Tipu Jayanti: Did Tipu Sultan choose his royal emblems to endear himself to non-Muslim subjects?

A look at the symbolic meaning of the all-pervasive ‘tiger’ and ‘sun’ imagery in his kingdom.

The most well-known image associated with Tipu is that of the tiger. After he died, it became his epithet – “the Tiger of Mysore” the British called him. Tipu’s use of tiger imagery – either a stylised tiger stripe, known as babri, or a representation of an actual tiger, usually just the head – was designed to convey his awesome power and demonstrate his close connection with the divine.

The motif appeared most magnificently on his gold and jewel-encrusted throne but also on flags and banners, on chubs or staffs, on soldiers’ uniforms, on coins, on Tipu’s own clothing, as wall decoration, as brands on animals, on weapons – swords, muskets and cannons – on seals, on the leather binding of books and on fabric used as canopies or wall hangings, as well as on the howdahs and related furnishings of the royal elephants.

It was even used as a watermark on paper. Among the loot taken from Srirangapattana was an elaborate betel dish of pierced silver, decorated with babri in relief; it most likely formed part of a full betel service for use in court ceremonial. Thus the tiger was everywhere. Yet it was not the only visual expression of Tipu’s rule: almost as prevalent was solar imagery, often combined with the babri stripe to represent the sun’s rays. The British emphasis of the tiger over the sun tells us more about them than it does about their victim.

To the British, the tiger was the counterpoint to their lion; it made sense to them in that context. But it was not Europeans who were Tipu’s intended audience. In the cultural milieu in which Tipu lived both the tiger and the sun emblems carried a range of symbolic meanings, depending upon the observer. As a Muslim ruler of predominantly non-Muslim subjects, it was essential that Tipu draw upon imagery that resonated with all communities. Furthermore, in eighteenth-century South India, the region’s different religious groups were less divided than they might appear today.

This was a non-modern world, unaffected by Enlightenment notions of rational thought, where people engaged with the spiritual world through common sacred sites and practices. There was an overlap in the way that local Muslims and non-Muslims regarded the worlds of gods and pirs, an overlap that featured strong warrior elements grounded within a common sacred geography. People followed their own deities and spiritual heroes but in a way that would have been recognisable to members of local communities other than their own.

Let us first consider the significance of the sun motif.

For millennia, Indian kings had claimed descent from either the sun or the moon and many adopted the practice of showing themselves to their subjects at dawn, in imitation of the rising sun, so that the people below could receive darshan. So ingrained was the practice, several of the Mughal emperors are known also to have followed it, appearing every morning at sunrise on a palace balcony. And while this association of the sun and its rays with Indian kings has great antiquity, Muslims could understand it in the context of nur, God’s light, the divine essence.

As a result of the close relationship between divine and royal power, therefore, all kings in India, whatever their religious affiliation, were regarded as radiating a kind of divine energy or light. The most common epithet used to refer to Tipu in the Persian sources is huzur-i pur-i nur, which is usually translated as “the Resplendent Presence”, indicating how central the solar imagery was to his self-perception.

A further influence on Tipu might have been a local history of sun worship in Mysore, which had later become linked with regional “sun” goddesses. Tipu probably would not have been able to articulate quite so clearly what lay behind his use of the sun emblem, but he would have known with certainty that it was recognisably royal to each and every one of his subjects.

Tipu Sultan seated on his throne | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Tipu Sultan seated on his throne | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Similar processes were at work in Tipu’s adoption of the tiger symbol, with the sole difference that, although Haidar had also used solar imagery, the tiger was Tipu’s innovation.

And what an innovation it was. Not so much the tiger itself but the way that he used it: it would have been impossible to be in Tipu’s vicinity or in the vicinity of his troops and not be surrounded by tiger imagery. It was, if you like, unavoidable, with certain features, especially the use of the babri stripe in decoration, uniquely his. The observer would have been in no doubt that they were witness to an emphatic statement.

Tipu’s adoption of the tiger as his emblem again had its roots in the local cultural environment. The green velvet banner on display at Windsor Castle, with its calligraphic tiger mask, tells us a great deal about how the tiger image carried meaning for Muslim and non-Muslim alike. The epithet “Victorious Lion of God” refers to Imam Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph, who for Muslims is the archetypal warrior. Ali is also regarded as the originator of all Sufi orders apart from the Naqshbandiyyas and, for Shi’as, the true successor to Muhammad.

Another of Ali’s epithets is “Haidar”, which within India can mean either “lion” or “tiger”. And it is this linguistic inter-changeability of “tiger” and “lion” on the subcontinent that allows the conflation of the tiger mask and the epithet “Victorious Lion of God”: in India asad allah ul-ghalib, “Victorious Lion of God”, could also mean ‘Victorious Tiger of God’.

Tipu's Tiger | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Tipu's Tiger | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, for non-Muslim South Indians, the tiger has close associations not only with royalty but also with warrior goddesses who ride tigers (as do at times warrior pirs). In certain contexts, the tiger represents shakti, divine female energy that is considered dangerous; it has been argued that Shiva wears a tiger skin to signify his control of shakti. Historically, tiger skins had also featured as part of royal regalia – Shivaji, for example, sat upon a tiger-skin seat. More specifically, in Tipu’s case, the use of the tiger motif distinguished his rule from that of the Wodeyars, whose emblems were the double-headed bird, the gandabherunda, and the boar. Instead, it carried echoes of earlier dynasties who had used tiger imagery, such as the Cholas, the Sindas and the Hoysalas.

Tipu was culturally immersed in the only world he knew. As Haidar’s successor, he was determined to create a strong dynasty with a strong visual identity – we should not forget that many of his subjects would have been illiterate and the only way to convey such a message would have been visually.

Throughout history, and not just on the subcontinent, kings have used display to overawe, usually combined with religious language and symbolism to bolster their legitimacy. It is no coincidence that Louis XIV of France was known as the Sun King, nor that European monarchs claimed the “divine right” to rule. In Tipu’s case, the sun and the tiger had both regional and broader Islamic associations, making them effective markers of his kingship for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. When the royal progress left Srirangapattana fort – passing through the elephant gate, banners flying, troops marching or riding in front and behind, Tipu’s emblems decorating objects, animals and men – no one who saw it would have questioned for a moment that here was the procession of a king.

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

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.