Seven things you may not have known about Tipu Sultan, India’s first freedom fighter

A new book examines the myths and realities of Tipu Sultan’s life and reign

What we didn't know

  1. Tipu was the most feared Indian of his time in Britain. When he died there were jubilant celebrations in Britain, with authors, playwrights and painters creating works to celebrate it. The siege and looting of Tipu’s capital at Srirangapattana, for example, is the opening scene of Wilkie Collins’ famous novel, The Moonstone.
  2. He was the only Indian ruler who understood the dangers the British posed to India, and fought four wars to oust them from India – in that sense he could be called the first freedom fighter in the subcontinent.
  3. Tipu sent missions to the Ottoman and French rulers, seeking them as allies to oust the British from India.
  4. Tipu was fascinated by western science and technology, and got gun makers, engineers, clockmakers and other experts from France to Mysore. He then set up his own manufacture of bronze cannons, ammunition and muskets to “Make in Mysore”.
  5. Tipu extensively used tiger imagery to convey a sense of his awesome power. Tiger images emblazoned his golden throne, his textiles, coins, swords and his soldiers uniforms. He also used the Sun symbol, long associated with royalty and divinity among his Hindu subjects.
  6. Tipu wrote a Book of Dreams, the Khwab Nama, in which he recorded his dreams. He looked for signs and portents about the outcome of his battles in his dreams.
  7. Tipu was not an outside invader – he was a son of the soil, the third generation of his family to be born in south India.
  8. Tipu’s chief minister Purnaiya, was a Hindu, as were several prominent nobles at his court.
  9. Tipu was a generous patron of several Hindu temples, including the Sri Ranganatha temple near his main palace at Srirangapattana, and the Sringeri Math, whose swami he respected and called Jagadguru.
Tipu Sultan seated on his throne, by Anna Tonelli
Tipu Sultan seated on his throne, by Anna Tonelli

Tipu Sultan versus the British

For thirty years, first Haidar Ali, Tipu’s father, then Tipu himself, had been at the forefront of the British public’s consciousness. Terrifying tales of attacks on British forces and threats to trading settlements such as Madras appeared in the newspapers of the day, embellished by distance as they were carried home by sea.

Over the decades and through four Anglo-Mysore wars, people hungrily awaited reports of the latest outrage perpetrated by the so-called tyrants. The return of British prisoners of war, some of whom had been held captive in Mysore for several years, led to the writing of books that told harrowing stories of hardship and torture.

That many of these accounts were self-serving was of little interest to their avid readers. So by the time he died at the hands of General Harris’s troops, as they besieged his island capital in 1799,Tipu Sultan was possibly the most famous Indian, if not villain, in the United Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, celebrations in Britain at the news of Tipu’s demise fuelled further creative output on the part of not only authors and playwrights but also artists, who put paint to canvas to glorify the victory. Careers were launched and some ended.

Tipu Sultan's forces during the Siege of Srirangapatna
Tipu Sultan's forces during the Siege of Srirangapatna

Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington, famous for defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, was placed in charge of Srirangapattana and then went on to overcome the Marathas in 1803, at the Battle of Assaye. India was Wellesley’s proving ground.

The governor-general, Lord Mornington, who was Arthur’s older brother Richard, did not fare so well. Having ordered the attack on Mysore in defiance of his political masters at home, and despite energetic attempts by his supporters to vindicate him, his only reward was an undistinguished Irish peerage and retirement.

Well into the nineteenth century, the infamous figure of Tipu Sultan held sway in the public mind. As late as 1868, Wilkie Collins chose the siege of Srirangapattana and its subsequent looting as the setting for the opening of his bestselling novel The Moonstone.

One has to wonder what Tipu would have made of it all. Also, would he have cared? Very probably, he would. To terrorise his enemies was his goal and in that he had succeeded, not only through his actions but also by his clever use of imagery and symbolism. Although he did not realise it, his choice of the tiger motif for his insignia resonated strongly with the British, whose own emblem is the lion.

It is no coincidence that the Seringapatam medal, awarded to those who had taken part in the siege, depicts a rampaging lion mauling a supine tiger. The ecstatic celebrations would also have confirmed in Tipu’s mind that he had been correct in his assumption that the East India Company’s expansionist activities were a credible threat to the freedom of the subcontinent’s inhabitants, that he was the last bulwark against British imperial desires.

It is this prescience that distinguishes Tipu and his father from their contemporaries. With Tipu gone, the Company was able, in his own words, to ‘fix [its] talons’ ever deeper into Indian soil.

Excerpted with permission from Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan, Kate Brittlebank, Juggernaut.

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