Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tipu Sultan and his Palace: Tiger Organs and More

Bangalore is a city not overly-endowed with history. It's a recent place, built up mostly by the British to serve as an adminmistrative center with a lovely climate, and it does not possess the wealth of historical attractions or flashy Raj era architecture that Delhi and Mumbai can boast. There are only a couple of palaces of even vague historical interest, and one of these is Tipu Sultan's.

The palace itself is underwhelming. It was built in 1790 to serve Tipu as a summer palace and dutifully nick-named "Rashk-E-Jannat" or "Envy of Heaven", but this obviously hyperbole. It housed English administration offices up until 1868, after the Sultan's 1799 defeat, and has been kept up as a somewhat half-heartedly administrated tourist attraction since.

Painting detail on the wall.

All the stuff has been moved out of it and dispersed, and what remains has not been well kept up. There's some praiseful and mostly acceptable displays on Tipu inside, though little in the way of actual artifacts - those have all been sent to England.

Some more nice work.

Even in the palace's hey-day, one suspects that it was not exactly a show piece - not compared to the incomparable and extremely nearby palace at Mysore. Tipu Sultan's Karnataka capital wasn't located at Bangalore anyway. His personal capital was Srirangapatna, which today lingers on as a small village nearby Mysore. But what is interesting about the palace is Tipu Sultan himself, the cantankerous and independently minded soul who built it. Tipu is worth talking about.

Tipu was the Sultan of Mysore, nearby to Bangalore, from 1782 to 1799. Most Indians disliked or distrusted the British East India Company, but Tipu's adversion to the invaders of his homeland was both single-minded and mildly pathological. Tipu devoted himself entirely and with ferocious energy to the defeat of the ferangis in his midst. Tipu was a Muslim, and his powerful father had turned Mysore from back-water to formidable ruling state from 1762 onward.

Tipu's reign was marked by the Four Mysore Wars, ferocious battles fought against the British for control of Southern India. Tipu experienced remarkable success against the British in the First and Second of these, and his nationalist resolve, powerful and organized army, and general ferocity put a serious dent in England's notions of invulnerability. It is even thought that his kingdom invented the world's very first war rocket, using a solid fuel system, and deployed with remarkable effect against the English in the Mysore Wars.

Tipu wanted to establish an empire as large and as powerful as that of the Mughals. Although he was unsuccessful, he certainly made his Deccan Plateau homeland one of India's most powerful - and wealthy - regioins. He was instructed in battle tactics by French officers in the service of his father, Hyder Ali, and he apparantly took their lessons to heart. His first major engagement was in the Anglo-Maratha war of 1775 to 1779: his martial career would go on to dramatic effect until 1799. In the Second Mysore War, Tipu got to dictate terms to the English: this would be the last time an Indian king would get to do so in recorded history.

Tipu was a surprisingly intelligent and sensitive sort of warlord, with a penchant for new inventions, reading poetry, and learning different languages. He is famous for his psychedelic and intensely odd "Dream Book," which features a series of hallucinations, harangues, and observations supposedly lodged by Tipu in his sleep. The full text is here.

By way of example, here is what he entitled "The Story of the Strange Cow":

On the 7th of the month Ja'fari, of the
year Shadab, 1217, from the birth of
Muhammad, while encamped at Salam-
abad 1 , preceding the attack upon the
entrenchments of Rama Nayar, 2 after
the Maghrib Prayers, I invoked God in
these terms: "O God, in the hills the
unbelievers of the land of the enemy have
forbidden fasting and prayer; convert them
all to Islam, so that the religion of Thy
Messenger may gain in strength." In the
course of the night, and towards the morn-
ing I had a dream: It appeared to me
that after traversing the forests and high
hills the army of the Ahmadi Sarkar had
encamped. On the way and near the place
of encampment I saw a cow with its calf,
in semblance like a big striped tiger;
its countenance, teeth, etc., looked like
those of a tiger; its forelegs were like those
of a cow; it had no hinder legs at all;
its forelegs were in slight motion; and it
was causing injury to the best of its ability.
Having closely examined it, I reached the
camp and directed several persons to
prepare themselves and accompany me.
I said to them: "God willing, on arriving
near this cow which looks like a tiger,
I shall with my own hand cut it along
with its calf into pieces." Having said that,
I reviewed my household stud and gave
orders for two grey horses to be quickly
saddled and brought. At this moment the
morning appeared and I woke up.

Well, all right then.

