Tipu Sultan

The most glorious saga of resistance to British imperialism in pre-independence India comes from the Mysore state of the south, where Tipu Sultan, the son of Hyder Ali, the chief commander of Mysore king Krishnaraja Wodeyar II proved to be the Englishman’s most petrifying dream. Tipu was an agile ruler who made sure that his forces were at the leading edge of innovation and effectiveness. His ‘ahead of the curve’ planning helped him forge critical alliance with the French for access to the latest technology, which made his powerful opponents awestruck. The light cavalry of the Mysore army won accolades from even the Governor General, Lord Arthur Wellesley, who was bewildered by Tipu’s French designed state-of-the-art fortification capabilities. Even the hero of the French revolution Napoleon Bonaparte, aroused by Tipu’s valiant defence of his motherland, reached out for an alliance with him. Tipu’s shrewd and pragmatic war tactics, headstrong administrative style and use of the tiger imagery to astutely invoke a sense of indomitable power helped him earn the title of the ‘Mysore tiger’.

The large-scale development undertaken in the areas of infrastructure, trade, agriculture, industries and irrigation projects made Mysore the focus of attention for the curious world.

Ironically, in today’s India, a reverential mention of this patriot who put his motherland’s sovereignty ahead of his own life is a taboo. Talking about Tipu Sultan can be extremely divisive in the BJP-ruled India, as the RSS-led Hindu right wing has artfully crafted their grand narrative of cultural nationalism around the essential obligation to denounce and denigrate ‘chosen’ legacies like his. The spiteful narratives of the Sangh Parivar, often glazed in lies and exaggerations, have helped them create a fiendish image of the brave nationalist in the ignorant Hindu minds, to propel their power hungry and divisive politics in India. The ‘best seller’ among the fish stories of the Hindutva right wing about Tipu Sultan is the ‘ever-increasing’ number of temples that he supposedly razed to the ground. The numbers have magically spiraled to 8000 with no record of how, which, where or when! Such fallacies are usually fortified by melancholic accounts of forced circumcisions and conversions under the sword, again in several thousands, which make the current generation wonder if Tipu’s officers had access to some kind of mass proselytization machines where Hindus were transformed into Muslims in a jiffy. Some of the claims are preposterous at best, like the one that claims he converted 70,000 Hindus in Coorg at a time when the total population of the town was much lesser!

The fudged and hyper-embellished stories about Tipu’s destruction of Hindu temples has made his name synonymous with atrocities against Hindus and their temples. Politically motivated historians, crooked colonialists and schismatic politicians have dubiously portrayed him as a temple uprooter for over three centuries now. However, the unspoken truth hidden in the obscured pages of history reveals a disparate and much heartier picture of the Mysore tiger. Hindu religious centers that enjoyed his generous contributions, grants and continuous patronage outnumber the ones that faced his wrath, by a landslide. He had a long association with some of those temples and had a genuine interest in the prosperity of the people attached to them. It is critical that we examine the case of some of them that have missed the spotlight in the concocted historical analysis by prejudiced Hindutva chroniclers and politicians.

The most dazzling episode of Tipu’s associations with Hindu temples would be the one he had with the Sringeri Shankaracharya of the Sarada Math in present day Karnataka. The luminous story of the Sultan’s broadmindedness towards Hinduism was brought to light by the Mysore Government’s Director of Archeology in 1916 when he unearthed a stack of letters written by Tipu to the head priest of the ashram, the Shankaracharya. They revealed shocking episodes of attacks on the monastery by the Hindu chief of the Maratha army Raghunath Rao Patwardhan in 1791. The Marathas had pillaged the temple, stole over 60 lakh rupees of offering, gruesomely murdered people and raided the venerated Sarada idol from the sanctum sanctorum. The Shankaracharya of the time, Sachidananda Bharathi fled to Karkala and wrote to Tipu for help with restoring the ramshackle temple. Tipu’s response was mournful and disgruntled, and included the Sanskrit verse “Hasadbhih kriyate rudadbhir-anubhayate, meaning ‘those who do evil smiling will pay the price weeping’. He promptly sent 200 fanams in cash, grains worth the same, cloths and decorations for the idol and a pair of shawl for the head priest through the Asaf of Bednur. He also oversaw the renovation of the temple and organized the consecration of the re-installed Sarada idol. Tipu, who remained in regular communication with the Shankaracharya, would respectfully address the latter as the ‘Jagatguru’ and seek his blessings for prosperity of the Kingdom of Mysore and its people, according to several letters written between 1791 and 1799.

