In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Tipu Sultan and his island capital ‘Seringapatam’ were the source of so much awe and fear that another island far away was engulfed by what historians described as ‘Tipu Mania’. In Britain, a thriving ‘cottage industry’ of objects, paintings, plays, songs and structures related to Tipu Sultan emerged throughout the 19th century. Srirangapatna too began to be marked by the complex memories of Mysore valiance and the final British triumph alike.
But what is the fate of this historic city in our times?
Today, Srirangapatna is a pit stop for those on their way to Mysore, the city with a magnificent ‘royal’ landscape.
It is also the final destination of those who seek immortality or a passage to a new life in the Cauvery’s sacred waters: for this, as Thomas Gray reflected, “On some fond breast the parting soul relies, Some pious drops the closing eye requires.” But when Britain’s most feared foe was defeated, in fact exterminated, on May 4, 1799, and his family rooted out, the island was turned into a ‘topography of conquest’ that commemorated every skirmish won by the British, and the bravehearts they themselves lost. Equally, the spot where Tipu was slain, and his mausoleum, continue to attract hordes of tourists. Other sites, such as the purported tomb of ‘Langde’ Ghulam Ali Khan or the graveyard of Sayyid Gaffar Sahib Makan ‘Sunni’, ruined and off the tourist path, are monumental reminders of Tipu’s administrative and war machine. Graves of yore and last rites today – it is death that cleaves to historical and sacred spaces alike.
An application to declare Srirangapatna a UNSECO heritage site was made in 2014, though it is yet to bear fruit. But a very active, lively and passionate dedication keeps the history of this island safe from the benign neglect, deliberate silence or wanton destruction that scars so many historical sites in India today. Needing no guidance from today’s much-maligned textbooks, or from the now politicised histories that enjoin us to search for ‘historical wounds’, or the historical method of the embattled professional historians, a band of community historians have nurtured and cherished the history of this important though declining town. These ‘organic intellectuals’ chip away at sources and material remains, to uncover perspectives and ideas to kindle conversations in the little island.
On May 3, 2023, (the day before annual commemoration of the historic defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799), a small terrace in Srirangapatna brings together a group of about 30 people, for a lively discussion about the 18th and 19th centuries. The Sanjaya Prakashana, where this conversation takes place, was established by Shivakumar, a tailor by day and a poet to boot who regularly organises meetings and events by night. Like many others who were born on the historic island, he had swum as a youth in the clear, cool waters of the Cauvery. Unlike many others who may share that past, his connections to its history are studiously nurtured by his interest in reading, and a passion for exploring the islands many pasts. His library surrounds his sewing machines, and his terrace is transformed by night into a place for informed debate and exchange. Chandranna is another indefatigable member of this group, committed to organising the lectures, keeping an eye on local sites and, of course, networking with visitors and the community.
What, for instance, are the kinds of insights that are revealed by a Kannada hukumnama of Tipu? Nidhin Olikara, owner of a three-wheeler showroom in Shimoga and another passionate Tipu scholar by night, painstakingly translated and published that order. On this day, Olikara spoke of the multiple readings that are enabled by this meticulous record: the pay of the asofs, the languages of the administration (Persian, but also Kannada, Marathi), the state of stores or arms and ammunition, the cost of feed for the palace birds and animals, and the careful sourcing of military and other materials. But perhaps most unusual was the inclusion of a budget for Dasara celebrations on the island capital.
This is no self-conscious ‘secular nationalist’ rendering of the past, merely a loyalty to the source and what it might tell us about the complex transition to modernity represented by Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. Therefore, among these community historians, there is equal dedication to uncovering again historical traces and material remains produced by the victors, which in turn signal the long ‘afterlife’ of Tipu Sultan.
Why did an island, which was no longer the capital or even the site for British troops to be stationed, become the space of important memorials to the British triumph? These 19th century additions are not included in the list of standard tourist sites. A local and very popular doctor, Sujaya Kumar, with long roots in Srirangapatna, stumbled on an engraved stone marking the Esplanade, dating back to the 1817. It lies among the ruins of the temple that was similarly displaced by the new road that divided Srirangapatna.
He takes it on himself to bring a somewhat bemused representative of the Archaeological Survey of India, stationed at the Dariya Daulat, to this spot, and record this ruin. His enthusiasm fails to stir the ASI representative, but the 70-plus Sujaya Kumar is undeterred. He maintains a strong link to the almost daily ways in which Srirangapatna’s pasts are remembered. His collection of coins from the 18th and 19th centuries, covered with verdi gris, for instance, are contributed by those who respect his passions, to add what they routinely find in the detritus of the city.
While the ASI maintains the principal historical monuments such as Dariya Daulat, the Jama Masjid, the Gumbaz, the eight armories, the obelisk at the north western end, and the site of Tipu’s death, many of the places in its watch are crumbling from disinterest. The Kalegaudana Bateri, for instance, is ruined, surrounded by the ubiquitous garbage, and in one of the adjoining gates to the fort that was once described as India’s most impregnable, is parked a JCB, the emblem of New India. The collapse of the outer layers of the fort, from neglect and encroachment, may well signal the eclipse of crucial memories of valiance, betrayal and military victory.
