Islamic Heritage of South Asia

Tipu Sultan’s punishment for sedition misconstrued as religious intolerance

Nidhin Olikara,
Shivamogga, India


Thank you all for joining me on this important discussion about the linkage between the American independence movement and that period of Indian history where Haidar and Tipu were fighting the same English colonizer. I for myself have been studying the history of Mysore, especially about the period Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, for about two decades now.

Both Haidar and his son Tipu Sultan are very well-known for bringing Mysore on to world stage especially with their innovations in technology, tax management, revenue collection, especially with making Mysore a small collection of about 30 odd villages to an empire that stretched right from Dharwar up in the north to the borders of Travancore in the south. A lot of us historians speak of Tipu’s rockets, his exploits but I believe and we know that the favourite topic for a lot of people including those with bouquets for Tipu and brickbats for him, especially in the charged political times that we are in now, is his religious policy. The organizers of this event have thrown upon me the gauntlet of speaking on this rather than another touchy issue. But for me this issue is not touchy at all because I have a set view on this point. And I am confident that today I will be able to convey my views to you. And I do not stand here to convince you of anything but only to share what I have learnt and what I make of this whole period of Mysore’s history.

It is my opinion that when you study a person you should first look at his teachers and parents. And when I look at Tipu I will also look at his father Haidar Ali and the kind of environment he grew up in. Haidar Ali started of his career as a mercenary. He started off as some from the lower ranks who quickly rose to power by his intelligence, his unique capability of taking people from diverse backgrounds along and by his martial strength.

Tipu was born in, there are several accounts of this, but it is believed that this date is correct i.e. Nov. 20, 1750. Tipu was born to Haidar Ali and Faqrunnisa. By that time Haidar was starting to grow in his ranks, but he was not well-known. Towards the 1760s Haidar Ali had of course taken over as the Sarvadhikari of the Dalwai of Mysore. He was acknowledged by the then Wodeyar king and lived and learnt under the tutelage of the brothers Devaraya and Nanjaraya. Haidar was a strict disciplinarian. As far as religious policies are concerned, he was a religious Muslim, a Sunni Muslim but also one who had took Hindus, Shias, Christians, agnostics, and all kinds of people with him. He also had a practice of discussing religion. He would actively take part in the festivities of his subjects, the Hindus. He was extremely devoted to the Ranganathaswamy temple of the Srirangapatna. There are records of the priests there, even after Tipu’s death, during the British time speaking very lovingly of Haidar’s devotion to the Ranganathaswamy temple. So, it is important to realize that Tipu grew in a family where there was already a feeling of communal or religious amity with the larger Hindu subjects.

When Haidar died and Tipu was put onto the Masnad, it was a no small measure due to the efforts of Diwan Purnaiah and other important personalities in Haidar’s close coterie. That could be Anche Shamaiah, Krishna Rao among several others, who were very instrumental. And Tipu never forgot that, especially with regard to Purnaiah, in putting Tipu up there on the throne.

Tipu began his role over Mysore as a Sarvadhikari. He still owed allegiance to the Wodeyars, who still sat there and were brought out on Dushshera day on Vijayadashami day to be shown to the people of Mysore. He began very well. He kept the same set of civil servants. In fact, Haidar had built the Brahmin bureaucracy so well. Tipu instituted a set of land reforms. He also started taking excess land from large temples, from large Agraharam trusts and redistributed excess land to tenant farmers; largely all of them who were Hindus, across castes. The temples were not divested of any of their income. They were given as much as was needed for the upkeep of the religious ceremonies there, the Brahmin priests there. A lot of the literature of that period speaks well about him. He continued the relations that Haidar made. In fact, he increased the amount of donations in terms of numbers of temples. So, you have a large number of temples at Melukote, Nanjangud, Sringeri, of course at Yediyur and several other names and several other grants and sanads have been found. Sringeri of course we know very well, during the 3rd Anglo Mysore War, the Marathas wantonly vandalized and desecrated this temple. Tipu spent a lot of money in renovating and restoring this temple. His donations to Sringeri not only involved money but also crystal lingas and a very interesting sapphire mantapa, which was a very interesting piece of stone, in which there was a Shiv Ling, a seven hooded serpent on it and a Basava in front made of gold. There are several letters of Tipu to the Sringeri Swamyji, the Guruji asking the Sringeri Guruji to pray for Tipu and to pray for Mysore. Tipu’s birth chart was sent to Jyothishas there to make prayers to Shri Sharada, the deity there, in Tipu’s name. Similarly, Tipu made extensive devotions. There is an interesting crytal ling at Nanjangud. Tipu interfered between two warring parties at Vijayamangalam, which is near Erode, and solved disputes among two sections of Hindus there, that is the left-hand caste and the right-hand caste- Yede yang Iyer and the Valey Iyengar. There are numerous such instances. In fact, after Tipu, when Buchanan travelled across Mysore as well as parts of Tamil Nadu, the Carnatic as they say, he met several groups of Brahmins who were angry at the English that they did not employ them in as many numbers as Tipu employed the Brahmins. Where I come from, near Shimoga, there was a rebellion in the 1830s wherein after the rebellion or during the inquiry into the rebellion the landed farmers said that Haidar and Tipu treated them very well compared to the later Wodeyars.

