Tipu/Tipoo/Tippu/Tippoo/Teepoo… He is often referred to as Tipu Sultan, Tipu Sahib or the Tiger of Mysore. At the end of the 18th Century, this ruler of the South Indian kingdom of Mysore was the only hurdle that stood between Britain, represented by the East India Company, and a world empire centred on India, the Jewel in the Crown.
Tipu Sultan, and before him, his father Haidar Ali, steadfastly refused to accept any compromise in dealing with the East India Company, foreseeing the Company’s territorial ambitions and ultimately those of Imperial Britain.
Debate and controversy about him continues to this day but later historians have recognised Tipu as an enlightened ruler in war and peace.
He fought in all his army’s battles, making him a genuine hero king. He was a capable statesman who introduced many far reaching changes to improve the efficiency and economic welfare of Mysore in addition to fostering a spirit of religious tolerance among his subjects. He was a well-educated man whose large library of books from home and abroad included a translation of The Declaration of American Independence which impressed him deeply.
Tipu Sultan died fighting to defend his country at his beloved capital of Srirangapatna. If he had been more fortunate in his endeavours to forge alliances against the British, both in India and abroad, the history of India and the British Raj itself may have turned out differently.
Tipu was born on the 20th of November 1750 at Devanhalliin the Kingdom of Mysore, the eldest son of Fatima, second wife of Haidar Ali, the de-facto ruler of the kingdom. The child was named Fath Ali, after his grandfather. He was also given the name Tipu after a local Muslim saint, Tipu Mastan Aulia, whose tomb his mother had visited at the time of her pregnancy.
As befitted the son of a warlike ruler, Tipu was trained in combat, religion, jurisprudence and languages. He started to accompany his father on various military campaigns from an early age.
His first recorded military success was in 1766 at about the age of 15 when he succeeded in forcing the surrender of a rebellious poligar (head of a fortified district) in the densely forested and hilly Malabar region, south of Bednur.
In June 1767 during the First Anglo-Mysore War, Tipu was entrusted with a special diplomatic mission to the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was in the opposing camp. The young Tipu carried out his mission with such skill and tact that he succeeded in persuading the Nizam to change sides and join Haidar.
When he was seventeen, Tipu was given his first nominal command under his military instructor Ghazi Khan. Tipu led a detachment on a plundering raid to Madras, scaring the British who did not expect to see the Mysore cavalry literally at their doorstep. However, on the way back to rejoin the main army under Haidar, Tipu was nearly intercepted by the British in the district of Salem in present-day Tamil Nadu. He was given a hero’s welcome by his father who was relieved to see him.
During the Maratha-Mysore War (1769-72) Tipu used guerrilla warfare tactics that his father had developed over the years and successfully disrupted the Maratha lines of communication and their convoys to Poona. Despite Tipu’s success, the war ultimately ended in defeat for Mysore.
After Peshwa Madhavrao I, chief of the Marathas, died in November 1772, his kingdom fell into political turmoil. Subsequent to this, Tipu assisted his father in re-conquering the territories taken by the Marathas, including the part of their kingdom that lay between the Tungabhadra and Krishna rivers.
During the 2nd Anglo Mysore War, Tipu had many opportunities to show his skills on the battlefield before his father’s death and his subsequent accession to power. Probably the best and most memorable example of his military competence was at the Battle of Pollilur in 1780, where he accompanied his father with his own troops.
Tipu Sultan’s kingdom of at the peak of his power extended from Dindigul in the south to Dharwad in the north and from Bellary and Kurnool in the east to the Konkan coast and the Malabar in the west.
His domain contained forests, hills and fertile plains in addition to numerous ancient temples and heterogeneous religious faiths. It had a composite culture, which Tipu encouraged and patronised, and this helped to promote communal amity and a secular society. A large majority of his subjects were Hindus of different denominations and only 10 percent were Muslims, belonging to 2 sects - Sunni and Shia.
Tipu took several measures to synthesise Hindu and Islamic beliefs and cultural concepts.
Among the wide variety of coins minted during his regime there were some that carried the images of Hindu gods, such as Shiva, Parvati, Sharada and Krishna with Kannada and Persian numerals.
Another example was his reformation of the calendar, aligning it more closely with the lunisolar Hindu calendar in which the lunar year was periodically adjusted to the solar year by the addition of intercalary months. This addressed some of the administrative difficulty in the collection of agricultural taxes since crops are linked with the seasons whereas the Muslim year is not.
Perhaps the best example of Tipu’s multicultural syncretism is his extensive use of the tiger motif, which he adopted as his personal symbol and official emblem of Mysore.
