Tiger or tyrant: Fractured legacy of Tipu Sultan

THE CYNICNov 13, 2015 | 21:29

Tiger or tyrant: Fractured legacy of Tipu Sultan

Tipu Sultan died on May 4, 1799 but his mortal demise wasn’t enough to lay at rest the fractured legacy that he bequeathed the land over which he waged war.

The English called him Tippoo Sahib, a grudging recognition of the Mysore ruler’s stature as a worthy adversary. Tipu fought the English East India Company for 32 years... from the age of 15 till his death on the battlefield.


It is folklore that Tipu would often say - it was better to live for two days like a tiger than drag out an existence like a sheep for 200 years... little did the Sultan of Mysore realise that more than 200 years after his death the debate over whether he was a "tiger" or a tyrant would fuel political one-upmanship. Political parties in present-day Karnataka, most of which formed a part of Tipu’s sultanate, have resorted to Tipu politics to retain their polarised vote banks.

The Congress celebrating Tipu Jyanti... a day to honour the contribution of Tipu to India’s freedom struggle... The BJP labelling Tipu a tyrant and bigot.

So who was Tipu? While Indian historians differ in their opinion when it comes to judging Tipu’s legacy... British historian Richard Cavendish describes him as a small plump man with a round face and black moustache, who wore clothes glittering with jewels... Cavendish writes that Tipu was vigorous, forceful, brave, warlike and cruel; a devout Muslim ruling a mainly Hindu population.

While the political parties of the country are divided over questions of "Tiger or Tyrant" there is another prism to view Tipu through... Tipu’s actions need to be judged in the context of his desire to eliminate the influence of the Wodeyars.


The Hindu Wodeyar dynasty had been ruling the kingdom of Mysore for centuries when Haider Ali, Tipu’s father, usurped authority but not the kingdom. It was Tipu who formally overthrew the Wodeyars and declared himself the Sultan of Sultanate-e-khudadad or the "Kingdom of God". Tipu began changing everything that harked back to the Wodeyar influence. His insecurities led him to have new coins minted, place names Islamised, Kannada replaced by Persian as the court language, and buildings and bridges destroyed and rebuilt in an attempt to stamp his name over everything. Tipu reformed everything he set eyes upon... calendar, weights and measures, banking, commerce, agriculture and industry.

It is a well-recorded fact that Tipu was always on the look out for internalising foreign ideas and innovations. Playwright and thespian Girish Karnad had researched Tipu extensively for his play 'The Dreams of Tipu Sultan'. He is credited to have commented, “Tipu nationalised the sale of sandalwood and brought in silkworm farming. He learnt how to improve the economy from the British and implemented it in his kingdom. Had he been Hindu he would have been worshipped as the man who made the state.”


Not many know that the famous 40 acre Lal Bagh botanical garden in Bangalore was established by Haidar Ali and his son Tipu. Tipu had an interest bordering on obsession about anything to do with horticulture and gardening. Much of his correspondence with foreigners was about requests for newer varieties of seeds and plants.

But the political atmosphere in India is such that historians too seem to be as divided in their opinion about Tipu as are the political parties. On one hand, a section of historians say that Tipu’s administrative qualities stood above his tyrannical approach as his contribution is part of administration today. Others don’t have any qualms about labelling him a terrorist.

Tipu hated the increasing English influence in south India. He was determined to build a powerful state that would thwart the East India Company’s designs. He was feared by his neighbours and other Indian princes who joined forces with the English against him. When it came to anybody being friendly towards the English, there was no harsher enemy than Tipu.

Realising that he needed friends to defeat the English, Tipu set out to seal foreign alliances. He wrote to Zaman Shah Durrani of Afghanistan and sent emissaries to the Ottoman emperor in Constantinople. But with the Afghans and Ottomans themselves recuperating from big wars on their shores nothing positive came of these efforts. Tipu then turned to the French and allied with Napoleon Bonaparte who launched his conquest of Egypt timed to hurt the English enough for Tipu to take advantage of the situation. It is an irony of fate that both these men of war were defeated by the same English solider.

It was General Arthur Wellesley who took control of Srirengapattana in 1799, and it was he who on discovery of Tipu’s body took his pulse to confirm death. Arthur Wellesley went on to become the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

Tipu lived for 48 momentous and eventful years, most of the time fighting to establish his supremacy over others. But Tipu was also known to help others when they needed it. It is said that in 1791 when a Maratha army raided the Sringeri Shankaracharya mutt and temple and plundered the monastery, the then Shankaracharya wrote to Tipu for help. Tipu ordered his army to help and the exchange of letters between Tipu and the Shankaracharya stand testimony to this event.

The legacy of Tipu and his historical worth can be assessed by the interest that artefacts related to his rule attract. The discovery of the robe that Tipu wore on the day he was killed created a flutter. Then came the sword of Tipu, which was bought by liquor baron Vijay Mallya. But if there is one symbol that is abiding with any reference to Tipu it is that of a tiger.

The Congress and the BJP may fight political battles over whether Tipu was one or not, but it is of historical record that tigers fascinated Tipu. Tipu kept six tigers in his fortress city of Srirengapattana. His throne was shaped and striped like a tiger. His elite troops wore tiger badges. The hilt of his sword was in the form of a snarling tiger and of course there was his favourite toy – that of a mechanical tiger mauling a British solider while the victim squeals in terror.

So go figure according to your own convictions whether it matters or not that this man who died 216 years ago was firstly an Indian or not – according to our modern definition, and secondly whether he was a patriot or partisan when it came to dealing with the Hindu ancestors of those who are today Indian Hindus.

Last updated: November 13, 2015 | 21:37
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