Tipu’s generosity towards Hindu temples did not start or end with the Sringeri math. Inscriptions on the silver cups, plates and spittoons of the Lakshmikanta temple of Nanjangud taluk bear his name, which suggests he gifted them. He donated 12 elephants and a kettledrum to the Narayana swami temple in Melukote while the jewel cups and camphor lamp at the Nanjangud Srikanthesvara temple and the Seringapatnam Ranganathaswamy temple have inscriptions attesting that they were his donation. Tipu also gifted the emerald Shivlinga at the temple, which became popular as the ‘Padshah linga’, evoking the rarity of a Muslim Sultan facilitating the consecration of a Hindu temple idol. Sadashiv Swami, the priest at the temple for 62 years, reminisced the special bond Tipu had with the temple, in an interview given to Deccan Chronicle in 2015. Tipu was awe-struck at the divine power of Lord Nanjundeswara, which helped his royal elephant regain its lost eyesight, and called the Lord, ‘Hakim Nanjunda’ in wonderment. The authorities of the Kote Venkatramana temple in present day Bangalore have a similar incident to narrate. The stone pillar at the front of the temple that is located adjacent to Tipu’s summer palace is believed to have shielded him from a canon fired at him by the British army during the Third Anglo-Mysore war in 1791. Tipu was entranced by the ‘blessing’ of the deity, who he believed had saved his life, and remained an ardent patron of the temple for the rest of his life.

Two states that took the worst hit from Tipu’s expansionary campaigns were Travancore and Malabar in present day Kerala. Tipu made repeated efforts to capture Travancore to no avail, with the state joining forces with the British to fend off the Mysore troops. Tipu did take hold of South Malabar briefly but the British held their grip over North Malabar. Of course, Tipu waged his war ruthlessly and detested his rivals in the two states who teamed up with the foreign troops of the East India Company. He took out his anger on palaces, monuments and temples in these regions, but sensibly skipped those within the state of Cochin, a vassal state of his that was sandwiched between his rival states of Travancore and Malabar. There are numerous instances of his merciful approach towards Hindus and their places of worship in the Cochin state. Historians have also found a marked difference in his behavior towards temples before and after a particular region accepted vassalage to Mysore. A research paper published by Prof. Mohideen Shah in 1969 has recorded that in Dec 1789, Tipu left the famous Vadakkunnathan temple untouched, despite targeting other temples during his two-week stay in the area. Prof. Shah states in his paper titled Mysore rulers and Trichur that Tipu also donated a large bronze lamp to the temple. The celebrated Guruvayur temple hit the jackpot with an annual contribution of 8000 Pagodas from the Mysore ruler, apart from a massive grant of 669 acres of free land. Historian Mohibbul Hasan, who did path-breaking research on the life and times of Tipu Sultan, has cited numerous endowments by the king to temples in the Malabar area. This included 211 acres of land to Tiruvanchikulam Shiv temple in Ponnani taluk, 195 acres to Vettakkorumakan temple in Calicut taluk, 73 acres to Mannur temple in Ernad taluk, 66 acres to Naduvil Madathil Tirumumbu in Trichur, and 20 acres to Trikkandiyoor Samooham temple in Ponnani.

Tipu always kept a straight head while making policy decisions on matters involving the economic, political and social security of his kingdom. He fully understood the critical importance of having the right person doing the right job in his administration. Religion was never an impediment for him to fill positions in his court, and hence, several Hindus adorned top positions in his administration. Prof. Mohibbul Hasan, in his History of Tipu Sultan, has rolled out a long list of Hindus who held key posts during Tipu Sultan’s reign. Krishnacharya Purniya, a Brahmin was Tipu’s Mir Asaf (Minister of revenue and finance), top advisor and close confidante. Other Hindus who held top jobs included Subba Rao (Peshkar or Chief Secretary), Krishna Rao (Treasurer), Shamaiya Iyengar (Police minister), his brother Ranga Iyengar and Narsinga Rao (officers in the Royal court), and Srinivas Rao and Appaji Ram (his special diplomatic envoys), Mool Chand and Sujan Rai (Tipu’s agents in the Mughal court in Delhi). Hindus were trusted to hold even commanding positions in his army. Hari Singh headed Tipu’s most versatile infantry cavalry, while the man who spearheaded the Mysore offensive against the Nairs of Malabar, their palaces and temples was Sripat Rao, another Hindu. Tipu had trusted Sivaji, a Maratha Hindu to lead his cavalry of 3000 horses during resistance to the siege of Bangalore by Lord Cornwallis in 1791. The Sultan had also employed several Hindus to perform critical and sensitive occupations like revenue and tax collection officers.

