‘Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright!’
Headquarters at Cairo,
7th Year of the Republic, One and Invincible
BONAPARTE, Member of the National Convention, General in Chief, to the most magnificent SULTAN, our greatest friend TIPPOO SAIB.
You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an innumerable and invincible Army, full of the desire of delivering you from the iron yoke of England. I eagerly embrace this opportunity of testifying to you the desire I have of being informed by you, by the way of Muscat and Mocha, as to your political situation. I would further wish that you could send some intelligent person to Suez or Cairo, possessing your confidence, with whom I may confer.
May the Almighty increase your Power and destroy your enemies
Dates and documents from history, like the aforementioned one from 1798 which instinctively came to his mind then, had always held a particular fascination with Max inasmuch as they chalked out, for his thinking, the milestones in the saga of human achievement or ruin. It provided him an opportunity to think back, to reflect upon, to go back in time and to seek to relive those particularly remarkable moments in history, which he yearned to have witnessed in person. True, however, that he could not be there; that he could not go back in time. If only in body, for, Max’s spirit would always be there on his dates. And the dates: there were so many. Like the one today, and as he stood now before that imposing structure that was the Rashk-e-Janna – the Envy of Paradise – right in the heart of Bangalore, a quarter of a mile away from the main bus terminal near the City Market.
Today: the 4th of May, 2006 years after the disappearance of Christ.
The day when a little over two hundred years ago, in 1799, the British finally managed to silence, forever, the one implacable foe of their grand imperialistic designs over the Indian subcontinent. To the growing ambitions of the British Empire in the eighteenth century, there could not have been a better herald of victory than the death in battle of Tippu Sultan of Mysore.
It was for the British a new beginning: the beginning of a beginning, in fact. For, after that last Mysore War fought at Seringapatam, near Mysore, the next one hundred years would see the white men from an island nation, who came into this country as traders, establish themselves as rulers over the teeming millions of this troubled land, rife, as it was, with the divisive and self-seeking politics of the numerous warring Indian states of the time. A politics of self-aggrandizement and intrigue between the Indian principalities which was exploited assiduously by the British in their policy of ‘Divide and rule.’ And in the face of insurmountable odds that soon came to bear upon the struggle for liberation from foreign yoke, one name, of all the Indian names, shone alone, a star, within the darkening skies of the late eighteenth century political horizon in the subcontinent.
The name of Tippu Sultan.
Tiger of Mysore.
‘That will be five rupees, sir.’ The man at the gate counter pushed forward the entry ticket towards Max.
‘Five rupees, please.’
‘Oh, yes! Here you are.’ Max exchanged a five rupee note for the entrance ticket in the man’s hand, before looking back once more at the magnificent structure that had now become a government-protected historical monument, and at the gates of which he was now standing. The well laid out, well maintained lawn in the forefront of the Rashk-e-Janna gave the whole setting a laid-back look, adding all the more to that royal aura of a bygone age. This was Tippu Sultan’s summer retreat in Bangalore: one of the many beautiful buildings that he, following the tradition of his illustrious father, Hyder Ali, an even more indomitable enemy of British interests in India, built all over the state of Karnataka. The Rashk-e-Janna itself was completed by Tippu in 1791, after Hyder Ali began its construction a few years earlier.
As Max moved along the walkway in the midst of the sprawling garden towards the arching entrance of the building, the sense of history was inevitable; indeed, palpable. The two-storied ornate structure with its fluted pillars, cusped arches, exquisitely sculpted minarets and balconies reminded him of a time when the Sultan of Mysore was at the height of his power, when he attended to the affairs of the state with a diligence and a vision for which he was famous, and perhaps of times when he gave public audiences from the balcony that projected from the first storey of this Rashk-e-Janna.
The balcony that now loomed over Max.
In fact, there were two such projecting balconies for the structure: one in front, facing west and directly below which Max stood and the other, towards the east, at the rear of the building. But both identical in measurement and design; both perfectly symmetrical. Between these two projecting balconies, the upper storey of the building housed several inner low-ceilinged chambers, or the Zenana chambers as they are called, in the left and the right wings. Chambers which, Max had noted with some delight, had square niches carved into its walls at regular intervals: niches that were still stained with what, Max imagined, was the black soot of lamps that burned within them in two centuries past. The lamp niches past which Tippu himself walked in thought and concern for the welfare of his people on many an evening more than two hundred years ago. Max had examined these niches in the chamber walls several times over ever since he paid the first of his many visits to this place on earlier occasions.
Although Max had read much in favour of Tippu Sultan’s devout religious disposition towards the tenets of the Islamic faith, he never was quite sure whether it was in any measure greater than Tippu’s preoccupation with the well-being of the subjects over whom he ruled. To agree to the idea that a ruler being concerned for the welfare of the ruled was somehow a lesser Islamic virtue than the enforcement of Islamic law is to agree to a seeming inconsistency. But as paradoxical as it might seem to some, for Tippu, there was no paradox involved whatsoever.
To him, Islamic legislation on social norms included, and was prefixed by, the concern of the ruler for the well-being of the ruled. As Max climbed the wooden stairs – made entirely, like most of this building, from wood – leading to the left wing of the upper storey, he couldn’t help remembering that memorandum which Tippu had issued to his finance minister in 1787 when he brought to Tippu’s notice that the treasury would become empty if total prohibition (of alcohol) was enforced. Raising the issue with Mir Sadiq, the finance minister, Tippu had noted:
“This is a matter in which we should be undeterred and undaunted by financial considerations. Total prohibition is very near to my heart. It is not a question of religion alone. We must think of the economic well-being and the moral stature of our people and the need to build the character of our youth. I appreciate the reason for your concern which is the loss of financial revenue, but should we not look ahead? Is the gain to our treasury to be rated higher than the health and morality of our people?”