A much talked about event of Tipu harming the Hindus is the so-called massacre- yes, it was a murder of large group of people at Srirangapatnam, which was commonly called the Melukote massacre. So, there was this group of Tirumala Rao the ambassador of the Rani, the Wodeyar Rani Queen Lakshmamani. She and her family were displaced by Haidar and Tipu and kept under the state security and house-arrest with an allowance made to them. They were not harmed in any other way. Remember Tipu or Haidar, especially Tipu could have finished the whole family in one shot. He never did that. So Lakshmamani kept a steady correspondence with the British through her emissary who was placed at Telicherry and his name was Tirumala Rao. Events turned out so bitter that Tirumala Rao kept trying to pull Palegars– local chiefs away from Mysore (who were then with Tipu) and towards the British. He also actively started communicating Tipu’s war plans to the British. All this enraged Tipu who made an example of it by hanging to death several of Tirumala Rao’s cliquey members at Srirangapatnam. These were not women or children, but all grown men. There was a large number amounting to more than what is 100, it is said. This was not the first time that such an execution was carried out. Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar massacred a whole group of Lingayat priests. These were Jangama priests. He demolished several Lingayat mathas. Because the Lingayat peasantry refused to pay taxes and he wanted to make an example of this. So, this kind of execution of large groups of conniving treasoners, at least in Tipu’s eyes these people did treason to Mysore by collaborating with the British. So, these kinds of events happened before Tipu and they happened later too. Right near where I sit, there is a town called Honnali. Therein, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, who came after Tipu, in connivance with the British executed peasants at the great temple at Honnali. Near that he strung up several farmers and revolutionaries who revolted against the British and the Wodeyar rule. In fact, you have the seditions laws in India still wherein you do treason and you are punished. Tipu may have carried this to an extreme by murdering all of them but again remember that this was the period of the 1700s. In fact, this happened somewhere around 1784. We can make amazing claims sitting around 2020 but this was a long, long while ago. Overall Tipu maintained Hindus’ every group or every part of his establishment. There were Hindu clerks. There were Hindu Generals of cavalry. In fact, he had two large regiments of infantry which composed entirely of Hindus. His bodyguard contained groups of Brahmins, who would probably have been secretaries, clerks and a large number number of Marathas.

I have during my research stumbled upon several new pieces of evidence. There is something especially important here. A lot of anti-Hindu propaganda was being pumped into the atmosphere here courtesy the British and later historians who especially wanted to substantiate British rule over Mysore. So, a common question would be, and you see it in Iraq, you see it in Libya. You also saw it in Mysore then. In fact, William Dalyrymple wrote a nice piece about it at the onset of Bush war on Iraq, on how Tipu was demonized by the British. So, a lot of the historians are very, very choosey about what they pick. And, several other pieces of history which are still buried in archives and in temple palm leaf manuscripts, temple copper-plate grants, are all still buried there.There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Very interestingly, over the past year, I have been working on some records from Tipu’s library itself which are there in Calcutta. There is an interesting Kannada manuscript, which speaks of the stores there and Tipu’s endowments to the fort at Srirangapatna. And this has never been read before. The paper remains to be published but I will give you snippets of it here right now. So, Tipu speaks of daily sanctioning money for Kaveri pooja, the pooja of the River Kaveri which flowed in front of the fort. He speaks of the worship of the toaps, the large guns on the battlements of the fort. He speaks of a daily allowance which was to be given to the Mari temple, the local deity there, Mariamma deity in Srirangapatna. He makes large endowments which must be done every year for the Dushshera function. So, there is an amount of ghee, there is an amount of rice. There is an amount of sugar. All of which goes to the Prasadam or festivities. So, there are several such small private things. All of us have heard of his donations to Sringeri and Melukote. But you have this king here, who makes small donations to guns, who makes small donations to small Mariamma Gudi. So, this is not even a small temple, but it is well beloved for the people of Srirangapatna, especially to the soldiers there. So, he makes these small donations to her. So, these are all important pieces which tell you of his religious pluralism.

