Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago lived a man renowned for his opulence, and bravery. He was fearless. Nothing scared him. Or perturbed him. He also had a deep abhorrence for the British East India Company and its colonial inroads into India.
His name was Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore. And his capital was Srirangapatna [spelt Seringapatam by the British], an island plonk in the middle of the mystical Cauvery River in present-day Karnataka.
It was to this tiny little, steeped in history, sleepy town that I found myself one day during my Mysore travels. Where.time.stood.still. And there were stories galore.
Inspired by the tiger, Tipu Sultan is said to have emulated its valour at every possible level in his own life. So much so, that it appeared on his jewel-encrusted gold throne, coinage, banners, weapons, and lavish palace decorations.
He even had a life-size, custom-made, mechanical toy called Tipu’s Tiger, comprising of a tiger attacking a British East India Company soldier, which he kept in his music room. The toy is now on display at the V&A Museum in London. It was but natural for him to be referred to, by both friend and foe, as the ‘Tiger of Mysore.’
This very courage led him to fight four wars against the British over three decades in the second half of the 18th Century. Despite losing the first two wars, the British admired him, albeit reluctantly, and were well aware that for any real control of India, they had to annihilate him. The Fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799 saw Tipu Sultan die on the battlefields, refusing his French allies’ advice to escape. His answer was quick:
“It is better to live one day as a tiger than a hundred years as a jackal.”
Tipu Sultan was not royalty by ancestry. His father, Haider Ali, usurped the throne from the Wodeyar dynasty [rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore since 1399], when appointed as their military commander, and then kept the royal family imprisoned in Srirangapatna under heavy guard. To assure the public their beloved Wodeyar king was alive and kicking, the father-son duo would parade him briefly around town as part of the city’s annual Dussera festivities.
Though the British destroyed Tipu Sultan’s main palace when they killed him, they decided to leave his Summer Palace or Dariya Daulat Bagh, built by him in 1784, unscathed. Which was strange. And I wondered why as I walked towards it. Surrounded by teak wood pillars and inconsequential teal-coloured window chicks in the centre of a manicured green expanse, I did not have many expectations of it.
Tipu Sultan [b. 1750 – d. 1799] by Mauzaisse. Lithograph titled ‘Tipu Sultan, Another View.’
… and his Summer Palace: Dariya Daulat Bagh, the ‘Garden of the Sea of Wealth.’ Every inch inside the palace built in 1784 is filled with colourful murals depicting historical events [2nd Mysore War], animated courtly life, and lush floral patterns.
But was I in for a surprise!
A series of colossal historical murals across the entire western wall recorded the defeat of Colonel Baillie in the Polilur War [Second Mysore War], Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali’s epic war processions, and the arrival of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s parade at the battlefield. There were ferocious horses and confused soldiers in embattled scenes. Tongue-in-cheek humour peeped through the details. Even Monsieur Mons Lally, Tipu Sultan’s French ally does an appearance, replete with a telescope.
On the eastern wall were portraits of Tipu’s Sultan’s contemporaries arranged in seven neat rows. Chieftains, ambassadors, queens, nawabs, marathas, peshwas, fakirs, musicians, religious and secular folks in the late 18th Century. They were all here in uncanny lifelike detail. There is the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in his ornate mosque. In another line art edifice, a dancer accompanied with a string of women musicians sways to her own song.
And if that were not enough, the two inner halls edged with smaller rooms was a riot of ethereal stucco and exuberant painted flowers punctuated with canopied balconies and Tipu Sultan’s signature tiger-striped pillars. A carefully curated exhibition of his memorabilia nestled inside with pencil drawings of his seven sons, his silk trousers, coins, and paintings by British East India Company artists.
And I was back in time … expecting Mr. Sultan to pop out of one of the arches any minute.
Now I knew why Dariya Daulat Bagh was still intact. Coz it was so darned lovely.
After gunning down Tipu Sultan on 4 May, 1799 the British East India Company forces in Mysore led by Colonel Arthur Wellesley [later the Duke of Wellington] stripped Srirangapatna of its wealth and put the Wodeyars back in power. Wellesley decided to live in Dariya Daulat Bagh himself, surrounded by its splendid art, and for that one decision of his, these murals in the Vijayanagar-Mysuru Style of Painting have lived on for posterity. ❤
Colonel Baillie’s defeat in the Polilur War or 2nd Mysore War, 1780 – 84.
The centrepiece of the panel is the square in which British ammunition stock has been set ablaze by Indian and French troops, much to the British soldiers’ consternation. Colonel Baillie is seated in a palanquin, carried by six Indian soldiers. He is biting his finger, just like Captain Baird and Colonel Fletcher on horseback next to him [see blog post’s title image].
Meet Monsieur Mons Lally, a French army officer and Tipu Sultan’s ally, observing the attack on the British with a telescope from the mural’s top right-hand corner.
War procession of Tipu Sultan.
Tipu Sultan in royal dress, riding a royal horse under a royal umbrella, smelling a rose without a care. Here he is shown in conversation with his commander-in-chief Kamuruddin.
Indian infantry in Tipu Sultan’s army. Check out the conversationalists. Aah, the Indian love for a good chat even when going to war!
This is a detail from the Procession of the Nizam of Hyderabad as he arrived at the battlefield. Smelling roses nonchalantly was apparently the order of the day. 🙂
The entire eastern wall contains portraits of Tipu Sultan’s contemporaries. Divided into seven horizontal bands, there are chieftains, ambassadors, queens, nawabs, marathas, peshwas, fakirs, musicians, religious and secular folks from the Sultan’s time encased in 18th Century architecture and costume.
One of the masterpieces in the portrait paintings: A queen seated on a carpet, smoking a hookah, and surrounded with musicians and attendants.
Left: Is that the Queen of Chittor by any chance? Like all good royals, she too holds a rose in her hand; Right: A caparisoned elephant, carrying a howdah with a seated king, looks at the guard from the corner of his eye.
A dancer sways in joyful spontaneousness accompanied by a string of women musicians. Did you notice the violinist?
Durbar time. The king and his entourage are greeted by two courtiers.
This is my favourite in the portrait paintings. The muezzin in a minaret-topped mosque calls out to the faithful to attend prayers. His lifelike face is a wonderful contrast to the line art of the perfectly symmetrical edifice.
Where the historical paintings end, exquisite stucco and lavish floral designs take over in Dariya Daulat Bagh. Tipu Sultan’s signature striped pillars open into airy halls edged with luminous rooms. It takes a while to get used to the ornate jewelled edifice and to get your breath back. But then, did he not call it the Garden of the Sea of Wealth—a ‘wealth’ of art and colour.
- Timings: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. Open daily.
- Ticket: Rs. 25 for Indians; Rs. 300 for foreigners; The palace has excellent description plaques.
- Photography is allowed but ONLY of the murals and exhibits. Selfies and photographing people are strictly prohibited.
- Getting there: Srirangapatna is around 20 kms from Mysore. Take a day taxi or rickshaw to explore the island as there are other sites close by.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Mysore and its surrounds over 5 days in end-January 2020. To read more posts on Karnataka, click here.]