Tipu’s regime was progressive, and was a defining era of social revolution and progress for the people of Mysore. He spearheaded a host of social changes through legislations that went a long way to ameliorate the deplorable living conditions of the poor, the untouchables and women. The repugnant ‘breast tax’ scheme was among the several misogynistic practices that were shown the door by Tipu in the Malabar area of the present day Kerala. The extremely loathsome practice required lower caste women to pay taxes corresponding to the size of their breasts if they wanted to have them covered in public. The system, which was pretty much instigated as a ‘legal’ outlet to their sexual perversion by upper caste Hindus, especially the Nairs and the Brahmins, roused Tipu’s penchant for eradication of social evils. Ironically, today, the very descendants of those women are engrossed in mutilating the rich legacy of the ruler who had once broke conventions to restore the dignity of their ancestors! Tipu also dropped the hammer on a number of social degeneracies like prostitution, human trafficking, human sacrifice and sale of liquor. He had a penchant for Western technology, which he incorporated into his vision for the development of Mysore, which was a rare find in a devout Muslim ruler of an Islamic state.

In 1786, Tipu took the progressive step of separating the civil and military functions of his administration to bring in transparency and root out corruption from the revenue department. He ordered re-surveying of land in South Malabar as he was apprehensive of the wealthy property owners dodging the system to evade taxes. Most landowners were upper caste Hindus, primarily Nairs and the Namboodiris (Brahmins), while there were some wealthy Moplahs (Muslims) too in the mix. Tipu knew that his revenue officers, who were Mysoreans with no knowledge of the land distribution system in Malabar, were too susceptible to deception by the wealthy landlords there. Tipu issued fresh tax notices to all landowners based on the new calculations, which increased the tax burden of some by several folds. The existing tax regime of South Malabar was controlled by caste Hindus, chiefly Nairs and Namboodiris who acted as middlemen between the tax paying peasants and the administration. Tipu realized that the way the tax collection and administration were being managed was highly exploitative and caste-dominant. So, he stripped the caste Hindus of tax collection responsibilities and put the cultivators in charge of paying taxes on their produce directly. This empowered the working class, and raised their status in the society, while the caste Hindus started feeling powerless and downgraded under the Tipu administration. It is proven beyond doubt that the aggravated caste Hindus forged alliance with the British against Tipu to strive for his downfall.

The role of British chroniclers in crafting the image of Tipu as a Hindu-annihilating demon is undeniable. The one who took the lead in the vilification campaign was Lord Wellesley, who was the Governor General of India at the time. Wellesley’s portrayal of Tipu as a Muslim fanatic who harbored unceasing hate for Hindus, was part of misrepresenting the East India Company’s imperial drives as their benevolent efforts to reclaim the country for its legal proprietors, the Hindus. William Kirkpatrick, who was an officer of the East India Company, was another fervent Tipu basher who once termed him an “intolerant bigot and a furious fanatic”. Another commentator was Col. Mark Wilks who was equally disparaging of Tipu for wickedly orchestrating mass conversions, circumcisions and racial cleansing. Col.Wilks too was a top official of the Company in the Mysore state, and was part of the siege of Tipu’s

capital Seringapatnam, which resulted in his death. Later, Company officers like Wellesley, Kirkpatrick, Wilks and Alexander Beatson who harbored a pathological hatred for Tipu Sultan for resisting their aggression in Mysore tooth and nail, took to misrepresenting events to suit their colonial interests as self-styled historians. These ‘counterfeit facts’ later served the interests of the Hindu fanatics in India who used the fictitious accounts to ‘perfect’ their screenplay of Islamic atrocities.

