Tipu Sultan: The Tiger of Mysore

Farooqi Pagoda


زندگی را چیست رسم و دین و کیش
یک دم شیری به از صد سال میش

جاوید نامہ

Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) governed the state of Mysore in southern India for nearly 20 years (1782-1799). He is known to some as a genius and to others as a tyrant. Muslims generally regard him as a hero of Islam while Hindu nationalists consider him to be a religious fanatic. He has become one of the most controversial figures, together with the Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (r. 1758-1707), in India recently. He fought the British East India Company until he was killed in battle (1799). The British historians painted him as an oppressive despot and tarnished his name due to his stern opposition to the Company’s ambitions in India. Recent historians have, however, vindicated him and defended him as a genius statesman, who had excelled in the fields of international diplomacy, technology, agriculture, literature, military tactics, innovative industries etc. Recent studies such as Kate Brittlebank’s “Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy” challenge the Hindu nationalist narrative (which is mainly based upon the nineteenth century British colonial historiography) head on. At the height of his power, Tipu Sultan had corresponded with the Ottoman Sultan, Afghan king Zaman Shah, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson and many other important political figures. Tipu is even thought to have been one of the inventors of the modern use of rockets. He had established factories in his capital Seringapatam, manufacturing top of the range military arsenal. He had initiated his own calendar and produced coins with purest content of gold and silver. The sultan had accumulated a library of works including volumes on jurisprudence, philosophy, astronomy, lexicography, history, poetry and religion. There were also treatises on farriery, archery, management of fruit trees, medicine, mineralogy, talismanic art, the art of dyeing and of making perfume, and rules for nuptial ceremonies. A descriptive catalogue of the library was published by Charles Stewart in 1809.

the last sword

This course will take the participants on a historical journey through Tipu Sultan’s life. Why is Tipu Sultan so revered by Muslims and many Hindus alike? Why did he resist the British advance in India? Why did the British fear him and published an unprecedented amount of works on him? Was he an effective ruler? Was he a religious bigot, who persecuted minorities (as the colonial historians claimed)? What contributions did Tipu Sultan make to military technology at the time? Why did he choose to die on the battlefield? These are some of the questions the course will address. The participants will take away the following from the course: 

1. A firm understanding of the life and struggle of one of the most charismatic Muslim rulers from eighteenth century India.

2. History of the East India Company and its expansion in the Indian subcontinent.

3. Knowledge of eighteenth century global political conditions.

4. Understanding of the causes of the political decline of Muslim power in India.

5. Reasonable knowledge of primary/secondary sources related to Tipu Sultan studies.

Finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan

Some interesting quotes:

“A servant who has survived relates, that one of the soldiers seized the Sultaun’s sword-belt, and attempted to pull it off; that the Sultaun, who still held his sword in his hand, made a cut at the soldier with all his remaining strength, and wounded him about the knee; on which the soldier put his piece to his shoulder, and shot the Sultaun through the temple, who instantly expired…”

“Thus ended the life and power of Tippoo Sultaun. It will require an able pen to delineate the character apparently so inconsistent; but he who attempts it must not decide hastily. Those who have served this campaign, victorious and brilliant as it has proved, will however, I believe, agree that the infantry of the Sultaun were not inferior to our sepoys; and that, had he been joined three or four months ago by four or five thousand French troops, which he had every reason to expect, the event might have been very different. What infinite credit then is due to the man who planned and saw the fit moment to execute measures which, perhaps, have saved us from ruin…”

Source: Alexander Beatson, A View of the Origin and Conduct of the War with Tippoo Sultaun; comprising a narrative of the operations of the army under the command of Lieutenant-General George Harris, and of the siege of Seringapatam. London: G. & W. Nichol, 1800. Appendix No. XXXIII pp. ci-civ.

“When Tippoo was brought from under the gateway, his eyes were open, and the body was so warm, that for a few moments Colonel Wellesley and myself were doubtful whether he was not alive: on feeling his pulse and heart, that doubt was removed. He had four wounds, three in the body, and one in the temple; the ball having entered a little above the right ear, and lodged in the cheek. His dress consisted of a jacket of fine white linen, loose drawers of flowered chintz, with a crimson cloth of silk and cotton, round his waist: a handsome pouch with a red and green silk belt, hung across his shoulder: his head was uncovered, his turban being lost in the confusion of his fall: he had an amulet on his arm, but no ornament whatever.

