Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Srirangapatna and Tipu Sultan

I had written this post up as a very longish one - but Firefox crashed on me and I hadn't saved a draft! I wasn't inclined on typing the whole thing up again - but I will try typing a much shorter version of what I wanted to say. IE otoh is far more reliable. Firefox 1.0 is not stable at all.

This post was inspired by a trip to the Mysore-Srirangapatna area. We went from Bangalore to Kengal, from there to Nimishamba and Chamundi Hills and then returned to Bangalore via Srirangapatna. We had a brief refreshing stopover at Gosai Ghat where the kAverI river flows softly.

The region we visited last Sunday was once ruled by Tipu Sultan - the son of Haider Ali who managed to vest power from the ruling Wodeyars of Mysore. Tipu Sultan was called the Tiger of Mysore before he fell to British bullets during the fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799. He is widely acknowledged in several parts of India and by modern Indian historians as the first freedom fighter who fought against the British.

When we reached Srirangapatna, it was around 7PM. The last pUja of the evening was being performed and the main deities - shrI ranganAtha and shrI-ranganAyakI were resplendent. The atmosphere was charged with devotion towards the Emperor and Empress of the Universal Stage. The pillared hall brought back memories of a bygone era when devotees thronged the temple and illuminated the then electricity-free temple with their devotional fervor. As luck would have it, there was a power cut when we were inside the temple and it made us see how life was without electricity. But the Lamp in the Deity's Sanctum Sanctorum provided us with much needed light - just as the Almighty is the only source of Light during troubling darknesses of life.

When returning to Bangalore, I saw remnants of fortifications around the temple town and this immediately brought Tipu to mind. The interesting thing is that Tipu, though much loved and respected in the Old Mysore area which he ruled, is widely reviled in other parts of South India. It is especially so in Kerala where the mention of Tipu's name brings terror and sadness to the locals' hearts even now. Tipu is supposed to have had thousands of people - Hindus and Christians - hanged from trees to give a very public display of his authority and tyranny. He is also notorious for converting a large chunk of the local Hindus to Islam by the sword - which is the reason for a substantial Muslim population in Kerala today.

But he has committed an equally if not graver atrocity closer home. This was in the temple town of Melkote.

Melkote is a centre of Vishishtadvaitic learning (Vishishtadvaita being one of the principal schools of Vedanta philosophy). This was the place to which Ramanujacharya regarded as the founder of the Vishishtadvaita philosophy sought refuge in from the persecution of the Shaivite Chola rulers. A temple dedicated to Cheluvanarayana Swamy ( a form of Vishnu) flourishes there even today. Known as a center of learning in those days, Tipu caused the place to become almost desolate.

A branch of Iyengars known as Mandyam had made Melkote their home. They had apparently pledged allegiance to the Hindu kings of Mysore. They were quite a learned sect too. On Deepavali day in 1783, Tipu's army descended on the town and massacred close to eight hundred people. What the immediate reason was, I don't know. But this kind of a massacre - just thinking about it - chills me to the bone.

On the way back from Srirangapatna, this incident haunted me - I don't know for what reason. I thought of what a happy day it might have been when Melkote was getting ready for the festive occasion. When Tipu's army went there, most people might not have bothered to run for their lives as they themselves were a non-violent bunch. When this kind of killing began - how horrified they must have been! Most of the families were destroyed and the temple apparently became a ghost town - houses without people, tanks running dry, uncultivated land! During those years, eight hundred was a pretty large number for the population of a town. How mean and cruel must Tipu have been to inflict such a horror on his own subjects!

In sad memory of that horrible incident, Mandyam Iyengars apparently do not celebrate Deepavali even today. I can imagine their state of mind when they realize that their forefathers were butchered at the hands of an inhuman band of soldiers.

This incident is enough in my mind to conclude that Tipu was a bloodthirsty tyrant. But there have apparently been worse incidents attributed to Tipu in Kerala. He is not well-regarded by people of Chitradurga whose ruler Madakarinayaka was killed by Tipu's army.

Yet, Tipu is regarded highly as a 'secular' king and even as a freedom fighter. Why, even my father regards Tipu as quite a good human being. It is not the case that my father does not know. Tipu had a Hindu, Purnaiah as his Diwan (Chief Minister). He had quite a few Hindus in his army. There is proof to show that he had donated land and money to the temples of Srirangapatna, Nanjangud and even Sringeri. The novel - the sword of Tipu sultan - by Bhagwan Gidwani was written with Tipu as its hero. And so were plays and novels in Kannada. So there is data which can be construed to show that Tipu was a good human being. So was Tipu a schizophrenic then?

