Some time ago, I was reading about the town of Honnali as described by B. Lewis Rice (1837 – 1927), old Mysore’s foremost epigraphist in the ‘Gazetteer of Mysore’. I stumbled upon a sentence therein that struck me. While describing the town, it’s origins and subsequent history he also noted ‘Honnali is the residence of a Nawab of Afghan descent. The founder of the family was a Jamaud Afghan named Abdul Nabi Khan, an officer of the court of Delhi, who received an estate from the Emperor in Dharwar, along with the Nawab of Savanur. Since the death of Nawab Kutb-ul-Mulk during the siege of Seringapatam,the Honnali chiefs have possessed little but a barren title.’
I was fascinated with this little note. I had always wondered about all those who fought in that definitive Fourth Mysore war. Tipu’s name comes out of this bright as a shining star from the Mysorean side. And we have luminaries on the British side like David Baird, Harris and Wellesley. But what about all the others who were involved in that war? Surely, Tipu could not have done all the fighting alone. Surely, he was not the only one who died fighting sword in hand that fateful day. Where were the others? What happened to them? What is their story?
And so it was this nagging thought and the discovery of this note that set me off on the quest to know more about this Nawab of Honnali who died fighting alongside Tipu at Seringapatam. Honnali is located in the South Central part of Karnataka in Davangere district. It is a town with a population of about 20000 who are primarily into agriculture for a living. I had a friend there and asked him to enquire if the Nawabs were still around in Honnali. After about a week I received a call from him with the name and phone number of the reigning Nawab of Honnali. I immediately called up the Nawab and after introducing myself requested him for a meeting. He graciously assured me that he would ask me to come over to Honnali soon to meet him.
A couple of months elapsed since this and it was on a Sunday on November 1st, 2013 that I received a call from Nawab Rafathullah Khan that he was free that day on account of it being ‘Kannada Rajyothsava (Karnataka State formation Day)’ and he was in Honnali that whole day to be present at the state flag hoisting functions where he was invited. Consequently that afternoon, I drove down to Honnali with some fellow History enthusiasts to meet the Nawab. We were received at the gates of his home by the Nawab Rafathullah Khan himself.
Nawab Rafathullah Khan warmly invited us into his home. He apologised for the absence of his elder brother Nawab Azmathullah Khan who was out of Honnali that day. He explained that the home was about a 100 years old now and was originally the ‘Diwankhana’ – the residence where the visiting Prime Minister of Mysore would be housed along with other dignitaries while visiting the Nawab’s palace and where the Nawabs would hold business with their subjects. We asked him about the older palace and he informed us that it had collapsed about 20 years ago and told us that he would take us there to show us it’s ruins. In the meantime we feasted our eyes upon the drawing room of the home. Everything inside from chairs, bedsteads, chandeliers, pictures on the wall seemed to be antiques.
The Nawab showed us a photograph hanging on the wall where his grandfather Nawab Sher Khan was seen seated by the illustrious Diwan of Mysore Sir Mirza Ismail when the Diwan visited Honnali and stayed at the Divankhana as was the custom then. Incidentally the chair that Sir Mirza Ismail sat upon for the photograph is still preserved in the Diwankhana.
Over refreshments, the Nawab explained to us about the history of his family. They call themselves Zamand Pathans. The Zamand Pathans originated from near and around the Kandahar province of todays Afghanistan. Around the time of Aurangazeb, driven by tribal feuds many among them moved to the Punjab primarily Lahore and Multan. It is believed that the Nawabs of Honnali came down to the Deccan from Lahore when Aurangazeb in 1676 took over Bijapur. Incidentally, Frontier Gandhi – Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, was a Zamand Pathan of the Muhammadzai tribe too.
Around this time the Mughal Emperor granted the title of ‘Nawab’ to ‘Kutb-ul-Mulk Sher Khan’ who would be the first Nawab of Honnali. The title was confirmed and honoured by successive rulers too among them the Mysore Wodeyars and Haidar Ali-Tipu Sultan. It was during the rule of Tipu Sultan that the family gained more prominence when the then Nawab Qutubuddin Khan was conferred the title of ‘Amir-ul-Umra’ or ‘Leader of the Most Exalted’.
His son was the one whose exploits would make his and the family well known. Hasan Ali Khan was a well built young man very good at horse riding and an excellent swordsman and gunner too. Even today it is said that he was so strong that he would ride his horse at great speed under a particular tree at the fort of ‘Angarkatte’ when he would with the horse running under him grab the branch of the tree and with the strength of his lower body stop the horse and swing the animal left and right. This young man attracted the attention of Tipu when he passed through Honnali on an expedition against the Marathas to Kittur. Hasan Ali Khan was asked to report to Seringapatam where he would join Tipu’s close coterie of efficient and trusted men.
