A Day with Tipu

A single, narrow, dusty main road, a narrow road packed with shops on both sides announces that we have reached our destination – Srirangapatna while a running commentary from the driver was enlightening us with how we should hasten through our itinerary since the road will be blocked off on account of Mysore Dassara. As we pass the harassed traffic officer, one can easily see small streets branching off the main road, leading to either dead ends or more houses or more shops. The air speaks of a time gone by, as if we have stepped into a different century. Probably because technically the town of Srirangapatna is enclosed within the Srirangapatna fort. Technically, the newer additions, such as the two bus stands, the railway station, the vegetable market and the Bangalore-Mysore highway are all outside the fort. It’s like a time capsule of 18th century waiting for you to surrender yourself to the hisotric town of Srirangaptna.

Srirangapatna, a drawing by Capt. Allen, engraved by J. Wells, published in 1794. It shows a south-west view of Srirangapatna fort with Tipu’s flag on mast, minarets of mosque, temple towers and palaces

A Historic Overview

Towards the middle of the 18th century, the political situation in India can be best described as a state of flux. In the north, the Mughal Emperor was reduced to a mere figurehead. While numerous chieftains such as Nizam of Hyderbaad and Arcot were declaring themselves quasi-independent of the Mughals, roving bands of Maratha horsemen were collecting Chauth and Sardeshmukhi tributes (types of tax). And then there were the smaller kingdoms, Mysore, that had its origins amongst the ruins of the Vijayanagara empire and moulded itself into a small, dynamic Hindu state. But by the time period of context here, the Wodeyar kings, who had been ruling Mysore for over 300 years, ended up as nominal rulers where the actual power was wielded by their prime minister, or ‘dalavai’. The first shift of power happened in 1760 when Hyder Ali eased into the title of Sarvadhikari or regent of the kingdom on account of internal politics.

After Hyder’s death in 1782, Tipu took over his father’s position with the fait accompli of his father’s closest friends in court as well as the acquiescence of the local populace, who had by then come to see a stronger and more prosperous Mysore under Hyder and Tipu. The series of four Anglo-Mysore wars, which began in 1767, had propelled the hitherto unknown kingdom of Mysore into the notice of the powder rooms of Europe and America. The first war saw Mysore dictating terms to England at the gates of Madras with a 17-year-old Tipu scaring the British Governor of Madras into fleeing his country house on a boat; the second war was Tipu’s brightest moment. At the battle of Pollilur in 1780, the flag of Tipu’s Mysore was in the spotlight while the English army known for their warfare tactics were humiliated in India. Out of 3,000 men in the British army, only about 400 survived. By 1785, one in seven Englishmen in India was Tipu’s prisoner.

Mural at Daria Daulat Bagh, showing Battle of Pollilur

Thus began a vicious diplomatic campaign against Mysore, a forerunner to Britain’s expansionist drive across India. Why such a focussed approach? More than the defeats, the factored that bothered the would-be colonial rulers was that here was a native ruler — or ‘despot’, as they branded all of them — who was different from the others. He did not while away his time in pleasure, nor leave the management of state to some palace coterie; and not once did he ask the British for help against his neighbours. And they failed to acknowledge that if Britain, a small ‘island of shopkeepers’ as Napoleon once termed it, could come to be seen as the birthplace of the world’s largest empire, then so did Tipu have the moral right to attempt to catapult his Mysore onto the global stage. Instead, he took advantage of the enmities being played out in Europe, recruited the French as willing allies and drilled his army in modern European maneuvers. Mysore was the first state to demonstrate the efficacy of rockets in war by modifying what was until then a mere firecracker into something that could carry a sword or wooden blade

Srirangapatna – where history stands in solidarity with time

According to the local tradition, the great sage Gautama lived here for a while and worshipped the lord Sri Ranganatha Swamy. Even today, a small island to the west of the main island in the course of river Cauvery is called Gautama Kshetra. The local people associate this place with sage Gautama and says that here in a natural cave sage Gautama did the penance and lord Sri Ranganatha blessed him. According to another tradition the principal deity of Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple of Srirangapattana was built by one Devadasi namely Hambi. This is referred in one of the works of Timmakavi, namely Paschima Rangakshetra Mahatmam. Another report to submitted to UNESCO also reveals that the history of Srirangapatna commences from the 9th century when Ganga chieftain Tirumalaiah founded two temples – one dedicated to Sri Ranganatha Swamy and the other to his tutelary deity Tirumala Deva, and named the place as Srirangapura or Srirangapattana.

Ranganathaswamy Temple is an important temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The presiding deity is worshipped as Lord Ranganatha. The idol of the god is seen resting on a bed of the serpent Aadi Sesha, who has seven heads and is often portrayed as a companion of Lord Vishnu. The shrine is believed to be among the eight self-manifested idols of the lord. Interestingly, Sri Ranganathswamy temple is not just a temple, but is considered as a temple-town with it Sapta-Prakaram formation which comprises of a temple-centered settlement pattern with seven rectanglular concentric enclosures around the main inner sanctum of the deity. While the inner five enclosures form the temple, the outer two enclosure function as a settlement. Overall, the Temple Complex has 21 very colorful sculpted gopurams (consecrated gateways with towers), 50 sub shrines, 9 sacred pools, gilded Vimana (dome) over the sanctum sanctorum of the presiding deity, and other interesting features such as fresco paintings, and  800-odd inscriptions dating back to the rule of different dynasties. Due to shortage of time and the never-ending queue comprising of coughing people, I didn’t reach the interiors of the temple or explore its many wonders. But Tipu Sultan had donated four silver bowls (engraved with his name and Shri Krishna) to the temple which are used even today for daily puja rituals. Very unlike the “marauding despot” as depicted by the East India company isn’t it?!!

Originally, the Srirangapatna fort was under the Vijaynagara empire when it was built by Timmanna Nayaka in 1454, With various shift in ruling hands, the fort was further modified and “fortified” by French architects during the reign of Tipu. Srirangapatna geographically is already protected on three sides by river. While currently, all that remains are few of the notable gates and some rumbling brick walls, once upon a time it used to contain Lal Mahal and Tipu’s residential palace which were later demolished by the British at the time of Tipu’s death.

Entry to the island can be done via the following entrance gates, namely Bangalore gate, Mysore gate, Delhi gate, Elephant gate and Water gate. Water gate is said to be a secret gate to river Kaveri from fetching water by the people of the fort. The stone plaque on the wall of Water gate states: “At the Northern End of this Archway fell Tipuu Sultan – May 4th, 1799”.

Victories are celebrated, not as a grandy party of drunken display since Tipu prohibited drinking under his reign, but more as an open display of snide supremacy. The prominent painting from the Indian perspective is a wall mural in Tipu’s summer palace or Daria Daulat Bagh, depicting the Second Mysore War (1780-82) in which the British under Colonel Baillie were convincingly depeated at the hands of Tipu Sultan near Polilur. You can read about how and why the palace is a true repository of wealth of art and colour in my previous post linked here.

Had Tipu Sultan not forced the British to sign the Treaty of Mangalore (1784), had he taken military offensive to the other strongholds of the East India Company, the history of South India might have been very different and we may have been closer to France than to England. History however is a complex web and what happened in India were never isolated from events in Europe.

Interior view of the museum at the Summer palace (PC: Google)

Colonel Baillie’s defeat goes unnoticed if we don’t add the dungeon of his captivity to the itinerary of the day with Tipu! Especially after seing the depiction on the mural paintings of Daria Daulat Bagh as an injured, nervous man hiding in the palanquin, while his troops are working hard against a combined force of Mysore and French infantry. As a capital city during Tipu’s reign and considering the amount of trouble he had caused with his neighbouring kingdoms and the East India Company, it is natural to have couple of dungeons awaiting his conquests.

Named after Colonel Baillie who dies in 1782 during his terms of imprisonment, the dungeon is located little north of the Sri Ranganathswamy temple, literally 5 mins of walking distance away. The bastion, known as Sultan Bateri, is an oblong structure that conceals the vaulted dungeon built in brick and mortar. According to the placard outside, the prisoners of war were kept chained to the walls of East, North and West walls. Currently, the dungeon houses a cannon, almost like a symbol of this is how war ends up like. Seventeen years after the fall of Tipu Sultan, a memorial mausoleum in the name of deceased Colonel Baillie was built in 1799 by Baillie’s nephew who served as the British Resident in the Court of the Nawab of Oudh, Lucknow. The memorial is said to have been built adjacent to the Gumbaz where Tipu is buried. GPS failed me since I was not able to personally locate this structure.

Considering the role Tipu’s artillery played in the Anglo-Mysore war and the fame Mysore rockets reached even across the pond, obviously we had to take a detour to the Armoury. Built with lime, stone and mortar which has been lined and compacted with a mixture of eggs, jaggery and soapnuts had made the armoury the toughest in the history of such buildings, making it impenetrable a fact vouched by the team of engineers who were tasked with shifting the Armoury to a ASI-protected location. The armoury was almost half under the ground to keep the gunpowder cool as it may explode due to the rising temperatures.


A short distance away from the Armoury is the Masjid-i-Ala or Juma Masjid, built during Tipu’s reign. It is said that the mosque was frequented by Tipu when he was not stuck in war. The mosque has two tall minarets, two stories and unlike other mosques, it does not have a dome. Due to some current dispute over religion (typical to Indian regime nowadays), photography inside the mosque is strictly forbidden.

In a way, history of Mysore took a step into the modern era with the fall and demise of Tipu. However, no significance goes unnoticed without the mention of conspiracies and betrayals just like no love story is complete without a great tragedy or a heartbreak. In the pages of Indian history, there are two significant moments that deserve to be remembered and mentioned. Betrayal of Mir Jafar in 1757 that paved a way for East India Company to lay the foundation of the British Rule in India, and Mir Sadiq’s treachery of 1799 during the fourth Battle of Mysore that finally confirmed and consolidated the Foreign Rule.  

Three armies marched into Mysore in 1799—one from Bombay and two British, one of which included Arthur Wellesley. They besieged the capital Srirangapatna in the Fourth Mysore War. There were more than 26,000 soldiers of the British East India Company, approximately 4,000 Europeans and the rest Indians; while Tipu Sultan’s forces numbered only 30,000. On the final day of confrontation, May 4, 1799, after a 32 days’ siege of his fortress, Tipu Sultan was “martyred” by the British troopers with the active support of Mir Sadiq, his own chief minister. Before his “martyrdom”, Tipu Sultan was approached for a “disgraceful” compromise or surrender by the British, which he declined in these words: “Single day life of a tiger is far better than that of 100 years of a jackal”, hence, the name: Tiger of Mysore.

“In the fourth Mysore War the British laid siege to Srirangapatna on 4th May 1799 AD and effectively breached the Fort at Watergate. On hearing of this storming of the enemy, Tipu moved posthaste to the spot, and in the fight, fell to the bullet of a British soldier. It was here the body of Tipu Sultan was identified and recovered amidst heaps of the dead soldiers. In recognition of the valiant Tipu, Colonel Wellesley set a stone tablet to mark the spot.”

Engraved marker found in Tipu’s Death Place

He was dressed alike with his soldiers in the battlefield making it a bit difficult for the British to recognize him. But Mir Sadiq, as a part of the ploy, neared and bowed before Tipu Sultan as if showing a mark of respect. But it was a pre-planned signal to the British to identify and “martyr” Tipu on the battlefield. A stone placard has been erected to mark the place where Tipu’s body was found and is locally known as Tipu’s Death Place.

His body was later shifted to be buried next to his parents at the Gumbaz. The mausoleum was built by Tipu Sultan in the memory of his parents, holding true to Indo-Islamic style with a dome situated on a cubical framework, decorative railings, and turrets ornamented with spherical-shaped finishes. Honestly, it reminded me of a miniature of Taj and I did contemplate the idea of including it in the Mausoleum series briefly. But a day with Tipu requires full and comprehensive justice! Even today, when tourists visit the tombs of both Tipu Sultan and Mir Sadiq, there is a clear difference in their treatment and response to the two tombs. While the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan and his family is treated like dargah of a Sufi saint, often referred with reverance as Hazrat Shaheed (Martyred Saint), in sharp contrast, the grave of Mir Sadiq remains is utter ruins with blatant disregard even from ASI.  

Primarily the mausoleum was built to enshrine the remains of Tipu’s father Hyder Ali and his mother Fakr-Un-Nisa. Tipu’s remains are now residing next to his parents, covered in a shroud of Tiger stripes, under a painted dome of equal flamboyance, as if even in death he wants the notoriety of Tiger motif to be continued and remembered. In fact, the flag hosited right in front of the mausoleum itself is said to be bear the insigna of Tipu Sultan. Family member of Tipu’s including his seven sons, have also been burried outside the mausoleum to bring light to his legacy in entirety. Another Indian treasure, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, are the original carved doors which once stood at the mausoleum’s entrance. The present-day ebony embedded with ivory doors are Lord Dalhousie’s gift to Srirangapatna in 1855.  

Tipu Sultan’s life is what books and movies are made of. His death was a cause of celebration for many during 18th century, but even today many people celebrate his death anniversary as a Sufi saint of Martyrs. And some, still remember him with strong opinions like my guide/car driver of the day who appeared to be a die-hard advocate of Wodeyar dynasty. Srirangapatna’s sites help to humanise the legend in a significant way.

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