The king of Mysore was an Indian military genius and a just ruler. But he is now the target of the Hindu rightwing hellbent of rewriting history and portraying Muslim kings as evil.
Among the many kingly treasures piled up in London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum lies a particularly peculiar piece, one quite unlike any other in the museum–a nearly life-sized wooden tiger mauling a European soldier, an automaton with an organ keyboard that plays a haunting melody as the soldier cries and waves for help.
Yet this wooden tiger is much more than simply a mechanical toy to be gawked at by passersby; it represents the efforts of an Indian military genius whose ambitions stretched far beyond his time.
Tipu Sultan was the son of Haider Ali, an illiterate soldier of fortune rising through the ranks of the Mysorean army to seize control from the Maharaja and proclaim himself Sultan in 1761. A capable ruler, Haider employed French mercenaries to help adopt European military tactics within his armies, bolstering their efficiency and allowing him to expand his kingdom, which corresponds to the present-day city of Mysore in the state of Karnataka.
Haider fought two wars with the British East India Company, the second of which his son Tipu proved his mettle at the Battle of Pollilur, handing the British their severest blow in the subcontinent. Tales of the father and son’s triumphs made their way across the globe, from Europe to the founding fathers of the United States, where they became household names.
Inheriting the throne in 1782 during wartime, Tipu made short work of the British, capturing one in five of their officers present in the subcontinent and ending the war by becoming only one of two men in South Asia to dictate treaty terms to the British, who were desperate to sue for peace.
Like his father, Tipu understood how and why the Western world had advanced much further than the East. Topped off with great ambition, despite receiving a hefty inheritance, including a sprawling 80,000 square-mile kingdom, six million subjects, and the most effective military in the region, Tipu continued building off his father’s successes by modelling his administration along European lines. He saw his administration as Sarkar-i- Khudadad (God-given), and his responsibility to improve the lives of his people. And he was widely successful.
Personally supervising each department of his administration, Tipu Sultan wore many hats, from chief merchant to commander-in-chief. Understanding that manufacture and trade made European economies superior, Tipu propelled the industry of Mysore, importing silkworms and pearl divers, and establishing over a dozen factories, from Mysore to Jeddah, producing everything from armaments, cutlery, candy, and gunpowder with quality outmatching even the English.
Tipu’s effective administration maximised land cultivation, slashed hereditary land holdings, and heavily populated cities in one fell swoop. The English could not help but comment in awe that Mysore “was the best cultivated and its population the most flourishing in India”.
Compared to his native contemporaries, including the Marathas and enfeebled Mughals (now pensioners of the British), Mysore was an anomaly –a thriving state.
Well-versed and intelligent, possessing a library stocked with thousands of books (including two he had written on dreams and astrology), Tipu was a great patron of the arts, commissioning architectural gems and attracting intellectuals and poets to court. The centrepiece of his reign was the tiger, which he adopted as the symbol of his rule, embossing tiger imagery everywhere, from artillery and uniforms to a solid gold throne.
Tipu was an exceptionally devout Muslim, as a ruler with a large number of Hindu subjects, he maintained a high level of religious tolerance, granting minorities complete freedom of worship, appointing Hindus to senior posts, and bestowing land grants and lavish gifts to temples.
Increasingly isolated by envious neighbours, Tipu dispatched diplomatic missions to numerous states. From the Ottoman Empire, he received a legal investiture to rule in the Caliph’s name and from France, engineers and tradesmen to help build his industries and armies, though owing to their own respective conflicts, neither could grant him the military alliance, he desperately required.
On the battlefield, Tipu’s performance was equally notable. A pioneer of rocketry, in 1787, he repelled a coalition of his two immediate neighbours, the Marathas and the military of Hyderabad, pushing them to sue for peace, and was noted for serving his prisoners of war with humanity.
Despite his ambition and exceptional intelligence, Tipu Sultan faced insurmountable odds. Unlike his contemporaries, the sultan understood the British for the colonisers they were, though his warnings fell on deaf ears. Feeling threatened by his existence, the British considered Tipu Sultan as the main obstacle toward dominance.
In 1792, an English-led coalition with the Marathas and Hyderabad overwhelmed and defeated Tipu, taking half his kingdom and restricting with it his ability to retain his forces, though Tipu managed to recoup his financial losses quickly. But the English were not done with him.
In 1798 they once more invaded, and with his armies shrunk and his officers betraying him after being bought by the British, Tipu made his last stand at his fortress in Srirangapatna, dying in battle on May 4, 1799. Mysore became a princely state, bowing to the whims of their English masters.
News of Tipu’s death was met with celebration in Britain, and his treasures, shipped off to the motherland, became the stuff of legend, inspiring writers such as Keats and Dickens.
Tipu Sultan easily ranks foremost amongst the most capable leaders of Asia. His death allowed the English to give toasts to ‘the corpse of India’ and become masters of the subcontinent.
Despite this, his legacy has become contested and marked controversial in modern-day India at the behest of the ruling Hindu rightwing BJP government, which seeks to erase any and all notions of heroic Muslim figures as part of its drive to rewrite Indian history to its liking, and thereby lay the foundations for the justification of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) –and the violence against Muslims and other minorities that would inevitably come with it.
Denouncing Tipu Sultan, a Muslim ruler who practised tolerance and led a prospering state has therefore become a core part of the BJP’s mission to rewrite history. For the past few years, it has condemned everything from celebrations of his birth to statues and even portraits unveiled in his likeness on the grounds that Tipu supposedly persecuted Hindus whilst ignoring the fact that many of his own key administrators were Hindus.
This year, the BJP has ramped up its revisionary efforts, condemning the inauguration of a sports complex named after Tipu in early 2022 and just recently managing to rename a popular train, the ‘Tipu Express’ to the ‘Wodeyar Express’ – ironically brushing aside the fact that the Wodeyar dynasty was a colonial pawn of the British.
However, aside from historical facts disproving the BJP’s claims, its own revisionism of Tipu’s legacy itself is only a recent invention. Up until 2015, the BJP was actively involved in Karnataka state celebrations of Tipu’s life –going so far as to commission a 425- page book praising him, and in 2017, the BJP’s handpicked President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, hailed Tipu as an anti-colonial hero and ingenious military commander. Clearly, historical records show that the ‘controversy’ surrounding Tipu’s legacy is simply but a product of the BJP’s invention, a feeble attempt to distort history to its liking.
Among Indian royalty, Tipu holds the distinction of being the first to do many things. He was also the first, it seems, to give the British a formidable rival whose mere trinkets they would marvel at for centuries to come.
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