Remember that in 1700s, India was very syncretic. I do not know if this is known to many. This is important, because when Tipu as a small child fell ill. And Haidar, Tipu’s father, was campaigning in Chitradurga. We know that Haidar visited the temple to Tippe Rudraswamy which was at Nayakana Hutii near Chitradurga and he prayed for his son. And it is believed by many that the name Tipu may not have come from Tipu Mastaan Aulia because till that time Tipu’s name, there was no Tipu associated with that name. It came because Tippe Rudraswamy was also called as Tippe or Tippe Swamy and Haidar as an acknowledgment of that, of Tippe Rudraswamy listening to that prayer gave that name and called him Tippe Sultan. And the Tippe later became Tippu. So, this is current among Hindus of Chitradurga even today.

There is a lot of mud slung upon Tipu for his depredations in Malabar, Coorg and his treatment of the Catholics in Mangalore. Let me start with Malabar first. Malabar was first brought into the Mysorean ambit when Tipu’s father Haidar conquered Bednur. Parts of Malabar were already paying allegiance to the great Kings of Keladi and Ikkeri who ruled over Bednur. Haidar went into Malabar, brought a large part of territory under him. And, by the time Tipu ascended the masnad, rebellion had started there and in Coorg. Coorg was a gateway to the Malabar. There was Mysore, Coorg, Wayanad and then Malabar. So, what is to be remember here is that for almost near two millennia or more Kerala was rather immune from the winds of change that were blowing from the rest of India. So, when Tipu went into Malabar he encountered resistance not just of the military nature but also of the social nature. So, Kerala was the place, Malabar was the place, where caste system was so entrenched that even about 150 years after Tipu, Swamy Vivekanada called Kerala or Malabar a Brandashrama which is essentially a mental asylum. There you had certain rules that people of one caste need to walk so many feet away from a Brahmin caste. Or people of even a lower caste need to walk several feet away from a caste which is in the middle. Tipu said, get rid of all these rules. He passed edicts saying punishment would be given to them who used to discriminate between each other. He specifically said that women who uncover their breasts, he did not tolerate all this. It was essential that women of the lower caste in Malabar in Kerala to show, to walk with their upper part of their body bare before members of the higher caste. So, all this led to a great dissatisfaction among the landed gentry there who were largely Nairs and Namboodris. A lot of them fled before the army, a lot of them suffered also. There are records of damages to the temples there. But there is no record of Tipu ordering the temples to be broken into. In fact, it is seen, from again recent reviews of that particular period that a lot of the damage to the temples happened during the fights between the Mappillas of the Malabar and the British post Tipu. And a lot of the temples that were in a very good condition during Tipu’s time passed into ruin and disrepair after Tipu left. In fact, in just two talukas of Calicut contain records of grants that Tipu made to over sixty-five different temples and interestingly three churches as well. Tipu was very clear in this, that if any chief of Malabar pays taxes to Mysore, rules in the name of Mysore, he would not be touched. And this is true. So, it is not that everybody in Malabar fled. But recalcitrant chiefs who did not submit themselves to Mysore were fought at every event. Their lands were plundered in the same way as the Sringeri temples which the Marathas plundered and the whole of Mysore, which is a different story altogether. So, all of this was done. They were harassed at every turn. A lot of literature there poured heap and scorn upon Tipu. And let us not forget the great temples of Thrissur, the great temples in and around Malabar remained. They still flourished. There is no recorded evidence yet of other than oral folklore. In fact, you go to Kerala today and every second or third temple says that it was displaced. But when you go through the records, these temples did not even exist then. There is work that has happened right in the past few years on this also. The Muslim chiefs in Malabar were also taken to task. For example, the Bibi of Cannanore was kept on a short leash. The Mapilla merchants who controlled trade in Malabar, many of them were strung up and hung for resisting Tipu’s edicts on taxes, we have reports of that. In fact, at this very same time, a large community of Mysorean Muslims- the Mehdavis, were also brought to submission. A lot of them were exiled.

It was around this time that Tipu makes a foray into Coorg as well and I will tell you about this. Coorg was a gateway into Malabar, as I said. They were resistant. The Kodavas are still are a group of very energetic and brave warrior clans. And they tolerated no interference in their internal affairs. And they did not from the beginning to the end tolerate that they be ruled by Mysore. They fought Tipu, tooth and nail. Tipu went in, exiled en-masse, the numbers are still not clear. Some say sixty thousand. Some say the population there was not even so much. Yet it is true that Tipu passed several strictures against them. He gave several warnings to them. We have those letters wherein he warns them that if you do not submit to me, you will be made Muslim, very essentially because, if you were made Muslim you would obviously not be taken back as Hindus. You would be ostracized. You would not be let into the homes of other Hindus. You could not eat at their tables, and Tipu used this as a punishment. Where else would you be? It is more like a teacher saying or a mother saying “Hey Tommy, if you don’t eat your porridge. I will give you a spanking.” So, all Tipu’s letters say, “You don’t listen to me, you don’t obey me, you will be ordered with Islam”. This is ample evidence that Islam was used as a punishment for them. And several of them were taken into Islam also. A lot of them returned after Tipu fell but they were not taken back to Hinduism and they were still there as Kodava Mapillas. A large group of them are still around there. So, it is important to realize that Tipu used both in Malabar as well as in Coorg, religion, or conversion into religion as a form of punishment. The large majority of people in the Malabar stayed back. Many people were still around, even after Tipu left and we have ample evidence of this.

