The Tyrannical Facet Of Mysore’s Tipu Sultan

Tipu, a bundle of contradictions, is an enigma and a modern historian’s biggest puzzle. His ascent to power was accidental.

His father Haidar Ali was bought as a slave by the maharaja of Mysore. But in a series of fascinating events where the Machiavellian Haidar ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds, he ended up overthrowing his own benefactor and usurping the throne of Mysore from the Wodeyars in 1761. Haidar was shrewd enough not to dispense with the Wodeyars who had been ruling Hindu-majority Mysore since 1399.

The maharaja was a titular puppet—orders would go in his name, trophies of war were submitted to his feet, yet everyone knew where the real power rested. Tipu, though, had no reason for such diplomacy and dispensed with this appendage. He assumed complete sovereignty over Mysore, which became Sultanat-e-Khudadad, or the Kingdom of God, and he, its sultan.

In our zeal to be on the right or left of Indian politics, we have thrust Tipu (and other rulers like him) to the scrutiny of “Secularism”, “Communalism” and “Nationalism”—terms that were non-existent in 18th century India. Judging characters of the past by the yardsticks and definitions of today is being grossly unfair to them because the facts don’t fit our straightjacket.

There are 30 reverential letters written by Tipu in Kannada to the then Shankaracharya of Sringeri. Incidentally, while the Maratha rulers are the icons of Hindu nationalism today, during the Third Anglo-Mysore War, in 1791, Parashuram Bhau ravaged Mysore and damaged the very seat of Hinduism—the Shankaracharya’s temple in Sringeri—and looted its property. It was Tipu who supposedly renovated the temple.

Yet the same Tipu adopted a virulent and repressive policy elsewhere. When he was unable to capture the pradhans of Rani Lakshmi Ammanni, who were carrying on negotiations on her behalf with the British, he ordered the public hanging of around 700 members of the pradhan community, the Mandyam Iyengars—men, women and children—in broad daylight, and that too on Diwali. So much so that to this day some Mandyam Iyengars observe Diwali as a day of mourning.

In 1788, Tipu marched into Coorg and burnt down entire towns and villages. Mir Hussein Kirmani, Tipu’s courtier-cum-biographer describes how the raid resulted in the burning down of villages in Kushalapura (today’s Kushalnagar), Talakaveri, Madikeri, and other places. Additionally, Tipu in a letter to the Nawab of Kurnool, Runmust Khan describes how he took 40,000 Coorgis as prisoners and forcibly converted them to Islam and “incorporated them with our Ahmadi corps.” Already a thinly-populated country, Tipu’s brutal raid followed by large-scale prisoner-taking depopulated Coorg of its original inhabitants to a severe extent. To Islamise Coorg, he transported about 7,000 Muslim families belonging to the Shaikh and Sayyid sects to Coorg from elsewhere.

The intensity of Tipu’s raid was so terrifying that hundreds of temple priests fled to Mangalore along with their families. Worship came to a permanent halt in several temples. Some temples were covered with leaves in order to conceal their presence. The Maletirike Bhagavati temple at Virajpet is a good example of this. Equally, the renowned Omkareshwara temple in Madikeri was about to meet the same fate — the then ruler at Madikeri panicked at the approach of Tipu, removed its tower and replaced it with a dome so that it looked like a mosque from afar. The temple continues to retain this appearance till date. In his raid of Napoklu near Madikeri, Tipu destroyed the temples in the surrounding villages of Betu and Kolakeri.

Remnants of Tipu Sultan’s savage raid of Coorg survive even today — the forcibly converted Coorgis are today known as Kodava Mapilas (Coorg Muslims) whose last/family names are still Hindu — representative examples are surnames like Kuvalera, Italtanda, Mitaltanda, Kuppodanda, Kappanjeera, Kalera, Chekkera, Charmakaranda, Maniyanda, Balasojikaranda, and Mandeyanda.

