Haidar Ali and his son Tipu Sultan became the rulers of Mysore within the span of two generations and questions naturally arise about the origins of their family and lineage.
Little is known about Haidar’s distant past although genealogists have attempted to link him in descent to Hasan bin Yahya, who was the Sharif of Mecca and said to be from the Quraysh tribe to which Prophet Mohammed also belonged.
Haidar Ali’s great grandfather, Shaikh Wali Muhammad, was a travelling holy man. He travelled south from Delhi during the first half of the 17thcentury and became attached to a small shrine at Galbarga, eighty miles northeast of Bijapur. His son, Ali Muhammad married the daughter of one of the shrine servants. He moved to Bijapur (then part of the Mughal sultanate) and then finally to Kolar in North East Mysore. All of Ali Muhammad’s sons preferred fighting to religion to the despair of their father.
Ali Muhammad’s fourth son, Fateh Muhammad entered the service of the Nawab of Arcot. He next took service from the Raja of Mysore where he was given the title of Naik but did not stay long moving to Sira to serve the Nawab there.
Fateh was made a Faujdar (military commander) and granted a jagir (land grant with administrative powers) in Sira. He married two sisters as permitted under Islamic law. Haidar Ali was born in 1721 at Bodhikote, younger of two sons born to Fateh Muhammad’s younger wife.
Fateh Muhammed died in the field in Sira leaving bad debts behind. This led to the persecution of his widow and family by the new governor of Sira. She had no alternative but to seek help from her husband’s relative, Haidar Saheb.
Haidar Saheb used his influence with Dalavahi Devraj, the Chief Minister, so that the afflicted family were allowed to emigrate to Bangalore and from there to Srirangapatna (Seringapatam). Haidar Saheb took charge of the children and they were trained in military skills. The two then went off to enter the service of the younger brother of Muhammed Ali of the Carnatic.
Haidar Saheb grew prosperous in Mysore and in time invited his young cousins back where Haidar Ali’s elder brother, Shahbaz, was given the command of a small regiment of soldiers and cavalry by Dalavahi Nanjaraj, the younger of the Dalavahi brothers.
Haidar Ali’s skill as a soldier was discovered in Devanahalli near Bangalore, then a frontier fortress of Mysore by Dalavahi Nanjaraj. Haidar Ali happened to be in the field merely as a companion to his elder brother Shahbaz. However, his calmness and courage in battle gained for him Nanjaraj’s favour, who immediately appointed Haidar as the commander of 50 cavalry and 200 infantry. By 1761, the humble soldier of Devanahalli had become the most powerful figure in the Mysore court with all political power in his hands.
Dalavahi Nanjaraj, who also had command of the Mysore armies, was unable to hold Maratha incursions into the territory in check. It was at this time, that Haidar Ali rose to prominence from the ranks. Having proved his efficiency as a soldier and organiser, he was appointed as the Faujdar of Dindigul.
Haidar had acquired useful familiarity with the tactics of the French when at the height of their reputation under Dupleix during the expedition to Trichinopoly in the Carnatic to assist the Nawab Ali of Arcot. As Faujdar at Dindigul, Haidar collected and trained a small modern army based on the European model. He was very popular among the soldiers.
In 1758, Mysore was faced with the raids of the Maratha troops on the one hand and the mutiny of soldiers at home on the other. Both wanted money. The Dalavahi brothers ordered Haidar to reach Srirangapatna with his army. Haidar Ali defeated the Marathas and reconquered Bangalore which had been pledged to the Marathas in lieu of arrears to due tribute. For this valour he was honoured by the king with the title ‘Nawab Haidar Ali Khan’.
Shortly after this event Haidar Ali had another opportunity to enhance his prestige by successfully discharging the arrears of pay to the soldiers, thus ameliorating the second crisis of the time. In recognition of his services he was appointed Sarvadhikari, making him virtual master of the kingdom.
In the meantime, Dalavahi Nanjaraj had been exiled by the orders of the queen mother, who was in power with the young Raja of Mysore a mere puppet. In this, she was assisted by Khande Rao, who had once been Haidar Ali’s aide.
The queen mother and Khande Rao, supported by the Marathas, also moved against Haidar Ali. The ostensible justification for the move was to restore the full powers of the young raja. The reality was that the raja would have continued in his puppet-like role under the control of his mother if things had been left alone.
Haidar Ali, after an early setback, defeated the forces of Khande Rao at Srirangapatna with the help of the exiled Nanjaraj. After this contest with Khande Rao, Haidar founded the Sultanate of Mysore and formally styled himself ‘Sultan Haidar Ali Khan’.
Haidar Ali gained huge territory from the Nayaks of Keladi which resulted in the capture of Bednur- a key city in the hilly northwest area. He extended the dominions of Mysore by conquering Sira from the Marathas, Chitaldrug, and Malabar. Within the next twelve years his energy and ability made him complete master of minister and raja alike.
Mysore is the Anglicisation of ‘Mahishuru’ or ‘Mysuru’, as it became later in history, which means ‘Land of Mahisha’. The area was known in legend to be where Mahishasura, the mythical demon, ruled and was slain by the local deity, Chamundeswari.
Many ancient Hindu dynasties ruled parts of Mysore from the 4th to the 12th centuries, CE. The 14th century saw the Vijayanagar Empire hold sway in most of south India, including Mysore. In the 16th century, Mysore fell into the hands of independent chieftains. At the same time, the Sultans of Bijapur slowly extended their power in the south and formed a province comprising the districts of Bangalore, Hoskote, Kolar, Doddaballapur and Sira.
In 1686 the Sultanates of Golconda and Bijapur, planted on the ruins of the ancient Hindu Empire of Vijayanagar, had been conquered and combined into a single Governorship by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Consequently in 1687 the kingdom of Mysore became a tributary of the Mughals. This soon split up again into different Nawabships, including those of Sira and Arcot. Mysore was tributary to the former, while the latter controlled the south-east coastal strip known as the Carnatic.
The most important of the independent chieftainships in 16th century Mysore were the Wodeyars who claim Kshatriya (warrior caste) descent. They rose to power against the backdrop of the decaying Vijayanagar kingdom.
According to tradition, at the end of the 14th century, two young brothers Yaduraya and Krishnaraya of the Yadava clan came from Dwarka in Gujarat and founded the Wodeyar dynasty. At first the chieftains of Mysore were vassals of the Rajas of Vijayanagar. Subject to the control of a viceroy, the Wodeyars occupied Srirangapatna and made it their capital.
In 1668 Mysore declared its independence under its king Dodda Deveraja Wodeyar. Under the reign of Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar (1672-1704) Mysore prospered politically, economically and culturally. At his death, the kingdom extended from Palur and Annamalai in the south to Midagesi in the north and from the Baramahals in the east to the borders of Coorg and Balam in the west.
Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar’s political shrewdness and his friendly relations with the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb contributed a great deal to his success. However after Chikka Devaraja’s death at the beginning of the 18th century, Maratha incursions into Mysore territories became frequent and Mysore passed through troublesome times, with power falling away from the rajas and into the hands of ministers. By the time of Haidar Ali, the new raja, Krishnaraja, who was just a boy, was forced into a powerless puppet role.