Tippoo was of low stature, corpulent, with high shoulders, and a short thick neck, but his feet were remarkably small; his complexion was rather dark; his eyes large and prominent, with small arched eyebrows, and his nose aquiline: he had an appearance of dignity, or perhaps sternness, in his countenance, which distinguished him above the common order people.” [Ibid, Appendix No. XLII pp. cxxvii-cxxxi].

[May 5 1799]

“… I must relate the effects and appearance of a tremendous storm of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning that ensued on the afternoon of the burial of Tippoo Saib. I had returned to camp excessively indisposed. About five o’clock a darkness of unusual obscurity came on, and volumes of huge clouds were hanging within a few yards of the earth, in a motionless state. Suddenly, a rushing wind, with irresistible force, raised pyramids of sand to an amazing height, and swept most of the tents and marquees in frightful eddies far from their site. Ten Lascars, with my own exertions, clinging to the bamboos of the marquee scarcely preserved its fall. The thunder cracked in appalling peals close to our ears, and the vivid lightning tore up the ground in long ridges all around. Such a scene of desolation can hardly be imagined; Lascars struck dead, as also an officer and his wife in a marquee a few yards from mine. Bullocks, elephants, and camels broke loose, and scampering in every direction over the plain; every hospital tent blown away, leaving the wounded exposed, unsheltered to the elemental strife. In one of these alone eighteen men who had suffered amputation had all the bandages saturated, and were found dead on the spot the ensuing morning. The funeral party escorting Tippoo’s body to the mausoleum of his ancestors situated in the Lal Bagh Garden, where the remains of his warlike father, Hyder Ali, had been deposited, were overtaken at the commencement of this furious whirlwind, and the soldiers ever after were impressed with a firm persuasion that his Satanic majesty attended in person at the funeral procession. The flashes of lightning were not as usual from far distant clouds, but proceeded from heavy vapours within a very few yards of the earth. No park of artillery could have vomited forth such incessant peals as the loud thunder that exploded close to our ears. Astonishment, dismay, and prayers for its cessation was our solitary alternative. A fearful description of the Day of Judgement might have been depicted from the appalling storm of this awful night. I have experienced hurricanes, typhoons, and gales of wind at sea, but never in the whole course of my existence had I seen anything comparable to this desolating visitation. Heaven and earth appeared absolutely to have come in collision, and no bounds set to the destruction. The roaring of the winds strove in competition with the stunning explosions of the thunder, as if the universe was once more returning to chaos. In one of these wild sweeps of the hurricane, the poles of my tent were riven to atoms, and the canvas wafted forever from my sight. I escaped without injury, as also my exhausted Lascars, and casting myself in an agony of despair on the sands, I fully expected instant annihilation. My hour was not, however, come. Towards morning the storm subsided; the clouds became more elevated, the thunder and lightning ceased, and nature once more resumed a serene aspect. But never shall I forget that dreadful night to the latest day of my existence. All language is inadequate to describe its horrors. Rather than be exposed to such another scene, I would prefer the front of a hundred battles….”

Source: Bayly, R. Diary of Colonel Bayly 12th Regiment :1796-1803. London: Army and Navy Co-Operative Society, 1896 pp. 95-96.

“Tipu’s death triggered a debate in Britain about whether Mornington’s actions had been legitimate. This in turn led to efforts by the governor general and his supporters — often in print — to justify the attack on Mysore. They did this by portraying Tipu as a murderous tyrant and oppressor of his people. The proponents of this image used the language of the day, including references to Hyder and Tipu as “Muhammadans”, a term that, in Europe, as a result of the historical conflict between Islam and Christendom that began with the Crusades, was freighted with hostile intent. This is how myth-making begins: The needs of the time shape the character of the myth. Over the 19th and 20th centuries, as the needs evolved in response to colonialism, Tipu became known as the first nationalist and a Muslim martyr. And like myth, memory too is fluid and unreliable — which is why historians always rely on documentary evidence and not hearsay.” [Kate Brittlebank]

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