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In search of Tipu's wealth

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Despite the pillage and plunder that accompanied the sack of Seringapatam, Tipu Sultan’s treasures continue to excite prurient curiosity.

Tipu SultanTwo hundred and ten years after the fall of Seringapatam, Tipu Sultan’s death — caused through mugging on the battlefield when a European soldier “seized the sultan’s sword-belt” and meeting with unexpected resistance, shot him “through the temple, when he instantly expired” — continues to excite curiosity and fuel an industry built around his persona and treasures. The latest, a book, Tipu’s Tigers may not completely overturn the earlier English view of the Tiger of Mysore as a fierce tyrant and villain, but it does bring into focus his love for all things beautiful, whether expressed in architecture, laying gardens, collecting exceptional pieces of jewellery, or commissioning rare works of art.

As senior curator in the Asian department of the Victoria & Albert Museum, author has had access to the few treasures and curiosities that have shaped English interest in Tipu, not least of which is Tipu’s Tiger, based on which the perception was created of his fanatic hatred of the white man. As a work of art, it has inspired everything from John Keats’s poetry (a plaything of the Emperor’s choice/From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys) to Staffordshire pottery figurines in the 20th century, to the more recent sculpture by Bill Reid that depicts a hybrid rabbit eating an astronaut. Books, plays and vaudeville have featured him, almost always in a negative light, his loss of battle and kingdom being the vindication required for the conquerors to debauch his reign.

Tipu’s — and his father Hyder Ali’s — claim over Mysore was tentative, perhaps even opportunistic at a time when the Mughal empire in Delhi had weakened, the Deccan was gaining in strength, and Maratha power was at its zenith. Ruling over a kingdom of largely Hindu subjects, Tipu chose to combine elements of Persian kingship with those that were Hindu. Not only were the coins in circulation in the kingdom not cast in his name, the emblems he chose — including an elephant — were those that kingdoms in the south were familiar with. His was a capital, Lt Francis Skelly went on to record, of “verdant wooded valleys, a profusion of beautiful gardens and clean, well-constructed villages”, while his palace in Bangalore contained “rich carpets, gold and silver cloth, and rooms filled with china and glass”.

Alas, Skelly was no travel writer but there to oversee the terrible consequences of the British treaty that required Tipu to hand over half his lands and, to ensure as security, his two small sons to their safekeeping. “The sons were eventually restored and Mysore recovered,” writes Stronge, “but the state was lost finally to the British in 1799 when was killed. His treasury, library and state documents were dispersed, the wholesale destruction leaving only a glimpse of the remarkable court arts of his short reign” of which “his most famous surviving possession” — the Tipu Tiger at the V&A — “is in many ways the least typical”.

If in the last years there has been a growing interest in Tipu’s lost treasures, it is in part to do with the regularity with which Tipu memorabilia keeps coming up for auction and not a little to do with nationalism as espoused by United Breweries head and modern-day sultan Vijay Mallya, who may not have bid for the tiger throne finial that was auctioned by Bonhams earlier this year for a sum of £503,600, but spent Rs 1.57 crore at a Sotheby’s auction in September 2004 to claim a sword that once belonged to Tipu, and Rs 9.3 crore in May 2005 to bring back to India a silver-mounted flintlock and two three-pounder cannons from the Sultan’s personal armoury, a pick of “some of his best” according to him, from among a treasure that consisted, according to Sotheby’s experts, “of swords, porcelain tiger toys, bows and arrows, guns, tents and armbands” and included a “tiger’s paw taken from the legs of Tipu’s throne”. Interestingly, the gem-encrusted gold finial from the octagonal throne of Tipu Sultan, found in a bank vault and once inventoried to Baron Wallace of Knarsdale, who oversaw the East India Company, was one of four such finials — the throne itself dismembered, much to the annoyance of Governor General Richard Wellesley, as being “too unweildy” [sic].