As for the Christians and Catholics of Mangalore, they were in connivance with the British. They lent money to the English. They gave away Mysorean secrets to the English and Tipu wanted to make an example of them because he felt if they were there as a large group it would be dangerous for Mysore. And Tipu brought them all to Srirangapatnam. This journey of exile, similarly as what happened to a large part of Coorgis or Kodavas as well was perilous because when you have large groups of people walking- men women and children walking over large distances, a lot of them succumbed and died en-route. But when they were brought to Srirangapatnam the Catholics of Mangalore were allowed freedom of religion. We have actual letters which Tipu sends to the Portuguese. He did not trust the English of course. When he asked the Portuguese to send priests, he specifically said ‘Indian priests. He did not even trust Portuguese priests. In Cochin you had many Syrian Christians, some of whom were Catholic. Under Portuguese pressure a lot of them had turned Catholic. He specially asked for Christians to be sent from there. Several Mangalorean Catholics were also asked to convert to Islam. Many of them willingly, and unwillingly, also became Muslim. We have records of this as well. A lot of them, after Tipu fell, went back to Mangalore and to the plantations and the professions they did. All this yes, I admit. His treatment of the Kodavas, the treatment of the Mangalorean Catholics, his purge of many ranks of the Kerala nobility happened for one reason- they did not accept suzerainty of the Mysoreans. We do not see this happening to the Telugus whose areas he captured. We do not find this happening to the Marathas or the Marathi Hindus. No. In fact we find a large number of Marathis taking service under Tipu both under the Brahmin clerical cadre as well as the military cadre. You have many Marathi Brahmins employed with Tipu.

So, what should come to our mind is, when Tipu did all this, was it done for the first time? Did no one else before Tipu do this? Did no one after Tipu do this? By this, I mean did they not punish recalcitrant subjects en-masse? Did they not exile them? Did they not harass them? That happened, yes. But Tipu is special to his detractors because he is a Muslim. And, in this charged political environment there are people who do not want to accept that what Tipu did 200 years ago, did at a time when there was no real concept of secularism as we know it. When the Muslim was not one group, but Muslim was still Sunni, Shia, Mehdavi and Wahabbi. Yes, the Wahabbis were there. I do not know how many of you know this. When he heard that the Wahabbis threatened the Holy Kaaba, he wrote a letter to the Ottoman Sultan saying he would send a detachment of his people of Mysoreans to purge what is today Saudi Arabia of this Wahabbi cult, who Tipu called ‘heretic’.

So, all of this happens because you look at history that happened there from a different eye- you look at it from today’s eye. And you must realize that as Voltaire said, ‘All great men have great falls’. And Tipu had some falls too. Yes. Yet, you cannot even remotely look at him as a religious bigot. No. Because he kept, he adored his subjects. He took good care of them. He made donations to Hindu temples, to Christian churches. He also requisitioned deities. He donated lingas. He requested temple priests to pray for him as his family. This is quite different. You pay money to a temple which is one thing. But you help to make a temple, you help to install a deity, an idol there, is different. You tell the temple authorities to make a prayer for him, to the Hindu deity, that is a different thing. Tipu indulged in this. This is not spoken about.

Tipu punished his subjects irrespective of religion. I have spoken about his punishment of the Muslim Mapillas, in Malabar. I have spoken of his punishment of the Mehdavis, they were Mysorean Muslims. When he did not discriminate in punishment, you obviously do not discriminate in the donations you do either. So, a lot of this is essentially because a lot of groups in India are angry, do not accept the fact that here you have a Muslim in the 18th century who regarded India and Mysore as his own and which was his own. And, who did not have any truck with the British and who all through the time unlike the Marathas, unlike the Wodeyars earlier, unlike the Nizam, refused throughout his career, throughout his rule, to even keep a resident in his court or to ally with the British in any fight with the other Indian powers. This mud of him being a bigot that is thrown upon him is all to serve one particular purpose. It is important to sift through the mud here and to take the gold that is there. I do not mean to convince you of anything. But I want to present you some of the facets of Tipu to you- many of whom would be Muslims or Hindus or Christians, to ask would such a man be a bigot? Thank you so much.