Books Essay

Tipu Sultan: The Man Behind the Golden Mask

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Srirangapattana’s zenana might have housed 333 women, but Tipu Sultan was an affectionate family man and a just king

Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan | Kate Brittlebank | Juggernaut Books | Pages 188 | Rs 399

FOLLOWING TIPU’S DEATH, one of his munshis wrote for the British a short account of the late ruler’s court. In it, he provided a brief description of Tipu’s appearance:

He was middle sized, of a tawny complexion, smooth open eyebrows, a broad ample forehead, dark grey eyes, a high nose, long neck, broad chest, slender waist, spindle legs, short mustachios, with his lower beard shaven.

Other commentators referred to his tendency to plumpness. A well-known contemporary portrait of Tipu (on the cover of this book), by an Indian artist and now in the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, conforms to such a description. Seated in profile on a red masnad, Tipu is very much a king. He wears a green turban with a ruby and pearl sarpech, a green gown, three strands of pearls with ruby and pearl pendants, and a kamarband decorated with babri stripes. Across his shoulder is slung a belt from which hangs a fine sword in a red scabbard. The painting is thus an image of royalty, its purpose to portray its subject as a person of distinction— it does not, though, reveal his character. For that, we must search for clues within the documentary sources.

A study of the life of Tipu Sultan would be incomplete without a consideration of him as a man. So far, our focus has been on his identity as Haidar’s son and as a king—the public face of Tipu, if you like. To find the human being behind the public mask requires a close reading of sources, especially between the lines, and an analysis of his language and behaviour in certain contexts. And we must be cautious in how we go about interpreting the documents. The temptation is to read him as we would a modern person, alive today, rather than someone from the eighteenth century. It is never possible to understand fully another human being—to ‘get inside their head’—and from a distance of over two hundred years, it is even more difficult. Above all, we must not confuse the public with the private persona; nor should we believe the rhetoric of Tipu’s enemies.

We already know that the British victors painted a picture of Tipu as a religious bigot and a tyrant. But we also know that contemporary evidence does not support such a portrayal, having seen instead how Tipu’s actions conformed to the cultural and kingly conventions of the time. In this light and bearing in mind the caveats referred to above, let us now assess the personal side of this powerful man. In doing so, we will consider his religiosity, his dealings with other people, his relations with his family and his attitude towards women. We will examine the nature of his intelligence and the quality of his temperament; and, given the manner of his death, there is a final question we might wish to ask: was Tipu courageous or was he merely stubborn?

Personal faith is not something that one can measure with any accuracy. The only test for genuine piety is to judge a person by their actions—how far they live according to the precepts of their religious creed, especially in their relations with other people. It is not enough that someone proclaim themselves devout if they do not demonstrate that fact apart from verbally. What then do Tipu’s actions tell us?

Tipu's attitude is primarily one of acceptance and understanding. This is most evident in his revenue and commercial regulations

The impression one gains from the historical record is that Tipu was a man who wished to live as a good Muslim, who put his faith into practice. His increased emphasis, following the 1792 defeat, upon the Islamic character of his rule implies a desire to appease God, that he feared he had incurred God’s displeasure. This does not mean, though, that prior to the Third Anglo-Mysore War he had not tried to live piously. From the outset of his reign, it is clear that Tipu set about establishing himself as a just king. The introduction to what are known as his Commercial Regulations makes this clear:

All praise and glory to the most high God, who, breathing life into a handful of clay, which was before inanimate, gave it the form of man; and who has raised some chosen individuals to rank and power, riches and rule, in order that they might administer to the feeble, the helpless, and the destitute, and promote the welfare of their people.

In pursuance of this duty, we decree…

Here we have a precise articulation of Tipu’s understanding of his duty as king, a product no doubt of his religious and philosophical education. Had he not been personally religious, it is unlikely he would have stated his purpose so succinctly. Furthermore, it does appear that in his dealings with his subjects, Tipu tried to be fair, to walk a middle path. His instructions to amils, serishtadars and shamboges are that they attend their department from nine in the morning until five at night, during which time they will compile and submit their accounts, after which ‘they may then retire to rest.’ When ryots fall behind in their dues, only those who can do so are required to pay in full, those who are poor can meet their debt by instalments, and any who have fled ‘are to be encouraged to return, and the balances due are to be recovered by gentle means’.

Tipu also concerned himself with the moral character of his people. He tightened controls on the sale and consumption of liquor and prohibited the planting of bhang. He condemned prostitution (although did not ban it, probably recognising the futility of trying to do so) and frowned on excessive dancing. Both he and his father were affronted by the customs of the matrilineal Nairs: the minimal attire of the women shocked them, as did the practice of polyandry. That women took several husbands and appeared in public with their upper bodies uncovered would have challenged even the most moderate of Muslims. There is no evidence to suggest that either Haidar or Tipu considered offensive the naked form of the great statue of Gomateshwara Bahubali at Shravanabelgola— both rulers supported Jain institutions just as they did Hindu temples and Maths—so they cannot be regarded as iconoclasts or even prudes. But as Muslims, steeped in the concept of female modesty, the combination of multiple husbands and public toplessness was more than they could tolerate. Not surprisingly, they took steps to end both.