Like in Coorg, remnants of Tipu’s disastrous campaigns in the Malabar can be seen even today in the region. The city that bore the brunt of his excesses in the Malabar is Kozhikode (Calicut). William Logan’s Malabar Manual, the Malabar Gazetter, the Portuguese missionary Fr Bartholomew’s Voyage to East Indies, the German missionary Guntest and accounts by various contemporary British military officers contain first-hand accounts of how Tipu razed the city to the ground. An excerpt from Bartholomew provides us a representative glimpse:

First a corps of 30,000 barbarians who butchered everybody on the way… followed by the field-gun unit… Tipu was riding on an elephant behind which another army of 30,000 soldiers followed. Most of the men and women were hanged in Calicut, first mothers were hanged with their children tied to their necks. That barbarian Tipu Sultan tied the naked Christians and Hindus to the legs of elephants and made the elephants move around till the bodies of the helpless victims were torn to pieces. Temples and churches were ordered to be burned down, desecrated and destroyed. Christian and Hindu women were forced to marry Mohammadans and similarly their men were forced to marry Mohammadan women. Those Christians who refused to be honoured with Islam, were ordered to be killed by hanging immediately. These atrocities were told to me by the victims of Tipu Sultan who escaped from the clutches of his army and reached Varappuzha, which is the centre of Carmichael Christian Mission. I myself helped many victims to cross the Varappuzha River by boats.

After his Mangalore campaign, over 60,000 Syrian Christians were taken captive, coerced to convert and brutalized. In his repeated attacks on Malabar, Tipu devastated the warrior Nairs with his atrocities and religious intolerance. Recent discoveries of the diaries of Francois Ripaud, a French sailor who had come to Srirangapatna to assist Tipu but was disenchanted by his brutalities, further substantiates these claims.

Tipu’s own letters demonstrate this zeal. For instance, he writes to Burduz Zamaun Khan on 19 January 1790: “Don’t you know I have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over four lakh Hindus were converted to Islam?”, and to Syed Abdul Dulai on 18 January 1790: “With the grace of Prophet Muhammad and Allah, almost all Hindus in Calicut are now converted to Islam. Only a few are still not converted on the borders of Cochin State. I am determined to convert them also very soon. I consider this as Jehad to achieve that object.” Tipu is still hated in many parts of Kerala, Coorg and Mangalore, where many remember his bigotry.

It is also worth a mention an extract from Life of Tipu Sultan published by the Pakistan Administrative Staff College, Lahore in 1964:

“Tipu imprisoned and forcibly converted more than a lakh Hindus and over 70,000 Christians in the Malabar region (they were forcibly circumcised and made to eat beef). Although these conversions were unethical and disgraceful, they served Tipu’s purpose. Once all these people had been cut off from their original faith, they were left with no option but to accept the very faith to which their ravager belonged, and they began to educate their children in Islam. They were later enlisted in the army and received good positions. Most of them morphed into religious zealots, and enhanced the ranks of the faithful in Tipu’s kingdom. Tipu’s zeal for conversion was not limited only to the Malabar region. He had spread it all the way up to Coimbatore.”

William Logan’s Malabar Manual gives a detailed list of all the temples Tipu had destroyed in Kerala, and Lewis Rice in his Mysore Gazetter holds that “in the vast empire of Tipu Sultan on the eve of his death, there were only two Hindu temples having daily pujas” and further estimates he had destroyed eight thousand temples in South India, a number which Colonel RD Palsokar also confirms in his study on Tipu Sultan.

All of these are facts of history that cannot be wished away, just as some of Tipu’s progressive measures are praiseworthy. The moot question is whether we need history and the characters of the past to create social harmony among communities today, and whether this harmony can be founded on falsehood.

With an acknowledgement of excesses and with no albatross of guilt on the members of any community today, one needs to move on. Glossing over history or, worse, creating a false one even as facts stare you in the face, is lethal. In between black and white is a huge continuum of grey, and being as human as any one of us, Tipu belongs to this zone of grey too. For all our liberalism, religious identity is enmeshed in our political discourse today. But this does not seem to have been the case 200 years ago—religion was used as a tool for cultural subjugation of the conquered. Else, would the Marathas have plundered Sringeri? Would the nizam and Tipu not have been natural allies?

Historical figures need to be freed from the clutches of contemporary politics and left to academic study by historians, and be judged as products of their time and circumstances. Identification of a ruler’s legacy with a community is dangerous, especially when fragile sensitivities get so easily offended.

Voltaire had famously said, “History is the lie commonly agreed upon!”.

In the case of Tipu Sultan, sadly, common agreement on even this lie eludes us.

Source Credits: Vikram Sampath in Live Mint. Vikram is the Bangalore-based author of Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars. Also Sandeep Balakrishna in Daily O, History Today, Suman Chatterjee.

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