On 5 March, 1800 Queen Charlotte of England received a curious gift at her home in Windsor castle. It was a box with an accompanying note and a key for the box. The note was from Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville – President of the Board of Control, Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland and Secretary of State for War, Great Britain.
It read: ‘Mr. Dundas takes the liberty of sending to the Queen’s House agreeable to your Majesty’s direction the bird lately arrived from India, which formed part of the ornaments of Tippo (sic) Sultan’s throne. The key of the box and the description of the throne accompanies this’
Now, what bird was this? let us first get a small lesson in ancient Iranian mythology. The ‘Huma’ , is a legendary bird dating back to the Zoroastrian period and also imbibed into Islam as a Sufi fable. It’s special characteristic was that once every 500 years, approximately, it burnt itself and rose once again in youthful freshness from it’s own ashes, symbolizing immortality or resurrection. The bird is a paragon of excellence and beauty.
It is said that this bird neither rests nor touches the Earth but is in perpetual flight. Whomsoever it’s shadow falls on will be king. Accordingly, the feathers decorating the turbans of kings were said to be plumage of the Huma bird. In Sufi tradition, catching a glimpse of it or even a shadow of it is sure to make one happy for the rest of his life.
In classical and modern Persian literature the Huma is frequently equated with another mystical bird called the Simorgh. This is actually a metaphor for God in Sufi mysticism. In the 12th century fable ‘Conference of the Birds’, Iranian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar wrote of a band of pilgrim birds in search of the Simorgh. In the poem, the birds of the world gather to decide who is to be their king, as they have none. The hoopoe, the wisest of them all, suggests that they should find the legendary Simorgh/Huma, a mythical Persian bird roughly equivalent to the western phoenix. The hoopoe leads the birds, each of whom represent a human fault which prevents man from attaining enlightenment. When the group of thirty birds finally reach the dwelling place of the Huma, all they find is a lake in which they see their own reflection.
The Huma has over the centuries been depicted in fables as well as in paintings. A mystical bird, it with it’s Sufi overtones symbolized a pinnacle of spiritual realization that it would bestow on the one over whom it flew.
I have already written about Tipu’s interest in Sufi mysticism. He was well aware of the Simorgh bird and it’s symbolism. One of the books found in his library was the ‘Kisseh Soliman va Simurgh’ written in Farsi by an unknown author. It is a thin folio, written in Nastaliq and with pictures. It is a story of Solomon (Son of David), a Princess and the Simorgh with romance as well as adventure thrown in.
So now, since we have learnt what a Huma bird is and what it signifies, we may go back to Tipu Sultan’s throne. The magnificent throne of Tipu Sultan was in the form of a life size Tiger, clothed in shimmering gold metal sheets and studded with dazzling precious stones. Lt. Col Alexander Beatson, spell bound by the beauty of the throne , gives an ecstatic description of it: ‘ The throne was of considerable beauty and magnificence. The support was a wooden tiger as large as life, covered with gold, in the attitude of standing, which was placed across his back. It was composed of an octagonal frame, eight feet by five, surrounded by a low railing, on which were ten small tiger heads, made of gold and beautifully inlaid with precious stones; the ascent to the throne was a small silver step on each side. From the center of the black part opposite the large tiger’s head, a gilded iron pillar rose, seven feet high, surmounted by a canopy superbly decorated with a fringe of pearls. The whole was made of wood and covered with a thin sheet of the purest gold richly illuminated with tiger stripes and Arabic verses. The Huma was placed upon the top of the canopy, and fluttered over the Sultan’s head.‘
The construction of this throne is supposed to have begun by Tipu in 1788 AD, just after he launched his expedition against Travancore. By about 1792 AD, work on the throne was completed. But on that fateful day on May 4, 1799 when the palace of Tipu Sultan was sacked by the victorious British, the throne became a victim of vandals – the victorious British troops, who unmindful of the aesthetic and historic value of the throne, dismantled it, retaining it as separate pieces – the main gold tiger head, two small ones of the same metal and the Huma bird.
