Tipu’s treasures

Published June 14, 2015
An ornately carved rifle / Photo by the writer
An ornately carved rifle / Photo by the writer

There was a time when Tipu Sultan, the legendary Tiger of Mysore, was labelled an ‘intolerant bigot’ and ‘furious fanatic’ by the British. Now, with the passage of centuries, the tune has somewhat changed. At least as far as auction houses are considered. “Mysore was the strongest, the best governed and most prosperous state in South India; he [Tipu Sultan] implemented reforms to all areas of life, from agriculture to anti-corruption and religious tolerance,” writes Claire Penhallurick in the introduction to the catalogue ‘The Tiger of Mysore: Tipu Sultan (1750-99)’ by Bonham.

The praise is not without context: recently an auction was held at Bonham where all the 33 artefacts related to Tipu Sultan were sold at prices higher than estimated. The centrepiece was a remarkable sporting rifle made for Tipu Sultan by Asad Khan Muhammad, with its butt carved into the shape of a snarling tiger (sold for £60,000); the quiver and arm-guard, embroidered with Tipu’s bubri-pattern in metal thread (sold for £10,000), a unique sword with the blade forged with a bubri-pattern and a hybrid Anglo-Indian sword with pommel consisting of a tiger head (sold for £190,000).

Two other lovely objects which I liked when I visited the pre-auction viewing were a rare bronze cannon with tiger heads on wheels and on the muzzle (auctioned for £1,200,000.00), and a quilted helmet with gold nasal bar inscribed with the names of Allah, Mohammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husain, (auctioned for £155,000.00).

Many of these objects have been included in major museum exhibitions, some several times over.

Tipu associated himself with the emblem of Tiger, which is found all over his arms, armoury and regalia. Following their use by Rustom, the hero of the Shahnama, Tipu too used tiger stripes which showed Rustom’s bravery; he also revered the martial figure of Hazrat Ali and his epithet ‘Asadullah’ is found on a number of weaponry in the sale.


He was feared by the British, revered by his followers and now his treasures are up for auction


Following the shahadat of Tipu Sultan and the fall of Seringapatam in 1799 Lord Harris declared: “Now India is ours”. Then ensued several days of indiscriminate plunder of not only the palace and treasury but also houses of the 100,000 inhabitants of the city; Arthur Wellesley wrote to his mother: “Scarcely a house in town was left un-plundered, and I understand that jewels of greatest value, bars of gold, etc. have been offered for sale in the bazaar”.

A prize committee was instituted for the division of spoils. The head of the committee David Price wrote: “The wealth of palace, which was sufficiently dazzling to the eyes of many included jewels and bullion, bales of costly stuff, to surpass all estimates.” The prize agents were staggered by what they found in treasury; gold, arms and armour, palanquins, furniture and finest cloths. “The first day of counting yielded 1.2 million sultany pagodas (Tipu’s gold coins), all neatly sealed up in bags of 1,000 (the equivalent of 0.5m pound sterling / Indian Rs5m of the time).”

A rare three-pounder cannon with field carriage / Photos courtesy Bonhams sale catalogue
A rare three-pounder cannon with field carriage / Photos courtesy Bonhams sale catalogue

A more vivid account was given by Bowing in 1893: “A magnificent throne, a superb howda, curious and richly jewelled matchlocks and swords, solid gold and silver plate, costly carpets and china ware, a profusion of fine gems, and a valuable library” (now divided between the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the British Library). The most important pieces were reserved for the directors of the East India Company and British Royal Family. Tipu’s tiger ‘Baja’, a musical instrument in the shape of a tiger devouring an English soldier, was given to the directors of East India Company and now lies in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Among the many instances of looting, one stands out. Tipu’s gold throne was broken up at the order of the Prize Committee to the regret of the Governor General in Calcutta, who wished that it could be reassembled to be presented to the King; this gorgeous throne was barbarously knocked to pieces with a sledge hammer.

Tiger’s head from the throne of Tipu Sultan
Tiger’s head from the throne of Tipu Sultan

Moienuddin, one time chairman of Tipu Sultan Research institute, said: “Tipu Sultan was a military strategist ‘par excellence’ designing his own arms and weaponry who, nevertheless, understood that the bulwark of his strength lay with his subjects. He was in the forefront of communicating with other powers of the time including Usmani Caliphs of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Napoleon.”

A rare quilted helmet with gold steel nasal bar, Mysore, late 18th century
A rare quilted helmet with gold steel nasal bar, Mysore, late 18th century

What made me happy, when I visited the ‘Gumbaz’ — the mausoleum of Tipu and his father Haider Ali — outside Seringapatam in India last year, was that a platoon of school boys

visiting at the same time as me gave a military salute to both freedom fighters. Even the site where Tipu Sultan’s body was found has been marked by a boundary and a stone describing the incident.

The writer is Fellow Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine June 14th, 2015

All the photographs are from the sale catalogue of Bonham except the head of tiger which I took at the exhibition ‘Gold’ in Queen’s Gallery exhibition which is going on in Edinburgh, now.

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