The Goddess and a Sultan: Hindu Coinage of Tipu Sultan

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

Goddess Shri Sharadamba. Observe her holding a vessel with the left and a parrot with her right hand.

Goddess Shri Sharadamba. Observe her holding a vessel with the uplifted left and a parrot with her uplifted right hand.

The Sharada Image damaged during the Maratha Raid - Now housed at Vidya Shankara Temple, Shringeri

The Sharada Image damaged during the Maratha Raid – Now housed at Vidya Shankara Temple, Shringeri

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.

A letter Aug 5, 1791 from Tipu Sultan to the Shringeri Jagadguru - Obverse. Tipu's insignia - blazing Sun with Tiger stripe rays and 'Bismillah' calligraphy inside is seen at the top.

Another letter Aug 5, 1791 from Tipu Sultan to the Shringeri Jagadguru – Obverse. Tipu’s insignia – blazing Sun with Tiger stripe rays and ‘Bismillah’ calligraphy inside is seen at the top.

A letter Aug 5, 1791 from Tipu Sultan to the Shringeri Jagadguru - Reverse. Obverse Tipu Sultan's signature - Nabi Malik at the bottom right of the letter.

Letter Aug 5, 1791 from Tipu Sultan to the Shringeri Jagadguru – Reverse. Obverse Tipu Sultan’s signature – Nabi Malik at the bottom right of the letter.

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.

Obverse of the coin - Lady seated with parrot in right hand and left hand strumming veena

Print of the Obverse of the coin – Lady seated holding parrot with uplifted right hand and uplifted left hand with a kalasha

Reverse of the Coin with inscription in Arabic - 'Hua al Sultan al waheed al Aadil'

Print of the Reverse of the Coin with inscription in Arabic – ‘Hua al Sultan al waheed al Aadil’

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 –

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

Posted in Anecdotes in Kannada history, Tipu Sultan & his times | 10 Comments

Chair of the Khudadad Sarkar: The Throne of Tipu Sultan

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.

Front View of Tipu Sultan's Throne

Front View of Tipu Sultan’s Throne

Tipu Sultan's Throne - Top View

Tipu Sultan’s Throne – Top View

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.

Tipu Sultan Seated on Throne, Anna Tonelli

Tipu Sultan Seated on Throne, Anna Tonelli

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.

Ruins of Lal Mahal - The throne of Tipu Sultan sat here

Ruins of Lal Mahal – The throne of Tipu Sultan sat here

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.

I remain,
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.

Bubri Howdah of Tipu Sultan

Bubri Howdah of Tipu Sultan

A closer view of the Bubri Howdah - Tiger Stripe Designs and Tiger Finials

A closer view of the Bubri Howdah – Tiger Stripe Designs and Tiger Finials

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.

Posted in Tipu Sultan & his times | 3 Comments

Guarding the corners of the throne: Tiger Head Finials

A watercolour dating to 1800 by Anna Tonelli, an Italian artist who accompanied Lady Clive on her tour in South India as governess to the Clive children, shows an octagonal throne with eight finials and a large central tiger support and a small canopy; another drawing by Captain Thomas Marriott, aide-de-camp to the Commander-in-Chief of Madras, dated 16th August 1799, shows an octagonal throne with a larger canopy, and the huma bird finial. Both depictions show eight small tiger head finials. 

Tipu’s gold throne was broken up at the order of the Prize Committee to the regret of the Governor-General, who wrote from Fort St George that if it could be reassembled, it ought to be acquired by the Company to present to the King. In a letter to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in January 1800, Arthur Wellesley wrote: “It would have given me great pleasure to send the whole throne entire to England, but the indiscreet zeal of the Prize Agents of the army had broken that proud moment of the Sultan’s arrogance into fragments before I had been apprised even of the existence of such a trophy”.

Consequent to the breaking up of the throne, the tiger heads were wrested from the rails of the throne to be divided among the victorious British as spoils of war. Being quite small, they would easily have escaped attention and might as well be resting unknown to the current owners in some dingy attic in England or Scotland today. Where are these finials today?

The tiger head finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan has the main gold surface of the head worked decorated with fine dotted pointille punching; symmetrically set on either side of the centre line with foiled table-cut diamonds, foiled cabochon rubies and foiled cabochon emeralds of varying sizes, with larger rubies set on the eyes and the tongue, the teeth set with foiled table-cut diamonds. The ears projecting above the head decorated with chased lines and further pointille punching.

