Tipu Sultan never ceases to fascinate me. Having tried to understand him for over 14 years now, sometimes I think I know all that there is to know about him. And other times, I feel I have touched, but the tip of an iceberg.
One reason for this is that documents and artefacts of the period relating to Tipu have been dispersed all over the world, primarily on account of his fame. Some in museums and easy to study, but many more in private collections that are hidden from all and just come to light for that tiny interregnum when they move from one collection to the next, in all probability also private.
Such a window of opportunity presented itself when Christies in London, announced details about Lot number 10 in The Raglan Collection: Waterloo, Wellington & The Crimea sale to be held on 4 April, 2012.
The lot is titled ‘An Indian antique gold ring’ with it described as being a heavy oval ring with the name of the Hindu God Rama in raised Devenagri script surrounded by chased floral buds to the octagonal base and ornate shoulders and hoop, the inside of which is engraved Major General Lord FitzRoy Somerset KCB, late 18th century. It has been weighed to be of 41.2 gms.
The provenance for the ring is very interesting. It says that by family tradition this ring was taken from Tipu, Sultan of Mysore by Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington at the battle of Seringapatam in 1799. It was given by him to his niece Emily Wellesley-Pole, later Lady FitzRoy Somerset, by whom given to her husband Lord FitzRoy Somerset, later 1st Baron Raglan. Afterwards, it was deposited with the Royal United Service Institution by Lt. Col. George Somerset, 3rd Baron Raglan, in 1895.
A catalogue dated 1908 of the Royal United Service Museum, Whitehall edited by Lieut.-Col. Sir A. Leetham and subsequent editions; described as ’3064. Ring which belonged to the famous Tippoo Sahib, Sultan of Mysore, who was killed at the Capture of Seringapatam, 1799, taken from his finger by Colonel Honourable A. Wellesley (Duke of Wellington), and given by him to his niece, Lady FitzRoy Somerset.’
This ring was however removed by Major FitzRoy Somerset, 4th Baron Raglan, in October 1952 from the museum and found it’s way back to the family home in Wales.
The first question that popped to my mind upon seeing this ring was simply; would Tipu Sultan, a Muslim, though ruling over a predominant Hindu domain keep a ring as explicitly Hindu as this one? To answer this question I would have to lead you back to the eventful morning of May 4, 1799 to follow Tipu readying to defend his capital under siege by the British and their allies on the last day of his life. His astrologers had warned him that this day, the last of the lunar month was a particularly inauspicious day for him
That fatal morning, Tipu rose early and after inspecting the breach and giving orders for repairs, he bathed and made his offerings – money and cloth to the poor, to the temple priest at Chennapatana a black caparisoned elephant, a bag of oil seeds and 2000 rupees; and to other Brahmins, two buffaloes, a bullock, a she-goat and miscellaneous articles, including an iron pot full of oil, with which he had performed the rite of gazing at the reflection of his own face in order to ascertain his destiny. So even on the last day of his life, Tipu though being an austere muslim did not hesitate being blessed by Hindu priests and paying obesiance to their Gods.
Some time after this, as he sat down for lunch he heard that the walls had been breached; he mounted his horse and hurried toward the breach, never to return. At nightfall, a search for his body led into a gateway, choked with the human debris of defeat. Tipu’s body was dragged out from under a mass of dead. Major Allan, present at the scene, speaks of the dead Tipu – ‘His dress consisted of a jacket of fine white linen, loose drawers of flowered chintz, with a crimson cloth of silk and cotton round his waist; a handsome pouch with a red and green silk belt hung across his shoulder; his head was uncovered, his turban being lost in the confusion of his fall; he had an amulet on his arm, but no ornament whatever.’
This eyewitness account of Tipu’s mortal remains a few hours after his death shows us that other than the amulet around his arm, he had no ornaments on him. The amulet, sewed up in pieces of fine flowered silk, contained a brittle metallic substance of the colour of silver, and some manuscripts in Magic Arabic and Persian characters. This was removed and presented to General David Baird, and is now preserved at the National War Museum, Edinburgh, Scotland.
That Tipu was a lover of fine jewellery is undisputed. The Victoria and Albert museum in London has 10 different pieces of his jewellery. Further, what should not be forgotten is that the greater part of his jewels were plundered from his palace after the sack and valued at over 2,500,000 British Pounds. In all probability, whatever jewellery Tipu wore on that tragic day was looted off his body probably by that unidentified soldier who shot him dead, after unsuccessfully attempting to rob him of his bejewelled sword belt.
So, we now know that whatever may have been Tipu’s liking to jewellery, his body was found with no ornament whatsoever other than the amulet he wore round his upper arm. There is no mention of any ring being found on him either in Major Allan’s or any of his other contemporaries accounts. And in any case there is no way the thief would have overlooked a heavy gold ring while divesting the fallen Sultan of all of his remaining jewellery.
That this ring is provenanced to Tipu Sultan cannot be doubted as it was in the possession of the Duke of Wellington, Lord Arthur Wellesley who was also present at the spot when Tipu’s lifeless body was being taken out of the gateway. He in turn presented the ring to his favourite niece Emily Wellesley who gave it to her husband Lord FitzRoy Somerset, later 1st Baron Raglan, whose name is engraved inside the hoop of the ring.