Tipu’s conversion of the Nairs of Malabar and Travancore into Islam was more of a punishment than an aggregating exercise, as per his disclosure to the then French Governor General, David Cherpentier de Cossigny. Tipu, in his letter to Cossigny, expressed his annoyance with the Nairs who did not stop revolting against him despite being warned on six different occasions. Similar acts of revolt and treason by the Catholics of Mangalore were dealt with an iron hand too, which later was popularized as Tipu’s persecution of the Canara Christians. During the Second Anglo-Mysore War, the Christians of Mangalore covertly helped the British under the commandment of Brig.Gen.Richard Matthews to seize Mangalore and Bednur from Tipu. Despite being Mysore subjects, they teamed up with the British and even raised a whopping sum to fund their campaign against Mysore. Unsurprisingly, a furious Tipu detained the betrayers, penalized them by stripping them of their faith, and ordered the demolition of the churches they were attached to. Fr. Joaquim de Miranda of the Mt.Marian Seminary also felt the heat of Tipu’s anger when he was initially sentenced to death for abetment of British troop movement against Mysore. However, when Tipu factored in the priest’s long association with his late father Hyder into his decision, he gracefully commuted the penalty to a fine and expelled Fr. Miranda and followers to Cochin. Later, the priest was allowed back to his base in Mangalore after the successful negotiation of Pierre Monneron, the French envoy in Seringapatnam with Tipu.

Some ‘common sense’ questions

A section of today’s Hindu population seems to have placed their heart above their head, while being sucked in credulously by the Sangh Parivar’s duplicitous stories of Tipu’s anti-Hindu atrocities. This section of the article is posing a few questions to invoke their indolent common sense, which would hopefully, help them wear their head and their heart in the right place while reading history.

  1. Hindu temples adorned the four boundaries of Tipu Sultan’s palaces and forts. The fort in his capital Seringapatnam where his palace was located had two temples, the Ranganathaswamy temple and the Narasimhaswamy temple, within its premises. Tipu’s father Hyder Ali donated the chariot in the Ranganathaswamy temple, while Tipu made lavish donations of silverware, money and offerings to the temple. Within close reach of these temples is a Juma Masjid, which is a resounding monument of the Sultan’s staunch belief in cultural co-existence. The Bangalore fort, which included Tipu’s Summer Palace, had even more temples spread around it. Tipu had a very close association with the Kote Venkatramana temple located inside the Delhi Gate within the fort, a few meters from the palace. Some accounts even state that Tipu would wait for the temple bell in the morning before sitting at his eating table for breakfast. The fort also had a Ganesha temple and the Rameshwara temple inside it, while the Gangadhareshwara temple, the Karanja Anjaneya temple, Dodda Nandi temple and the Ulsoor Someshwara temple were all in the vicinity. Guess what, Tipu did not demolish any of these temples that were right under his nose, surprise!

 

  1. The long and intimate bond Tipu had with the Sringeri mutt has already been discussed in this essay. The RSS cannot brush this off as a myth, as the temple’s website www.sringeri.net still carries their acknowledgment of the patronage of Tipu and his father Haider Ali, and provides ample corroboration for their strong links with the temple and its head priest. So, why would Tipu help rebuild a Hindu monastery that was ravaged by a Hindu army when his life mission was about destroying all Hindu establishments?

 

  1. Numerous accounts of Tipu’s donations, endowments and other favorable actions to Hindu temples have already been discussed. It is estimated that 156 temples received regular endowments from the Sultan. Come on! Could he not have spent the money more wisely on building mosques, or at least in new technology that could help blow up Hindu temples en masse?

 

  1. The Hindu apologists surely have their typical ‘moonshine’ ideas to explain the above anomalies. To answer why Tipu did not harm temples that were a stone throw from where he lived, they pathetically fall back on the lame explanations expounded by one of the worst critics of Tipu, B.L.Rice. Rice had theorized that Tipu was influenced by Hindu astrologers who convinced him that leaving those ‘select’ temples alone would bring him glory! But, who is going to explain to us why a fanatical Muslim bigot who hated everything to do with Hindu religion would gleefully commit heresy by believing in astrology? Regarding Tipu’s benevolent restoration of the Sringeri Mutt and his regular lavish endowments, the Hindutva right wing have mindlessly attributed those measures to Tipu’s finance minister Purniya, who apparently donated to temples without his consent. Of course, Purniya did not care much for his head! By the way, why would a Hindu hater hire a Brahmin to look after his finances? As some one said, one lie to cover up another, which is airbrushed using a third!