Stronge writes that the throne of gold chased with Koranic verses and its tiger-head finials also had “a sparkling bird covered with precious stones set in the distinctive style of South Indian jewellery” which is associated with kingship in Iran and the use of auspicious nine stone or navratna was an allusion to Tipu’s preoccupation with cosmology and astrology. “Silver furnishings such as howdahs and canopies were commissioned by Tipu for his own use and for diplomatic missions, and the court workshops would have made much of the jewellery for Tipu and his family. He dispatched “a casket of jewels, mostly for the turban” to the Ottoman empire in 1785, “two valuable rings set with a diamond and a ruby respectively for the ‘raja’ of France” in 1787, and was closely involved with the production of artefacts in his ateliers, “recording his annoyance when the toshakhana failed to supply his goldsmiths with gold and silver, delaying an order of jewellery for distribution at court, possibly as part of the celebrations when he became a padshah.

For a ruler whose reign spanned all of 19 years, his prosperity — or that of his kingdom — is sans pareil. Tipu ascended the throne in 1782, and though both Hyder Ali’s and his reign were characterised by battles in which they dealt humiliating defeats to the British, he showed all the attributes of a gentleman prince. Though he once famously said “I would rather live one day as a tiger than a lifetime as a sheep,” as early as 1783, the colonel of a surrendered British force found him “reclining against a pillow on a rich scarlet carpet with his courtiers standing to one side. He was dressed plainly in a fine white muslin robe, striped red-and-white silk trousers and a red silk turban with a diamond sarpich or turban jewel: ‘A Diamond Ring, large and apparently valuable, sparkled on the third finger of the right hand’.” The colonel saw behind him “A European gold watch on a hook”, but was mostly uncomfortable with etiquettes that clashed: “he disliked being expected to remove his shoes on entering and felt ill-mannered at keeping his hat on”.

When his short but hardly peaceful reign ended abruptly in 1799, the British forces set to looting the Sultan’s magnificent haul of jewels and art objects, “the precious stones and jewellery, pearls bought in Hormuz and Muscat, gold and silver coins, bullion…” housed in a toshakhana “guarded by chained tigers” that were shot dead when the looting began, as well as a valuable library. Having “actively encouraged Mysore’s trade…to attract craftsmen and new technologies”, Sultan Selim II of Muscat and Louis XVI of France “were asked to send cannon founders, gunsmiths and experts who knew how to make glass, mirrors and china, and were given the finest guns made in Mysore for their consideration. Louis XVI was asked for barometers, spectacles, clocks and clockmakers, as well as seeds, plants and people to cultivate them; the French king sent Sevres porcelain, Savonnerie carpets and busts of himself with the queen… By 1789 an estimated 400 Europeans were in Tipu’s service at Seringapatam, most of them Englishmen, including ‘artificers and coiners’ working in his arsenal and mint; a French watchmaker was in Mysore at the end of his reign.”

At the time of his death, “the vast majority of the firearms in Seringapatam’s military stores were modern flintlocks, with nearly half designated as French or English muskets, but many made in Mysore”, though his personal weapons “were often very fine and connect him to the long and remarkable South Indian steel working tradition that supplied the rulers of the Vijayanagara empire, the Deccan sultanates and Tanjore”.

Because interest in Tipu’s kingdom was high, engravings of drawings of the third Anglo-Mysore war were lapped up, Robert Colebrooke’s Twelve views of places in the Kingdom of Mysore, the country of Tippoo Sultan became extremely popular, and studies by Alexander Allan, Robert Home (whose seminal work, Lord Cornwallis receiving the sons of as hostages, is significant but probably flawed for the “paternal kindness” with which the governor general is shown receiving the heirs), and those by Arthus Devis, John Smart, Mather Brown, George Carter and Henry Singleton based on written descriptions, went on to depict the Sultan and his kingdom to curious Europeans. The storming of and Tipu’s death would inspire more art, much of it pretentious, though, ironically, it enjoyed a fashionable turn when turbans topped with ostrich feathers became the rage in London.