Tipu awarded the family a Jagir of over 1600 acres at a village called Hanumasagara nearby. The people of Hanumasagara, predominantly Hindu still invite the Nawab to every village function including the consecration of the temple ‘Kalasa’ last year which was done at the hands of the present Nawab himself. When in Hanumasagar an image of Lord Anjaneya was discovered buried a long while ago, the Nawabs themselves paid for the construction of a temple to host the deity.
The Nawab mentioned that the family is still called ‘Shaheed ka Khandaan’ or ‘Family of a Martyr’ by the locals in the town. After Tipu’s fall the Jagirs of the family were not disturbed by the British and the later Wodeyars conferred further honors to the family.
The size of land that the Nawab owns now is only about 300 acres primarily because of the confiscation of all land belonging to Kings and Noblemen in India when the Privy purse was abolished in 1973. As B.L. Rice mentioned in the early part of the last century itself, the family has lost most of the property and wealth that belonged to it at one time, the respect due to it has still remained. Even today traditions like the Eid procession beginning from the Nawab’s home to the ‘Banni Palki’ of the Lingayath Mutt in Honnali stopping by the Nawab’s home during Dasara celebrations still continue. Nawab Rafathullah Khan distinctly remembers visiting the Mysore Maharajah’s Darbar along with his father Nawab Inayathullah Khan, where the Nawabs of Honnali would traditionally present themselves before the King at the Dasara festivities. The Nawabs had also donated liberally to the Aligarh Muslim University and the Benaras Hindu University as well after requests from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Pt. M. Mohan Malviya respectively.
After this the Nawab took us outside to see the ruins of the original Palace which collapsed about 20 years ago after which the family moved into the Diwankhana, hitherto only reserved for Palace guests.
After this we finally bade our goodbyes to the Nawab and his family and thanked them for the wonderful hospitality. Driving back I began to wonder if I could get any information on Nawab Hasan Ali Khan, who perished fighting in the final Mysore war, in contemporary accounts of the event. Upon reaching home and even after pouring through the indexes of the reference books in my library I could find no mention of either Honnali or a Hasan Ali Khan, I felt I would just have to depend upon oral tradition here to write about him and his descendants today.
I decided then to refer John Thomas’s reference list of ‘Soldiers and Officials of Tippoo Sultan’. Here too, I did not find any reference to Hasan Ali Khan but there was a reference to two ‘Hussein Aly Cawns’. They were like this:
HUSSEIN ALLY CAWN  (d.1799) Jageerdar Young Mysorean commander noted for his valour and talent. Killed on 6 April in defence of the tope of Sultaunpettah.
HUSSEIN ALLY CAWN  Principal Lord – Meer Meeran [Fouge Kutcheri] Wounded on 20 April 1799, in defence of the Powder Mills.
But then why did John Thomas name the two officials as Hussein and not Hasan? I had no problem with the ‘Cawn’ as it was only the anglicised ‘Khan’ and similarly ‘Aly’ was none other than ‘Ali’. I called Nawab Rafathullah Khan and asked him if his ancestor at Seringapatam was also called ‘Hussein Ali Khan’. The Navab mentioned that both Hassan (Hasan) and Hussein were the grandsons of the Prophet Mohammed and the son of Ali and Mohammed’s daughter Fatima. So it was quite common to use the names interchangeably. That solved one mystery.
Now the next one was which of the two Husseins mentioned should I be looking at? Obviously the first Hussein Aly Cawn struck me as a possible choice because Nawab Hasan Ali Khan was both a Jagirdar as well as young and valorous. Besides he was Killed in battle and not wounded as the other Hussein Aly Cawn. I now began to look for Hussein Ali Khan in the references and found several. They referred to him being sent by Tipu to fight the English at Mangalore in 1783, where he distinguished himself but was wounded in action. He was also sent as Tipu’s emissary to France and Constantinople. Hayavadana Rao and Mohibbul Hasan both, referred to this Hussain Ali Khan. One of Tipu’s daughter’s was also given in marriage to him. This could obviously not be our Hasan Ali Khan as Hasan was quite young even when he passed away in 1799.
