National Army Museum

In the 18th century, the Muslim warlord Tipu Sultan terrorised Hindu southern India and clashed repeatedly with the British. Today, his legacy is contested, but he was far from the nationalist that some have claimed, writes Zareer Masani.

The rise to power of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has coincided with an unprecedented struggle for the country’s historical past between Hindu nationalists (represented by the BJP) and the secularists who oppose them. One of the most hotly contested reputations in these ‘history wars’ is that of the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, the 18th-century Muslim usurper who took on the might of the East India Company.

It is ironic that the current Hindu nationalist view of Tipu as a sadistic, fanatical war criminal so closely echoes the narratives of the British officers who fought and defeated him more than two centuries ago. It is equally surprising to find this Muslim autocrat, who revelled in the forced conversion of many thousands of Christian and Hindu prisoners, being hailed as a tolerant, secular nationalist by the Indian left. More predictably, he is seen as a Muslim patriot in Pakistan, where a missile has been named after him.

In November 2015, these rival views erupted onto the streets of Bangalore, now home to India’s silicon valley and once the second city of Tipu’s kingdom. When the Congress government of the state of Karnataka, keen to win Muslim support, designated his birthday a public holiday, BJP supporters took to the streets in protest. Two people died in the riots that followed. The dispute again made headlines when the prominent left-wing playwright Girish Karnad received death threats from Hindu extremists after he suggested that Bangalore’s airport be renamed after Tipu.

The dispute illustrates the extent to which the Hindu nationalist psyche still feels the wound it perceives from seven centuries of rule by Muslim conquerors. It also epitomises the difficulty of arriving at a conclusive historical judgement on Tipu, despite the huge archive of contemporary records, including 2,000 of his own letters and the first-hand memoirs of the British prisoners he allegedly tortured and forcibly converted. Tipu’s apologists dismiss British accounts as being part of a ‘dodgy dossier’ aimed at justifying colonial wars against him. Even Tipu’s own memoirs and letters, they claim, were doctored by the British scholars who translated them.

Portrait of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the kingdom of Mysore.

We know that Tipu was born in 1750 near Bangalore, the son of a Muslim warlord, Haidar Ali, who rose by the 1760s to effective control of the wealthy Hindu kingdom of Mysore in southern India. Even Tipu’s ancestral origins are disputed. His critics insist that his family were not (as they claimed) descendants of an aristocratic Arab from Baghdad, but low-caste Hindu converts to Islam. Also disputed is a British story of Haidar, ‘in a paroxysm of brutal drunken rage’, publicly flogging his teenaged son and heir in the middle of a humiliating military retreat. ‘I have conversed with persons’, claimed a British contemporary, ‘who saw his [Tipu’s] back in a shocking state upwards of a week afterwards.’ Many find such testimony unconvincing in view of Tipu’s ‘extreme personal modesty’, which made it highly unlikely that he ‘would have gone around displaying his disgraced and riven back to all and sundry’.

Tipu succeeded his tyrannical father in 1782, in the midst of the Second Mysore War with the East India Company. During the course of the conflict, Haidar had nearly ousted the British from their provincial southern capital of Madras. Tipu consolidated his father’s territorial gains on the commercially important spice coast of Malabar and brought the war to a successful conclusion, signing the Treaty of Mangalore with the Madras government in 1784. To the fury of Governor-General Warren Hastings, based in Calcutta, the terms agreed by his Madras subordinates left Tipu’s kingdom of Mysore as the dominant power in southern India. Tipu now felt he could be magnanimous and offered the Company an alliance; but the offer was declined for fear of upsetting other Indian powers.

For the next seven years, Tipu and the Company were at peace. It was a period when the sultan is credited with running the most efficient, modernising administration in pre-colonial India. His voluminous correspondence shows his often obsessive concern with detail and desire to micromanage his officials. He carried out sweeping, though often pointless, revisions of the official calendar and to weights and measures. For example, he changed the normal Indian distance of a kos from 2.5 miles to 2.75 miles and then decreed that state postmen would be flogged unless they covered that distance in exactly 33 minutes.

On a more productive note, Tipu emphasised the need to expand trade, especially with the Muslim world in the Middle East. He introduced a new coinage, considered the finest in 18th century India, and is credited with founding Mysore’s now legendary silk industry by importing silkworms and planting mulberry trees. A typical minute sent to one of his district officers had 127 instructions, ranging from the promotion of farming to a ban on cannabis. Tipu, unlike his father, was strictly teetotal and enforced a state ban on alcohol, except for his small band of French mercenaries. He is reputed to have been a generous patron of learning and the arts, with a library of more than 2,000 books, beautifully bound and later captured by the British.

