History & Culture

Can Tipu Sultan’s dream journal shed new light on the man?

Robert Home’s oil ‘General Lord Cornwallis receiving Tipoo Sultan’s sons as hostages’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Nestled inconspicuously amongst the numerous Persian manuscripts held by London’s British Library is a slim book, unremarkable save for what exists between its worn leather covers: a personal record of 37 dreams that Tipu Sultan, the controversial ruler of Mysore, deemed important enough to write down. The Tiger of Mysore’s dream journal gives us a glimpse into his many preoccupations. There is of course the focus on defeating his enemies — the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the heathen Christians — as well as placing his legacy in the context of the great Muslim empires — but there are also more mundane examples of the burden of ruling.

Dreams, and their interpretation, held significance well before Freud began analysing them. In the Islamic tradition, dreams were seen as less of an abstract idea and more of a rich metaphor for reality, confirmed both by passages within the Koran and the Hadiths of the Prophet.

There were two types of dreams — ruya or “true” dreams that came directly from god and therefore warranted introspection, and hulm or “deceitful” dreams whose mundane origins precluded any interpretation.

Tipu Sultan was well aware of this, and even interpreted several of his own in the diary, whose hastily-written state (there are several spelling mistakes) along with its personal contents tell us this was a private document, not a public one.

After the battle of Seringapatam, and Tipu’s death in 1799, the diary was discovered by Lieutenant-Colonel William Kirkpatrick during the ransack of Tipu’s palace.

In context

According to contemporary sources, the court’s munshi, Habibullah, was present when Kirkpatrick discovered the dream journal. The note that accompanied the diary when it was presented to the directors of the East India Company tells us, “…amongst other papers of a secret nature in an escritoire found in the Palace of Seringapatam.”

A portrait of Tipu Sultan.

A portrait of Tipu Sultan.   | Photo Credit: British Library

Habibullah confirmed the tome’s private nature, saying “... He knew that there was such a book of the Sultaun’s [sic] composition; but had never seen it, as the Sultaun always manifested peculiar anxiety to conceal it from the view of any who happened to approach while he was either reading or writing in it.”

The dreams, dated from April 1786 to January 1799 — with the majority from the final years of his life — are less of an esoteric oddity and more an interesting glimpse into the mind of one of India’s most controversial rulers.

His legacy in the context of the history of Muslim kingdoms is often the focus of his dreams. In one, three white elephants are presented to him as a gift of friendship from the Emperor of China. Tipu dreams about how the last time a Chinese Emperor gave such a gift was 4,000 years ago to Alexander the Great.

He even helpfully writes a reference, “...and this one could still read in the pages of the Sikandar-namah of Hadrat Nizami,” but the connotations — of strength, of mythical glory and recognition from a mighty empire — are clear.

The British feature a great deal in the dreams; perhaps unsurprisingly, given Tipu’s insistence on the expulsion of the “Nazarenes” from India. A particularly wishful dream in 1797 tells us that the “English had suffered a crushing defeat in Europe, and are now on the verge of leaving Bengal voluntarily,” while another describes English soldiers as a cow with the appearance of a tiger: Tipu himself interprets the dream as being indicative of the Company’s soldiers being all bark and no bite.

Some historians, such as Kate Brittlebank, have said that the dreams reflect the tensions and changes that Tipu faced during the tumultuous final years of his rule.

God-given rule

While many of the dreams are redolent with both traditional Indian and Muslim symbols — elephants as a signifier of royalty, numerous potential references to the fruits of Paradise — Brittlebank has argued that the dreams from the last few years exhibit a departure from the syncretism that underpinned all Indian kingdoms.

Tipu’s adoption, around 1792, of the term Sarkar-i-khudadad (“God-given rule”) to describe his kingdom could have been his way of responding to the humiliation of the Third Anglo-Mysore War by articulating his legitimacy as a king via Islam, Brittlebank argues.

A note preceding the journal, by Major Alexander Beatson.

A note preceding the journal, by Major Alexander Beatson.   | Photo Credit: British Library

Apart from historians, the journal’s intimate nature has also inspired writers such as playwright Girish Karnad, who wrote a play in 1997 called The Dreams of Tipu Sultan.

In a single act, a fictionalised meeting between two historians, one of the East — Kirmani, an Indian court scribe — and one of the West, Colonel Mackenzie, Karnad explores the legacy of the Tiger of Mysore; both in deeds and, crucially, how others have viewed them.

The journal, along with the remnants of the library at Seringapatam (the British Library has 500 or so books, and the next largest collection resides in the Asiatic Society in Kolkata) could possibly provide an insight into what motivated and inspired the man’s actions.

In the play, exhausted by Mackenzie’s insistence on objectivity, Kirmani remarks: “For you he is made up of bits of evidences, bits of argument that prove your side was right, And that’s what I don’t understand about you. You have your own version of history, all worked out. Why do you want my side?”

As the public discourse around Tipu gets more volatile, maybe this is the side of the story we’ve been waiting for.

The writer is a London-based journalist who writes on politics, art, and culture.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 12:56:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/can-tipu-sultans-dream-journal-shed-new-light-on-the-man/article24288306.ece

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