As I continued my search, I finally struck Gold when I took out Mir Hussain Ali Khan Kirmani’s contemporary account of the war in ‘History of Tipu Sultan being a continuation of the Neshani Hyduri’. Here Kirmani writes ‘At this time news arrived that a body of English troops, from Bombay commanded by General Stuart, bringing a very large convoy of stores and provisions was advancing by the route of Coorg, straight towards Seringapatam. The Sultan, therefore immediately with the whole of his troops and artillery, leaving some of his chief officers to make head against the enemy (General Harris) marched off to attack that body, and in one day and two nights arrived in front of them, and gave orders for the attack. The faithful Syed Ghuffar, who in bravery and loyalty had no equal, grappled with the enemy on one flank while Husain Ali Khan, the son of Nawab Kutubuddin Khan carried death and destruction among them on the other, raising the flames of war to the skies-………The Sultan therefore returned to Seringapatam, where he had scarcely arrived, when General Harris having crossed the river, by the ford of Hossily, and passing Sultanpet, camped to the westward of the fort, and the next day the English regiments made an attack on several strong outworks which covered the fort, and were occupied by the Sultan’s troops, and after a sharp contest and the slaughter of most of the defenders took them. On the very same day, Husain Ali Khan, the son of Nawab Kutubuddin Khan, a very brave man, with the greatest gallantry threw himself into the ranks of the enemy, and there drank of the sherbet of martyrdom.’
So I came back to the first Hussain Aly Cawn who John Thomas refers to as having fallen in the fighting at Sultaunpettah. I know the Sultaunpettah that John Thomas refers to as that ‘betel grove’ – Sultanpet near Seringapatam where England’s greatest hero, maybe since Cromwell and Elizabeth I, had met with his first and only defeat in battle.
Lewin Bentham Bowring gives this account: ‘ One of these groves, called the Sultanpet Tope, was intersected by deep ditches, watered from a channel running in an easterly direction about a mile from the fort. General Baird was directed to scour this grove and dislodge the enemy, but on his advancing with this object on the night of the 5th (April), he found the tope unoccupied. The next day, however, the Mysore troops again took possession of the ground, and as it was absolutely necessary to expel them, two columns were detached at sunset for the purpose. The first of these, under Colonel Shawe, got possession of a ruined village, which it successfully held. The second column (H.M.’s 33rd Regiment and two Bengal battalions), under Colonel Wellesley, on advancing into the tope, was at once attacked in the darkness of night by a tremendous fire of musketry and rockets. The men, floundering about amidst the trees and the water-courses, at last broke, and fell back in disorder, some being killed and a few taken prisoners. In the confusion Colonel Wellesley was himself struck on the knee by a spent ball, and narrowly escaped falling into the hands of the enemy.’ The English beat a retreat in panic and disorder. Wellesley lost his way in the wood and just managed to reach camp, wounded and disoriented.
Theodore Hook, David Baird’s biographer concludes his account of this incident with a touch of daring relish: ‘The report of the disaster ran through the camp like wildfire, and the mortification and distress of Colonel Wellesley himself, are described as having been excessive.’
The truth is that Colonel Arthur Wellesley had been badly shaken up by the experience. He delayed turning up to lead another attempt on the wood on the following morning (April 6, 1799) leading to General Harris losing his patience and ordering Baird to take command. However around this time, Wellesley arrived on the scene and together with the 33rd and strengthened by the Scotch brigade and two Madras batallions pushed forward to the Tope and gave battle to Tipu’s men led by Navab Hasan Ali Khan. The affair had an impact on Wellesley, later Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, KG GCB GCH PC FRS. He resolved “never to attack an enemy who is preparing and strongly posted, and whose posts have not been reconnoitered by daylight”.
Outnumbered and outgunned Hasan Ali Khan and his men plunged into the fight and fought to the bitter end. Nawab Hasan Ali Khan perished fighting that day and his mortal remains were taken to Ganjam where they were interred very near where Tipu Sultan himself would find his final rest just a month later.
Thus ended my quest which began on a whim to search for the descendants of someone whose name is lost to us today but works are known to God. Hasan Ali Khan was just one among the more than ten thousand Mysoreans, most of them nameless who perished in that final war that broke the back of the final resistance to British domination over India. They as Kirmani so eloquently put it did not hesitate to ‘taste the sherbet of Martyrdom’. But they will all be remembered and will inspire us for the times to come.
My gratitude goes to Nawab Rafathullah Khan and his family for help with the family history and his courtesy to us while in his palace.
Gazetteer of Mysore, B.L. Rice
‘Honnali Navabaru’, Ithihasa Darshana, K. Siddappa, Lecturer of History, Government College, Honnali
Soldiers and Officials of Tippoo Sultan, John Thomas
Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, And The Struggle With The Mussalman Powers Of The South, Bowring, Lewin B., 1893
The Life of General, the Right Honourable Sir David Baird, Theodore Edward Hook, 1832
History of Tipu Sultan, Mir Hussain Ali Khan Kirmani, 1864
History of Mysore Vol. III, C. Hayavadana Rao, 1946
History of Tipu Sultan, Mohibbul Hasan, 1971