The square base of gold sheet is seen forming a collar. The inside of the base has a circular hole revealing the resin interior with two drilled holes, probably from originally mounting technique. The base chased with an arabesque-shaped mark. It is 8.4 cm. high and has a base width of 4.7 cm. The net weight of the tiger head is 346 gm. and is constructed in the South Indian fashion of the late 18th Century.

The probable order of work was that the head was hammered into shape from gold sheet and then filled with lac to enable the details of the decoration to be filled without the head collapsing. The settings of the stones can be compared to South Indian temple jewelry and jeweled objects.

Bowser Finial

Bowser Finial

Lady Clive’s notebook in Powis Castle which mentions a list of various miscellaneous items to be given away or bequeathed also contains the following entry: ‘An moulu basket, containing a head in pure gold set with precious stones and one of the 8 heads which were on Tippoo Sultan’s throne at Seringapatam given me by Lord Wellsly. On the base of the stand is a gilt metal plate with an engraved inscription “Tigers head which formed part of Tippoo’s throne“. So, now we know where the 1st of the tiger head finials rests. It may be seen in the Clive collection at Powis castle in Scotland.

A 2nd, acquired after the battle by Surgeon-Major Pultney Mein, the same Doctor who acquired the massive Gold Tiger’s head that supported Tipu’s throne, either by allocation or in the agents’ auction, was sold at Sotheby’s (19 March 1973, lot 180) and then offered by a London antique dealer in 1974 (advertised in Oriental Art and the referred to by Dennys Forrest as being in the collection of Alexander Bowlby of Hampstead, London) and has since disappeared from view, its current whereabouts unknown.

The 3rd known finial is called the Hope-Wallace finial and was sold by the Bonhams Auction house in 2009. It belonged to the collection of Thomas Wallace (1763-1844), Baron Wallace of Knarsdale. Lord Wallace was a prominent English politician in the late 18th and early 19th Century. In 1800 he was created Commissioner for the Affairs of India and in 1801 was appointed a Privy Councillor; he served as President of the Board of Control between 1807 and 1816, in which position he oversaw the East India Company.

In addition to these three, Forrest refers  another 4th finial in a private collection in Cornwall, but no further information or explanation is offered and there is no corroboration to be found in other sources. Thus, the whereabouts of this finial too is unknown today.

And finally we have the Bowser finial, the 5th one, that was sold in Bonhams again in October 2010.  It came into possession of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Bowser, K.C.B., H.E.I.C.S (1749-1833) and after him by descent to the current owners who decided to auction the piece.

Wallace of Knarsdale Tiger Head Finial

Wallace of Knarsdale Tiger Head Finial

Wallace Finial - Side Profile

Wallace Finial – Side Profile

As you can see, we have no clue about where the 2 finials whose whereabouts were known once are today. As for the other 3 one may only hope that they turn up someplace someday.

Perhaps the greatest of all the arts of the court of Tipu are the metalwork and jewellery. Tipu clearly loved beautiful objects, which filled his carefully amassed treasury and, as one observer described, he “passed the greatest part of his leisure hours in reviewing this various and splendid assemblage of his riches”. I am sure that he would have been proud of the 8 Tigers around his throne.


Beatson, A., A View of the Origin and Conduct of the War with Tippoo Sultaun; comprising a narrative of the operations of the army under command of Lieutenant-General George Harris, and of the siege of Seringapatam, London, 1800

Bonhams, Islamic and Indian Art, 2nd April 2009.

Forrest, Denys, Tiger of Mysore.

The Life and Death of Tipu Sultan, London 1970;Oriental Art (Periodical), Vol. XX, no. 4, 1974, p. 357: Advertisement placed by Douglas Wright Ltd of Curzon Street, showing the Pultney-Mein/ Bowlby finial;

Price, David, Memoirs of the Early Life and Service of a Field Officer on the Retired List of the Indian Army, Woodbridge, 1839;
Robert Skelton et al., Treasures from India. The Clive Collection at Powis Castle, National Trust 1987; 7 Oct 2010 auction

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A Principal ornament of the Mysore throne: The Tiger head

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 3

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.

                                                                                                                  Bay Syndenham

                                                                                             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.

Tiger Head mounted on it's wooden base

Tiger Head mounted on it’s wooden base

Top View of the Tiger Head. Observe the Tiger Stripes 'Bubris' and Tipu's Tiger Seal Calligraphy on the forehead of the Tiger.

Top View of the Tiger Head. Observe the Tiger Stripes ‘Bubris’ and Tipu’s Tiger Seal Calligraphy on the forehead of the Tiger.

