Captain Thomas Marriott, was placed in charge of the Zanana or ‘Women’s Quarters’ after Seringapatam fell. He recorded that he found there 333 of Tipu’s women, including servants and 268 of Haidar’s, as well as some eunuchs.The composition of Tipu’s Zanana reflected like in all other matters, his universal and varied tastes. The women came from near and far. There were daughters of local families, as well as Turks, Georgians, Persians and women from places as Arcot, Tanjore, Hyderabad and Delhi. Among the high caste Hindu women of the Zanana listed by Marriott were 2 sisters of the Raja of Coorg, a niece of Purnaiya and 3 ladies related to the Wodeyars Rajas of Mysore.
George V. Valentia in “Voyages and Travels’, actually visited the Seringapatam palace following Tipu’s death and noted that each lady furnished her apartment ‘according to the fashion of her country’. Guarded by eunuchs they had entered the Zanana at a young age, all being muslim by birth or after being converted to Islam.
Thomas Marriott also writes ‘In the Sultan’s own dominions his confidential servant, Raja Khan, had free access to the private apartment of any of his subjects, and could carry away any of the women, without them daring to make any opposition’. Tipu’s family was strongly opposed to the breakup of the Zanana after his death by the British with his son, Prince Fath Haidar making representations to Captain Marriott on the subject saying that it was ‘ a particular honour to the memory of the deceased that his widows should die where he did’. The enterprising Marriott ‘s solution to the problem was to quote Muslim scripture and law which did not support this.
What must be remembered here is that marriage alliances among ruling families was the order of those days. Buckler in ‘The Human khil’at’ identifies the practise of giving cast off wives or widows as gifts to subordinates. Pearson’s expands further on this concept and explains the perceived importance of women in relation to legitimacy and succession during the rise and height of Mughal power. The same concept may be related to in trying to explain the source and reason for Tipu’s large harem.
As well as the ruler’s cast off wives and concubines being used to bind subordinates to him, women were also given in return, often as nazr-such as a daughter given in marriage. Following Tipu’s death, a list in his handwriting was found containing the names of the daughters of all the principal families in his state with their ages annexed.
Also to be noted was that all the women in Tipu’s or Haidar’s harem were not necessarily his wives or concubines. A Zanana or Haram was also a ’safe place’ for women. In Haidar’s harem was found the wife of Abdul Karim, the daughter of the Nawab of Savanoor, whom Tipu had placed in Haidar’s zanana as a result of her husband’s cruel treatment of her. As for Tipu’s wives from his military conquests, such was the practise of those days and earlier where marriage with a daughter or sometimes a son from the conquered state would ensure a transfer of bloodline from one ruling family to the now dominant one. Even Krishnadeva Raya of Vijaynagar took a daughter of the Gajapatis of Orissa into his harem after the conquest of that country.
Tipu always showed great respect and courtesy to women who had come worse off after some battle or military setback. Documents preserved to this day, especially of Tipu’s wars with the Marathas in Kirmani’s contemporary biography ’Tarikh-i-Tipu’, show several instances of Maratha women, even wives of the prominent Maratha Sardars, being captured in battle and Tipu sending them safely back home to their husbands with proper escort and gifts. That being said, there are also documented records of princesses forcibly inducted into the Mysorean Zanana especially from the principality of Coorg and the Palegars of Chitradurga.
Tipu was married the first time in 1774 when he was 24 and the last time probably in 1796 when he was 46. That he was quite virile, as could be expected from a reigning monarch was that his wives continued to bear him children even till 1797, when his latest wife Khadija Zaman Begum, daughter of Tipu’s confidante Syed Sahib, died during childbirth.
An eye witness account of Tipu Sultan’s principal wife is given in ‘Authentic memoirs of Tipu Sultan’. The anonymous author writes- ‘This lady is delicately formed, and the lines of her face so regular and placid, that a physiognomist would have had little difficulty to pronounce her of a tranquil and amiable temper; her dress was generally a robe of white muslin, spotted with silver and round her neck rows of beautiful pearls, from which hung a pastagon, consisting of an emerald and a ruby of considerable size surrounded with a profusion of brilliants. She is about twenty years of age, and for a complete form, and captivating appearance, rivalled all Mysore.’
The same memoir also shows us a glimpse into the internal affairs of the Harem. It speaks of Tipu Sultan after the 3rd Mysore war od 1792, where Tipu was humbled by the British and his sons taken hostage- ‘Tippoo now passed the chief part of his time in the Zenanna, where he had a great many beautiful women; those by whom he had sons were always his favourites; these ladies take their precedence accordingly, but lose it on death of a child. Tippoo did not make his choice by throwing a handkerchief, as is said to be the custom at Constantinople, but communicated to his chief minister the preference he intended. And this minister officially made known his master’s choice to the lady.
There is great attention paid to the education of these females in respect to dancing, singing and music….These ladies change their dresses continually. Their whole time seems to be spent in adorning their persons, for the elegance of which, and accomplishment of manners they certainly rival all the other women of the place, their apartments and furniture are magnificent, and they have visits of ceremony with each other….The women are subject to severe punishment for infidelity or licentiousness, and endure much shame and contumely, if they have no children.’
Thus, as Kate Brittlebank so beautifully puts it in her analysis of Tipu’s life and the society he lived in - the women in his zanana reflected the universality of his kingship, as did the botanical gardens, the Lalbagh in Bangalore and Ganjam, of his realm.
1. Kate Brittlebank, Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy
2. Kirmani, Tarikh-i-Tipu Sultan
3. An officer in the service of EIC, Authentic Memoirs of Tipu Sultan