In 1791, Parshuram Bhave (Bhau), the Maratha General marched on Tipu’s richest province, Bednur. Here, Maratha horsemen under the command of Raghunathrao Patwardhan plundered the Shringeri Monastery of all of it’s valuables, killed and wounded many people and desecrated and committed sacrilege at the Holy shrine of Sri Sharada Devi. The harmless Brahmin guardians of the famed temple town were no match for the Maratha army accompanied by Pindari marauders. The loot that was carried away was of the value of Sixty Lakh Rupees.
The Maratha historian G.S. Sardesai writes – ‘Raghunathrao Patwardhan burning with the desire of revenge against Tipu, wantonly destroyed at this time the holy shrine of the Shankaracharya of Shringeri, an affront to Hindu religion by a brother Hindu, the sad memory of which long remained fresh in Maratha memory‘.
About a thousand years ago, Adi Sankaracharya, the greatest proponent of Advaita philosophy, founded the Matha (Monastery) and Shringeri, with Sri Sharada Devi as the Presiding Deity. Sri Sharada Devi is a representation of Saraswati, the Indian Goddess of Learning and Wisdom. Adi Sankaracharya founded four Mathas at four corners of India, Shringeri in the South, Jagannathpuri in the East, Dwaraka in the West and Badari in the North, to bring about unity and integrity in India and to revive the Hindu faith – ‘Sanatana Dharma’.
Over time, the Matha developed as a ‘Dharma Sansthana’ – ‘House of Righteousness’, owing to several land endowments made by several emperors over a millenia. The temple was not simply a ‘Jagir’ of endowment exercising revenue and judicial authority, but a house practising a ‘code of righteousness’. The Matha was distinguished by an unbroken succession of Jagadgurus (Head Priests) known for their spiritual eminence, learning and piety.
Shocked by the Maratha vandalism, the then Jagadguru of Shringeri, Sri Sacchidananda Bharati III was forced to leave the place and live at Karkala, another temple town about 50 miles south of Shringeri. Helpless and despondent in the face of this aggression, the first ever recorded sack of the temple town which was left unmolested even during Malik Kafur’s rampage through South India, he wrote to Tipu Sultan for help.
Tipu Sultan replies to the Jagadguru through a letter dated July 6, 1791.
The Honorable Shringeri Shri Sacchidananda Swamigal, bestowed with Shrimat Param Hansa.
We received your letter and have understood the gravity of the matter. We have noted that the cavalry of the Maratha king attacked Sringeri and beat the Brahmins and the other people, removed the idol of the Goddess Sharda Ammanavaru (Mother) and also looted the valuables belonging to the Shringeri Math. We have also noted that four discip;les belonging to the Shringeri Math had to take shelter at Karkala and that the idol of Shringeri Sharda Ammanavaru was consecrated in ancient times and if this idol has to be consecrated again, the support of the government is needed. The reconsecration of the deity will be performed along with mass feeding, if the requisite amount is provided by the Government.
Those who have committed such atrocities will suffer the consequences as stated in a particular shloka (verse in Samskrita) – ‘People do evil smiling but will suffer the penalty in torments of agony – Hasadhvi Kriyathe Karma Raudhrir Anubhuyathe’. Treachery to Gurus will lead to all round ruin, destruction of all wealth and the ruin of the family.
On hearing of the attack, the Sarkar has sent an elephant with it’s Mahavat, Ahammed. The Asaf of the city has been ordered to get a palanquin made for the Math and pay 200 rahathis in cash and 200 rahathis for paddy for the consecration of the idol of Sri Sharada Ammanavauru. Carry out appropraite measures for the consecration of the idol of the Ammanavaru idol and send the report immediately. May God bless the government of Tipu (Ahmadi).
We are sending a heavy sari (worked in Gold) and a blouse piece for the Goddess Sharada Ammanavaru, and a pair of shawls for you. Please write on receiving them. An order is sent to the Asaf of the town to deal with the problems of the Math. Contact him.
Date 26, month Samarisala Babarabadhi, Year San 1219, Mahammad, Virodhikrita Samvat Ashadha Bahula 12. Writer Narasaiah Signed Nabi Malik
This particular incident that transpired during the 3rd Anglo Mysore war is well documented and known to historians and laymen alike. Tipu’s close relationship with Shringeri did not begin with the sack of Shringeri by the Marathas but had begun much earlier in 1785 A.D. when Tipu issued a ‘Nirupa’ – Decree regranting the Shringeri Matha with a new ‘patte’ or ‘document’ which confirmed that Shringeri would continue as time honoured ‘Sarvamanya’ and free from all trouble. ‘Sarvamanya’ meant that the territory under it’s jurisdiction was tax free and it would enjoy all rights with regard to taxation and law within it’s territory.