'Bismillah Muhammad' Caliigraphy in the Tiger Head Pattern

‘Bismillah Muhammad’ Caliigraphy in the Tiger Head Pattern

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


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A bird at Windsor : Tipu Sultan and his ‘Huma’

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.

The Flight of the Simurgh. ca. 1590 A.D. - Painted at the Mughal Court of Akbar by the artist Basawan

The Flight of the Simorgh. ca. 1590 A.D. – Painted at the Mughal Court of Akbar by the artist Basawan

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.

The 'Huma' bird on the canopy of Tipu Sultan's throne

The ‘Huma’ bird on the canopy of Tipu Sultan’s throne

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

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The Tiger’s Dream – Meet Tipu Sultan at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; 29 September 2014 – 24 January 2015

This exhibition delves into the life and times of Tipu Sultan, the South Indian ruler, statesman, and patron.

Drawn entirely from the MIA collection, and featuring many objects which have never been displayed in Qatar, the centerpiece is a group of 24 paintings showing Tipu’s victory at the Battle of Pollilur in 1780.

A part of the preparation artwork of  Pollilur Mural made on Gouache paper with cotton backing

A part of the preparation artwork of Pollilur Mural made on Gouache paper with cotton backing

Tipu’s victory was recreated as a wall painting in Tipu’s palace, the Darya Daulat Bagh. It survives to this day, although it has been heavily restored.

The Battle of Pollilur, fought in September 1780 between the British East India Company and the forces of Tipu Sultan and his father Haidar Ali, was described as ‘the severest blow that the British ever sustained in India’, and resonated for years in both Britain and Mysore.

The cycle of paintings on display in The Tiger’s Dream appears to be a preparatory attempt at the mural, and thus preserves details which have been lost. In their original state, the paintings on display were one continuous roll of rice paper, approximately 2 meters high and 9 meters wide, but they have since been cut into 24 separate pieces. On display in the exhibition and above, the painting has been digitally re-stitched, allowing it to be seen again as a single artwork.

This is only the second time that these paintings have been shown as a cycle in the last 30 years, and the first time since they were divided that they will be reconstituted as one piece, using digital imaging.

Alongside this unique group is a selection of objects which reflect Tipu’s image as the ‘Tiger of Mysore’.

Mysore cannon from the time of Tipu Sultan

Mysore cannon from the time of Tipu Sultan

Cannon from the Sultanate of Mysore, 1219 Mauludi/1204 AH/1790-91 CE
Cast at Sriringapatna
Copper alloy, gilding
Length: 254cm, weight: 481kg
Signed ‘Ahmad Pali’

Like many other objects in this exhibition, this cannon is laden with tigers and inscriptions. The tiger motif is most forcefully expressed by the snarling tiger heads at the muzzle (front), trunnions (on the sides) and cascabel (back) of the gun barrel. Within a pair of tiger stripes on the barrel, an inscription calls on the ‘triumphant lion of God’, a phrase found regularly in calligraphic designs of this period. This inscription also provides the place and date of manufacture, while the presence of the heart-shaped ‘Haydar’ talisman shows that the cannon was cast at the sultan’s foundry.

A number of talks, tours and workshops around Tipu Sultan and his times have also been scheduled during the course of this exhibition.

Tipu has been a controversial character for over two hundred years; this exhibition will explore the man through the material culture and imagery which he patronised.


Text taken almost in verbatim with images, courtesy of MIA, Qatar. Kindly visit for more details

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A Temple Gate, Saligrama stones and Extraordinary Idols : From the Dream Register of Tipu Sultan

“And it is only after seeing man as his unconscious, revealed by his dreams, presents him to us that we shall understand him fully.”
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

In the India Office Library, now the British Library collection in London, there is a very valuable and interesting manuscript containing Tipu Sultan’s dreams in his own handwriting discovered in the course of the Sack of Seringapatam on 4th May, 1799 when Tipu Sultan’s bedroom was subjected to a thorough search by Colonel W. Kirkpatrick. Tipu’s secretary, Munshi Habibullah was also said to be present at the time when this manuscript was discovered. According to Kirkpatrick, Habibullah was aware of the manuscript’s existence but Tipu had so successfully concealed it that this confidant of his had never before seen it. Tipu was said to have always been anxious to hide it from the view of any who happened to approach while he was either reading or writing it. Entries in the register have been made in Farsi and in the ‘Shikasta’ script. The first of the recorded dreams is dated 1785, the last 1798, covering a period of 13 years. There are 37 dreams in number, some of which have been interpreted by Tipu himself.

