Updated: February 26, 2021 3:07:14 pm
Tipu Sultan never visited or lived in Calcutta. Yet if one embarks on a search around the city, the Mysore ruler’s links can be found in the unlikeliest of places, including a road in his name. Several of his descendants continue to live in the city, unnoticed and ignored, far removed from the grandeur of heritage structures and streets named after the ruler.
So how then did so many descendants of a man who himself never had any links to the city find themselves in Calcutta?
Historians trace this to the Vellore mutiny that occurred in July 1806. The large-scale violent mutiny by Indian soldiers against the East India Company in Vellore, according to historical records, was instigated by Tipu Sultan’s sons who were confined in the fort there. The uprising, the first by sepoys against the East India Company, was brought under control within a day.
For their role, Tipu Sultan’s family members were exiled by the East India Company to Calcutta. “His entire family and their entourage of over 300 people and what they retained of their movable possessions were loaded into 12 ships which set sail for Calcutta. The Sultanas, concubines and khawasses (ladies in waiting) travelled overland,” write Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha in their paper ‘Exiles in Calcutta: The Descendants of Tipu Sultan’.
Upon arrival in Calcutta, the family found themselves relegated to the marshy patches of the neighbourhood of Russapagla, what is now known as Tollygunge in the southern part of the city. From the confines of the royal palaces of the Kingdom of Mysore that they were accustomed to, the British forced them into mud huts in the neighbourhood that was still sparsely populated at that time.
According to historian P. Thankappan Nair, 60 acres of the grounds of Tollygunge Club continues to remain in the ownership of Tipu Sultan’s descendants. A stone’s throw from this club, on the opposite side of the street, is the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, and some historians claim that the club’s grounds also belonged to Tipu Sultan’s descendants, of which the family eventually lost ownership due to various legal disputes. This could not be independently corroborated.
The British government recognised Prince Ghulam Mohammed, the youngest son of Tipu Sultan, as the ruler’s successor and by extension, the head of the family that included the ruler’s three official wives. In that capacity, using the pension provided to him by the British government, Prince Ghulam Mohammed began purchasing plots of land all over the growing metropolis of Calcutta. One of the first structures of architectural importance built in the city was the Tipu Sultan Shahi Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the city, built in 1842, that the prince commissioned in memory of his father. This mosque that stands in Dharmatala in the heart of the city is now a heritage site.
The prince built a second mosque, almost identical to the first structure and again named after his father, in Tollygunge, the neighbourhood where most of his family lived. The management of the prince’s many properties across Calcutta was later transferred to the Ghulam Mohammed Wakf Estate, along with the two mosques built in Tipu Sultan’s name.
Urban development would still take some seven decades to reach the family’s new neighbourhood, when in the late 1880s, the colonial parkland that came to be known as Tollygunge Club was established in 1895. In perhaps acknowledgement of the ruler’s family having been forced to make the neighbourhood their home, the first hole of Tollygunge Club’s expansive golf course continues to be known by Tipu Sultan’s name.
Close to the neighbourhood of Kalighat, a private family cemetery belonging to Tipu Sultan’s family still exists. It is perhaps for this reason that in April 1938, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation proposed through a notification in its gazette that the “new unnamed road running south of the premises of No. 35, Russa Road westward upto Pratapaditya Road (Sreemohan Lane widening) be called Tipu Sultan Road”, writes Nair in his book ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’. This name was sanctioned in September that year, in that month’s gazette issued by the Corporation. The road falls under the area of the Kalighat post office.
While the family never returned to their former standards of living, stipends by the British provided them the finances that they required to maintain some semblance of their royal status. Today, some of Tipu Sultan’s descendants continue to live in the city, mostly in penury, having lost control of the extremely wealthy Ghulam Mohammed Wakf Estate over the decades. According to Nair’s writings, sometime in the past few decades, some descendants had migrated to Lucknow, while a few others relocated to Bangladesh. It is unclear how many remain in the city and whether they still live in the neighbourhood of their ancestors.
A line engraving at the National Army Museum in London portrays two of Tipu Sultan’s young Princes Abdul Khalid, aged ten, and Prince Moin-ud-din, aged eight, dressed in simple robes and a string of pearls, looking more regal than Cornwallis depicted standing between the two brothers, holding their hands as if he were offering them support and protection after having stripped them of everything their father owned. The engraving’s description pompously declares that the brothers “left their father’s city in some state, mounted on elephants in a procession led by camels and standard bearers, followed by an escort guard. They were received by Cornwallis with a 21-gun salute, and were each presented with a gold watch. In return, they gave him a fine Persian sword.”
On the museum’s website, there is no mention of why the brothers found themselves searching for a home to build in Calcutta.
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