From these few examples, we can infer a desire on Tipu’s part to follow the precepts of his faith, although not in an unreasonable manner. The case of the Nairs broke the limits of his forbearance, but in most matters he was pragmatic about what he could achieve. His morality was Islamic in foundation and he encouraged conversion where he could. Nowhere in the sources, however, does he come across as a fanatic. In fact, Tipu’s attitude is primarily one of acceptance and understanding. This is most evident in his revenue and commercial regulations, which require his non-Muslim heads of departments to take oaths of service according to the conventions of their respective faiths. Additionally, the regulations instruct that when non-Muslim officials attend court they are to be fed appropriately; or, in other words, they should only be offered food permitted them.

Tipu's adherence to the terms of the treaties that he signed, and the expectation that others would do the same, suggest a man who kept his word

Tipu’s adherence to the terms of the treaties that he signed, and the expectation that others would do the same, suggest a man who kept his word. In March 1792, following the signing of the Treaty of Seringapatam, a British soldier involved in the war wrote in a letter that

… some of our deep politicians say we place too much confidence in Tipoo, and that he will yet deceive us. I have observed nothing in his conduct lately, that should make us suspect him of unfair dealing, and I own myself to be among the many, who believe him sincere.

Tipu’s treatment of his British prisoners of war also imply a man of integrity. Contrary to the apocryphal reports of extreme suffering, several captives’ memoirs confirm that they were treated as well as they could have hoped in any similar situation in Europe. A soldier captured in early 1782 noted in his account Tipu’s kindness and that the prisoners were given clothes and money. Tipu also gave strict orders to all his keeladars to be attentive to them during their march to Haidar’s army, who was then lying at Conjeeveram.

Another soldier recounted that, on 4 June each year, the prisoners received a special meal, to celebrate the birthday of their king, George III.

In terms of his personal relationships, modern writers on Tipu generally agree that he was an affectionate family man and the sources support this assessment. There is no consensus, though, on the number of his off spring, or even of his wives. It is accepted that he married his first two wives—the daughter of Imam Sahib Bakhshi and Ruqayya Banu—on the same night in 1774, and that he took another wife in 1796, Khadija Zaman Begum, who died in childbirth in 1797. The British officer put in charge of the zenana following Tipu’s death referred to a fourth wife, Buranti Begum, originally from Delhi, but no other contemporary sources mention her. The same officer reported the number of Tipu’s surviving sons as twelve, the eldest being Fath Haidar, and his daughters as eight. The respective mothers of these children are not known. The zenana at Srirangapattana in 1799 held 601 women, 333 of whom were Tipu’s and 268 his late father’s, all guarded by eunuchs; this total included serving women as well as concubines and female family members. Among the last group was the wife of Abdul Karim, Tipu’s brother, whom Haidar had married to the daughter of the Savanur Nawab in 1779. Abdul Karim is invariably described as ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘half-witted’, implying some kind of intellectual disability, and he had treated his wife cruelly; for her safety, Tipu had placed her with Haidar’s remaining women.

Tipu’s action in the case of his unhappy sister-in-law is of great interest, as it tells us something of his attitude towards women in general. Some men might have regarded the physical abuse of a wife as the husband’s right; it seems this was not Tipu’s view. Europeans were pruriently fascinated by Oriental harems, often allowing their imaginations to get the better of them, referring to the female inhabitants of such institutions as ‘prisoners’ and considering their lives to be unfortunate. Since these commentators rarely got anywhere near such institutions and almost never inside them (male physicians did sometimes enter, to minister to women who were concealed behind curtains), and the quality of the lives of royal women and their dependents was governed by the character of the ruler, their generalisations had no basis in reality. From what we can tell from the sources, Tipu liked women and even though his wives and concubines were entirely at his mercy—the latter sometimes purchased as slaves, sometimes the women of defeated enemies, sometimes entering the palace through a practice similar to what is known in Europe as droit du seigneur, the lord’s right to take any of his subjects’ daughters—there is no reason to believe that he mistreated them.

A clue to Tipu’s attitude is found in one of his recorded dreams, dating from 1786. He wrote:

It seemed to me as if a handsome young man, a stranger, came and sat down near me. I passed certain remarks in the manner in which one might, in a playful mood, talk to a woman.

Realising that he did not usually speak to people ‘in such a playful manner’, he was therefore not surprised when the youth loosed his hair from his turban and opened his robe to reveal breasts.

I saw it was a woman. I immediately called and seated her and said to her: ‘Whereas formerly I had only guessed you were a woman, and I had cut jokes with you, it is now definite that you are a woman in the dress of a man. My conjecture has come true.’

In his relations with women, then, it seems that Tipu’s approach was light-hearted and flirtatious rather than forceful.

Tipu was also a conscientious father to his sons and his affection was apparently reciprocated. After the fall of Srirangapattana, prize agents were put in charge of the distribution of the booty, one of whom later wrote a memoir. In it he describes how one of the princes had been allowed to look in on the agents as they sorted through Tipu’s substantial library. ‘Only see,’ the distressed young man remarked, ‘how these hogs are allowed to contaminate my father’s books.’ For Muslims, a special quality attaches to the written word and the discovery of non-believers handling the many treasured volumes could only have magnified the trauma of Tipu’s death.

(Excerpted from Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan by Kate Brittlebank, published by Juggernaut Books; Pages: 188; Rs 399 (Now available on Juggernaut app, will be available in print next month)