The motif linked him with both the hero of Islam, the Ghazi, a lion or tiger mounted warrior saint and also with Chamundi, the local warrior goddess of Mysore, who wore tiger cloth and rode a tiger, similar to another powerful female deity of the Hindu pantheon, Durga.
Tipu Sultan believed that in order to confront the English he needed to have a cause to which his subjects could feel deeply attached. He received a formal education in Persian unlike his father Haidar Ali who was probably illiterate, which meant that he was well-versed in Islamic history and theology.
This in turn helped in directing the course he took, emphasising his role as a Muslim king while at the same time ensuring he had the backing of a Hindu majority.
Tipu behaved as an independent sovereign. His formal name for government Sarkar-i-Khudadad (God given government) reflected the fact that his was no ordinary government, but one with a divine-ordained mission. The religious orientation of government was underlined by the orders to appoint a qazi(an expert in Islamic, or Shariah practices) especially for imparting instruction in elementary principles of Islam to Muslim children.
In addition to developing his personal tiger-based brand, Tipu Sultan was a brilliant self-publicist. After consolidating his power, Tipu declared himself to be the Padshah or Emperor of Mysore. He ordered the ‘Khutbah’ or daily prayer in the mosques, to be read in his own name, instead of that of the reigning Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II. Tipu struck coinage in his own name, proclaiming he was the only Sultan and omitting the Mughal Emperor, which was contrary to received usage. He even had the chutzpah to send an offering of these coins to Shah Alam.
Tipu Sultan clearly did not feel he needed to carry any certification of inferior office from the Mughal court at Delhi. Tipu was not impressed with the mythology of Mughal supremacy. He knew of the humiliation that Emperor Shah Alam had suffered at Allahabad when the latter sought the protection of British forces after the Battle of Buxar in 1764.
Later, when Shah Alam returned to Delhi in 1772, he was simply a puppet of the Marathas.
Tipu Sultan was clear in his aims to leave an Islamic footprint in Mysore which reinforced his role as a Muslim King. He changed the Dravidian names of towns and places to Urdu names, destroyed Calicut and then depopulated the surrounding areas to repopulate the renamed town “Ferozabad”.
Similarly, the town of Devanhalli, where he was born, was renamed Yusafabad, the abode of Yusuf (Joseph). Chitaldurg was changed to Farukh-yab Hisar, or the ‘propitiously-acquired castle;’ Gutti to Faiz Hisar, or the ‘citadel of grace’. All these places later lapsed back into their old names.
Despite all of Tipu Sultan’s pro-Islamic actions, we have sufficient evidence to show that he was not a religious bigot. He raised Hindus to high positions, granted them complete freedom, conferred grants on their temples and gave money for the consecration of idols. He was equally severe on both non-Muslim and Muslim subjects who were disloyal.
Tipu Sultan’s short and stormy rule of 17 years was more eventful than that of his father, Haidar Ali. Tipu showed prescience about the East India Company’s territorial ambitions, going beyond their original charter in India, which was that of just traders.
His reign is characterised by his fervent opposition to the British presence in India and a refusal to make compromises with them. He made it his life’s mission to stand between Britain and her imperialist ambitions.
Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, who is credited with laying the foundation for the British Empire, said in 1784, ‘it is the fixed policy of our nation to enfeeble every power in connection with it…’
Tipu was unique in not willing to ally with the British against other Indian states while keen to make alliances with the latter against the foreigners. He also fought personally in all his army’s battles making him an exceptional hero king. Announcing Tipu’s death, Richard Wellesley, the then Governor General of India, is reported as having declared: “Ladies and gentlemen, I drink to the corpse of India.” Once Tipu was out of their path, the British dug their way into India for a stay that lasted some 150 years.
Tipu Sultan took over the kingdom of Mysore after the death of his father Haidar Ali, from a possibly cancerous abscess, during a campaign against the British in 1782. He continued fighting the British for a further 15 months, till the 2nd Anglo Mysore War ended in a truce with the Treaty of Mangalore.
Throughout his reign Tipu was involved in wars. Soon after the 2nd Anglo Mysore War, he invaded Palam and Coorg in 1785 and this was followed by his action against Nargund and Kittur (1785-6) which led to a war against a coalition of the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad (1786 and 87). This particular war ended well for Tipu, who not only successfully defended his kingdom but managed to annex new territories.
