Understanding Tipu Sultan, Warrior and Dreamer

A conversation with Kate Brittlebank, whose Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan looks at the life and times of the dynamic, near-mythical historical character

Note: This article first appeared on July 22, 2016 and is being republished on the occasion of Tipu Jayanti.

In 2015, the Karnataka government decided to mark November 10 as Tipu Jayanti Day, celebrating the former ruler of Mysore, starting off a series of controversies. Even 217 years after his death, Tipu Sultan remains a figure of fascination for Indians. Most Indians know of Tipu Sultan from the TV serial The Sword of Tipu Sultan, based on a novel by Bhagwan Ghidwani. The serial was broadcast on Doordarshan from 1990 onwards, with 60 episodes following Tipu Sultan as he faced off against a rising East India Company.

This myth-making around a historical character who died in battle against India’s erstwhile colonial rulers has been refuted by various communities, such as the Kodavas in Coorg and others in parts of Kerala, who call Tipu Sultan a “treacherous tyrant”. Tipu’s policies against various subject communities is well documented and a number of these, such as the campaign against the Kodava, seem especially brutal.

It is refreshing, then, that a new book on Tipu Sultan by Australian historian Kate Brittlebank has just been released by Juggernaut. The short book is engagingly written, and at 130 pages – excluding references and appendices – it is an excellent overview of the man and his times. It will, though, not help anybody answer questions about the past. While it may be fair to argue, as Manoj Joshi has done in these pages, that the past has to be seen as complex and one seeded with many potential conflicts if we are to keep digging in the fertile soil of historical wrongs, it is possible to judge acts of historical characters as unpleasant or problematic. Brittlebank studiously avoids such calls, instead trying to “explain” these actions as much as possible. This contextualisation often seems to shade over into apologia, for example in her description of how Tipu Sultan acted against the matrilineal traditions of the Nairs:

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.

Despite such issues, the book offers a great way to see again this dynamic actor from the past, who, despite the flaws he may have had, managed to dominate the discourse through his deeds, his designs – above all, that of the Tiger – and his interesting idiosyncrasies, including a dream journal.

Kate Brittlebank <em>Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan</em> Juggernaut, 2016

Kate Brittlebank
Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan
Juggernaut, 2016

Brittlebank answered some questions about these for the The Wire:

Why does Tipu Sultan continue to fascinate us after so long? Was it merely the mythmaking/demonisation of the East India Company or is there more to it?

It does start with the mythmaking but the colonial environment and the Indian independence struggle meant that the story of Tipu could be draw on as an example of someone who stood up to the British. Later political developments, such as the rise of Hindu nationalism, have also kept his story alive.

Is part of Tipu’s appeal his death? If he had lived, you seem to suggest that he would have agreed to cede power to the British and thus would end up rather like the rest of India’s princely rulers, neither very powerful, nor very principled.

Tipu is famous because of his death and that is the consequence of British myth-making. I find him appealing because he was a capable, intelligent and energetic ruler. He should certainly not be defined by his death. Yes, it is probable that he would have negotiated with the British if he had not been killed. I am not sure what you mean by ‘principled’. We should not judge him with hindsight. The British Raj had not come into being in the late 18th century – although Tipu understood the threat the British posed, he did so in the context of the pre-colonial period.

The tiger trope that Tipu used, the babri stripe, the symbols with which he wrapped himself around with are all quite remarkable. Was this on par with the traditions of the time or was he an outlier in this kind of thing?

Most rulers associated themselves with particular imagery to project their identity, but it is certainly the case that Tipu did so to a greater extent than was usual.

After 1792, his reign became more Islamic in character. How did this help him? After all, the vast majority of his subjects were not Muslim, so this would not help him rally local opinion.

To understand Tipu’s actions in this case, we need to see them in the context of what had happened to him. He had suffered a humiliating defeat in 1792 and two of his sons had been taken hostage. As a devout Muslim, he would have seen the hand of God in these events. He wished to appease God to avoid further disasters. We should not conclude that because he used Islamic rhetoric and so on that he was intending to persecute his non-Muslim subjects or that it would affect them in any negative way. He was appealing to God and fellow Muslim rulers, not to his subjects – the threats against him were external not internal.

The question of Tipu’s treatment of some populations, specifically the Nairs and the Kanara Christians, has become an increasingly touchy subject. You seem to argue that this stemmed not from religious prejudice, but strategic considerations, could you please explain why you believe that?

‘Believe’ is not the right word. My explanation of why he treated these groups the way he did is based on the evidence available and what led up to his actions. To Tipu, these groups were rebels and had to be punished. Tipu did not harbour extreme religious prejudices. If we think about this logically, what benefit would he gain from persecuting people on the basis of their religion? What mattered most to rulers at this period was maintaining control of their territory because that was what they relied on for revenue. As I point out in my book, a peaceful realm is a productive realm.

You mention the intriguing project of the khwab nama, Tipu’s dream journal. Are there any other rulers who kept such journals or something like them?

I can’t answer the question about whether other rulers kept actual journals, but we do know that the reporting, recording and interpreting of dreams was commonplace. It is likely that Tipu was keeping this particular record to help him manage the increasingly difficult situation in which he found himself in the late 1790s.

Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan by Kate Brittlebank is available on the Juggernaut app and in bookstores.