The sultan’s personal appearance made a favourable impression on at least one British official, who described him as ‘uncommonly well made, except in the neck, which was short and large; his leg, ankle and foot beautifully proportioned, his arms large and muscular … but his hands rather too fine and delicate for a soldier’. He was surrounded by elaborate pomp and pageantry and sat on a specially commissioned, octagonal gold throne with its jewelled tiger-head finials, in an impressive throne room, whose colossal stone pillars still stand. His court chroniclers claimed that the sultan breakfasted on ‘the brains of tame male sparrows’, had two wives and 68 concubines, but nevertheless lived simply with little revelry and read himself to sleep at night.   

***

As a Muslim ruler, Tipu generally respected the religious sensitivities of his predominantly Hindu subjects and spared them the ferocious persecution he visited on those in the territories he conquered. Tipu ruled through an almost exclusively Muslim officer corps, many of whom were his own kinsmen. It was as a military leader that he was most comfortable. He inherited from his father what was by far the largest and best trained professional army in the subcontinent, based on a system of compulsory service rather than feudal levies. His troops numbered around 100,000, compared with the East India Company’s meagre 12,000 Europeans and 20,000 Indian sepoys. They lived with their families in cantonments around the capital, known as Seringapatam, and were fiercely loyal to the sultan as their commander. They were smartly dressed in a livery bearing Tipu’s favourite tiger stripes and had excellent equipment, with muskets, rockets and artillery superior to the Company’s.

Tipu declared that he would sooner live two days as a tiger than 200 years as a sheep. He kept half a dozen tigers chained on the veranda of his palace and was credited with having wrestled and killed a wild tiger with his bare hands. The most famous relic of his tiger-worship is ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, the life-size mechanical toy, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, depicting a wooden tiger devouring a prone British soldier, while an organ in its bowels emits lifelike tiger roars and human screams.

Tipu's Tiger, an automaton representing a tiger mauling a British soldier, c.1790

The temptation to use his superior military strength to swallow up weaker neighbours was one that the Tiger of Mysore was unable to resist and it brought him into inevitable collision with the East India Company. Britain’s traditional policy was to protect its interests by maintaining a balance of power between Indian states.  Tipu threatened to upset this balance with his expansionist military campaigns and even more so by his overtures to France, Britain’s global rival.

Throughout the late 1780s, Tipu waged a series of minor wars, seizing territories from his northern neighbours, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Hindu Marathas. He then turned south, annexing the Hindu kingdom of Coorg and various other principalities in Kerala, eventually attacking the Hindu Raja of Travancore, a British ally. His conquests were accompanied by major waves of religious and ethnic cleansing, with many thousands of Hindus and Christians massacred, deported, enslaved, tortured, forcibly circumcised and converted to Islam. Many hundreds of temples and churches were despoiled and destroyed. Allowing for exaggeration by his enemies, Tipu’s own letters proudly claim credit for such atrocities as the hanging of thousands of ‘unbelievers’ in Malabar. He was particularly shocked by the freedoms enjoyed by the women of some Keralan sects. He told the people of Coorg: ‘It is the custom with you for the eldest of five brothers to marry, and for the wife of such brother to be common to all five: hence there cannot be the slightest doubt of your all being bastards.’ He promised, with characteristic grim humour, that he would make them legitimate by converting them to Islam.

It was then common practice in southern India to punish enemies by cutting off their noses and upper lips, boiling them in oil, impaling them on stakes and chaining them to the feet of angry elephants. Tipu used such punishments freely and added his own innovations. His love of mechanical toys is said to have included a wooden horse with sharp steel spikes on its saddle, which condemned men had to ride. The spikes would impale them when the horse reared. One horseman, it was rumoured, won a pardon because he was skilful enough to avoid the spikes.

***

By comparison, Tipu’s hundred or so British prisoners got off lightly, despite rumours that some were poisoned, garrotted or fed to his pet tigers.  According to the memoirs of survivors, 52 British teenage boys were chosen for conversion to Islam in 1783. They were plied with bhang (hashish), held down by their arms and legs and circumcised by a barber. They were then plunged into scalding hot cauldrons of water to disinfect their wounds. Surprisingly, only one of them died. The rest were recruited into Tipu’s European brigades, while the youngest and prettiest became palace servants and dancing boys. Sadly, they were not released under subsequent peace treaties with the Company because Tipu maintained that they were willing converts and therefore his subjects.

In 1791, an alliance of the British, the Nizam and the Marathas decided to teach the tyrant of Mysore a lesson. The new Governor-General, Lord Cornwallis, wrote:

The daring and restless ambition of Tippoo, the superiority of his talents over the rest of the Princes of this country, the mischievous purposes to which these talents have been constantly applied, not only in oppressing his subjects and tributaries, but in disturbing the tranquillity of his neighbours, would undoubtedly render it desirable as well for our future peace as for the cause of humanity that he should be driven from that throne which his father so unjustly usurped.