His march against Tranvancore in December 1789 led to the 3rd Anglo Mysore War. The British availed themselves of the help of the Nizam and the Marathas and Tipu was defeated in his capital, Srirangapatna. Tipu was forced to sign a humiliating treaty on March 22, 1792 which reduced his territory to half and imposed a heavy indemnity. He also had to send two of his sons as hostages to the British.
As long as the British fought alone, Tipu Sultan had a chance of defeating them. But he could not overcome their knack of diplomacy and ability to play members of the Indian rulers off each other. Unlike his neighbours the Marathas and the Nizam, Tipu staunchly stuck to his decision not to make a compromise through an alliance with the British.
Tipu never forgot the humiliation he suffered in the 3rd Anglo Mysore War and spent the rest of his life attempting to recover his lost territory and prestige. Tipu tried to forge alliances in India with other rulers like the Nizam and the Marathas. Abroad, in Europe and other Asian countries, he approached Zaman Shah of Aghanistan (Amir of Afganistan), the Shah of Iran, Prince Saleem of Turkey (the Sultan of Turkey) and the Sharif of Mecca for possible military cooperation.
However, Tipu had limited success in these enterprises. He failed to rally the Nizam on the basis of their common Muslim faith and religious tensions exacerbated his already fraught relationship with the Marathas.
Tipu Sultan put great store in an alliance with the French from whom he had inherited a tradition of friendship from his father and sent embassies to France, courting both the King of France and subsequently Napoleon Bonaparte.
Unaware of the social, political and economic situation in revolutionary France, he was certain that owing to their rivalry with the English, they would help him. But although they raised his hopes, he was ultimately unable to rely on their support.
After the Treaty of Srirangapatna, which signalled the end of the 3rd Anglo Mysore War, Tipu Sultan did not waste any time rebuilding his war machine with the help of the French troops in his court. The possibility of Tipu securing Napoleon’s help in expelling the British became public and served as a trigger for the 4th Anglo Mysore war in 1799. Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of the Nile in Egypt dashed Tipu’s last hopes of French support.
The final battle of the Anglo Mysore Wars was fought between the combined forces of the British, under Major General David Baird, allied with the forces of the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Mysore Army under Tipu Sultan.
It is alleged that the British army were in collusion with Tipu’s Minister Mir Sadiq. On May 4 the final assault was made. Within one hour the ramparts and every part of the Lal Bagh palace -Tipu’s main residence - had been occupied by the invading forces. Tipu Sultan died while fighting in his capital on May 4, 1799.With Tipu’s death, the Kingdom of Mysore lay at the feet of the British although they had only captured the capital and some minor forts.
Tipu Sultan is buried in a mausoleum that he had himself built, along with his father Haidar Ali and his mother, Fatima.
Tipu Sultan’s personal valour, fearlessness and perseverance, inspired his troops with confidence and enthusiasm. However, he was not just a battlefield king. He had a high sense of duty to his office – he spared no pains to promote the welfare of his people.
After he came to power, Tipu swept away the cobwebs of disintegration and introduced an efficient administrative and political system. Tipu expected the highest standards of discipline, loyalty, punctuality and integrity from his civil servants. Among the many innovations he introduced in Mysore were:
Tipu’s life spanned the last half of the 18th century. During this period the British in India developed imperialistic aims and it is against the British that Tipu is most clearly defined. He became a legend in his lifetime and has inspired contrasting responses which can now be looked at in a historical perspective. On the one hand, there is Tipu the ferocious fighter who spent much of his short life on the battlefield against his enemies, in particular the British, whose expansionist designs he wished to thwart. On the other hand, there is also Tipu, the cultivated man of ideas, interested in art and in modernising his country and army.
Tipu Sultan’s relentless fight for freedom gained national recognition 86 years after his death, with the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885. However, it wasn’t until 15th August 1947 that Tipu’s dream of independence from the British became a reality. Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent methods would have seemed strange to a fighter like Tipu but he would have concurred with Gandhi’s belief in the co-existence of Muslims and Hindus.
The British portrayed Tipu as a bigot and cruel despot, images which justified getting rid of him and which act as a precursor to much more recent media representations of Islamic rulers. History books, which were invariably written from a Western perspective, were generally biased towards British interests and demonised Tipu Sultan.
To bring about Tipu’s demise, Governor General Richard Wellesley needed to produce a ‘dossier’ that convincingly incriminated Tipu. He capitalised on a rumour of Tipu’s alliance with France against the British. However, it is clear from the evidence that Wellesley himself doubted the reliability of this information.
