it lost their noble rank and became low-born. To all this Lazarus replied smiling and without show of temper. The minister, seeing he could not succeed with him, rose infuriated and expelled him from his presence; but the letter written to the governors against the Christians was not sent.

It seemed as if the whole affair had been dropped. Yet it had not; for after the return of the King, who happened to be one day's distance from the place, the minister—ever a sworn enemy of the Christian name—accompanied by other Brahmans no less perfidious, went to the King. They told him that the heir-apparent had of his own authority given Lind to Christianson which to build a church and accused Lazarus as the chief abettor. The King must remedy these disorders if he did not wish to see his entire kingdom Christian, his gods banished, and the Brahmanical thread girt about the loins of Christians.

Now the King who is not a born Brahman has to pay a high price for the privilege of wearing this sacred string: he must be "re-born of a golden cow." The calumnies of the minister made a deep impression on the mind of the King, a great devotee of the idols and a friend of the Brahmans. He therefore enjoined by public edict that, within his dominions, no one might profess the Christian law except Parravans and Mercuvans (a low caste of fishermen and boatmen) and enjoined the strict execution of his orders on his ministers and governors. Lazarus was to be put in irons and committed to prison.

The Brahmans, however, were not quite pleased at this, as they wanted his death at all costs; but though they strove hard, the King would not consent to it. They then spread the rumour that Lazarus had been condemned to the gallows for refusing to give up his new belief. In fact, Lazarus was consigned to the hangman, who with many soldiers led him bound to the place of execution. Incredible was the joy and great the magnanimity which our neophyte showed on this occasion. When he arrived at the place where apparently, he was to die, he knelt to pray; then, seeing the executioner did not set to work, he turned to him: "Why delay longer?" said he, "I am quite ready; do the King's command." The other replied it was necessary to wait another hour. "In that case," answered the martyr, "let these soldiers go home, as the sun is already behind the mountains, and they are hungry; I shall await here at your leisure my happy lot of dying for my God." Lazarus began to pray, and, seeing a catechist among the multitude of those who had come to see the spectacle, he begged him to recite the prayers for the recommendation of his soul and to remain with him till all was over. He was in these good dispositions when a message came from the Prime Minister countermanding the execution and ordering his return to prison. This saddened the neophyte, thus robbed of the glory of dying for Christ. Next morning, he was led again to the same place, amid the din of small drums. But there came a second counter-order to stop the execution and remand him to prison.

All this had been done without the King's knowledge and out of the Brahmans' supreme hatred of Lazarus and of his creed. Meanwhile, day and night, they urged on the prince that if Lazarus were put to death the others would, give up their religion. At last, they obtained that, for the greater terror of the Christians, the prisoner should be led about riding on a buffalo. This was done immediately, and for sixteen days he was taken through many places amid a large concourse of people. A monarch could not proceed on a triumphal march with more joy and contentment than did Lazarus on the buffalo, with his hands bound behind his back, a single cloth of two cubits about his loins, and flowers round his neck (the apparel of criminals led to the gallows). With ever-smiling lips and cheerful look he saluted those around, crying out repeatedly, "Lord, help me!"

In every place and town, he entered Lazarus asked that any Christians there might pray for him. When people had gathered round him, he would proclaim as a supreme honour done him by the King that he was allowed to suffer ignominy for his religion; and would add that the flowery garland around his neck was incomparably more precious than the golden necklaces the King gave to his favourites. He inspired in all a desire to embrace our holy Faith. Many times, in his tours he discussed Christianity with the governors, and convinced them of its truth. The people who saw and visited him marvelled at the great cheerfulness with which he conversed with all and praised hint highly. Not so the Brahmans. Perceiving they could not shake his constancy and greatness of soul; they were consumed with rage. Every day they flogged him with, thorny canes and rubbed pepper into the wounds, a horrible torture practised in this land; they also burnt pepper and forced him with his face downwards to inhale the horrible fumes. To this must be added that the buffalo, irritated at its burden, repeatedly shook him off and threw him to the ground. All noticed Lazarus's constancy, joy, patience, and strength of soul through these long and cruel torments. Those who ground the pepper confessed that after a short time they could not bear its pungency; yet Christ's thither suffered with a brave and joyful heart, and longed to endure still more for his Lord.

On a certain day, his guards having left Lazarus alone for a time, a Christian read to him the story of the Saviour's Passion. The martyr would bid him stop, saying, with streaming eyes, "Oh what grievous scourging my Lord and Saviour suffered for me! and I, His servant, His slave, what shall- I give in return for such great love!" and he would add that nothing could happen to him more acceptable and pleasing than to suffer for Christ and the Faith. One day when he was being rubbed with pepper as usual, he opened his eyes, begging them to throw some in them, as he must, he said, make satisfaction to God for the sins committed through his eyes. One evening the soldiers, either through forgetfulness or compassion, did not rub him with pepper. Next morning Lazarus complained of not having reposed that night as he had been denied his wonted medicine: "Execute," he added, "the royal orders, and do not deprive me of the merits I long for." Another time a pagan woman, moved with compassion, mixed plenty of saffron with the pepper to take away its pungency; but the martyr said that never had he experienced such smart as on this occasion. Nor should another wonderful occurrence be omitted. As he was led along by the sea, and, burning with thirst, unable to get fresh water, he blessed some sea-water and confessed that it seemed quite excellent to him and quenched his thirst. Sometimes, though tortured in the full heat of the sun, he received no hurt.

