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.
The Asiatic Annual Register (1799: 223) while providing the reasons and justifications for breaking up the throne during the sack of Seringapatam describes the features of the magnificent piece of art: ‘ The Sultan’s throne being too unwieldy to be carried, had been broken up: it was a howdah upon a tyger, covered with sheet gold; the ascent to it was by silver steps, gilt, having silver nails and all other fastenings of the same metal. The canopy was alike superb, and decorated with a costly fringe of fine pearls all around it. The eyes and teeth of tyger were of glass. It was valued at 60,000 pagodas. It was said that a dividend to the , value of about a million sterling would soon be made; part of it to the amount of 17 lacks of pagodas in cash; the rest in jewels…‘
Lt. Col. Alexander Beatson, a witness to the sack of Tipu’s palace at Seringapatam, where the throne was found and subsequently broken up 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…‘ Unfortunately, the victorious troops unmindful of the historic and aesthetic 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.
On 20 January 1800, Richard Wellesley, later Lord Mornington dispatched the huge tiger head, the huma bird and a carpet through his aide-de-camp Maj Davis overland to reach England on 24 May 1800, with his recommendation that it should be presented by the Court of Directors to His Majesty the King.
There were seven Memoranda compiled by Mornington, listing the details of the articles captured at Seringapatam, with his recommendations of who the articles should be given to. The text of the third memorandum relating to the tiger head is given below.
Memorandum respecting to the Tyger’s Head
This head formed part of the throne of Tippoo Sultan. It is made of wood and is covered with plates of the purest gold about 1/10 of an inch in thickness. The teeth are of rock crystal and the eyes of the same material.
The throne was of an octagonal form and entirely covered with similar plates of gold marked with the Tyger stripes, over the throne was a raised a canopy of gold supported by eight light but strong pillars. There was a fringe of pearls, by a Huma made entirely of precious stones, and sent to England in August 1799 by the Cornwallis. This head with four legs, representing the legs of a Tyger was placed under the throne, which was supposed to be supported by the Royal Tyger, the distinguishing mark and armorial bearing of Tippoo’s family. The seat of the throne was about 4 or 5 feet from the ground and the whole height to the top of the canopy from 8 to 9 feet……….The head is accompanied by a small, but rich and beautiful carpet, used by Tippoo Sultan upon his musnad on days of state and public ceremony.
Aide-de-camp to the Governor General
The Tiger head was for a while kept on display at the East India Company Museum. The proceedings of the Board of the Court of Directors on the subject make interesting reading. The resolution of the court in the document dated 2 November 1831 given below says with pride that the capture of the trophies are commemorative of an event which materially established British power in India:
At the of Directors of the United Company of Merchants of England Trading in the East Indies held on Wednesday the 2nd November 1831.
The chairman intimating the court that he had reason to believe from a communication which he had with a Noble Lord attached to the Royal House, hold that it would be an agreeable mark of respect towards the king, were the Court to present for His Majesty’s acceptance the Golden Tiger head carpet2 now in museum in this House which formed part of the Throne of Tippoo Sultan and were captured at the fall of Srirangapatam in 1799.
Resolved unanimously, that the Court gladly seize the opportunity which was afforded to them to testify their duty and attachment towards their present Most Gracious Sovereign and that the Chairman and Deputy Chairman be accordingly requested to take necessary measures for proffering to his Majesty’s acceptance, in the name of the Court, tiger’s head and carpet which formed tended to establish the British Power in India.
Under the authority conferred on Lord Steward by this resolution of the Court of directors, it was presented by him on 2 November 1831 to King William IV.
As can be seen for the pictures above, the tiger’s head is made of beaten gold sheet on a wooden core, engraved overall with large stripes – bubris, the distinguishing mark of Tipu and his court; the nose, mouth and chased naturalistic-ally. The eyes and teeth are of carved rock crystal with the hinged tongue of plain gold. The tiger’s neck has a gold collar attached with ridged rope and scroll moldings.
The tiger head is mounted on a square wooden base, covered in velvet with gilt bronze. A tablet with the following inscription is at the front and forms part of the base. Four gilt bronze drip-handles are on the sides. Excluding the stand, it measures 46*57*48 cm. The silver-gilt inscribed base was made by the London silversmith, Paul Storr, silversmith (1771 – 1844) and Mr. Seabrook, Goldsmith. The paws of gilded copper were added in 1875.
Inscribed (cast): This trophy was taken/at the storming of Seringapatam/in May MDC CXCIX/Richard Earl of Mornington then Governor of India/General Harris commanding the British forces.
However, unknown to many is the fact that this magnificent piece was first owned by a surgeon in the British Army, Major Putney Mein, who also participated in the siege of Seringapatam. In 1842, in response to a report on the siege in a journal, he observed the features of the throne and the details of it’s destruction. He writes:
In your paper of February 9th, you give an account of the celebrated tiger’s head so frequently employed to ornament the Royal sideboard. As you seem to have been misinformed on the particulars of it’s history, I take the liberty of sending you a true account of it. In the first place, it was not taken by Earl Cornwallis but by Lord Harris; it formed no part of a footstool but was the head of a large tiger which supported the platform and the throne above. This tiger was made of wood covered with gold and was in a standing posture. The head was sold by auction on the behoof(sic) of the army and was purchased by me for something less than 500 pounds. It was afterwards purchased by the Marquis Wellesly to be sent to the Court of Directors…..I may add that this gorgeous throne was barbarously knocked to pieces with a sledge hammer….’
We are indeed fortunate that this select piece that is an apt illustration of the skill of Mysorean craftsmen and the ambitions of a Mysorean Sultan can still be seen at The Queens’s Gallery, Palace of Hollyroodhouse, Scotland and will be on display to the general public from 27 March – 26 July, 2015.
Sunset at Seringapatam; Mohammad Moienuddin, 2000
Pictures Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014