Tipu's Army

Army organisation

Sepoy of Tipu Sultan’s regular infantry. From original drawing by C. Gold (1806). Srirangapatna can be seen in the background.

Tipu Sultan’s father Haidar Ali had created a powerful force of regular troops and artillery armed and drilled in the European fashion.

Under Tipu, the army continued to expand, equipped with weapons manufactured in Mysore of a quality which astonished his British contemporaries. It had the best equipped and best disciplined troops maintained by any Indian State.

Adopting the tiger as his personal symbol, Tipu dressed his soldiers in ‘tiger-stripe’ uniforms and decorated their muskets and cannon with images of tigers. Even their bayonets were in the form of leaf-like, stylised tiger stripes (bubris).

Tipu intensified his personal control over the army which had been completely purged of its old feudal elements and answered directly to their ruler, the sole source of promotions and of punishments.

Most soldiers were cantoned in and around Srirangapatna (Seringapatam) and Tipu never left an officer in command of the same unit for long. Although there was an official intelligence system in place to keep the Sultan informed of the morale of his regiments, it appears that Tipu encouraged certain Sipahdars (commander of a cushoon – roughly equivalent to a Colonel or Brigadier in the British army) to write to him over the heads of their commanding generals, even on matters of current strategy.

A total of eleven departments were established for the administration, organisation and welfare of the soldiers. Tipu paid his soldiers a greater salary than did the Marathas and the Nizam. He imported superior breeds of horses, cattle and mules for his cavalry and the transportation of supplies. These animals were trained in Mysore and had their own special department called Amrit Mahal devoted to their upkeep. Separate departments were also established for the construction of forts and the production of arms and ammunitions.

The regular forces were originally organised into cushoons, risalas and juqs, roughly equivalent to brigades (though nearer the size of British regiments), battalions and companies that were commanded by Sipahdars, Risaldars and Juqdars respectively. They were reorganised by Tipu Sultan, who divided the infantry and cavalry into brigades (cutcheries), subdividing them into regiments, the infantry into cushoons and the cavalry into mokums.

Each cushoon contained 1392 men (of whom 1056 carried muskets) with a suitable staff, combatant and non-combatant. A company of rocketmen was attached to each cushoon along with two artillery pieces.

There was also a separate sizeable regiment of POWs which included many Muslim converts.

Many of the Hindus fighting in Tipu’s army were Rajputs and Marathas while the Muslims included Pathans, Mughals, Sheikhs and Syeds. (who were the Syeds?)

The cavalry force was divided into three establishments 1) Regular cavalry 2) Silahdars , who provided their own horses 3) Kazzaks, or Predatory Cavalry. Of these the first called ‘Sawar Askar’, comprised three cutcheries, consisting each of six mokums of 376 troopers. The Silahdars mustered 6000 horse, and the Kazzaks 8000.

The most versatile of Tipu’s troops were the irregular cavalry, or Silahdars. In contrast to the ‘permanent horse’ (Askars), these found their own arms and mounts. Their pay and allowances were adjusted accordingly. They and the irregular infantry were responsible for much of the devastation wrought by Tipu’s armies in the Carnatic and Malabar. Many were hunters by profession. They were excellent marksmen with matchlocks, accustomed to pursuing tigers and deer in the woods and indefatigable in running down their prey, which in war time was an essential survival aid.

The infantry were reported to show remarkable steadiness under fire. They were armed with muskets and each cushoon had its corps artillery of between one and five guns. In this area Haidar Ali and Tipu had a consistent advantage over the English. Their field pieces, mostly cast in Mysore under French supervision, were of heavier bore and longer range than anything issued to the Company’s forces and their mortars did great damage. At the fall of Srirangapatna in 1799, 927 cannon were captured. Out of approximately 400 brass guns, well over half were manufactured in Tipu’s own foundry. The rest were mostly French or Dutch.

Cannon used by Tipu Sultan's forces at the battle of Seringapatam 1799. Probably produced in Tipu’s own foundries under French supervision.

