Sultan of Swing

Part of the Spotlight feature Tiger of Mysore

Say what you will about Tipu, but the man had style. He had such a natural gift for creating a personal brand, it would put the entire Kardashian clan to shame. Like a true icon, he had a signature motif. Tiger stripes or bubris were engraved on his weapons, embroidered on his throne and printed on his flag. Why the tiger? To quote the man himself: “In this world I would rather live two days like a tiger, than two hundred years like a sheep.” Like a connoisseur, Tipu took his entertainment seriously. So seriously, in fact, that his little hobby (see Tiger below) fuelled the creation of the famous Channapatna toy industry. And like the apex predator he admired, he fought to win. Those tiger stripes weren’t an empty threat; Tipu invested in centres of technological research to be able to manufacture better weapons. Here’s just a small sample of the breadth of one man’s imagination.

Tipu’s tent

Tipu's tent in Mughan chitz fabric displayed at the V&A

Installation view of the tent at ‘The Fabric of India’ exhibition at the V&A Museum, London; Image courtesy: V&A Museum

When Tipu toured his territories, this massive tent served as his home away from home. Hoisted to its full stature, this contraption of cotton, leather, metal and bamboo covers an area of 629 sqft and it occupied pride of place at ‘The Fabric of India’ exhibition, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2015-16. The tent, which is dated between 1725 and 1750, is a classic example of Mughal chintz. Local artisans used techniques such as printing, painting and dyeing to achieve the effect of a dazzlingly symmetrical floral explosion. After Tipu’s death, the tent was taken to England by the Governor of Madras, Robert Clive, as part of the spoils of war. Many garden parties were held under its majestic sway once, but it currently slumbers as a relic at The National Trust, Powis Castle in Wales.

Tipu’s palace

Black and White photograph of an intricate arcade and pavilion of the teakwod palace Darya Daulat Bagh, Srirangapatna

Darya Daulat Bagh, Srirangapatna, a photograph by Edmund David Lyon from the Sarmaya collection

Darya Daulat Bagh in Srirangapatna is a gorgeous teakwood palace set amid manicured gardens. Once the seat of power in 18th-century Mysore, this prettily proportioned summer palace today houses the Tipu Sultan Museum. The structure was built in 1784, two years after Tipu succeeded his father Haider Ali as the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. It marries local Hindu and Islamic sensibilities in its form and décor. Every arch, pillar, jharoka and wall inside is covered in exquisite frescoes and paintings. Tipu would greet his subjects and give audiences from the grand balcony seen in the picture above.

Tipu’s tiger

Tipu's Tiger - A stylised wooden tiger attacking a soldier.

Tipu’s tiger is housed at the V&A Museum, London; Image courtesy; V&A Museum

Part plaything, part musical instrument, and wholly an exercise in psychological warfare, Tipu’s mechanical tiger is an extraordinary object. Consider when it was made. In 1793, Tipu was still hurting from his defeat at the hands of the British army in the Third Anglo-Mysore War of the previous year. It cost him dearly not just financially and territorially, but also on a personal front—to make sure the terms of the treaty were met, Lord Cornwallis took two of Tipu’s young sons, aged 8 and 5, hostage. Tipu focused at least some of the ire he was feeling towards the design of this toy. Every time the organ pipe inside the tiger was played, the British soldier under it would flail and cry out. A clever bit of automation and a nice distraction from the real army at the gates. Tipu’s love for wooden toys and his royal patronage fostered a community of artisans in Channapatna, who ply their trade to this day.

Tipu’s weaponry

Tipu Sultan's weapons and armour - two pistols, intricately decorated amour pieces, a curved sword and scabbard.

Tipu’s arms and armour, which fetched over Rs 54 crores in a London auction at Bonhams in 2015; Image courtesy: Bonhams

According to the respected aerospace scientist Roddam Narasimha, “It was Tipu who first realised the full potential of rockets as weapons—both in his mind and on the field—and used them to create havoc in the East Indian Company lines. Thus, all the rockets in the world today can be traced to those used during the wars in Mysore.” When the British stormed Srirangapatna in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and overthrew Tipu, they looted his armoury, took the weapons back to England and studied them so they could recreate the cutting-edge technology that was conceived of in places like Bangalore, Srirangapatnam, Chitradruga and Bidanur. By investing in material, skills and research, both Haider Ali and his son elevated the art of warfare in the subcontinent. Tipu’s far-ranging, deadly rockets were the first of their kind in the world.