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. An aesthete’s delight, the marvelous piece of art, crafted in wood and gold, was broken into pieces, by the Prize Agents of the East India Company after the sack of Seringapatam. After the throne was dismantled, what remained was a massive Tiger head, two small tiger heads and the gorgeous bird of Paradise (Huma) that perched over the ornamental canopy of the royal seat. The bas-reliefs of the throne, with silver steps to ascend, were decorated with tiger heads, worked in sheets of gold and adorned with precious stones.
Shortly after Tipu’s attack on the Travancore Lines and the return of his Embassy to the Turkish Sultan at Constantinople in May 1790, with letters patent from the Sublime Porte allowing the Sultan to assume the title of an independent King, the right to strike coins as well as to have the ‘Khutba’ read in his name, he directed the formation of a throne of Gold, ornamented with jewels of great value. By about 1792, work on the throne was completed. Preparations were underway for Tipu to ascend throne on the ordained day. One branch of the national festivity was to have been the solemnization of 12000 marriages on one and the same day. A separate code was prepared about this same period for regulating domestic manners and morals. A draft of one of these in the Sultan’s own handwriting was to the following effect: ‘The faithful shall dine on animal food on Thursday evening, and on no other day of the week‘. He was obviously trying to emulate the Great Moghal Akbar’s instructions to the followers of the Din-E-Ilahi movement he initiated.
Another of Akbar the Great’s custom that Tipu wanted to emulate on ascending the throne is mentioned by Kirmani is his contemporary account of the event. He says:’As according to the customs of the Kings of Delhi, first introduced by Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar – for they previously demanded the daughters of the family of Juswant (i.e. daughters of the Rajput princes of Hindustan)-previous to the Sultan’s ascension, a certain ceremony remained unperformed‘, the Sultan having dispatched hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Raja of Kutch, for realizing the object. Kirmani writes – ‘By his presents and favors, Tipu made the Raja willing and agreeable in this matter. At this period however, fortune being employed in endeavors to ruin those professing the true religion, and the defender of God’s people, this happy result was not attained.‘ Tipu like Akbar, may have been seeking a princess from a Royal line.
But the turbulent events that Tipu faced from 1790 on wards did not give him time and opportunity to do so. From 1792 on wards he was engaged in a series of wars against the marauding British forces and their Indian allies. He was never destined to sit upon the magnificent throne.
Only one sketch by an artist who actually saw the throne exists today. This is titled the ‘Front view of the throne of the late Tippo Sultaun’, and drawn by Thomas Marriot, ADC to the Commander-in-Chief, Madras dated 6 August 1799. Thomas Marriott preceded provided one of the few eyewitness accounts and pictorial representations of Tipu’s throne before it was broken up on the orders of the Prize Committee.
This sketch is the only known record of the throne viewed from above. It shows two additional smaller tiger-head finials at the rear of the throne not visible in any other depiction of the throne and in all likelihood explaining the origin of the finial from the Wigington collection (sold at Sotheby’s London, 25 May 2005, lot 7).
There is another painting of the throne of Tipu, encased in a gilded frame (38.5*53.2 cm.), portraying the sultan seated on the royal chair painted in water colour on paper. It was drawn by Anna Tonelli (July 1800), a year after Tipu died in the battle of Seringapatam. This painting of the fabulous throne is the only one of its kind as its shows Tipu sitting on the throne; no other similar painting has been found so far. However Anna Tonelli did not actually see the throne or Tipu but only made a sketch after hearing descriptions of it from first hand witnesses. The sketch is also factually wrong as it is well documented that Tipu never sat upon this throne.
The throne was in Tipu’s palace the Lal Mahal in Seringapatam. Sadly, this palace was dismantled in the years between 1807 and 1809 on the orders of Colonel Wellesley.
The grandeur of the throne was viewed from different angles and perspectives by those who had the opportunity to see it. ‘This throne was considerable beauty and magnificence. The support was a wooden tiger as life, covered with gold, in the attitude of standing; his head[and] fore legs appeared I the front and under the throne, 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, beautifully inlaid with precious stones; the ascent to the throne was by small silver steps on each side. From the centre of the back part, opposite the large tiger’s head, a gilded iron pillar rose, seven feet high, surrounded by a canopy superbly decorated with a fringe of pearls. The whole was made of wood, and covered with thin sheet of the purest gold, richly illuminated with [a] tiger stripes and Arabic verses. The huma was placed on the top of the canopy, and fluttered over the Sultan’s head.‘-Asiatic Annual Register, 1800.
