Well over two centuries after his death, erstwhile Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan is still repeatedly invoked by politicians as elections to Karnataka assembly approaches. In India, there is much ambiguousness about Tipu’s image, which see-saws between that of a nationalist and a Muslim persecutor of Hindus. Today, indianexpress.com travels to Mysore city to understand the ambiguity attached to Tipu’s image. On the hindsight, it is also the place where Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali first drew their strength from.
A quick tour around Mysore gives more than a whiff of the royal glory that the city has been a witness to. There are wide, quiet, clean roads with trees on both sides and a landscape dotted with Indo-Saracenic architecture that speaks of a time when the ruling Wodeyar dynasty made efforts to build the city as a model for the rest of the sub-continent.
“This is the only dynasty which was most concerned about building the city. Even today, Mysore is known for its charm, art and culture,” says 28-year-old Chandana Malappa, a local who works with a healthcare firm. Of course, modernity has taken over and the recent spillover of IT companies from Bengaluru, corporate offices and shopping malls are a frequent sight throughout the city.
A look back at history reveals that this was the place where Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali first drew their strength from. After seizing power from the Wodeyar dynasty, Ali is known to have become the de facto ruler of Mysore in 1761 and shifted the capital to Srirangapatna. After Ali’s death, Tipu rose to power, eventually turning into a national icon. After Tipu’s death, however, the British shifted the capital back to Mysore city, placed a puppet ruler there and governed the city through him. Today, the most significant symbol of the city’s past is the Mysore Palace that stands shining in the middle of the city inviting thousands of tourists and residents every day.
With its ornamental gates, extraordinarily sculpted gopurams (temple gateways) and magnificent interiors that carry huge portraits of members of the Wodeyar dynasty, the Mysore palace is in every way symbolic of the grandeur that marked the Wodeyar dynasty.
However, ask anyone within the precincts of the palace about the history of Tipu Sultan and each one has a different story to tell. Outside the palace gates, the city is more ambiguous about the history of the Mysore tiger. While there are some who applaud the Sultan’s sacrifice for the nation, there are others who hold up the act of seizing the Wodeyar throne by his father as most significant. Then there are those who accuse him of torturing Hindus. “Mysore is actually quite indifferent towards Tipu Sultan,” explains Malappa.
The variegated narrative of the Tiger’s history neatly translates into a variety of political opinions that residents of Mysore hold. In the days immediately preceding the Legislative Assembly elections, the city that consists of three constituencies- Krishnaraja, Chamaraja, and Narasimharaja- has a series of voices that oscillate among the Congress, BJP and the JD(S). In 2013, G.T. Deve Gowda of the JD(S) had won from the constituency. It is too early to call who the voters are favouring this time.
The many hues of Tipu’s history
“In India, Tipu’s image is ambiguous. For some he is the first Indian nationalist; for others, particularly more recently, he is a Muslim persecutor of Hindus,” writes historian Kate Brittlebank.
The ambiguity attached to Tipu’s image is perhaps best visible in Mysore city. “Tipu Sultan is only in Srirangapatna. This place is not related to him,” says Rajkumar, one of the priests at Sri Shweta Varahaswami temple that lies within the precincts of the Mysore Palace. The temple that boasts of an exquisite Hoysala-style architecture is believed to have been commissioned by King Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar, the fourteenth king of the Wodeyar dynasty. It is believed that originally the Vishnu deity, which is the ‘Varaha’ (boar) avatar of Lord Vishnu, was brought from Srimunsha in Tamil Nadu to Srirangapatna by Devarja Wodeyar, sometime in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century. But during the period of Hyder Ali it had to be removed from there and brought to Mysore. “The shape of this deity is in the form of a boar and Muslims don’t like that. That is why during Hyder’s period it was brought to Mysore,” says Prasad, one of the priests in the temple.
Tipu’s image, as the one who was against the Hindus, is echoed yet again in the words of Prabhu who drives an auto-rickshaw in Mysore and lives in Mandi Mohalla. “Most people are not aware of the story behind Tipu Sultan,” he says, adding he has read of Tipu torturing Hindus and destroying temples.
Scholars have frequently noted the political nature of temple destruction during the time of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Rather than attacking a religion in particular, temple destruction was more a part of political battles of the times. In fact, Tipu is believed to have also offered his protection to the Sringeri Mutt at Chikmagalur district and given donations to the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangapatna.
It is not uncommon, however, for popular narrative to build upon the image of Tipu persecuting Hindus. “Of course he has contributed a lot to the city, but somewhere there is also the controversy that he has forcefully converted Hindus,” says Malappa.
Asked what she thought about the Tipu Jayanti celebration, she quickly replies: “That is just about attracting Muslim votes.” Rajkumar adds, “All of this is just politics. Only national personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar should be given prominence. Why celebrate small small leaders?”
But celebration of Tipu Sultan is definitely not a small affair for others who believe he was the “only prince of the city”. “The Karnataka government decided to celebrate Tipu Sultan because he was a great freedom fighter and everyone supports this decision,” says Aslam Khan who has been working as a photographer outside St. Philomena’s Cathedral in Mysore.
Asked about the violence that was caused due to the celebration of Tipu Jayanti, he says “this is all because of the narrative built by the opposition that Tipu converted Hindus and all.” “The one who announced Tipu Jayanti is not a Muslim. The chief minister is a lawyer. Will he not know history?” he says. Khan’s views are echoed by Syed Basha and Nisar Hamid, both of whom live in Mandi Mohalla and sell trinkets to tourists for a living . “People celebrate Rama Jayanti, Ambedkar Jayanti, so for us the government has announced Tipu Jayanti. He was the first to fight against the British. It is a very good initiative by the government,” they say.
The many moods of Mysore’s election
The politics of history is perhaps one of the most common ways in which leaders across the world have cashed on to build their popularity. What is interesting is the way the narrative of Tipu’s history translates into the political opinions of various groups in the days immediately preceding the elections. “Five years of Congress rule has been average. Not so good and not so bad,” explains Rajkumar, adding this time the JD(S) will play an important role. His wife, Rama, who is a volunteer at the Varahaswami temple, says: “I want BJP to win. That would be good for the public… Congress has done nothing in the past five years.”
Syed Kamran, a land developer by profession, however, believes the “Congress has done a lot of work in the past five years.” “Before, when the BJP was in power, one chief minister came and looted everyone. Then the next one came and looted. Congress has been stable and done a lot of work,” says Kamran. Syed Basha chips in, “If someone is thirsty, Siddaramaiah is providing him with water, the hungry is provided with food. He has made rice, dal and oil so cheap. He has done a lot of work for the poor.”
There are others, who have faith in neither the BJP, nor the Congress. “Congress has not done a lot of work. BJP also came and went. This time we will support JD(S),” says Hemachandra, another auto driver.
The lack of unity in the voices from Mysore city is explained by Madhav Naik who works as a curator in Mysore City Palace. “I am hundred per cent sure that people will vote on religious lines. The constituencies with upper-caste Brahmins will vote for BJP and those with Muslim majority will vote for the Congress,” he says. Asked if the controversy around Tipu Jayanti celebration has played a role in making religious divisions, he replies: “You look closely at the processions that are held during Tipu Jayanti. Only Muslims and government administrative staff take part in them. Muslims don’t take part in Hindu celebrations and Hindus don’t participate in their festivals.”
Next, we move to Coorg following the Tipu Trail