But then, textiles formed an important part of the Sultan’s repertoire. “Costly fabrics were used for the robes of honour (khil’at) presented by rulers across the Muslim world: the embassy to France, for instance, included many robes of honour and an embroidered dress for the queen”, official missives were “wrapped in special gold and silver fabrics” and Tipu donated valuable cloths to Hindu temples. Custom house records show import of Kashmiri shawls, gold cloth from Hyderabad and silk and woollen textiles from Madras, and chintz was “made into garments and turbans for Tipu and his sons”. Like most 18th-century kings in the subcontinent, Tipu and his sons wore “Mughal-style jewelled turban ornaments and pearl necklaces”. “He encouraged Armenian merchants to come to the kingdom” chiefly “to import their silks and other merchandise duty free” and “ordered his agents in the Persian Gulf at Muscat to procure silkworms and their eggs, and men who knew how to breed them”.

Though “prize” was considered legitimate as the spoils of war, it was plunder that occurred in the fallen Sultan’s kingdom. Still, prize agents and a goldsmith for valuations set up office as “jewels and gold plate were brought out from dark chambers where they were kept in coffers”, silver, firearms, jewelled swords and state palanquins unpacked, extensive chambers containing “beautiful carved ivory doorposts, valuable carpets, furniture, telescopes, looking glasses and pictures, porcelain and glass” desecrated, and hauls of gold coins recovered and “a trail of coins left by fleeting looters was also discovered”. Auctions took place, the local goldsmiths “making shrewd purchases” as plundered jewels were squandered away “for bottles of spirits or small sums of money”. Tipu’s extensive wardrobe was shipped off to England to stop the clothes being used as sacred relics, but though a list has remained of “57 jamas or dress jackets, 84 turbans (including two with Koranic inscriptions), 50 ‘handkerchiefs’, 54 jackets, numerous pairs of paijamas or trousers” and so on, “the wardrobe disappeared after it reached Britain”.

It is strange that Tipu’s throne should have been ordered by the prize committee to be broken down for being too large to ship to London when the “musical tyger” or Tipu’s Tiger as it would come to be known, despite its size, was safely shipped there, to be exhibited at East India House, along with the jewelled bird that crested his magnificent throne and a tiger head with rock crystal eyes and teeth. Tipu’s Tiger in all likelihood, derives from the traditions of European technology and the sculptural, toy-making industry that flourished in the region. It had a religious resonance since “painted wooden figures representing demi-gods or particular animals, including the tiger…must be appeased”. Though it was given pride of place in the V&A (or South Kensington Museum, its earlier avatar), it was perhaps meant as no more than something to provide light-hearted entertainment as a three-dimensional cartoon “perhaps to amuse his young sons when they returned from their British captivity in 1794”.

Much was made of the curiosity by the British press, its subject, a tiger perched atop a white soldier “deemed a sufficient proof (if any were yet wanting) of the deep hate and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English nation”. It was discovered in the Rangmahal or palace music room, but reports said “[t]he sounds produced by the organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress, intermixed with the horrid roar of the tiger”. The description would occur so often to be taken as the truth, and though it did emit “shrieks and growls”, in fact the mechanical curiosity performed several airs, among them God save the King and Rule Britannia.

The “tyger” was among the chief attractions of the Great Exhibition in 1851, when the turn of the handle produced a sound that could be “interpreted as either the growl of the tiger, or the half-suppressed agony of the sufferer”, but as it became part of a museum, the handle dropped off, and eventually it was damaged in 1944 when workmen dropped it to the ground, and though it was restored, has not been heard to play since. The fascination it exercised on the British is evident from the Medal designed by Conrad Heinrich Kuchler that depicts a British lion conquering a violently resisting tiger. That it should have become a symbol of a Sultan whose artistic treasures show up frequently at auctions, can but be a blasphemy aimed at his personage and his rule.

First Published: Sat, October 10 2009. 00:04 IST