Just prior to the actual sacking of the town and Math , Tipu had been exchanging letters (April, June 1791) with the Jagadguru assuring him that the Mysorean army was in battle with the enemy who had ‘transgressed the boundaries of his kingdom and assaulted the people’. Tipu firmly believed that the blessings of the Guru might result in bringing happiness and prosperity in his kingdom.
The translation of the letter dated July 6. 1791 that I provided above had a word that perplexed scholars ever since the letter was discovered among a bundle at the Math in 1916 by Rao Bahadur K. Narasimhacahar, the then Director of Archaeology in Mysore. The word inside was ‘rahathis‘ from ‘200 rahathis in cash‘ that Tipu sent the Math to cover restoration and reconsecration costs.
What was this ‘rahathi’? It was obvious that this had to be a coin of some sort as the letter clearly mentioned ‘rahathis in cash’ – ‘nagadhanu innuru rahathi‘. But what kind of a coin of Tipu was this? Mysore’s coinage during Tipu Sultan’s time was according to contemporary and later British numismatists like J.R. Henderson, Geo Taylor regarded as the finest of the crafted coins in India. From the calligraphy to metal content, die quality to milling at the edge they were superior to the coins of any of the Indian rulers of that time. Tipu also named coins of each denomination with a certain name. Many of these coins also were called by other names in the markets. For example Tipu called his double rupee, a splendid piece of work in silver ‘Haidari’ but the village sarafs and merchants called it ‘nakkara’.
For over 8 decades while it was commonly believed that the Rahathi was some coin that the Sultan had termed such and sent to the Math. The word ‘Rahathi may have come from the root Arabic word ‘Rahath’ which means ‘the palm of the hand or ease, tranquility’. This may have signified a coin that may have been given for the specific purpose of providing ease and tranquility to someone beset with fear. Mohibbul Hasan in 1971 related the Rahathis to Tipu’s ‘fanam’ coins. The fanams were Tipu’s lowest denomination of coinage in gold and the name itself cme from the dravidian colloquial ‘panam’ for coin.
In 1997, renowned numismatist Sohanlal Sisodiya, who has after the Madras and Bangalore Government museums, the largest private collection of Mysorean Coinage brought into limelight a certain gold coin which had an image on one side and a legend commonly seen on Tipu’s coins on the other side.
The reverse of the coin is the give away that points the coin to Tipu Sultan. The legend on it is in Arabic and says – ‘Hua al Sultan al waleed al Aadil 1215‘. This is translated as ‘He is the Sultan,the Unique, the Just’. 1215 represents the Mauludi date of the coin. The Mauludi calendar was one devised by Tipu to synchronise the Islamic Hijri calendar with the South Indian Hindu Solar one. Tipu’s gold and silver coinage all carry this legend albeit with the name of the Prophet Muhammad tagged to it. The legends read ‘Muhammad Hua al Sultan al waleed al Aadil’ – Muhammad! He is the Sultan, the Unique, the Just. The coin with the Sharda icon on the obverse does not have the name Muhammad on the obverse. This in all probability was omitted by Tipu as the coin was an offering to the Hindu Math. So, the world had finally discovered what a ‘Rahathi’ looked like!
Tipu was also a master at propaganda. Along with attempting to help the Math recover, Tipu wished to emulate the example of Karnataka’s greatest ruler, Sri Krishnadevaraya who initiated the custom of custom coinage with deities on them as presentation to important temples. He around 1514-1515 A.D. issued a heavy gold coin in honour of Lord Venkatesvara, presiding deity of Tirupati. The obverse of the coin has Sri Venkatesvara standing on a lotus wearing a tall kirita (crown) and holding in his 4 arms the icons attributed to him. The reverse has his name in Nagari characters. The coin was regarded to have been specially minted after the Vijaynagara victory over the Gajapatis of Orissa and to facilitate Sri Krishnadevaraya to perform ‘kanakabhisheka’ to the deity at Tirupati after his victory. Tipu like his father Haidar Ali and most other rulers who followed the almost legendary Kings of Vijaynagara, tried to emulate them in practice and even iconography. Being the Muslim ruler of a predomiant Hindu kingdom, it was imperative for Tipu to constantly reinforce his image in the eyes of his Hindu subjects that he was no usurper but an upholder of the princely tradition all the way back from Vijaynagara.