Of the 37 dreams, 13 of them were concerned with Tipu’s wars with the English and their allies, primarily the Hyderabad Nizam and the Marathas. 15 other dreams give tidings of general matters and victory in war. The remaining dreams point to his love and veneration for the Prophet and other notable personalities of Islam. Of the 37 dreams Tipu himself only interpreted 4 dreams while the rest are written down by him without any interpretation. The dominant note throughout these dreams is what was uppermost in Tipu Sultan’s mind-how to free his country from the foreign yoke. For a student of history, it is of great importance to discover how Tipu interpreted these dreams himself and how they influenced his actions.

Through this post I intend to examine the only three dreams of Tipu Sultan that specifically have him interact with Hindu subjects. Only one among these three dreams have been interpreted by Tipu Sultan himself and the remaining two will be interpreted by me, rather than call them interpretations I will call them projections as that is what I project from his dream. And at the end I will attempt to sum up Tipu’s relationship with the Hindu faith and his Hindu citizens on the basis of the three dreams that his subconscious throws out to us.

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.”

Projection from the dream:
The first thing that Tipu does after waking up disturbed at the commotion from the collapsing gate is to inquire about the people who lived in the vicinity of the collapsed tower. This very clearly shows his concern for the safety of his Hindu subjects who lived close to the temple.

My notes about the dream:
The ‘tower at the gate of the temple’ is the ‘Gopuram’ a traditional architectural feature at the gate of South Indian temples including the ones at Srirangaptanam itself especially Tipu’s favourite temple, the Shri Ranganathaswami Temple there. Putting up wooden rods and decorating the wooden rods with lines of lit oil lamps has been a traditional form of temple decoration during important temple fairs, which illuminates the whole Gopuram giving it a golden hue through the night. The people residing in the many houses close to the temple were obviously Brahmin priests, temple attendants and their families. Such a group of houses near the temple is commonly known as an ‘Agrahara’ in South India. They were termed ‘unbelievers’ by Tipu as they were not followers of Islam.

Among several temples to which Tipu made liberal donations, the Shri Ranganathswamy temple at Srirangapatnam still retains in it’s inventory a big silver bowl, three silver cups, a silver pancharati and a silver kettle. The temple was only 100 yards west of his palace from where he could listen daily to the ringing of the temple bells and Vedic chants. The vision of illuminated tower that appears in Tipu’s dream could be drawn from several temple functions and festivals that he would sponsor throughout his realm. During Tipu’s campaign in the Carnatic around 1792, he participated in the celebration of a temple chariot festival and also bore the cost of the fireworks on this occasion.

The Extraordinary Idols
Date: On the 8th of the month Zakiri, of Muhammad in the morning. Corresponding to 7 December 1796 in the Gregorian Calendar.

The Dream as narrated by Tipu Sultan
“There seemed to be a big temple, the back of which was slightly damaged. It contained several large idols. I went into the temple with along with a few other men and noticed that the idols were seeing like human beings and their eyes were in motion. I was surprised to see the eyes of the idols moving like those of the living and wondered what could it be due to. Then I approached them.
In the last row were two female idols. One of these two, drawing out her sari from between her two knees, stated that both of them were women while the rest of the idols were images of men and other objects. She added that they had been praying to God for a long time and everyone ought to nourish oneself.
I said to her – ‘ That is fine, do keep yourself occupied with the remembrance of God.’ Having said that I ordered my men to repair the dilapidated building. In the meantime I woke up”

Projection from the dream:
Tipu Sultan enters a damaged temple where he sees ‘several large idols’. Instead of breaking them, as may be expected of a fanatic Muslim ruler, he approaches them curiously and listens to the female idol speak. He asks the idol to continue praying to God. Interestingly Tipu does not use ‘her God’ but only ‘God’ in the unitary sense and after this even asks his men to repair the damaged temple.

My notes about the dream:
We are aware of several instances of Tipu Sultan providing grants to Hindu temples and other religious establishments. For instances where he gave grants to temples or paid for the cost of regular religious rituals in Temples, the examples run not into tens, but into hundreds. During his famed Malabar incursion wherein the Mysoreans spread fire and sword through their march, the Inam Register of Five folio volumes at the Kozhikode archives gives a list of grants by Tipu Sultan to 56 Hindu temples in just 4 talukas of the conquered Zamorin’s realm – Calicut, Ernad, Battathnad and Chowghat. These were Hindu temples in an enemy domain that had just been conquered. Tipu was not the first Muslim ruler to provide grants to Hindu establishments nor would he be the last. In fact even the puritanical Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb is recorded to have made grants to a number of Hindu temples across India.

