Tipu Sultan and his weapon of mass destruction; Propaganda

Tipu Sultan used all resources at his disposal to instill hatred against the enemy and courage in times of adversity in the hearts of his citizenry. He used the medium of imagery and sound to carry out his objectives. He had understood the value of propaganda in those troubled times.

Tipu’s hatred of the British was represented in wall paintings on the buidings of Seringapatam. These were described by Wilks, the first Resident of Mysore in 1803. He says  that the walls of the houses in the main streets of Seringapatam had been ornamented by the Sultan’s command, with full length caricatures of the English. In one it was a tiger seizing a trembling Englishman; in another it was a horseman cutting off two English heads at a blow; in a third it was Tipu’s inveterate enemy, the Nawab of Arcot, Mohamed Ali, brought in with a rope around his waist, prostrating himself before an Englishman seated on a chair, who placed one foot on his neck.

Meadows Taylor described other scenes where a row of white faced Europeans, their hands tied behind them, and with their faces half blackened, while others were seated on asses, with their faces to the tail. Again there were some being torn to pieces by tigers, while the native Mysoreans looked on and applauded; others were under the feet suffering torture or chained to the leg of elephants, one to each leg, while the beast was depicted at his utmost speed, his trunk raised into the air, and the Mahout evading him with a huge ankoos. Again another row were undergoing the rite of Mahomedanism at the hands of the Kazee; others were suffering torture; several appeared drawn up in a line, whose heads were all falling to the ground under one rigorous blow of the executioner – a man of the true faith, with a huge beard and moustaches curling up to his eyes, while streams of gore, very red and much higher and thicker than the sufferers themselves, gushed from the bodies. Here again were a group of ten or twelve seated round a table, each with a fierce regimental cocked-hat upon his head, a very red and drunken face, and his right hand upraised grasping a huge glass filled with red wine; while others, overcome by inebriation, were sprawling under a table, and wallowing among the swine and dogs which lay at the feet of those who were yet to perceive the state of their equilibrium.

These paintings, crudely called caricatures by the British, were seen by the public each day in Mysore and served to remind them of the horrors to come under British dominance and the subservience shown to the British by their neighbouring rulers.

But the most well known painting or mural in Srirangapatana is that in the Daria Daulat Bagh in Ganjam. The paintings are represented in three different schemes delineated on the eastern and the western walls of the palace. On the western is the picture of a battle scene and its proceedings depicted in four frames, narrating the battle of Polillur in action.

Haidar Ali and his son Tipu fought four wars against the English, known as Anglo-Mysore wars.  The battle of Polillur is a part of the war which culminated in the defeat of the English and the seize of Arcot by Haidar. In the Polillur scene, the English army under the command of Colonel Baillie was completely routed out and a number of English soldiers including Colonel Baillie himself were taken as prisoners. The paintings were commissioned in 1784 by Tipu Sultan to commemorate his victory over the British.  The paintings of the Daria Daulat Bagh are apparently the earliest visual record of the battle scene. The depiction of Tipu’s great victory at Polillur was a great morale booster to his people who faced war every other year with the British or their allies, the Marathas and the Nizam.

Dr. Veena Shekar suggests that apart from the murals on the walls of Daria Daulat Bagh the outer walls of Srirangapatna are supposed to have contained demeaning pictures of the British. During the last siege of Srirangapatna, a lot of these paintings were obliterated. And before that in 1792 on the approach of Lord Cornwallis’s army, a positive order to whitewash all the walls was given by Tipu. An order for the defacement of the Daria Daulat paintings was also issued at the same time. This was only partially done; happily enough remained for the restoration, which Colonel Wellesley promptly ordered when he was in command of the fort and in residence at the palace.

Lord Valencia saw the paintings in 1803 and refers to the figure of an English Colonel, hated by Tipu who draws his sword on a woman and amuses himself with dancing girls. We have another description of the pictures as they were in 1833 written by Colonel Walter Campbell. That too gives us details that have disappeared. Pink elephants, yellow men and sky blue horses with yellow feet and scarlet tails are jumbled together in glorious confusion’. ‘The British are of course flying in terror pursued by native horseman; and are being trampled to death under the feet of victorious elephants. Among the fugitives the artists have not forgotten to introduce a group of native servants and by a stroke of fine art to distinguish them from the crowd of camp followers and others by representing each man with an immense tea kettle in one hand and a gigantic brandy bottle in the other.’ writes Campbell. None of these elements are found in the paintings today.

Further, Tipu also used the element of comedy in his efforts to demean his enemy in the eyes of his people. The Dasara celebrations in Seringapatam was the highlight of each year’s festive season and the celebrations saw an influx of innumerable visitors, pilgrims, merchants into the town from all over the kingdom. Accounts left to us by British prisoners who saw these celebrations recount tiger fights and wrestling contests held on all 9 days of the grand festival where the intervals were given to an act where a clown on stilts came dressed as a British soldier and acted obnoxiously showing himself as drunk and smoking a cheroot. This act gave great entertainment as well as abhorrence to the crowd.

Contemporary chroniclers also write of the Mysorean army going into battle singing songs of the glory of their state. These were probably songs sung by Kannada balladeers who accompanied the troops into battle. A famous folk song or ‘Lavani’ of that period sang about the Polillur battle and it’s actors and was called the ‘Lally Baillie Yuddha’ after the French Monsieur Lally who was with Tipu against the British side commanded by Colonel Baillie. These Lavani bands would roam across the length and breadth of Mysore state singing the exploits of the Tiger sepoys of Mysore.

So we see how Tipu understood the power of propaganda and so effectively used all media at his disposal. The use of these media coupled with his use of motifs and symbols like the Tiger stripe on all items of state made him a larger than life figure for all who loved as well as loathed him.

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About Olikara

An engineer, history buff, collector of South Indian antiques.
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3 Responses to Tipu Sultan and his weapon of mass destruction; Propaganda

  1. Meera says:

    Nidhin, When Campbell writes that bit about pink elephants etc., he says he is describing the Lalbagh Palace. What do you think: did he just get confused between the palaces or did the Lalbagh palace also have murals? Some have described the Lalbagh palace as being painted in white and gold, but maybe there were painted parts? Certainly, the bits that are left show traces of pigments other than white and gold.

    • olikara says:

      Meera,
      Yes, the Lalbagh could have had caricatures too, but Campbell may not have been referring to them as Lalbagh palace was dismantled around 1830, so he probably saw these caricatures on the walls in and around Seringapatam.

      And yes, Meera, the Brits called all our paintings be they in the local or even Tanjore/Mysore style, CARICATURES. They were wonderfully done paintings as we see today in Dariya Daulat and no one will call them Caricatures/Cartoons, but since the Brits did not see these paintings and the characters depicted therein conforming to the Western artists style of color and proportion, caricature was the term used for them.

      Thanks for the question.

      –Nidhin Olikara

  2. Meera says:

    Ah yes, I’d forgotten it was dismantled by then. Thanks for the response.

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