This Huma bird on Tipu’s canopy, is a beautiful specimen of oriental jewellery. It appears in a fluttering posture and occupies the central part of the gold canopy of Tipu’s throne.This fabulous bird, made of solid gold, nearly the size of a pigeon and covered with precious stones, is six inches high and has a brilliant wingspan nearly eight inches wide. The neck is of emeralds and body of diamonds with three bands of rubies. The beak is a large emerald, tipped with gold and has another emerald suspended from it. The pendant hanging from it has a ruby and two pearls, and the crusting on the head are of emerald and pearl. It’s back is one large and beautiful carbuncle, the long tail resembles that of a peacock, and is studded with jewels. The body and the tail are copiously studded with rare gems so closely that the gold is hardly visible. It’s eyes are two brilliant carbuncles. The pearl ornamented breast is covered with diamonds. It’s wings, spread as though it is hovering , are lined with diamonds and other stones.
When the throne was broken up and it’s parts sold by public auction on the orders of the prize agents, the bird was sold to Colonel Gent of the Madras Engineers for 5000 Sultani Pagodas, Tipu’s standard Gold coinage. This was a princely sum even for a British General, though infinitesimally less than the actual value of the item. In all probability, the Sultani Pagodas would have been obtained by the General from his share of the proceeds of the loot of the Seringapatam treasury.
In fact, after the end of the war, Governor General Wellesley instructed his younger brother Colonel Wellesley to preserve the throne in all it’s splendor, so that he could buy it for the King of England, William IV. Fate decided otherwise. When the Governor General heard of the break up and auction of the throne, he wrote back from Fort St. George regretting the sacrilege and asking that if it could be put together again, it ought to be purchased by the East India Company for the King.
Consequently, the Huma had to bought back from Colonel Gent for 1,760 Pounds. We do not know what the Colonel’s reaction to being divested of his prize was, but it will not be difficult to deduce the obvious. Lord Wellesley then sent the bird onward to England as a present to the Queen, the King had already received the pick of the parts of the looted throne, the Golden Tiger Head and Tipu’s royal Carpet that adorned Tipu’s Musnad (seat). And it was then that the East India Company Board of Directors commended to Henry Dundas as President of the Board of Control, the task of presenting Queen Charlotte with Mysore’s Bird of Paradise.
But then, what happened to the legend of the Huma? Why did Tipu and Mysore fall inspite of the Huma hovering over the Royal Throne? The answer to this lies partly in fate and partly in Tipu’s obstinacy or steadfastness as one may call it. We know that the throne was ready by about 1792. But from 1792 onwards, Tipu was engaged in a series of wars against the British and their Indian allies. Tipu was worsted in battle during the Third Mysore war and had to surrender over half his kingdom, pay a large amount of war indemnity to the British and face the ignominy of handing over his sons as hostages to the British. He is then believed to have taken an oath that he would not sit on the throne until he vanquished the British and ended their threat to Mysore. The rest is history or tragedy, as one sees it.
The inventory record of Windsor Castle states that: ‘Lord Wellesley presented (the) Huma to Queen Charlotte. She bequeathed it to her four daughters, Princess Augusta, Elizabeth, Maria and Sophia. They transferred it, in turn to their brother King George IV, on condition that it should never be separated from the Crown of Great Britain and Ireland having been taken by the British Arms.’
The bequest shows that the British Royal family recognized the symbolic value of the Huma bird and wished that the bird stay in the family forever. The Royal Bird of Paradise had flown from Seringapatam onto Windsor. Tipu and his material power are long gone. Queen Charlotte’s descendants still rule from Windsor.
Sunset at Srirangapatam, Mohammad Moienuddin, Orient Longman India, 2000
Tiger of Mysore, Denys Forresst, Chatto & Windus London, 1970
Photograph of the ‘Tipu’ Huma Bird Courtesy – Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014