The study of Folklore is an extremely important tool in the construction and deconstruction of historical events and personalities within specific contexts.
The ascendancy of the father-son duo of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan in South Indian politics during the middle of the 18th Century has left behind several anecdotes that have passed down from generation to the next, as well have been collected by historians and news writers, contemporary and later.
Among these anecdotes that have passed into folklore and are in danger of being forgotten today are a set of them showing the peculiar relationship between Lord Ranganatha of the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Seringapatam and the unlettered Haidar Ali.
Haidar, it is said would converse with Lord(Sri) Ranganatha who would appear to him in his dreams. Before attempting any arduous task, Haidar would take the opinion of Sri Ranganatha. Once, when an enemy troop had entered Mysore, Haidar started with his army to oppose the enemy. When the enemy was met, they were seen to have the upper hand and Haidar was pressed between the river Godavari on one side and the enemy on the other. Confused and despondent, Haidar prayed to Ranganatha. Immediately the Godavari dried up allowing the Mysoreans to pass. When the enemy troops followed them, the Godavari was in flood so that the enemies could not cross over. Haidar returned to Seringapatam and went straight to the temple to offer his thanks. After praying, he started out again with his army to oppose the enemy and returned after conducting a successful war.
Another anecdote is woven around the temple festival called the Kotharotsava. This festival would take place in the month of Dhanur from the 21st day onwards. Each day grand shows or a festival – ‘Utsavas’ to the Lord would be held. For these celebrations a big Kothara – ‘stage’ constructed largely of wood and decorated with lamps and green cloth would make a grand appearance in the city. This decorated stage would be called the ‘Kothara Mantapa’ or the Ranga Mahal (on account of all the colorful programs organised on it each day of the festival). Each day the members of the Royal family would participate in worship on the Kothara, but on the ninth day of the Kotharotsava, the Lord would be worshipped by the Maharaja himself. Renowned musicians and dancers in the Kingdom would vie for the honor of being invited to perform here. Members of the nobility, the Wodeyar family as well as members of Haidar’s Zenana (womenfolk) would gather in the temple to occupy a vantage point to witness the celebrations.
In the year 1774, on the eighth day of the Kotharotsava, a fire struck the celebrations and the Kothara suffered grave damage, causing great grief to the Maharaja and uproar among the populace who saw this incident as a bad omen. Haidar rose to the occasion and the story goes that he ordered his workmen to construct a stone Mantapa at the very same place. The next day, which was the ninth day of the festival where the Maharaja would ascend the stage to worship Sri Ranganatha, the Mantapa was ready ! From that day onwards this new Mantapa got the name of ‘Pathala Mantapa’ or ‘Stone Stage’. To this day, the Kotharotsavas are celebrated on the ‘Pathala Mantapa’.
Both these anecdotes illustrate Haidar’s great devotion to Sri Ranganatha. Acknowledging this devotion which was well known and well documented, can we move further and make an attempt to trace the historicity of the events narrated? The first anecdote speaks of Haidar meeting the enemy at the Godavari river which dries up at the behest of Lord Ranganatha to allow Haidar’s besieged men to pass. The Godavari river originates in Maratha territory and drains into the Indian Ocean from the Nizam’s lands. Both the Marathas and the Nizam were at war with Haidar jointly or separately throughout most of Haidar’s term as Sarvadhikari of Mysore.Haidar led several campaigns against them with varying levels of success. However, the maximum distance covered by the Mysorean army would be across the Krishna river into Maratha and Nizam territory, but no campaign of Haidar involved him travelling to the Godavari. So, this “Godavari’ narrative in my opinion seems to be a simple case of hagiography, but at the same time provides evidence of Haidar’s reverence for Sri Ranganatha as well as his martial prowess.
The second anecdote of the Kotharotsava has two angles to it. The first being that a fire ravaged the Kothara and the second being the construction of the ‘Pathala Kothara’ and it’s association with Haidar Ali. While there is no contemporary evidence available to us of the fire that ravaged the Kothara in 1774, there does exist a dream in Tipu’s dream register of a devastating fire afflicting the temple area.
The Collapse of the Gate
Date: In the month Bahari, of the year Shad, 1223, from the birth of Muhammad, between the 9th and 15th as per the Mauludi calendar. Corresponding to May 1795 as per the Gregorian calendar.
The Dream as narrated by Tipu Sultan
“Around the tower at the gate of the temple, the unbelievers had tied rods of wood at great heights for the purpose of illumination and had fixed lights on them. In a moment the lights went out and the rods fell and the gate collapsed. There was such a crash that all the buildings shook and this servant of God also came out of the building some-what disturbed.
I asked people to come out of their houses quickly and inquired about the people who were residing in the many houses that were situated so close to the temple. People went and brought the news that the gate had collapsed but the people living in the neighborhood were all safe. In the meantime morning dawned and I woke up.”
Tipu may have been referring to this incident in his subconscious, through the dream register. The terms like ‘tower’, ‘rods of wood’, ‘illumination’, ‘collapsed’ sound very similar to the incident in folklore. The second part of the anecdote may be verified with current evidence of the existence of the ‘Pathala Mantapa’ and it’s known association with Haidar Ali.
The temple of Sri Ranganatha was the axis around which the social and religious life of the people were woven. In his devotion to this Deity, Haidar Ali was only playing the part of a loyal Mysorean. One among the people he was sworn to serve as ‘Sarvadhikari’ of Mysore.
Sri Ranganatha Swamy Devasthana Mahatmaya, S. Narasimha Rangan
Mahmud Husain, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan