Whose history is it anyway?

While the nation quibbles over polarised perspectives of Tipu Sultan, whose death anniversary was on May 4, precious reminders of his reign cry out for attention.

May 04, 2013 06:22 pm | Updated 06:22 pm IST

Srirangapatana Fort. Photo: M.A. Sriram

Srirangapatana Fort. Photo: M.A. Sriram

Over two centuries after the fall of Srirangapatna (old Seringapatam), the legend of Tipu Sultan lives on in hitherto undiscovered manuscripts and art works and fresh controversy. Every now and then, some new discovery is made, adding to the mystique that surrounds the Sultan and giving fresh momentum to the debate about how we should perceive him.

While we quibble over our polarised perspectives, a crumbling fort and other precious reminders of this important chapter of our history cry out for attention. The deteriorating paintings on the walls of the Daria Daulat Bagh (Tipu’s magnificent Summer Palace), the encroachments in and around the fort and the sorry state of the Rocket Court are only a few examples of our neglect. The amazing sense of history one gets in Srirangapatna, where tumultuous events once unfolded, is hard to replicate. But do we have the will and the resources to maintain our heritage and showcase it more effectively, both for ourselves and for the world?

Whatever the answer may be, a series of recent events in different corners of the globe would appear to suggest that interest in Tipu will always be alive. Earlier this year, the Archaeological Survey of India made what officials described as the most “sensational archaeological discoveries” in the history of Srirangapatna. The five interlinked underground tunnels, found very close to Tipu’s Palace, open up new possibilities for research.

A discovery no less exciting was made less than a year ago in the U.K., where a detailed record of the spoils seized by the East India Company after the Fall of Srirangapatna, surfaced for the first time. No one knew where these precious historical records lay or how they landed up in a second-hand bookshop before being bought by the collector who took them into Sotheby’s for evaluation and auction.

Among the treasures described in these papers is the only known sketch of Tipu’s lost throne. The most exquisite ornament of this spectacular gold-covered throne, a bejewelled huma or bird of paradise over the canopy, is part of the royal collection. Of the tiger head finials, now known to have been 10 — and not eight, as previously thought — only four have been seen so far. The whereabouts of three became known only when they were put up for auction; the fourth is exhibited in a castle.

From time to time, Tipu objects — housed in castles, manors, bank vaults and cottages — emerge to go under the hammer at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonham’s. Parallel to this activity is another, an emotional journey, undertaken by the other stake-holders in Srirangapatna’s past, descendants of the British and French — settled in countries like the U.K., Canada and Switzerland, who have visited Srirangapatna and carried out the restoration of their ancestors’ graves. In 2008, Charles Baillie — former Chancellor of Queen’s University and a descendant of Col. William Baillie who was defeated by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan in 1780 in the Battle of Pollilur — visited the Colonel’s mausoleum for the first time. The tomb has since been restored by his family with the help of a grant from the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia.

The Garrison cemetery, once off the tourist itinerary, is seeing more visitors following its renovation by the de Meuron family of Switzerland. The Regiment de Meuron, raised in Switzerland in 1781, served the East India Company in the Mysore Campaign of 1799.

Tipu’s capital has its share of mystery for the French too. Recently, a former French diplomat who visited Srirangapatna in an effort to trace the graves of the French soldiers who’d died there during this period — “for my country” — had to return unsuccessful.

An even deeper mystery shrouds the death of General Lally who fought the British army on Tipu’s side at Pollilur in 1780. Some French scholars have concluded that he could have died in India in 1790, or in 1799, at Srirangapatna at the time of Tipu Sultan’s death. But there is no evidence to support their claims. General Lally figures prominently in the enormous mural, depicting the Battle of Pollilur that decorates both sides of one of the main doorways of the Daria Daulat Bagh. Pollilur has been described as ‘one of the greatest calamities that has ever befallen British arms’. It was also the last time an Indian prince was able to inflict a crushing defeat on an imperial power.

The figure of Tipu Sultan continues to fascinate the West, where an industry of scholarship has grown around him. In recent years there has been a marked shift from the earlier view, largely shaped by accounts from British sources — the official historians, for example, and soldiers who fought at Srirangapatna, of Tipu as “a monster, pure and simple”. Noted British scholars have, in their different ways, attempted an evaluation of the Sultan that moves away from this one-dimensional appraisal of Tipu as a fanatic. Nor do they flinch when it comes to describing their own excesses during this time. Anne Buddle recognised his patronage of the arts and curated two major exhibitions devoted to Tipu, first in London in 1990, and second, The Tiger and the Thistle Exhibition , at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1999. Ten years ago, a BBC crew was on location in Srirangapatna, filming for Wellesley: The Iron Duke , a lavishly constructed TV series hosted by the late historian Richard Holmes. Contrast their pride in this chapter of our shared history with our own apathy towards it.

Srirangapatna has all the makings of good theatre — the towering figure of the king undone by treachery, a fierce battle and the river that runs through its history like a leitmotif. The area around the Mysore Gate on the ramparts of the Srirangapatna Fort has reportedly been selected for a sound-and-light show focussing on the life and times of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. But the wheels of officialdom grind slowly, so it may be quite some time before this and other projects on the anvil for the fort and this historic city take off.

In the meantime, the enormous potential of the place as a tourist attraction continues to be squandered tragically and there are worrying portents. Witness the slow erosion of Mysore’s legacy as a Maharaja’s capital with high-rise buildings mushrooming next to heritage structures in the heart of the city.

While tourism is unquestionably one of the drivers of our economy, in Srirangapatna, preserving our national heritage is the greater compulsion now. It’s time all discussions on whether Tipu Sultan was a cruel tyrant or a far-sighted ruler were relegated to the academic world, where they belong. Like it or not, he is a part of our history and we owe it to posterity to preserve the historical treasures of Srirangapatna.

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