Long story short, it’s quite clear from the above anecdotes that Tipu Sultan was a fair-minded ruler who took equal care of his Muslim and non-Muslim subjects. More importantly, there was no faith-based discrimination among people before law during his regime. However, the carefully kindled aversion for Tipu by the Sangh Parivar has really caught on in the South Indian states, especially Karnataka, his native state and Kerala, which felt the heat of a few of his ruthless expansionary campaigns. The ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has played a huge role in vilifying Tipu as a monster insatiably thirsty for Hindu blood. In Karnataka, it even stopped celebrating the birthday of the king who once was the worst nightmare for the British. In Kerala, a state with a distinctive predisposition to leftist politics and thinking, the BJP has been facing an uphill battle with finding traction for its divisive and communal politics. Lately, the party has been using Tipu along with other virulent issues to drive a wedge between the Hindus and Muslims in the state, which has surely met with some success. Every ramshackle temple in not just Malabar but anywhere in Kerala has come to be looked at as a hapless victim of Tipu’s ire for Hindu religion. Unfortunate enough, if the origin or history of a rundown temple or a mansion of a Hindu elite in the Malabar area is unknown, Tipu Sultan is deemed by the Sangh Parivar as a safe place to unload such burden of mystery.

It is undeniable that not many Indian rulers have faced the wrath of historians as badly as the Mysore Tiger. He ranks way above the usually celebrated and worshipped personalities of ancient and medieval India in innovation, technological proclivity, secular outlook, social commitment and above all, patriotism. The Father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi once recorded his anguish at Tipu’s vilification by the British and re-affirmed his admiration for Tipu’s treatment of non-Muslims, in Young India. Tipu, despite being a son of the soil, never received the hospitality and amicability he deserved in his own land from his neighbors, including the Hindu kingdoms like Travancore and the Marathas. They treated him like an alien, and chose to join forces with the real invaders of the land, the British, to decimate and destroy him. As some researchers have rightly noted, Tipu fought both internal as well as external forces simultaneously to keep the flag of Mysore above the Union Jack, as long as he lived. The premature fall of Tipu, a noble Muslim, evokes a startling resemblance to the martyrdom of the greatest Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, in that they both unravel the lethal propensity of the upper caste Hindu dogma when faced with dissent and resistance. The fanatical Hindu intolerance has passed down through generations their doctrine of hate for Tipu Sultan, with no end in sight.

Binoj Nair is an author and history enthusiast with special interest in Medieval Indian history. He is also a doctoral researcher in cognitive psychology, who is based in Edmonton, Canada and can be reached at nair_bin@yahoo.ca


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3 Comments

  1. Thanks a lot Binoj Nair for a fact-oriented perception corrective. The other 2 stories on Tipu Sultan published in Countercurrents.Org in recent years (2016 & 2017 mentioned there), are equally fair “revelations”. In my school days our history books did not say much or said possibly nil about the good deeds of this “aggressive” ruler for our national cause, quite possibly due to Hindu and later (these days) of ‘Hindutva’ back-biting prejudices systematically entrenched in Sang Parivar’s anti-Muslim Agenda writings to churn up hatred against Muslims, although PM Modi would want to deny all of it, claiming his all-India inclusiveness. All the more justified and welcome therefore is the editor’s decision to have published 3 articles hitherto by knowledgeable Hindu scholars on the objective worth of this pro-Bharat Muslim warrior under a Hindu King. The fact that these were Hindu scholars lends credence to the truth objectivity of the narration.

    That said, I will definitely not want to deny that Tipu was brutal in his military ventures. [We have evidence of it in the grounds of my mother’s former home in North Paravoor, a spot called “Vedimarra” (meaning ‘Cover for explosives’) where they unearthed remnants of Tipu’s Cannons.] Well, military commanders are always that way in a war zone. Maybe he was a bit too smart for the British, becoming a thorn in their flesh, having acquired advanced French weapons of those days (Napoleonic times) and integrated them well in his war offensives, a bit too brutal for peaceful Indian dispositions. However, even Hindu Kings of those times, or today’s Hindu military generals might not be very different, if we would only think of fierce Chinese incursions by Beijing’s PLA units in our northern borders and India’s aggressive response to them. That’s how military operations are, no room for any Gandhi or a compassionate Buddha there, despite the top saffron colour stripe and the blue Ashok Chakra in the middle of the Indian National Flag waving high in Himalayan Mountains.

    George Chakko, former U.N. correspondent, now retiree in Austria.
    Vienna, 19/11/ 2021 23: 29 hrs CET

    • Binoj Nair says:

      Thank you for your kind words. As you might appreciate, history often has more than one version, and my intent is to unravel the righteous and egalitarian side of his legacy which has been systematically and spitefully blackened by the votaries of Hindutva in the last decade or so. Take care and stay safe!

      • Binoj, thanks immense for your kind response too. Pl. keep writing ! Will be happy to read more of yours.
        Best regards
        george
        Vienna, 21/ 11/ 2021 11:45 am CET