The beautiful tomb of Ghulam Ali Khan, the lame vakil who was featured in many British paintings and drawings as the official guardian of Tipu’s two sons taken as British hostages in 1792, is virtually unapproachable.
Its superb dome is a refuge of bats, and its lovely cusped arches are destined for sure collapse and disappearance. At least two of its surrounding verandahs have already disappeared. Known locally as ‘Gumchi’, the tomb does not contain the remains of Ghulam Ali Khan himself, but only of three women. An intrepid historical explorer of Srirangapatna, Y. Harshavardhana, another Tipu scholar by night following his day job as a lecturer of biochemistry, tells us that the famed Vakeel and Mir Sudder was known to have lived in Srirangapatna until 1809 before finally dying in Krishnagiri fort.
The ASI is of course not entirely without zeal, absentminded though that zeal might be. The only obelisk to which tourists are drawn is the one that commemorates the British soldiers slain in the Siege of Srirangapatna. Installed in 1907, more than a century after the British had vanquished Tipu, it eclipses the four other obelisks in Srirangapatna, all in ASI hands, and all relatively neglected. Of these, two obelisks bear the same name, ‘Ranagamba Sabbal Rani Thittu’!
Is the mystique of Srirangapatna such that many sites claim the same story, just as Indian multi-sited epics do? Or is it a warning that bears repetition: the punishment that awaits the virago and other recalcitrant women?
The two panels, quite unwittingly, ‘quote’ a well known lavani when they declare that the obelisks were erected at the site of ‘Sabbal Rani Thittu’. This is what the lavani said:
Tipu sultanana hadinelu varushada aadalitha koneyayithu
Tipu rajyadolu sharabi, shendi, ganja, afhimu iralillala
Tipuvina kaladolu jujinaata men vyabhicharada sulivilla
Gnapakaviddithu sabbal raniya dinneya bhithiyu janakalla.
To this day, the ASI guide helpfully added, troublesome women are reminded of Sabbal Rani’s terrible fate: being impaled for being unfaithful. Thus historical artefact and local lore are intertwined in the intriguing inscriptions of the ASI.
The island presents many more opportunities to explore the intersection of history and rich folklore. For instance, was Sujaya Kumar not, as a sick youngster, taken by his grandmother sometime in the 1950s to the Gumbaz, to invoke blessings and a healing touch at that sacred tomb of Haider and Tipu? The continuing power of such associations, and the meanings they hold today, still await exploration.
A third (and cruder) obelisk, unapproachable and surrounded by a wall, commemorates Colonel Grimstone, who was unloved for his harshness and requiring ‘protection’ even after death. The fourth monolithic obelisk, perhaps more frequented, is a short drive out of Srirangapatna, and was installed in 1805 by the Dewan Purnaiya to the memory of Josiah Webbe, his patron in the Madras Council. Many years later, in 1821, Mark Wilks recalled the erection of this obelisk. Hewn from a single piece of granite originally 84 feet tall, too delicate to be trusted to any bullock-driven carriage, it was pulled by as many as 600 men to the spot. On the basis of an old drawing, Olikara has reconstructed what this carriage might have looked like. In Wilks’ eyewitness recall, it was an indigenous architectural feat to have the massive stone transported to the site, and then erected, with a high polish:
“The obelisk is erected, nearly on the site of the Eedgah Redoubt, which made so determined a defence on the 6th February 1792; and the view is taken from the north, with the Fort of Seringapatam in the back-ground; a bungalow for the accommodation of visitors, and of a gardener, is seen on the left; and more in the fore-ground, the carriage on which the shaft of the obelisk, was conveyed from the quarry, supported by eight wheels or rollers, four without, and as many within, the cheeks of the machine.”
De Havilland’s ‘hanging’ bridge, also an engineering marvel of sorts, and for long a site of amusement to visitors, has collapsed, leaving no more than a handful of photographs, some memories of people well into their 90s, and two pillars that are (again) unapproachable given the undergrowth and ubiquitous garbage.
Old maps and paintings have been the basis for a bit of excellent sleuthing by Harshavardhana: he has traced the small stone slab known as Skelly’s Post, today hidden by construction, on the Paschimavahini Bridge. It commemorated once more a 1799 victory. Harshavardhana is determined to uncover the other Posts, such as Wallace’s Post, that were erected in the early 1800s. What is to stop an imaginative tour of Srirangapatna, in these ‘post-colonial’ times, from including the spot where Colonel Wellesley (who achieved fame many years later as the Duke of Wellington) ‘lost his force, and lost himself and lost heart and sustained his one defeat’ at Sultanpet Tope in 1799. Now, it is a mere geographically indexed spot near Bammuru agrhara.
