Sensational archaeological discovery
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
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.