As allied troops closed in on his capital, Tipu sued for peace and Cornwallis decided to leave him on his throne, subjected to harsh terms which deprived him of half his kingdom and levied with a heavy financial indemnity to be paid to the victors. Tipu’s modern champions have made much of the fact that Cornwallis insisted on taking two of his sons as hostages, yet hostage-taking was a common practice between Indian states and the boys were treated with every possible comfort and courtesy. The princes and their large retinue lived in great style in Madras, where they became a big attraction on the social scene, attending banquets and balls, including performances of Handel’s oratorios Messiah and Judas Maccabaeus. When they were safely returned to Tipu in 1794, the British captain who escorted them reported that the grateful sultan spoke highly of Cornwallis, admired the excellence of the English constitution, condemned the French for murdering their king and said they deserved every misfortune that had befallen them.

Yet it soon became clear that Tipu’s real agenda was to use French aid to expel the British, whom he now regarded as the main obstacle to his own imperial ambitions. Tipu had assumed the title of Padshah or Emperor, hitherto reserved for the Great Moghul in Delhi, and he now sent embassies to other Muslim rulers, like the Ottoman Sultan, the Shah of Iran and the Amir of Afghanistan, seeking their recognition and support in a jihad against the British infidels. He also, more surprisingly, embraced the new French Republic, welcoming Jacobins to his court. A big ceremonial event at Seringapatam in May 1797 saw the French tricolour hoisted to a salute of 2,300 cannon and 500 rockets and the Sultan was welcomed as ‘Citoyen Tipou’, donning the cap of liberty and calling the new republic ‘my sister’.  

More ominously, Tipu sent emissaries to Napoleon, who had recently invaded Egypt, proposing that he should push on to India, which he and Tipu could then carve up between themselves. The threat of such an invasion was taken seriously in British government circles. In India, too, a new and more assertive Governor-General, Lord Wellesley, sent Tipu repeated protests demanding that he sever all relations with the French and accept a British resident at his court. When the sultan remained evasive and welcomed a small force of French volunteers from Mauritius, Wellesley, in a minute of August 1798, condemned this as ‘a public, unqualified and unambiguous declaration of war’ aimed at ‘the total destruction of the British Government in India’.  

'Finding the body of Tipu', by Samuel William Reynolds, 1800.

In the conflict that followed, Tipu turned out to be something of a paper tiger. A British invasion of Mysore met with little resistance, partly because most of Tipu’s leading generals and advisers defected to the British or were bought over. Rather than accept a humiliating surrender, the sultan himself died fighting in the siege of his capital on May 4th, 1799. His bravery was acknowledged by the British, who gave him an impressive public funeral, with a grenadier guard of honour, a gun salute and a crowd-lined procession to his family tomb. Tipu’s huge household, comprising 12 sons, eight daughters, a harem of 600 and several thousand dependents, was generously pensioned off and comfortably housed by the East India Company, first at Vellore, near Madras, and later at Calcutta. One of Tipu’s sons, Prince Ghulam Mohamed, eventually settled in London, where Queen Victoria took him under her wing, knighted him and made him a regular guest at Windsor.  

***

His father’s exploits had by then become a popular theme for London exhibitions, re-enactments and Victorian adventure stories about the perils and rewards of empire. Meanwhile, Tipu’s tomb at Seringapatam, carefully maintained at British expense, became a revered meeting place for Muslims hostile to British rule, ‘a proof how readily crimes that cry to Heaven are condoned’, a British writer lamented, ‘when the perpetrator of them is supposed to have been animated by … the faith which he professed.’  

Tipu continued to polarise Indian opinion on largely sectarian lines. The Hindu Wadiyar dynasty, whom Wellesley restored, reigned over Mysore until Indian independence in 1947, with a reputation as the most enlightened and modernising princely state in the subcontinent. Historians of the Mysore princely states have regarded Tipu as a fanatical Muslim dictator who left behind a trail of destroyed temples and churches and forced mass conversions. The sectarian nature of Tipu’s cruelty may be disputed, but there is certainly no evidence that he was motivated by the kind of nationalist patriotism with which some Indian liberals now imbue him.  

‘This is a wrong view arrived at by projecting the present into the past’, admits Tipu’s most sympathetic biographer, the Muslim academic Professor Mohibbul Hasan. ‘In the age in which Tipu lived and ruled there was no sense of nationalism or an awareness among Indians that they were a subject people.’ Tipu, Hasan rightly concludes, fought the British ‘to preserve his own power and independence’, not for any higher ideal of national freedom.

Zareer Masani is the author of Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist (The Bodley Head, 2013). He is researching a biography of Warren Hastings.

The Tiger of Mysore

Related Articles

Aurangzeb on horseback.

By Bruce Lenman

'Trade follows the flag' is a truism of imperial expansion but in the 1680s it was the other way round

By Richard Cavendish

The Indian ruler was killed by the British on May 4th, 1799.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X