Tipu’s forces greatly outnumbered any that the British alone could bring against them. At Haidar’s death in 1782 the ration strength of the Mysore army was 88,000. According to a conservative estimate made on the eve of the Third Anglo Mysore War from 1789 to 1792, there were 48000 regular infantry, 65000 irregular infantry, 10,000 asad ilahis (POW battalions), 3000 regular and 5000 irregular cavalry.

Haidar Ali had also started building a navy. Had he been reinforced with the support of the French navy he would have been able to combat the English squarely both at sea and on land.


In 1786 Tipu commissioned Zainul Abideen Shustari, who claimed an intimate acquaintance with all military matters, to write a book in Persian under his direct supervision. The book called the Fath-ul-Mujahidin or the ‘The Triumphs of Holy Warriors’ deals with the rules and regulations pertaining to ‘Jihad’ (Holy War) for the Muslim soldiers and copies were distributed to his officers.

The book was partly translated into English in 1791 as ‘The Military Maxims and Observations of Tipoo Sultan’. 22 copies found their way to the India Office Library alone. It provided a deep insight into the fundamentals and basic concepts of faith, worship and deeds in addition to acting as a military manual covering the rules of sniping warfare and responsibilities of the troops.

Minute instructions are given in it for guidance regarding manual exercises, the duties of all grades of officers, night attacks, fighting in a wooded country or on plains, salutes on special occasions, military guards, furlough, desertions etc.

Fath-ul-Mujahidin (military manual written by Tipu Sultan).© Otto Money Photographed by Benoy Behl

In the appendix there are First Aid instructions for the soldier who gets injured or loses a lot of blood in the battlefield, the process of removing poison from the body of somebody who has been bitten by a snake and other such emergencies.


Indian soldier of Tipu Sultan's army, using his rocket as a flagstaff (by Robert Home)

It is already known that Tipu manufactured and used the latest guns when fighting the British in the 18th Century, but an analysis of a rocket used by Tipu Sultan’s army, exhibited in the Artillery Museum in London, proved that the rocket was of advanced construction and had a range of nearly 2km.

There is a long tradition in India of ‘weapons of fire’ which are mentioned in the Vedic hymns and in the Ramayana (300BC). However, there is now growing consensus about India’s startling progress in rocket science during the era of Tipu Sultan who is officially recognised by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as a pioneer of rocket technology.

Rockets had already been used against the British in 1755 and at Plassey in 1757, but it was at the Battle of Panipat (1761), against the Marathas, when the British first experienced the truly formidable power of massed rockets – some 2000 fired simultaneously.

Tipu and his father Haidar Ali also developed a military tactic of mass attacks by rocket brigades. However, Tipu was the first to have a full-fledged force of over 5000 rocket men and each cushoon, of which there were 27, had a company of 200 rocket men, called juqs, attached.

The rockets could be of various sizes and though similar to an ordinary firework, had in addition a tube of soft hammered iron about 8" long and 11/2 - 3" diameter, closed at one end and strapped to a shaft of bamboo about 4ft. long. The iron tube acted as a combustion chamber and was packed with black powder propellant. In contrast, rockets in Europe not being iron cased, could not take large chamber pressures and as a consequence, were not capable of reaching distances anywhere near as great.

The rocket men were trained to launch their rockets at an angle calculated from the diameter of the cylinder and the distance of the target. For multiple launching, Tipu created his own ‘rocket organ’ on wheels, which was capable of launching 5-10 rockets almost simultaneously.

It is has been suspected that rockets contributed to the Mysorean victory at the Battle of Pollilur by setting fire to the British ammunition tumbrels. In an ironic twist of history, at the end of the Fourth Anglo Mysore War, a shot from one of the British batteries on May 2nd 1799, struck a magazine of rockets within the fort of Srirangapatna causing a huge explosion, aiding the British victory.

The rocket which was ‘a weapon hitherto held almost in derision,’ wrote the military historian Wilks, ‘because seen in small numbers it is easily avoided.’ became Tipu’s deadliest missile…’

Eyewitness accounts differed vastly as to their effectiveness, the point being that while it was easy to see the individual rocket coming and to avoid it, a concentrated discharge could cause a lot of damage and confusion especially among cavalry. The British Army took over the idea at a later date.