It is hard to escape a modern historical parallel. In 2003, the British government under Tony Blair supported the invasion of Iraq by the US and allies in the spring of 2003 allegedly to remove weapons of mass destruction. The ‘dossier’ of evidence was at best ‘questionable in legality’ and at worst, pure fabrication.
We can also see the parallels of the Islamophobic propaganda in Tipu’s era that is reflected in the West recently, which equates the East with irrational religious behaviour along with the use of such inflammatory rhetoric as ‘axis of evil’ and the ‘War on Terrorism’.
Edward Said in his critique of Orientalism has observed how difficult the question of ‘neutral’ scholarship is when written by those who belong to the ruling race. Another feature of Orientalism is that modernity, progress and democracy have come to be seen as a mindset that is the preserve of the West, who take upon themselves the role of the natural law enforcers and arbitrators.
In today’s world, there is mention of the ‘Islamic Bomb’, the fear of a nuclear device falling into the ‘wrong hands’ - another euphemism for an Eastern, Islamic country. This was the case in the 18th century too, when Tipu Sultan was eager to learn new techniques and technology from the French to improve his army and weaponry. It was the consequent fear of Tipu becoming a technological equal that most disturbed the British.
Tipu Sultan identified himself as a Muslim king and cited Jihad to fellow Muslims, inspired not by fundamentalist views but by political motives because he needed to find allies against the British and creating a unified ideological response was a useful public relations tool. However, it has also meant that Tipu has been hijacked as a martyr to the cause of Islam by some Islamic extremists. On the other hand, many reactionary Hindu Nationalists including some of the Bharatiya Janata Party see him as an anti-Hindu parvenu who overthrew the rightful heirs of Mysore. This latter view was conveniently taken by the British also for the purpose of justifying their reinstatement of a puppet regime under the Wodeyars, who themselves arguably were usurpers of the Vijayanagara dynasty’s rights.
So the Tipu debate continues on in India, with such hair splitting topics as whether he should be part of the national curriculum if he did not speak Kannada (the local language of Mysore) regularly making the news.
The image of Tipu Sultan as the cruel Oriental despot captured the European imagination. Many of the stories that were circulated about him were largely blatant fabrications. Reports such as those produced by Colonel Wilks after the humiliating British defeat at the Battle of Pollilur and the sensational personal accounts of some 200 British captives taken to Srirangapatna after the battle helped form the impression of a demoniac Tipu in the public eye.
News of the ‘captivity diaries’ as they were known was initially suppressed as it was an unfavourable reflection on the incompetence of the East India Company who were seen as having let the Nation down. However, the accounts, which were not very reliable, were later astutely published by the Company when they were back on the warpath and whetted the appetite of readers back home. The well-timed publication portraying the British as victims also served the purpose of fuelling a sense of indignation at this juncture and vindicated the Company’s expansionist military aims.
There were many versions of Tipu’s story, reflecting the new taste for Gothic and Oriental romance. As well as plays, novels and poems there were paintings and engravings, prints, glass paintings and souvenirs.
The most illustrated incident was Lord Cornwallis receiving Tipu’s two sons as hostages in 1792. Cornwallis is portrayed as a benevolent avuncular figure while the boys show the princely nobility of their rank. This powerful propagandist image shows a superior humanity on the part of the British in the treatment of the two boys in contrast to Tipu’s reputation for cruelty. In reality there was little kindness in taking two young children away from their home and keeping them as prisoners until their father had fulfilled every title of a Treaty which had not yet been completely agreed.
The next most illustrated scene was of the Storming of Srirangapatna in the final British victory. Prints were often published in sets of four and again featured the romanticised image of the surrender of two of Tipu’s sons to Major General Baird.
In the 19th century, we find Tipu making appearances in novels such as The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as well as in Walter Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter.
In the 20th century The Sword of Tipu Sultana novel by Bhagwan Gidwani spawned a popular and controversial television series first aired on Doordarshan, the state run television in India.
The behind-the-scenes drama was almost as traumatic as Tipu’s own life - with fatalities and a fire on the set which disfigured the director of the series, Sanjay Khan.
The whodunit mystery of Tipu’s Death has been skilfully exploited by Bernard Cornwell in his novel ‘Sharpe’s Tiger’ published in 1997 where the unknown redcoat is none other than Richard Sharpe (aka Sean Bean.) It takes place in Mysore, India and tells of Sharpe's adventures and triumphs against the Tipu Sultan during the Siege of Seringapatam.
Playwright and actor Girish Karnad has written a play called the Dreams of Tipu Sultan to celebrate the bicentenary of his death in 2000.