But this dream is unique in that here Tipu not only converses with a Hindu deity but also insists upon the deity to continue at prayer and he goes on to repair the damaged temple housing the deity. For a religious and observant Muslim like Tipu, the dream would have been very unusual.

But no, this is not the case. The dream corresponds very nearly to an incident during the 2nd Mysore war when Tipu was at the Hindu sacred town of Kanchipuram. Here contemporary Maratha newsletters inform us that he was informed about an incomplete temple whose foundation was laid by Haidar Ali. Another version is that the temple was in existence earlier but had suffered damage during the many wars that rocked the Carnatic in the 1780s between the Mysoreans and the Arcot Nawab aided by the British. He immediately made a grant of 10000 huns towards the construction of the temple.
In the Pullivendla village in Cuddappah district, when Tipu came to know that a Puja at the Anjaneyaswami temple there had been discontinued for a while, he ordered for the immediate restoration of the Puja. Tipu’s help in reconsecrating the sacred image of Goddess Sharda at Sringeri which was plundered by the Marathas is well known. These are just three examples among many more where Tipu Sultan reconstructed Hindu places of worship and restored discontinued Hindu rituals in the temples.

Almonds and Stones
Date: On the 1st of the month Dini, of the year Shadab, 1226, from the birth of Muhammad. Corresponds to November, 1798 A.D. of the Gregorian calendar.

The Dream as narrated by Tipu Sultan
“I seemed to be reciting the names of God on almonds among which I had mixed ‘salgram’ stones, salgram being an object of worship by the unbelievers. On concluding my recitation, I stated that all the idols of the unbelievers had embraced Islam and I ordered the stones to be picked out and replaced by almonds.”

Tipu Sultan’s interpretation of this dream:
“My interpretation is that by the grace of God all unbelievers would embrace Islam and the country would pass into the hands of the Sarkar-i-Khudadad.”

My notes about the dream:
Unlike the previous 2 dreams where Tipu does not provide his own interpretation probably because the dreams are clear and none is necessary, this one has Tipu interpreting it himself. This is one of the only four other dreams interpreted by Tipu Sultan himself.

This dream and it’s interpretation hits us like a blast of hot air on our face. While the previous two dreams symbolize a close relationship as well as affection for the Hindus and their faith this dream shows Tipu’s expectation that all unbelievers, specifically Hindus here should embrace Islam and Mysore become a Muslim state – Tipu called Mysore, Sarkar-i-Khudadad or ‘God given Government’ an apt name for a Kingdom ruled by someone whose father was a mere ‘Naik’ or foot soldier in the Wodeyar court. The Salgram or ‘Saligram’ stones are held in great veneration only by the Hindus and are believed by them to represent the God Vishnu who was turned into this stone on account of a curse. These stones are quite scarce and found only in the beds of the rivers Narmada and the Gandaki.

So, which Tipu do we choose? The Tipu who inquired of the safety of his Hindu subjects after the fire in the ‘Collapse of the Gate’ dream and the Tipu who rebuilt a damaged temple in ‘The extraordinary Idols’ dream or is it the Tipu who wishes for the conversion of all the ‘Saligramas’ to ‘Almonds’ – Hindus to Muslims in his ‘Almonds and Stones’ dream?

While Tipu built and patronized Temples, he also demolished or displaced some of them. When in the course of his Kerala campaign where he was providing grants to temples left, right and center he was also seizing young men, making muslims of them involuntarily and enrolling them into his elite Asad Ilahi and Ahmadi corps. These are only a few examples of contradictions in a long list.

To comprehend this two-faced dimension of Tipu, one has to understand the nature of the Sarkar-i-Khudadad. As Kate Brittlebank so eloquently writes Tipu was only implementing ‘Islam and Kingship in a Hindu domain’. He was a pious Muslim who visualized the Khudadad Sarkar as an Islamic edifice where the benign ideals of Islam would be upheld within a non-Muslim domain. For this it was desirable that the Muslim population should increase in number and various incentives were provided to willing converts for this very purpose.

Even in the revenue code, wise as it was, Muslims were exempted from paying the housetax and taxes on grain and other goods meant for their personal use. Hindus converting to Islam were exempted from specific taxes. Special attention was given to the education of Muslim children. Towards the end of his reign Muslims made up a very large majority of his senior most nobility.