The areas of town where rockets and fireworks were manufactured were known as Taramandal Pet(Galaxy bazaar). In addition, there was an ammunition depot within Srirangapatna Fort and a rocket and missile launching pad attached to the citadel ramparts.

When Tipu was killed, the British discovered more than 600 rocket launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and subsystems of 9000 rockets at Srirangapatna. Some of the rockets had iron points or steel blades bound to the bamboo: by attaching blades to rockets they became very unstable towards the end of their flight causing the blades to spin around like flying scythes, cutting down whatever was in their path; while other rockets had pierced cylinders so that the wind could catch the burning flame and they would act like an incendiary.

These rockets had been taken to England by William Congreve, son of the Commander of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, London and were subjected to “reverse engineering” along with Maratha rockets. This led to the publication of ‘A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System’ by Congreve in 1804. But though the ‘Congreve rockets’ of the nineteenth century caused an initial sensation, they were found to be more of a danger to their operators than to the enemy and gradually became obsolete

With the death of Tipu Sultan, Indian rocketry met its demise.

Congreve rockets based on Indian design (late 1700s)


Warfare in India

There were many problems the British army had to face in India: the scale of the subcontinent and size of its population, the difficult terrain and weather, the lack of supplies and the limited man-power of their armed forces. These factors and the distance from Europe and delay in news and instructions reaching India meant that in the subcontinent, warfare was conducted with a certain degree of incompetence and competitive arrogance at senior levels against the constant backdrop of the main theatre of war in Europe.

In spite of these problems, there was a strong belief that their superior training and artillery would prevail against the odds. Victories at the battles of St Thome, Arni, Kaveripak, Plassey, Kondur, Machlipatnam, Biderra, Uduanala and Buxar seemed to confirm this belief.

However, the growing power of Mysore was to shatter this complacency. Early warning signs of this were evident in the first extended confrontation between England and Mysore in 1767-9 when Haidar’s cavalry arrived at the gates of Madras and earned the nick name the ‘The Terror of Madras’.

Haidar Ali employed the French who served in his army to train his men in European methods of warfare and imported weaponry from Europe. This training and weaponry were very effective and played an important part in the Battle of Pollilur.

The British had started to employ regular battalions of native forces under handpicked officers from 1759. In fact, most of those killed in the Battle were Indian Sepoys who did not benefit from the superior training of the British regulars.

Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan were flexible with the deployment of infantry, cavalry and rocket men on familiar terrain. They possessed and used to advantage the ‘Bullocks, money and faithful spies’ noted by Innes Munro as ‘the sinews of war in this country’, whereas the British were usually struggling with these.

Mysore had superior supply chains, intelligence networks and fortifications. In addition, it had an efficient fiscal regime which was very favourable to the army.

This was evident in the second half of the 2nd Anglo Mysore War when the experienced Commander General Coote was unable to gain the advantage against the Mysoreans inspite of winning most of the battles. ‘He fought four obstinate battles with Haidar and gained the field without speaking of his having taken either prisoners, colours or standards’. Haidar kept on withdrawing and regrouping making it virtually impossible to dislodge him from the Carnatic.

Mysore’s cavalry comprised approximately half its total forces, in contrast to the British cavalry arm which was insignificant at the time of Pollilur. Haidar and Tipu’s skilled horsemen could make sudden destructive thrusts, cut off convoys and paralyse the British intelligence service. Their favourite tactics, ‘marching, fatigue and exertion’ were effective at wearing down the opponent.

East India Company Men v The King’s Men

In 1790 there were 72,000 soldiers - 64,000 East India Company men and just over 8,000 of the King’s troops.

The Mutiny Act of 1754 in which the Company was granted the power to exercise martial law over its growing army contained a significant clause which stipulated that British or King’s Army Officers had precedence over Indian Army Officers (ie East India men) of the same grade.

His Majesty King George 111 saw the British Army as the special preserve of the Hanoverians and its officers as the King’s Officers. The British Army had a far higher number of officers per unit and a far higher ratio of field officers to captains and subalterns than did the Indian Army. Captains in the Company’s service held commands that in the British Army were filled by Colonels. An Indian Army Officer might remain in the same grade for 20 years whereas a British Army Officer could climb very rapidly as did the young Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, who rose to the rank of Colonel in seven years without seeing any active service at all.