I need to get more information that conclusively proves Tipu as a tyrant or as a well-intentioned ruler. I suppose I have to ask more knowledgeable people about that.

But the image of a festive town turning into a graveyard in a single day continues to haunt me.


Venkatesha Murthy said...

It would be interesting to know how many of Tipu's excesses occurred when he was a prince and how many were after he became a sultan. We do get the impression from history that he was tolerant to non-muslims when he was sultan. The happenings at Chitradurga were definitely when Hyder Ali was the ruler - Tipu was just the prince and governor.

We must keep in mind that Tipu was brought up as a "sultan by divine right". Hyder Ali never proclaimed himself the sultan - he was just a nawab and he paid token respects to Krishnaraja Wodeyar II - but he did bring up Tipu as a ruler. Maybe Tipu was uncontrollable as a young prince? Maybe the tempering influence of Diwan Poornayya when he became the ruler served to change him?

OTOH, I have heard that Tipu "kept his image" by being benevolent towards the larger temples and centres such as Srirangapattana (he could hardly have done anything there) and Sringeri but routinely if not systematically neglected or reduced patronage to other temples. I haven't heard though that he had them demolished or rendered unusable.

It's a pity that we lack facts about such a recent occurance as this.

nIlagrIva said...

After this post, I spoke with a very learned person on this topic. He told me that it had been conclusively proved that Tipu was a tyrant and a bigot. Apparently, there were massacres of innocent people in his own kingdom - the Old Mysore area. Tipu is known to have burned down libraries also. He also apparently had written a letter to the ruler of Afghanistan to join him in making India a Muslim nation. His alliance with the French and his fight against the English were just strategic plays. Letters written to the Mysore palace apparently reinforce the view of Tipu as an autocrat.

There is a well-researched book which has been translated into Kannada from which the above information is taken. I plan to skim through the book shortly. An interesting thing is that this book was publicly burnt by Muslim fanatics. The book apparently even says that Haider was a better human being than his son - which is not what seemed to convey in his magnum opus - Durgaastamaana.

I too have thought about a young and rash Tipu who mellowed down as he got older. But the Melkote incident happened a year after Haider Ali's death. So I don't know if the picture holds true. Basically, I'll have more information once I read the book.

Venkatesha Murthy said...

I would certainly love to hear from you once you've read the book. Which one is it, BTW? Do please review/summarise it in a post when you get a chance.

As for Tipu himself, I am not surprised :)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this will be useful. Maybe it will point you towards other sources of information, and help to build a clearer picture of Tipu.

nIlagrIva said...

I have looked at that website and book review. The Kannada book I referred to is a translation of a hindi book. The book is ready for me but I am stuck with so many things that I've been unable to read it.

Anonymous said...

From Dev Raj

Yes I am responding to you guys who read only the fiction written by English Bigoted historians ,their job was to divide and rule and make certain rulers of India as bigots,Historian such as Mark wilks,William Kirkpatric,James mills,W Miles, Dirom and many others spread lots of rumors against Tipu.Bhagwan Gidwani and Praxy fernandes wrote excellant work after years of research,I have read both of those work and find quite satisfactory and also read books by Narayan and Pandey those were also quite excellent,dont believe and trust on British historians .

nIlagrIva said...

Dev Raj,

I recently read a book by an Indian whose gist you can find below.

Several questions remain even when we are unbiased about Tipu. How do we explain the Mandyam Iyengars not celebrating Naraka Chaturdashi even today because of their ancestors getting killed at Tipu's hands? Why do people in Kerala shudder on hearing Tipu's name even today? Even in Coorg in Karnataka, we have the same question. Did they conspire with British historians to commit to the same behavior?

How do you know that Bhagwan Gidwani did excellent work whereas the others did not? I agree that some British historians may have written from a divide and conquer standpoint and that we must have to take their histories with a pinch of salt. But what do Tipu's own letters to various rulers in Afghanistan,Egypt and Turkey say? And to his own commanders that command the killing or conversion of several people in Kerala? Tipu seems to be an Islamic bigot - at least from those letters and from his own memoirs.

There is one problem in Modern India. Truth is seen as subservient to "secular" ideals. So, if something doesn't satisfy the pseudo-secular fraternity, the truth is subverted. At this point,certain "scholars" jump in to make hay. While I don't like all of what the right wingers like the RSS and VHP are doing, studies to uncover the truth must not be suppressed by using book-bans and violence - which is the default behavior whenever something that is seen as tearing the "secular fabric" of society turns up.