Tipu Sultan regarded conversion to Islam as a form of punishment which he inflicted on many of his non-Muslim subjects who were in his eyes guilty of rebellion. In one of his letters to his French diplomat-friend Cossigny, he confesses that he converted the Kerala Nairs to Islam ‘as a punishment to their rebellion’, and that they deserved this punishment because ‘they rebelled six times and six time I forgave them’. Tipu knew well that orthodox Hinduism was one religion that did not take back it’s own who were coerced to accept another faith. Tipu used this flaw in the Hindu faith of that period to threaten by example. He believed that once the rebellious Coorgis and Malabaris were forced to accept Islam, they would have no choice but to come under the Mysorean umbrella as their coreligionists at home would not have anything to do with them afterwards.

All this being said, for the seventeen years that Tipu ruled over Mysore there was not one riot or rebellion among the Hindus. This was in spite of Mysore being at war against her neighbors for much of that period and even after suffering a humiliating defeat in 1792. This was because the Hindu majority understood well that though Tipu was an orthodox Muslim, he had Hindu interests at heart too.

This can be proved through interpreting another statement made by Tipu himself in a letter to the Ottoman Emperor in Constantinople. This letter was in reply to the emperor’s letter to Tipu received on 23 September 1798. In this letter, Tipu is narrating to the Sultan the incident where the Marathas asked his father Haidar Ali for help against the British during the course of the second Mysore war. Here Tipu while justifying to the most powerful Muslim ruler of that time – the Ottoman Emperor, as to why Haidar Ali and Tipu had to go to the assistance of the Maratha unbelievers against another army of unbelievers, the British says – ‘it was more advisable to afford than refuse his assistance to the infidels belonging to the country, because the supremacy of the English was the source of evil to all God’s creatures.’

This is a very, very important statement from Tipu sultan that I regard as belonging to the core of his beliefs and the very reason why as orthodox and aggressive a Muslim he may have been, he had the support of all of Mysore behind him. In this statement, ‘infidels belonging to the country‘- he clearly believed that though the Maratha Leader Raghunath Rao who requested Mysore’s aid was an infidel, yet he was from the same country as Tipu was; the concept of ‘India’ was already in Tipu’s mind then irrespective of Tipu being a Muslim from Mysore and Raghunath Rao a Maratha and Hindu from up North.

He further goes on to say – ‘Supremacy of the English was the source of evil to all God’s creatures‘. Here Tipu asserts before the Turkish Emperor that the Marathas though infidels were also God’s creatures. The semantics are important here. Tipu says ‘God’s creatures’ not ‘Hindu God’s creatures’ or ‘infidel Gods creatures’. The Muslims have only one God – Allah and Tipu through this statement was telling the Ottomans that he believed that the Hindus were also created by the same God who created him.

In the end looking back at what Tipu dreamt and wrote, we can only be sure that here was a ruler who though of a different religious persuasion from the majority of his subjects made honest attempts even subconsciously to align his ideals with their beliefs.

Mahmud Husain, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan
Mohibbul Hasan, History of Tipu Sultan, 1971
Kate Brittlebank, Tipu Sultan’s search for Legitimacy, 1995
Kareem C.K., Kerala under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, 1973
Gopal M.H., Tipu Sultan’s Mysore – An Economic Study, 1971
Crisp, Mysore revenue regulations under the seal of Tippoo Sultaun, 1793
James Salmond, A review of Origin, Progress, and result of the decisive war with Tipu Sultan, 1800
Mohammad Moienuddin, Sunset at Srirangapatam, 2000

The inspiration for this post was provided by my Guru Dr. Sheik Ali, former Vice Chancellor of Mangalore and Goa Universities who suggested that I delve into the psychology of Tipu Sultan too. Over the nine decades of Dr. Sheik Ali’s life, his contribution to Tipu Sultan studies have been enormous. May Dr. Sheik Ali have a long and productive life ahead and continue to bless us all.

Dr. A.K. Shastry is to be thanked for reminding me of what Voltaire said – ‘All Great men have great Faults’. These faults in them should not hide all the good done by them and neither should all the good done by them be an excuse to hide the faults in them. His research into the Tipu letters among others at the Sringeri Dharmasansthana have opened up several new areas of historical research.

DISCLAIMER: I am neither an interpreter of dreams or a psychiatrist. So, professional and learned interpretations of these dreams are always welcome. My intention is to get people talking about the dreams and what they signal.

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