This made integration between the two forces problematic and led to much unfairness for the East Indian Company Men who were more experienced in Indian warfare and familiar with the country’s languages and customs. For example, a Madras Lieutenant with 14 years of service was superseded by a British Army Lieutenant who was only 14 years old.

The majority of positions for the Company’s new officers were Cadets (military) as opposed to Writers (civil). They were nominated in London and their recruitment was rudimentary compared to modern procedures with interviews lasting a minute or two. A large number of Cadets were Scottish. Since the Union of Scotland and England which was voted by the Edinburgh parliament on 16 January 1707 by a margin of 43 votes, opportunities had arisen for Scottish lairds and their younger sons to take commissions in the Army in the new United Kingdom a well as overseas especially in Britain’s colonies. This coincided with economic pressures at home and a cooling off of close ties with Catholic Europe. Many of these employment opportunities were provided by the Honourable East India Company.

The Company system as a whole had become self-serving and un-progressive with no regular appointments above the rank of Colonel and native battalions were often commanded by middle-aged majors or even captains with little hope of higher rank to look forward.

Soldiers of the Royal Welsh Artillery (1742-1750)
Dorset Officer 39th Regiment of Plassey - commemoration 1973

As the majority of fighting men in India were attached to the East India Company whose roots were that of a trading concern rather than a military institution, the ethics of the Company’s officers often came under scrutiny in the taking of booty and the fair division of spoils.

On the march and in camp the Company’s troops did not present the soldierly appearance which the Governor General Cornwallis would have desired. The Company’s Officers kept up the archaic tradition of camp followers en masse and had become habituated to their exotic creature comforts.

‘No captain could think of setting forth without the services of a dubash (head servant), a cook, a boy, a horse-keeper, a grass-cutter, 4 baggage bullocks and 2 drivers (or 12 to 15 extra coolies if bullocks were short), 4 coolies for conveying his bed etc, a palanquin and nine bearers, and sometimes a dulcinea [his Indian lady friend] and her train…’ records historian Innes Munro.

If a captain wanted to go to war in a palanquin, then he must add a further six or nine bearers to his entourage. Therefore an officer such as Colonel Captain William Baillie might need anything up to 30 servants to enable him to go to war. In addition to the servants, his Sepoys took along their entire families during a campaign.

In the decades after the Mutiny Act concerns were raised about the loyalty of the private army of a private mercantile company that had become much larger than the King’s army and was considered a potential threat.

Colonel Baillie being transported in a palanquin in the Battle of Pollilur painting.© Otto Money Photographed by Benoy Behl.

Recruitment of Sepoys

Sepoys of the 3rd Battalion at Bombay. Engraving published in London by M. Darly in 1773

In 1780, at the time of the Battle of Pollilur, the British had only 10,000 European troops but the resounding defeat at Pollilur challenged British assumptions and they recognised the growing military strength of Mysore and the need to change. They had initially doubted whether large numbers of Sepoys would remain reliable under pressure but eventually came to realise that recruiting indigenous manpower on a massive scale could compensate effectively for their own small numbers.

The Madras Government had been employing Sepoys since 1746; the French recruited them even earlier. The first regular battalions dated from 1759 and there were sixteen by 1767. They were carefully brigaded and placed under picked officers who in return received their implicit confidence.

By the time of the 4th Anglo- Mysore war, the balance had swung the other way and Tipu’s army of 35,000 men were significantly outnumbered by the British force, a sign of how seriously the British took their opponent, The Tiger of Mysore.

Cornwallis, who arrived in India after his seminal defeat at Yorktown in 1781 in the Americas to take up his post as the new Governor General, brought with him the perspective of an outsider and inspite of his racial attitudes, was impressed by the Sepoys’ courage and patience in bearing hunger and fatigue and their potential for disciplined training. This was demonstrated during the Mysore wars when they fought bravely and if necessary would die for the cause of the Company and the British dominion.

This was one of the major steps on the British road to imperial resurgence after the lost American War and the Battle of Pollilur, the nadir of British fortunes in India. By 1805, 6 years after Tipu had been vanquished, there were almost 170,000 sepoys in The British Army.