The imaginative legacy has a more sordid manifestation such as the uncontrolled spree of looting of priceless Indian art treasures by the British troops after the Fall of Srirangapatna on the night of 4 May 1799 while Tipu Sultan lay dead among his comrades.
Tipu’s magnificent palaces, forts and parks are lasting monuments to a creative ruler as are the works of art commissioned by him, many of which have found their way to England.
Tipu’s palace, his treasury and practically every house in the city were plundered over a period of two days. The resulting chaos led to enforcements from the new Commandant of Srirangapatna, the future Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, who set up a Prize Committee for the distribution of the spoils.
This outburst of greed was responsible for the finest of the treasures going to England - into the hands of the East India Company, the Crown and the private homes of its officers. Some of this plunder such as Tipu’s gold tiger throne was broken up into smaller parcels to make it easier to trade, a sign of the rapacity of the soldiers. However, two notable fragments of the throne - the magnificent tiger’s head and the jewelled humas or bird of paradise were saved for the Crown and can be seen today in Windsor Castle.
The firearms and swords produced in Tipu’s time are masterpieces of craftsmanship and artistic design and are often decorated with tiger imagery.
Tipu’s personal swords are particularly sought after collector’s pieces. Their Koranic inscriptions and talismanic signs, enamelled or damascened in gold, give them an added symbolic significance.
One of Tipu’s personal swords was given to General Baird in honour of his bravery at Srirangapatna. The sword was bought at auction in 2004 by Dr Vijay Mallya, CEO of the Kingfisher group, an Indian company. Mallya subsequently acquired most of Robin Wigington’s collection of Tipu’s armoury.
Tipu Sultan’s magnificent palaces, forts and parks, which are now open to the public, stand as lasting monuments to a creative ruler.
The loss of the powerful Mysore ruler and his court at Srirangapatna brought about social disruption and financial disadvantage. Many Muslim military men found themselves in difficult circumstances, since they refused to take service with the British and regarded other employment as beneath them. Royal patronage was an important commercial stimulus on the subcontinent and those who had depended on the court for their livelihood such as the weavers of Bangalore who provided the court with luxury cloth, suffered financially.
After Tipu Sultan’s death, his family, including all his sons, his zenana (female members of the family) and a substantial retinue, were resettled in Vellore, a military garrison town in the Carnatic, where they were kept in surroundings befitting their royal status. This community in exile numbered nearly 3000. The older princes were awarded a generous pension allowance by Wellesley of 50,000 rupees a year which allowed them to live well although there are reports that they became corrupt.
In 1806 the sepoys revolted and attacked the European garrison as well as seizing the magazine. This became known as the Vellore Mutiny and has been viewed historically as the forerunner of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Some of Tipu’s sons were implicated in the uprising. As a result they were removed from Vellore and sent to Calcutta although only Muiz-ud-din and Muin-ud-din were detained in close confinement. Abdul Khaliq, one of the original hostage boys, died on arrival.
Two of the younger Princes, the 11th son, Jamal-ud-din, who was 10 at the time of the Vellore Mutiny and his older brother, Ghulam Muhammad, made for Europe when they grew up and were accepted into London society. Ghulam Muhammad made a name for himself as a venerable figure known for his charity and hospitality. He enjoyed the friendship of Queen Victoria who had a weakness for all things Indian and welcomed him to her court. Shortly before his death on Aug 11th 1872, the Queen made Ghulam Muhammad a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India.
The rest of the family gradually spread out over Calcutta and multiplied rapidly. As long as the Wellesley pensions were paid they continued to live in some dignity and comfort but the pensions gradually expired with the deaths of individual holders. Subsequently the situation of some branches of the family deteriorated until today many descendants of Tipu Sultan are to be found living in poverty, mainly in Bengal.
In 1989 an emissary from the Karnataka government was sent to look for original 6th and 7th generation descendents of Tipu Sultan currently living in Calcutta to rehabilitate them in the Southern state. Many declined instead wanting funds to stay in Calcutta and to lead a decent life there. There is still protracted litigation about large areas of real estate in the city which are supposed to belong to the Tipu clan.
Noor Inayat Khan (full name Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan), the first British Special Operations Executive agent of Indian origin in World War II, was the great-great-granddaughter of Tipu Sultan. She was also the first female radio operator to be sent into occupied France to aid the French resistance. There is indeed an irony in one of Tipu Sultan’s descendants fighting for the British, taking on the cause of fighting Nazi tyranny. This is all the more intriguing because Noor was deeply influenced by the pacifist teachings of her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan. She was posthumously awarded a George Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for her bravery.