Tipu was no Fanatic: A Dissent Note From History

In Kerala, or at least in parts of the erstwhile colonial Malabar, many Hindu upper caste households used to keep dogs named Tipu, apparently after the legendary Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. Make no mistake, this is not so much of an endearing act. In the local culture, very often dogs were named after one’s enemies as an insult to them. Often challenges and bets were made on condition that the winners could name their dogs after the losers. And, that brings up the obvious question, what would have provoked these people to name their dogs, derisively, after the valiant Mysore sultan, who put up the toughest challenge against the mighty British in south India and was celebrated as the Mysore Tiger?

The obvious answer points to the fact that the legacy of Tipu remains a contentious issue in both academic circles and in public polemics. Very often, accounts of his strong nationalistic views and his commitment to the motherland were overshadowed by motivated campaigns that lacked any sense of history or context. The recent incidents of violence perpetuated by ultra-rightist outfits affiliated to Sangh Parivar in parts of Karnataka after the State government decided to commemorate the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan is a case in point. This article is an attempt to revisit the legacy of Tipu Sultan and his interventions in Kerala from a historical and social perspective.

18th century Kerala, especially Malabar, was in a state of flux as the region started falling into the hands of the British. On the eve of it, the region had experienced a Mysorean interregnum as Hyder Ali, who became the ruler of Mysore in 1761, led campaigns to annex Malabar to his growing empire. In 1763, he added Bednore in north Kerala to his control. Historical documents show that Hyder Ali had sent Ananta Rao, his messenger, to Thalassery to negotiate with the British. Similarly, he appointed Madanna, a veteran Brahmin bureaucrat, to look after the newly-conquered territories in Malabar. His second campaign to Malabar was in 1773 and it was organised under Srinivasa Rao and Syed Saheb. It was following the unexpected demise of his father that Tipu Sultan came to Kerala to continue the campaign.

Tipu's fort in Palakkad, Kerala
Tipu’s fort in Palakkad, Kerala

Tipu Sultan’s initial campaigns in Malabar were against the British. In 1783, after expelling the British from the main centres of operations, Tipu Sultan expanded his territory all the way up to Korapuzha in the south. Around the same period, the tactics of Tipu ensured victory for the Mysoreans in the Second Anglo-Mysore war and the war ended with the Treaty of Mangalore. As per the Treaty, the British had to accept the Mysorean suzerainty in Malabar.

In the early weeks of 1788, Tipu Sultan reached Calicut through the Thamarassery Pass. His campaign didn’t face much resistance or challenge. In Calicut, the most significant decision made by him was the transfer of capital from Calicut to Farookabad, on the banks of Beypore river. In Malabar, Tipu Sultan’s son Abdul Khaleeq married Arakkal Bibi’s daughter. In November 1789, Tipu Sultan reached Kochi and advanced his campaigns by destructing the nedumkotta, the huge fort, of the Kochi Rajas. But later, due to the onset of rain, Tipu decided to retreat, temporarily halting his military campaigns in Kerala. The Mysorean interregnum came to a permanent halt with the signing of the Treaty of Srirangapatanam. Malabar came under the direct rule of the British as an outcome of the Treaty.

Demonising Tipu

There has been a good number of impositions bestowed upon the Mysoreans in general and Tipu Sultan in particular. Tipu Sultan was branded a Muslim fanatic and many historians wanted to demonise him. Many narratives portray him and those who stood with him as motivated and guided by narrow fundamentalist and fanatic religious beliefs. Many view Tipu as an iconoclast and a destroyer of temples and other institutions of non-Muslim religious importance. Another major allegation against Tipu and his campaigns was about forced conversions of people from other faiths to Islam. Many historians and public speakers allege that proselytization was the state policy of the Mysoreans. Similarly, they allege that the Mysoreans under Tipu Sultan had ‘destructed’ a number of temples in Malabar and had forcefully converted the inmates of the temples and in their vicinity ‘under the blind spirit of his religion’. In Malabar, almost every temple of some antiquity has a tale related to temple destruction by Tipu Sultan. There have been allegations that during his campaigns in territories that form the present-day Kerala, Tipu Sultan had engaged in destruction of Hindu temples and forcible conversion of Hindus and Christians to Islam.

Many Hindu temples in Kerala that received huge grants from Tipu Sultan. The Guruvayoor temple was granted 669 acres of land apart from annual grants in cash.
Many Hindu temples in Kerala received huge grants from Tipu Sultan. The Guruvayoor temple was granted 669 acres of land apart from annual grants in cash.

It is high time we took a relook at Tipu Sultan and his campaigns in Malabar. During his campaigns, Tipu Sultan had attacked Hindu temples and mansions of the Hindu elites. There might be instances of conversion to Islam as it was the religion of the Sultan. Tipu might have targetted Hindu temples and huge mansions of Nambutiri and Nair elites (Ettukettu-s and Nalukettu-s) as they were also seats of abundant wealth and resources. The recent discovery of treasures in the Padmanabhaswamy temple stands testimony to the fact that temples also doubled up as treasuries of the local rulers in those days. It was not uncommon for kings to carry out plunder and plunder raids to add wealth to their coffers or to fund their military campaigns. History has many instances of plunder and sharing of the booty among the victorious campaigners. One can even find such instances in very ancient history including that of the Vedic times and Sangam period. In Kerala also the nattudayavar-s or the local rulers had attacked Brahmanic Hindu temples in the Sanketam¹ area inside the local nadu-s. It was more the norm than an exception in those days. Similarly, it was generally a practice to bring the subjected people into the religious belief of the conqueror. Many people even did it voluntarily as a way to please their new rulers and for moving up the social ladder.

A benevolent Sultan

Instead of branding Tipu as ‘Muslim fanatic’ in the light of stray and isolated incidents we should look at the big picture that contains his many campaigns, the period of his rule, and his actions as a ruler. There is nothing to suggest that he discriminated against his Hindu subjects. Unlike some rulers in north India, he didn’t impose any religious tax (such as Jazia). It is also a fact that many of his key aides were Hindus. Furthermore, the Inam registers kept at the Regional Archives, Calicut, speak of the religious tolerance and benevolence of Tipu Sultan. The documents speak of his donations of rent-free lands to temples, mosques and religious personae in South Malabar and Cochin. It is interesting to note that out of sixty two grants referred only five were to mosques or Islamic religious personae. The remaining fifty seven were made to various Hindu temples and religious personae. When we group together the major grants beyond fifty acres, we find that out of eighteen such grants, only two went to mosques or Islamic religious personae. Of the rest, fifteen had been to Hindu temples and one to a Hindu religious persona. Some of these grants included hundreds of acres of land.

A huge grant of 669 acres was made to the Guruvayur temple. Along with that Sultan had also made arrangements for disbursing 8000 pagodas annually in cash to the temple. In this context, it is also worth noting that the Sultan had acted as the protector of Sringeri Mutt when it came under the attack of Raghunath Rao Patwardhan, a Maratha general. In 1791, when Patwardhan had invaded Sringeri Mutt, plundered the monastery, killed a number of Brahmins and committed the sacrilege of displacing the holy image of Goddess Sharda, the person whom the Shankaracharya requested for assistance was the ‘Muslim fanatic’ Tipu. The Sultan immediately sent money, grain and other articles necessary for the re-consecration of the idol and received prasada and shawls in return.

Transforming Tipu into a ‘Muslim fanatic’

The identification of Tipu Sultan as a ‘muslim fanatic’ could be legacy of the stories and the local lore fabricated by the dominant upper caste Hindus, especially the Nambutiris and Nairs. The Mysorean rulers were instrumental in re-designing the revenue system in Malabar. In the new revenue system implemented by Tipu Sultan, tax was collected directly from the tenants and this accorded the tenants with dignity and worked against the then prevailing exploitative and torturous system run by the upper castes who acted as the intermediaries between the tenants and rulers. It further antagonised the landlord castes of Malabar, the Nambutiris and Nairs as their rights and privileges were imperiled. In 1788, he made the Kuttippuram proclamation in which he criticised polyandry prevalent among the caste Hindus. Further he insisted the womenfolk to wear breast cloth. The N-N duo (Namburtiri and Nair) had to counter the ‘attack’ of Tipu Sultan on the social practices in Malabar.

Tippu Mausoleum by Roshan381 at English Wikipedia
Tipu Mausoleum at Srirangapatna, Karnataka (by Roshan381 at English Wikipedia)

Tipu sultan also contributed to the modernisation of roads in the region. The policies and programmes which Tipu Sultan had insisted and implemented heralded modernity in Malabar. Contrary to the popular narrative propagated by people with vested interests, Tipu Sultan was a man of religious tolerance and respect for different faiths as is evident from the various grants he made to so many Hindu religious institutions. He was also guided by the high social principle of ensuring decent dress to the women folk. Despite the popular, motivated narratives that portray Tipu Sultan as a religious bigot, anybody who takes a cursory look into the annals of history can see that he was in fact the opposite of what the popular narratives portray him to be. If anything, he was a shrewd ruler and a brave fighter with a modern outlook and pragmatic policies.

[1] Sanketam-s were the autonomous centres related to temples and its property in Medieval Kerala. Despite their independent status, they were attacked by Hindu rulers. The brahmins demanded dandaparihara (reparation) and the failure to do so by the local Rajas compelled them to go practice Pattini (fasting till death) in front of the Rajas’ houses.

1. A. Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History, (Reprint), Kottaya, 2007.
2. A. Satyanarayana, The Mysore Sultans, in Economic and Political Weekly, Vo.39, No.24, (June 12-18, 2004), pp.2445-2447.
3. Bonaventure Swai, Notes on the Colonial State with Reference to Malabar in the 18th and 19th Centuries, inSocial Scientist, Vol.6, No.12, (July, 1978), pp.44-65.
4. Bonaventure Swai, East India Company and Moplah Merchants of Tellicherry in Social Scientist, Vol.8, No.1, (August, 1979), pp.58-70.
5. C.K.Kareem, Kerala underHydar Ali and Tipu Sultan, Cochin, 1973.
6. Dilip.M.Menon, Houses by the Sea: State Formation Experiments in Malabar. 1760-1800, in Economic and Political Weekly, Vo.34, No.29, (July 17-23, 1999), pp.1995-2003.
7. Irfan Habib (Ed.), State and Diplomacy under Tipu Sultan: Documents and Essays, New Delhi, 2001.
8. K.N.Panikkar, Men of Valour and Vision, in Social Scientist, Vol.19, No.8 &9, (August-September, 1991), pp.109-111.
9. Kate Brittlebank, Tales of Treachery: Rumour as the Source of Claims that Tipu Sultan was Betrayed, in Modern Asian Studies, Vol.37, No.1, (February, 2003), pp.195-211.
10. Stuart Charles, The History of Hyder Shah and his son TipooSultaun, (Reprint), New Delhi, 1976.

(The writer is Assistant Professor of History, Govt. College, Madappally, Kozhikode)

Featured picture: “The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun,” painting by Henry Singleton.