Lord Wellesley, the victor at Waterloo was perhaps the greatest British General after Cromwell who had possessed memorabilia and gifts collected over his several campaigns from Europe to India to Egypt. There can be no reason as to why the Duke would misrepresent the provenance of a ring that he presented to his brother’s daughter. Surely, the ring would have a special history to be in the Duke’s personal collection. Tipu’s treasury contained millions of pounds worth of Gold and other valuables and the Duke of Wellington on account of his position and family lineage could pick the choicest of treasure for himself. The ring had to be special for Lord Wellesley to choose this for his personal collection and it can only be surmised that this ring was found in the innermost chambers of Tipu’s palace.
The Christie’s catalogue notes that it may be improbable for Tipu to have worn this ring and I second this impression. It is difficult to imagine Tipu wearing such an overt Hindu religious symbol upon him. Tipu was tolerant and had great regard for his Hindu subjects. He donated profusely to temples all over his vast dominions. Yet, he was an orthodox muslim who tradition has it never missed his daily prayers and was an avid reader of religious texts. A good majority of the books in his library was on Islam and Sufism. That being said, the library also had in it Persian translations of the Mahabharata and other Hindu texts.
Reading the Koran daily and turning it’s pages wearing a ring carrying a Hindu God’s name on it was simple unacceptable not only to a Muslim ruler like Tipu Sultan but also to any Muslim layman of those times.
So, we will have to be practical and assume that over a period of 200 and odd years, the ‘removed from Tipu’s treasury’ story changed to ‘removed from Tipu’s finger’ legend. That Tipu’s treasury should contain such an overt Hindu symbolic ring is not surprising because Tipu integrated both Hindu and Islamic elements in his court. A ‘Navratna’ pendant of his, made in typical Hindu style was recently auctioned at Bonhams, London.
So where may this ring have come from? Could it have come from some treasure hoard that fell into Tipu’s hands? In all probability, No. This ring has nothing special when compared to rings that would adorn other ruler’s fingers. Most of the royal rings would be embellished with precious stones of the largest sizes and best water. However, this ‘Rama’ ring is but a plain ring with rosebud decoration done on it and an invocation to the Hindu deity Rama moulded on it’s face. So, if this ring was war booty from Tipu’s numerous successful wars, there is no reason why he would have kept it in his personal treasury. It would have been deposited like all the other jewellery and Gold pagodas found, in the ‘toshkhana’ or palace treasury.
The answer to this mystery may be found in the Southernmost tip of Mysore, Sringeri. Here for 2000 years now, the head priests, Jagadgurus of the Sringeri Mutt established by the first Shankaracharya who arrived here from Kerala propagating his concept of Advaita have reigned spiritually over generations of devotees and lines of dynasties.
Dr. A.K. Shastry has published the contents of 47 letters from Tipu sent to the Sringeri Shankaracharya Sri Sacchidananda Bharati III who presided over the affairs of the mutt from 1753-1799 A.D. These letters range from Tipu Sultan enquiring after the Shankaracharya’s welfare to requesting him to pray for Mysore’s prosperity and even requesting his Holiness to cast a horoscope for Tipu. Tipu’s letters breathe an honest spirit of veneration for the Sringeri Guru.
For over 10 years Tipu remained in constant touch with the Shankaracharya and even the last recorded letter written in 1798 request the Swami to offer worship , three times a day to Lord Isvara and perform the Chandihavana, a special oblation, for the destruction of enemies and the prosperity of the government. The Sringeri Shankaracharya was not the only Hindu leader who received Tipu’s patronage, but he was surely Tipu’s most important Hindu spiritual guide. The acharya would also have had a soft corner for Tipu as it was the latter who granted an amount of 400 rahatis, a special gold coin, for the restoration of the temple and the reinstallation of the presiding deity, Sri Saradamba, in 1791 A.D. after the temple had been desecrated and pillaged during the Maratha invasion of Mysore. The Maratha chiefs who led this invasion, Parasuram Bhau and Raghunathrao Patwardhan were notably Hindus. Though much of the destruction was perpetrated by the Pindaris who would follow the core Maratha army, the Peshwa had to take much of the flak from the Shankaracharya for this act.
Of particular interest to the subject of the ring is a letter from Tipu to the Shankaracharya dated November 15, 1793 where he offers his salutation to the Guru and acknowledges receipt of jewellery from the Guru, a Sirapecha, Kalgi (both turban ornaments) and a pair of shawl. So we now know that exchange of gifts was not just from Tipu Sultan to the Guru but also the other way round. Such a gift as this inscribed ring from the Guru would be treasured by the Sultan and kept as an auspicious token among his dearest possessions.
Lord Rama is also called as ‘Maryada Purushottam Rama’; Maryada meaning ‘epitome of ethical behaviour’ and Purushottam meaning ‘first among men’. Rama was a God and the Sultan but a man. If the Sringeri Shankaracharya did send this ring to Tipu, perhaps he was only pointing to Tipu an ideal that an earthly monarch should aspire for.
Christies, London Sale 4138: The Raglan Collection:Waterloo, Wellington and the Crimea; 4 April, 2012
Tiger of Mysore, Denys Forrest
Icons in Gold, Musee Barbier Mueller collection
Sunset at Srirangapatnam, Mohammad Moienuddin
The records of the Sringeri Dharmasansthana, Dr. A.K. Shastry
A biography of Sri Sacchidanda Bharati III from the Sringeri Temple website http://www.sringeri.net/jagadgurus/sri-sacchidananda-bharati-iii-1770-1814