Tipu Sultan and the burning sugarcane field

Along with astrology , Tipu Sultan was fascinated with facereading and even fancied himself as a good facereader. This trait of his showed more prominence during the last years of his reign when he beset with problems from all ends, reverses on the war front, court intrigue and betrayals turned into himself and the occult.

Hayavadana Rao relates that in selections for offices,  Tipu would order candidates for each department to be admitted and drawn up in line before him, when, looking steadfastly at them, he would, in an inspired way, call out in a solemn voice – ‘Let the third from the left be Asoph of such a district; he with the yellow drawers understands naval affairs, let him be Meer-e-Yem, Lord of the Admiralty; they with the long beard and red turban are all Amils, let them be promoted.’  Often he was mistaken in his selection, and this led to most absurd blunders

Tipu authored a code of regulations that was required to be studied by all in his service. It was declared to contain  ‘all rules necessary to be observed’ but ‘if any case should occur, not provided for, and requiring reference to the resplendant presence (Tipu Sultan himself), such reference was to be made’. Relating to this, an interesting anecdote first narrated by Wilks and later picked upon by Hayavadana Rao is narrated here.

A farmer came out of breath running to the Amil (one who heads a taluka)  at Kankanahalli and told him that a large field of sugarcane was on fire. The Amil replied   ‘ Fetch me the book of regulations, positively I can recollect nothing about a sugarcane field on fire.’  The surprised farmer replied – ‘I will tell you what to do about it, if permitted’, and with great earnestness talked of the village drum summoning every man, woman and child in the village, each with a pan of water. The Amil after poring through the book says – ‘The book of regulations tells me what to do, the case is unprovided for, and must be reported and referred’.  In the meantime the field was destroyed in the fire and the report was made to the court at Seringapatam.

When news of this report reached the court everyone was full of jest and expectation. The only matter pending was how the Sultan would rebuke the idiot of an Amil !  The Sultan heard the dispatch with a vacant stare, which sometimes preceded a laugh, and sometimes a wise reflection. This stare continued for a while and then he became philosophical.  ‘The man’ said the Sultan, ‘is a good and obedient servant; prepare instantly an edict to be added to the regulations, prescribing what is to be done in the event of fire in sugar-fields.’  Rao does not mention what the reaction of the court to this was, but it can only be anybody’s guess.

There is no doubt that Tipu was an excellent administrator but somewhere along the way as in the case with most governments that rely too much on laws, statutes and ordinances, he and his officers missed the point that no law is superior to common sense.


About Olikara

An engineer, history buff, collector of South Indian antiques.
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One Response to Tipu Sultan and the burning sugarcane field

  1. Anonymous says:

    It also proves a very important aspect of administration namely stoking undaunted and unflinching loyalty in upholding the royal decree above any personal opinion. Instead of apprehending the man, he pardoned his mistake to make it known to his people that the rule of law prevails even in the most dire situations. It would have been good if the Amil had gone by his common sense and brought the situation under control but, Sultan let him be and saved him from being a laughing stock and saved his face by approving his act. Kingship is indeed not an easy task and requires thinking much beyond the ability of the common man!!

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