Tipu Sultan was not a warm and fuzzy man. Many Hindus accuse him of being a religious bigot with a penchant for massacring non-Muslims at the slighest provocation: others believe that these rumors of religious extremism, deportations, and general antisocial behavior are largely the invention of over-enthusiatic British and Hindu historians. (In Indian history, I am afraid, as with all human history, it is usually best to assume the worst.) He was most definitely anti-Christian, and is known to have destroyed 27 Catholic in his domain. He encaptured almost the entire Mangalorean Catholic population - nearly 60,000 people - and force-marched them through the Western Ghat range, where 20,000 are reputed to have died. Those that made it were usually forced to convert forcibly to Islam, and the women and girls were forced into marriages with select Muslim men. Tipu was even known to forcibly convert his British captives: in one memorable rumor, he is said to have forced British drum boys to wear women's clothing and entertain the court as dancing girls. The successful Second Mysore War may have been a clever prestige play, but it was poor indeed economically: the expense is rumored to have impoverished the country, and 12,000 children were reputedly stolen as slaves from Tanjore during this time period.

His power was noticed by the French - Napoleon had plans to link up with Tippo against the British after his planned conquest of the Middle East and Egypt. The British should feel lucky that this unholy alliance never actually went off.

Tipu finally perished at British hands in his capital of Seringapatam in 1799. The British supposedly noticed a short, fat, and ferociously angry officer discharging appropriated hunting weapons with a small group of servants about him. He was shot at some point in this battle, and obviously took no pains to make his identity clear to those around him.

Though his character was, to say the least, debatable, Tipu stands as one of the most aggressive and effective Indian nationalist fighters. His palace at Bangalore may not be particularly impressive, but his career certainly was.

Tipu had in his possession a curious mechanical toy - a life size wooden effigy of a tiger mauling a British officer which is a prized collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Tipu got this toy specially made in 1795 to satiate his hatred for the British. This wooden apparatus is a musical instrument. The sounds are produced from an organ with a row of keys installed withim. As one turned the handle attached to the body of the tiger, sounds of the roar of a tiger would be heard. The handle also simultaneously woul lever the hands of the soldier as if crying in despair. Tipu used to keep this toy in his Ranga Mahal.

The design of the toy is believed to be inspired by the news of the death of Hugh Munroe who was killed by a tiger. Tipu had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Munroe in the past.

Although the apparatus was made in India, the mechanism is attributed to the French. In 1990 the Victoria and Albert museum prepared a video to demonstrate the mechanism."

Video of the toy in action.

The tiger was captured by the British on December 22nd 1799, on the date when Tipu was finally overcome in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war.

The Governor General's Aide de Camp had this observation to make on the device:

“In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition. The whole of this design was executed by Order of Tippoo Sultaun. It is imagined that this memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty of Tippoo Sultan may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London.”

Tipu was mad for tigers, and this tiger-toy was just one expression of his fondness for India's most iconic beast. It is not difficult to imagine why: what better symbol of a rampant and potent native India can be found then her very own Bengal tiger? Tipu painted images of tigers mauling Europeans on the walls of his residences, kept a number of live tigers in his cities, and was rumored to have thrown subjects who displeased him into tiger pits.

Tigers are an extremely common symbol in Tipu's downright trippy "Dream Book," a Persian journal in which he recorded his various fantasies, aspirations, and hallucinations. (More on that in a second). The tiger-organ also possessed a dreadful sort of symbolism for the British: the tiger himself (Tipu) was pissed off, powerful, and entirely ready to wreck vengeance on the oppressor. He was nicknamed the "Tiger of Mysore," after a (probably aprocryphal story) in which he supposedly despatched a tiger with a dagger at close range. Further, Tipu was inordinately fond of new technologies, gadgets, and other mechanical toys. The synthesis of the two in his Tyger Organ must have pleased the bloodthirsty and curious Sultan inordinately.

The tiger was taken to the East India Company's museum in 1808 and quickly became a favorite with blood-thirsty Londoners. The tiger was allocated to the V&A during the dissolution of the Company 50 years later, and has been on display ever since. It features in Wilkie Collin's beloved novel "The Moonstone" and was the subject of one of the largest paintings in the world. It was featured in spectaculars, magazines, and broadsheets.

Even John Keats took notice of the curious thing, ruminating upon it in his satire "The Cap and Bells." Thinking the emperor is snoring, he writes...

Replied the page: “that little buzzing noise….
Comes from a play-thing of the Emperor’s choice,
From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys''


  1. I bite, you bite, they bite


    Here you go...written by a Hindu, about a very popular book written by a Hindu, about Tipu.He was a great king, one of the few who didnt scuttle behind British coats to protect his interests and dressed like an ordinary man in battle which is why, when he was wounded, and moved to protect himself, he was shot by a skittish British soldier who didn't know who he was.People who write about historical events and people should be careful to walk the middle path unless they are experts or those with expert opinions.:-) In fact, Col C Patrick and Col Beatson themselves have written accounts of the public mourning -wailing, beating, weeping that accompanied his body into Mysore. A `tyrant' would have seen rejoicing, not tears.

  3. Clarification of your statement " The British supposedly noticed a short, fat, and ferociously angry officer discharging appropriated hunting weapons with a small group of servants about him. He was shot at some point in this battle, and obviously took no pains to make his identity clear to those around him." hmm...

    The Death of Tipu