Marking Tipu’s legacy to foster historical temper

Developing an understanding of our conflictual pasts, and not retribution, is the way to deal with ‘historical wounds’

Updated - August 02, 2019 11:29 am IST

Published - August 02, 2019 12:05 am IST

A Tipu Sultan painting

A Tipu Sultan painting

On a recent visit to the University of Leicester, I had the opportunity of visiting the newly established memorial to Britain’s controversial King Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet Kings, and also the last British King to die in battle in the War of Roses against the Tudors. Richard III (r. 1483-1485) also has the distinction of being the only British King whose remains, found under a parking lot in Leicester close to the Cathedral, were identified by mitochondrial DNA in 2012.

In 2015, he was reburied in the Leicester Cathedral, under a simple yet beautiful gravestone, unadorned except for a coat of arms in pietra dura. The ‘rediscovery’ of his remains became the basis of a controversy that was finally settled in court, and the city of Leicester has been the beneficiary, raking in money from tourists who wish to discover for themselves the legacy of this controversial King.

Shakespeare’s portrait

Why controversial? Richard III’s ascent to the throne, after his brother’s children were declared illegitimate, has been under a cloud: did he ‘disappear’ his brother’s son? Shakespeare, loyal to his Tudor masters (the victors of the Battle of Bosworth) fostered the portrait of Richard III as a malevolent ruler in his celebrated play of the same name, from the very first scene.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is wracked by self-hate and doubt, (“I am determined to prove a villain”) and invites the harshest words from others: like “foul defacer of God’s handiwork”; “hell’s black intelligencer”; “carnal cur”; “bloody dog”; and “bloody wretch”. Richard III was not spared the ignominy of being described as a hideously deformed, “foul bunch-back’d toad” though we now know he only had a ‘crooked’ spine. But it is what the Leicester Cathedral has done to this legacy that has interested me the most: the display called for a contemporary reconciliation with the conflicting aspects of the memory of this King, emphasising the necessity of commemorating a brave and remarkable soldier, despite many popular memories to the contrary. Richard III is no unblemished hero, and there is no attempt to varnish that legacy.


The previous Karnataka government had introduced a ‘Tipu Jayanti’, which was scrapped by the recently sworn-in Yediyurappa regime in one of its first actions in power. I wish the previous regime had installed a ‘Museum to Our Conflictual Pasts’, which would allow all visitors to come to terms with the most controversial figure of Mysore history, Tipu Sultan. Such a museum would have allowed both those who malign his memory and those who celebrate it to learn how to come to terms with historical controversies — and the Indian past is replete with many such examples. Tipu Sultan for long emblematised the valiant struggle of Mysore against the British and, like Richard III, was the only one to die on the battlefield (all others were defeated by, collaborated or made their peace with, the emerging British power).

Over the last few decades in Karnataka, there has been a steady inflation of shrill debates about Tipu’s legacy. There are of course those who focus on his undoubted virtues, as the first early modern ruler to put in place a form of etatisme in the absence of a social class which could undertake radical economic change; whose lust for knowledge bequeathed to us a marvellous library of books; whose spectacular military successes stunned the British, and whose technological inventions — particularly the rocket — were pillaged by the West; whose penchant for restless innovation made him try his hand at transformations that would only much later bear fruit (for instance his experiments with silk production and his interest in large scale irrigation). The list is endless.

There is equally the memory, particularly in South Canara, Kodagu and Malabar, of Tipu’s real and imagined excesses: his zeal for conversion; his massacre of populations he considered hostile; and his introduction of Persian as the state language at the expense of Kannada.

Reading multiple sources

Our ‘Museum of Conflictual Pasts’ would not stage Tipu’s brief and embattled rule (17 years) as something requiring condemnation or celebration, but present it as an opportunity to develop a historical temper, a new sense of the past. It would urge the visitor, and especially the young visitor, to think historically: to read a variety of conflicting sources — including the words of the man himself — from the vantage point of his times. The museum would make the visitor ask why colonial accounts of this indefatigable foe, which necessarily cast him as a tyrant and a villain, enjoy such an enduring influence up to the present day; or to ask why the early 19th century Jain historian, Devachandra, saw Tipu and Haider Ali (his father) as just one moment in a long Mysore past peppered with desecrations, thefts, and destructions — particularly of Jain temples. Visitors could come to understand why Tipu supported some non-Muslim religious people and institutions and not others and why one temple was attacked but another, located 700 metres away, was left alone, as in Kodungallur Kerala. They could equally ask why he commandeered some Muslim communities and not others — the Navayat traders of Bhatkal recalled, in the richly textured kaifiyat s collected by Colin Mackenzie and magnificently annotated by M.M. Kalburgi, that they were made to perform Tipu’s government work under duress.

Visitors to the museum could ask why the Dewan of Mysore, Purnaiah, when asked by the British in June 1799 about who they should install after Tipu’s defeat, replied that the memory of the Wodeyars had all but been forgotten, and then went on to serve the British faithfully as a placeholder for Krishnaraja Wodeyar III. What does the rich symbolism of Tipu’s court — his obsessive use of the tiger stripe for instance — and indeed his adoption of Persian as the official language tell us about the quest for legitimacy? Moreover, was the religious zeal of Tipu, the son of a usurper, politically pioneering since his kingship had to be seen as deriving directly from god (hence Khodadadi — or god-given — sarkar )?

Why is it that indisputable facts — such as Tipu’s protection of Sringeri Math following the Maratha attack in 1791, and his continued donations to the place — equally serve as testimony to his ‘secularism’ and as an example of his political chicanery?

Coming to terms with the past

Tipu Sultan, in short, provides us with mind-boggling opportunities to fulfil one of the most urgent tasks of our times: to help people, and young people in particular, to come to terms with India’s many conflictual pasts, to teach people that understanding and appreciation, rather than revenge or retribution, are the ways in which we may deal with real and perceived ‘historical wounds’.

Karnataka’s pasts offer limitless possibilities for such instruction, and for refashioning the relationship between history and memory. Such a ‘Museum of Our Conflictual Pasts’ will help us to deal with the inconveniences of the past, and perhaps heal and reconcile, instead of staging afresh the battles of history.

In a gigantic edifice dedicated to the memory of the ‘Battle of the Nations’, the city of Leipzig commemorates the successful battle involving 6,00,000 people in 1813 against Napoleonic forces. The adjoining museum, however, acknowledges the many achievements of Napoleon, and is free of the vituperative celebrations of victors. We too must find the resources to develop a historical temper that acknowledges the inconvenient truths of our past.

Janaki Nair is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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