In his progress Lazarus did not cease explaining the mysteries of our religion. Astonished at such a sight large crowds followed hint. Lazarus, seeing the concourse of people, turned to his guards and asked them in jest whether they had ever seen the dearest vassal of the King honoured with such an attendance. But, distrusting his own strength, he used often and earnestly to implore the divine help to endure his torments and obtain the grace of perseverance, repeating frequently, "Oh good Jesus, save me! remember me!"

The journey, however, had not yet ended, when he was sent for by the King. Christ's brave soldier rejoiced greatly as he thought it was to receive the sentence of death which he desired so ardently. But his hopes were frustrated anew; he was not admitted to the royal presence but shut up for the night in prison. There he found a renowned Christian poet, who had been seized, scourged, and thrown into chains for having refused to write verses in honour of the false gods. Lazarus had the good fortune to enjoy his company. They consoled and encouraged each other to remain firm in the Faith and spent the whole night praising God. The tour was then resumed, till the Brahmans, seeing that to conduct him thus through town and country served but to stimulate the pagans to praise him and his belief, begged the King to put him in the stocks in Trivandrum, the capital of Travancore. The Christians, especially the fishermen, on learning this, at once commenced visiting him in large crowds; but this, taking place under the very eyes of the King, he ordered the martyr to be transferred to some other place, and this secretly by a circuitous road and through impenetrable forests.

Upon his arrival Lazarus was thrown into a kind of sheepfold open to the sky, near the trunk of a tree, which was placed between his feet, and to which he was bound with tight ropes, so that he could take no rest either by sitting or lying. There he spent seven months, exposed day and night to rain and wind, to the burning heat of the Sun, and to all the inclemencies of the air. At last, the soldiers, moved with compassion, built a hut of palm-leaves and freed him from the trunk, leaving him only his fetters. At that time, he was denied the small pittance of rice served him by royal order. However, there was no lack of people who, through the Jesuit Fathers, provided for God's faithful servant. The place of Lazarus's imprisonment becoming known, such a concourse of Christians and pagans flocked there to see and visit him that the gaoler, who was well disposed towards Lazarus and yet afraid of provoking the King's anger, prudently admonished them not to come in crowds but in twos and threes. This proved very acceptable to our martyr, because thus he could give to each advice helpful for his salvation.

About a league's distance from the place of Lazarus's confinement is a village called Cottar, very famous on account of its church, dedicated St. Francis Xavier. Father T. de Fonsera was living there, in charge of the spiritual welfare of the people. One night he entered the martyr's prison to hear his confession and encourage him in his struggle. This Father confessed that it was a great consolation for him to see the neophyte's innocence of life and his ardent desire to shed his blood for Christ and the Faith. Later on, Father Barreiros visited him twice and strengthened him with the Bread of Angels, of which lie had not partaken for months.

Meantime the royal ministers went on persecuting the Christians, now reduced to extreme penury. Unable to obtain from them the fines imposed, they accused Lazarus of urging his fellow-Christians not to pay. The King, most greedy of money, ordered the execution of the martyr. But a pagan nobleman, on hearing of the sentence, went hastily to the palace, and urged that to shed innocent blood was against the royal clemency, justice, and majesty. The sentence was recalled, and the nobleman's protection would have been continued had he not some days later fallen from the royal favour.

The gaoler, however, annoyed at the length of the martyr's imprisonment, determined to murder him in secret; but the second gaoler opposed the plan, and not only frightened and dissuaded him from his wicked purpose, but even offered Lazarus a favourable opportunity of escaping. At this juncture, not trusting his judgement in the matter, Lazarus asked advice by letter from his friend and adviser, De Lanoy. The officer's answer was that he should not depart without the sovereign's knowledge.

About two years had elapsed since the martyr had been put in this cruel prison, when the King, informed that many Christians and pagans flocked there every day, ordered his transfer to the extreme frontier of his dominions, near Cape Comorin.

During the first ten days Lazarus, laden with fetters, lay in a filthy spot, without roof, exposed to a burning sun and the wind and rain. At last, he was thrown under a palm shed, and allowed a respite from the inclemency of the weather. However, the concourse of people, which the King wanted to prevent, increased. Many offered him money or necessaries of life, many more exposed to him their afflictions and needs, and all begged for his prayers. The King saw that all his efforts to stop these crowds had proved useless, and commanded Lazarus to be put to death secretly.

On January 14, 1752, in the middle of the night, the soldiers made him rise and follow them. Lazarus courageously got up, but his feet, lamed by the stocks, scarcely carried him, and the soldiers lifted him on their shoulders to the place of execution. On arriving there he asked for a short space to recommend himself to God. This request was granted. After recommending his soul to his Creator, he said cheerfully to the soldiers: "Well, my friends, I have done my duty; do yours." They fired three musket-shots at him, but none of the shot wounded him fatally. Coming nearer, as the night was dark, they fired again twice, wounding him mortally. Uttering the sweet names of Jesus and Mary, the hero gave up his soul to God, in the fortieth year of his life and the seventh of his conversion, after three years of imprisonment.

By Rev. P. Dahmen, S.J. (1908)