Mir Husain Ali Kirmani, a noted historian during the reign of Tipu, gives a vivid description of the throne -‘The seat of the throne was supported on the back of a tiger, the solid parts being made of heavy blackwood entirely covered with a coat of the purest sheet of gold, about as thick as a guinea, fastened on with silver nails and wrought in tiger stripes, curiously intended and most beautifully and highly polished. The floor of the throne about 8 feet in length,5 feet in width was raised 11 feet on the ground. The ascent to it on each side was a ladder of solid silver gilt; intermixed with the ornamentation of the howdah were hundreds of Arabic sentences, chiefly from the Koran, superbly stamped. The canopy was formed of a lighter wood entirely cased with sheet of gold with a thick fringe all around it, composed of fine pearls strung to threads of gold. The central part of the canopy was surmounted by a most curious and celestial figure of the Hummaha, formed of solid gold, nearly the size of a pigeon and covered over with the most fabulous jewelry, its back being one large and beautiful carbuncle, the tail resembling that of a peacock studded with jewels. The whole tail was so arranged as to imitate the most dazzling plumage and so closely set that the gold was scarcely visible. The throne legs with tiger stripes and in tiger claw feet.‘
But, Major David Price, one of the prize agents, saw it differently – ‘As far as I can now describe, it was a clumsy wooden platform, of six or eight sides, entirely overlaid with gold, of the thickness, I should conceive, of a sheet of lead; sculptured all over with the tiger streak device. It was to be supported on four tigers of wood, also covered with gold; and on an iron stay, curving over from the hinder part of the platform, was to be fixed, the Huma or phoenix ; also covered with gold and set with jewels ….. the sheet of gold was of the highest touch, and almost touch, and almost flexible to the hand.‘
On May 4, 1799 Seringapatam fell to the British and Tipu Sultan was slain fighting. The palace of Tipu, the Lal Mahal where the throne sat, his treasury and the city were plundered for 2 days. A prize committee was set up by Maj Gen. Harris, under the chairmanship of Gen. Floyd to determine the quantum of prize money to be distributed among thee rank and file of the army and others. One of the terms for distributing the looted wealth of Seringapatam was that each soldier would receive his share based on his rank. The coins and other articles seized from Tipu’s bed chamber were allotted to the army; the store and ordinance to the East India Company. For the purpose of distribution, the prize agents broke up Tipu Sultan’s magnificent throne. This annoyed even Arthur Wellesley (Later Duke of Wellington). Commenting on their behavior, in a letter to his brother, Lord Mornington on 19 August 1799, he said, ‘You may conceive what sharks they are. This day I have been obliged to send an order to prevent them from selling the doors in the palace.‘
Major Pultney Mein, a surgeon in the British Army, 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 its destruction –
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 its 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 Wellesley to be sent to the court of Directors. The platform itself was surrounded by a gold railing ornamented with ten smaller heads set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, one of which I posses and is, I believe the only one not in public collection. The bird which you call a Peacock and which overhung the canopy was intended to represent a fabulous bird called the huma and which I suppose was in the Hindoo mythology analogous to the classic Phoenix. The canopy itself was ornamented with a fringe of pearls, ten inches deep. This bird, now as you say, so highly valued. I may add that this gorgeous throne was barbarously knocked to pieces with a sledge hammer.
Tippoo’s pistols, too. Were very handsome, the barrels being inlaid with gold, representing a tiger hunt and having an inscription in Persian of which I send you the following translation.
The matchless pistols of Hindoostan’s King
Outvie the lightening on its fiery wings,
Courting destruction should a foe oppose
His mangled forehead would their force disclose.
Yours very obedient servent,
An Eye Witness.
The Jaganmohan Palace Museum at Mysore boasts of a Howdah, which is a wooden chair made for travelling on an elephant, that belonged to Tipu Sultan in it’s collection. This in my opinion is the only surviving chair of Tipu Sultan that is closest to resembling Tipu’s throne or at least gives us a fair idea of it’s shape and design.
The Howdah is made of wood and is a stately piece. It is octagonal in shape and has embroidered cloth trappings on all sides. The embroidery seen are the typical Tipu Tiger Stripes – Bubris across the 8 sides of the howdah. The Brass Tiger head finials are also placed at the 8 corners of the chair. Tipu’s throne was similar with gold sheets placed on the wood and bubris carved across the sheets. The tiger head finials were not of brass but made of lac and covered with gold and set with precious stones. And to complete it, it had a golden canopy with the gem set Golden Huma suspended to it.
Today one may look at this wooden Howdah and only imagine the grandeur of Tipu Sultan’s throne in Seringapatam. Coveted for nearly half a a century by the British, the throne had come to symbolize the wealth and magnificence of the state of Mysore – that he called ‘Khudadad Sarkar’ or ‘God Given Government’, which was plundered and divided just like the throne into several parts among the victorious allies – the British, Marathas and the Nizam that day.
Tipu’s throne is also a reminder of something more striking – His personal character. History is replete with examples of thrones many among them more ornate and valuable than Tipu Sultan’s. But it was only Tipu who refused to ascend the throne he had built until he felt himself to be worthy of it. For 7 long years, from 1792 till his death in 1799, Mysore was in a state of war with half of it’s territories surrendered to the British and Tipu’s sons taken hostage after the third Mysore war. He considered it an act of dishonor to himself and to his people if he ascended this throne without getting Mysore it’s due and rightful share in the game of thrones that came to symbolize the turbulent history of late 18th Century India.
This sentiment was unlike the sentiments of most rulers of then and even today. He perhaps would have agreed with his friend and ally, Napoleon Bonaparte who said – ‘A throne is only a bench covered with velvet.‘
Sunset at Srirangapatam – Mohammad Moienuddin
Bonhams Sale – Thursday 2 April 2009,London
Sothebys, London. 12 July 2012 Sale:List of the spoils of Tipu Sultan. Sydenham, Benjamin and Marriott, Thomas.
History of Tipu Sultan – M.H.A. Khan Kirmani
Asiatic Annual Register, 1800
Memoirs of Life and Service of David Price
History of Mysore, C. Hayavadana Rao, 1946
This article and the earlier ones on Tipu Sultan’s throne would not have been possible had Late Mohammad Moienuddin not spent 20 years of his his blessed life travelling and documenting artifacts originating from Tipu’s Mysore that are now dispersed in collections throughout the world. A former minister in the government of India, Mohammad Moienuddin first became interested in the life of Tipu Sultan when he was appointed Chairman of the Tipu Sultan Research Institute. He spent a large part of his life’s earnings researching for his book: Sunset at Srirangapatam that was finally published by Orient Longman in 2000. May God bless his memory.