There are detractors of Tipu’s relationship with Shringeri who suggest that Tipu only began devotion to the Math after suffering reverses during the course of the 3rd Anglo Mysore war. This is factually wrong because as I have shown Tipu-Shringeri correspondence began well before the sack happened. Besides, as the contents of Tipu’s letter shows us it was the Jagadguru Swamiji himself who requested the Sultan of Mysore for help. Logic also dictates that the Swamiji would not have done so unless he was confident that the Sultan would not refuse to help.
For a very long time it was also believed that Tipu discarded his father Haidar Ali’s tradition of coining currency with Hindu deities on them. The British numismatist W. Elliot writing about the Elephant motif on Tipu’s copper coins again a continuation of the elephant on Ganga and Vijaynagara coinage says ‘Even Tipu, notwithstanding his love of innovation and contempt of everything Hindu, continued to use it on his copper coins’ . How wrong Elliot was.
And yes, the letter from Tipu is in Kannada, not Farsi. Though Tipu introduced Farsi as the administrative language of the court at Seringapatam, all documents at the Talukas and ‘Grama’ levels continued to be maintained predominantly in Kannada. Communication coming to Seringapatam in Kannada, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil and even Malayalam would be translated into Farsi and recorded before the court. The letter shown in this article is written in the Modi Kannada script. This script was Kannada written in a free flowing style without any breaks or full stops. It was commonly used to keep accounts and to communicate in letters.
As a post script it will only be just on my part to mention that though the sack of Shringeri is almost always termed as the ‘Maratha sack of Shringeri ‘, there is no way possible that anyone in the Maratha hierarchy had ordered or even wished that the temple town of Shringeri should be put to fire and sword and given to plunder. Just 30 years ago the flower of the Maratha nation had perished fighting with the Afghans at Panipat in 1761 for the sake of upholding Hindu Dharma and for the sake of their motherland – Bharatha, represented by the Mughal Emperor in Delhi whom they had propped to the throne. Maratha armies were always accompanied by a class of men the British called ‘looties’ and ‘pindaris’ later, who were actually nomadic tribes and mercenary soldiers of fortune whose task was to sell goods to soldiers along the campaign, harass stragglers in the enemy camp and implement a scorched earth policy of burning crops, stealing livestock, plundering civilians once they entered the enemy’s lands. They would not be paid by the government and had to eke out a living off this plunder.
It was this group who put the Maratha name to shame that day at Shringeri. While it is true that Parshuram Bhau and Tipu had personal grudges against each other, often fuelled by Tipu’s maltreatment of the Maratha chief’s along with their families whom he displaced in his territory, many among whom were blood relatives of the Bhau. That being said it was expected that Parshuram Bhau, being the General of the Maratha army should have kept the ‘looties’ in check and not allowed them to run riot at Shringeri. In the same way Tipu is also to be held responsible for the often reprehensible conduct of his armies across Malabar and Coorg where even larger incidents of temple vandalism, loot and rapine were seen in the Mysorean campaigns of 1785-1792. If this letter to the Shringeri Jagadguru has Tipu talking about restoring a damaged temple, another letter from him to a Muslim divine in the Kirkpatrick papers has him passing orders for a temple to be pulled down as it was standing in front of a Dargah! History is not always tinted black or white. It is usually in shades of gray. It is for us students of history to put all the sides in an impartial perspective and draw conclusions if one can.
Peshwa Madhav Narayan Rao conducted an enquiry and ordered Parshuram Bhau to give compensation out of his personal finances and return the looted articles to the Math. Documents from the Maratha court archives have shown that the Bhau gave a positive reply to this and was sincerely apologetic for the incident.
Another idol of Sri Sharada was consecrated at Shringeri and the Jagadguru sent ‘prasada’ and fruit to the court at Seringapatam further to this. Tipu and the Jagadguru continued to share a very cordial relationship that lasted till the death of Tipu at last battle of Seringapatam in 1799. We know from his letter to Shringeri in 1795 that he depended upon 3 sources of strength – God’s grace, Jagadguru’s blessings and the prowess of his arms.
One cannot but deny the fact that in the matter of Tipu’s help to Shringeri during that turbulent period, he was worthy of the legend he inscribed on the ‘rahathi’ coin he presented to the temple – ‘He is the Sultan,the Unique, the Just‘.
Shringeri Sharada Peetham – http://www.sringeri.net
The records of the Sringeri Dharmasansthana, Dr. A.K. Shastry
Sunset at Srirangapatam, Mohammad Moienuddin
The coins of Tipu Sultan, Geo P. Taylor
Coins and Currency Systems in Karnataka, Dr. A.V.N. Murthy