That not many portrait painters were able to capture Tipu Sultan in paint is of course well known. His only known profile, which has been endlessly reproduced in cheap prints and handsome reproductions alike, was by the artist G.F. Cherry. Harshavardhana, in collaboration with Charles Grieg and Nidhin Olikara, has painstakingly traced the origins of a museumised mistake: the portrait of ‘Tipu Sultan’ attributed to Johann Zoffany and mounted at the entrance to the Daria Daulat Bagh today is completely misattributed. It is, he has demonstrated, a clone of the image of Salar Jung, featured in a painting by another well-known artist Tilly Kettle, a court painter of Shuja ud Daulah, Nawab Vizier of Awadh dating from the late 18th century. The portrait in question has entered into the collection at Srirangapatna only in the 1950s.
Of course, that neither Tilly Kettle nor Johann Zoffany visited either Mysore or Srirangapatna should have made any conscientious curator or museologist wary of attributions. But it is the extreme diligence of the amateurs that has made exciting new connections and discoveries beneath the city that has banked too much on a handful of well-known sites.
Another neglected and yet important site is an open ‘court’ with extremely high walls composed of brick and stone, entered through a narrow gully off a residential street. It is purported to be the site for storage of Tipu’s famous rockets. Such a site should have been a mouth-watering chance for the ASI to build a rich narrative about Tipu’s rocket men and the kind of scientific interest that they engendered, leading to what is probably one of the earliest cases of intellectual property theft. In subsequent experiments with rocketry in Europe, William Congreve borrowed generously, and without acknowledgement, from the designs of the Srirangapatna pioneers.
Tipu’s interest in science and technology, of course, disturbs the more favoured narrative of tyranny and cruelty. But even here, the ASI’s interests are not consistent: while the dungeon in which Colonel Baillie and others were imprisoned is better preserved, an equally interesting and intact Inman’s dungeon has become ‘out of bounds’ to all but the determined tourist, serving as a seedy den for card sharps.
State indifference to Srirangapatna’s past is, of course, far overshadowed by the kind of public interest that is shown in improving and expanding Hindu places of worship: thus, adjoining Inman’s dungeon is the Kote Ganapathy temple, which has endured periodic flooding from the river, is a site of active and continuous worship. Other small mandapas have fallen into decay.
Perhaps it is unregulated worship itself that threatens the site of Srirangapatna more than neglect or disinterest. As priests (and temples) related to the rites of passage proliferate, new rituals are being added to the old, though endangering the future of the river itself. Over the last 20 years or so, the local historians tell us, the ‘fond breast on whom the parting soul relies’ have been urged to get rid of clothes (belonging to the dead? worn during the last rites?) in the river. As a result, the river is burdened with clothing, and other temple trash, mutely bobbing testimony to what most Indians value greatly – worship, rather than curiosity and interest in matters of history. So entrenched has this belief become, that the occasional board warning against such reckless acts are routinely ignored.
Even as brand new temples are being constructed, Srirangapatna periodically resonates with the war cries of those wishing to ‘reclaim’ the Jamma Masjid; as a result it is now protected by a posse of armed guards. The Moodalu Bagilu Anjaneya, who, as Nidhin Olikara says, could have voluntarily ‘hopped’ across the street, is testimony to the complex negotiations of Tipu’s time, which visitors could learn from. Do visitors not have a right to a non-confrontational understanding of this past?
The commemoration of the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan on May 4 is a sombre and dignified affair, largely conducted by the local Muslims. Most tourists do not disembark from their vehicles but are content to hear out the richly embellished accounts of the tourist guide. Meanwhile, Sujaya Kumar reminds the gathering that Tipu’s death ranks as world-historic, as a fateful and irreversible turning point. Yet with the heavy handed police presence, and an overzealous security guard, such imaginative retellings and connections are overshadowed.
What opportunities are presented by the sites that have been renovated and restored for telling a refreshingly new tale about Srirangapatna? The Garrison Cemetery, renovated at great cost by a Swiss family whose forebears populate that graveyard, is one such opportunity. This cemetery of 307 graves contains up to 80 of the Swiss de Meuron regiment. Would it not interest our tourist public to learn that this was a Swiss mercenary unit, offering its services to whichever East India Company could afford them? (In this case, Dutch and English). That the Garrison Cemetery is today at all a tourist site, it is due entirely to the efforts in 2007 of the descendants of that family.
In such a landscape that is redolent with historical meaning, too many sites are left to be overrun by weeds and fungus, or left to the elements to destroy. Tourists could be given a taste of the many attacks on this island fortress, by the Marathas as well as the British, before the breach of 1799. From the site of the Lal Mahal, can we imagine Tipu’s splendid library, perhaps take a peek into some of the many Persian manuscripts that he commissioned, bought, or simply took as war trophies? Dare we ask why the language of his library was exclusively Persian?
Instead, it is ironic that the sound and light show at Srirangapatna has thought fit to design a ‘set’ in one part of the fort. The set includes a temple and a mosque flanking the palace, and subtended by the dungeons. The local history buffs may be powerless to transform the relative neglect of many structures on this historic site but through their determined and continuous engagement, the past is brought alive more successfully than any sound and light show. The UNESCO heritage tag, if tied to the work of these historians, could signal new, imaginative and instructive engagements with Mysore’s history. Otherwise, alas, the historic island will be overrun by the imaginations of poster-makers who declare Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV as ‘Tiger of Mysore.
Janaki Nair taught at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.