Standing now atop the flight of stairs leading to the left wing of the upper storey, Max turned back to look again at the lawn amidst which he had just strolled up to the palace. From that height, the view that offered itself to him was even more delightful to his senses.
The vast open stretch of green bordered meticulously with belts of plants of a darker hue made for much of the contrasting beauty of the lawn. The lawn itself being watered continuously by the rotating action of several mechanically operated sprinklers arranged at suitable distances from one another.
In a very small way this garden of the Rashk-e-Janna reminded Max of the other much larger and famous of its counterparts situated elsewhere in Bangalore: the Lal Bagh botanical gardens. Spread over 240 acres of flowering glory, the Lal Bagh has a rare collection of tropical and sub-tropical trees, plants and herbs to quench the thirst of any layman or horticulturist who was out in search of scenic beauty. While Hyder Ali was the driving force behind laying out that park in the 17th century, it was Tippu Sultan himself who was responsible for enriching the vast collection by importing several specimens from Afghanistan, France and Persia.
Of course, Tippu, with his sound education and culture could not but think in terms of international relations when he sought to import the best specimens for the now-famous project laid out by his father. Lal Bagh is, today, artistically landscaped with expansive lush lawns, flowerbeds, lotus pools and fountains: altogether a prime tourist attraction.
Adding to this remarkable acumen for industry that Tippu displayed, it was always a wonder to Max that this prince, in a land and in an age where princes did little but while away their time in frivolous pursuits, sought out and did establish, in his country and for his countrymen, the sericulture industry which he again initiated with nothing short of the finest specimens of silkworms imported, along with the know-how for silk rearing, from China.
It was no wonder then that after the fall of Seringapatam, when the British stormed his fort they found no less than two thousand books on as varied subjects as philosophy, religion, history and the sciences from his personal library. Given an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of that degree, it was only natural that Tippu habitually sought to know of the happenings in the world outside his kingdom and abroad and so surprised a few visiting French dignitaries by asking them of the Industrial Revolution and its repercussions in France and in Europe that it left the dignitaries wondering at the internationalist vision of this young Indian prince.
Some of the visitors to the palace this evening loitered around the walls of the building which bore inscriptions from the Qur’an and a plaque announcing that the construction of the palace was begun by Hyder Ali but was completed in 1791 under Tippu Sultan. Others, there were, who strained themselves to look at the carvings on the Sri Venkataramana temple across the boundary walls of the palace.
Max smiled inwardly at the sight. For, most buildings associated with Tippu Sultan has almost always had a temple going along with it for good measure! His fortress capital of Seringapatam near Mysore – nearly seventy miles from Bangalore – housed the famous Ranganatha Swami temple which, to this day, bears a large silver bowl, three silver cups and a silver kettle which was gifted by Tippu and which bears inscriptions, in Kannada, to the same effect.
This was the happy enigma of Tippu Sultan as it presented itself to Max. The paradox to which he had seemingly to reconcile himself if he was to truly appreciate the legacy of the tiger of Mysore. The legacy of a man who, in spite of his curious idiosyncrasies bordering on superstition, was at once a scholar, a reformer, an administrator, statesman, soldier, patriot, ruler and economist.
To Max’s thinking, a true secularist, Tippu Sultan promulgated farmans, or decrees, which set out procedures and created an admirable administrative structure that stood the test of time and which later became a model for the British administration to adopt in their domain.
As a military strategist, he foresaw the strategic value of naval power to check the entry and advance of aggressors from across the seas. He developed an army, which, in discipline and sheer fighting capability could match any in the world. A military strategist par excellence, he designed arms, weapons and rocketry and authored a treatise on military practice and warfare, the Fath-ul-Mujahideen.
Max walked himself into the projecting balcony that used to be the seat of state from which the Sultan conducted the affairs of the nation. He could almost see for himself, from across the mists of two centuries, the mass of people who were gathered on the floor below to receive the address of the Sultan. Standing there in the centre of the balcony and probably right on the spot where Tippu himself once stood facing his people, Max was now dimly conscious of that official decree in the Sultan’s Code of Law and Conduct, of 1788, which declared:
To quarrel with our subjects is to go to war with ourselves. They are our shield and our buckles; and it is they who furnish us with all things. Reserve the hostile strength of our empire exclusively for its foreign enemies.
“What could have been the real motivation – apart from his own religious convictions – for the policy of religious tolerance and magnanimity so characteristically and unfailingly exhibited by Tippu throughout his empire?” Max wondered.
To Tippu, he was the guardian of his subjects no matter what their faith and he was directly responsible for their welfare and freedom of belief. But Max could not exactly ascertain the extent to which state policy lay embedded with firm religious conviction in the persona of Tippu Sultan. In 1787, in his Religious Policy Declaration, the Sultan had stated:
“Religious tolerance is the fundamental tenet of the holy Qur’an. The Qur’an calls upon you not to revile the idols of another religion for it says: ‘Revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully revile Allah through ignorance…’ The Qur’an expects you to vie with each other in good works and It says, ‘for each We have appointed a divine law and traced out a way. Had Allah willed, He could have made you one community… so vie one with another in good works.’”
‘Fair enough!’ thought Max as he descended from the upper storey by way of the flight of stairs leading down from the right wing. ‘So much for a man who was reviled by many British, and some Indian, historians down the line as being an intolerant, religious bigot who sought to forcibly thrust Islam down other people’s throats.’
Coming down the flight of stairs, Max was inevitably drawn to the hall in the center between the two staircases. Once probably a private chamber on the ground floor, the hall was now converted into a small museum of visual exhibits that depicted the major events in the life of Tippu Sultan.
As on many occasions in the past Max followed the small line of people who filed past the huge images as they stared in some awe and wonder at the pictures of Hyder Ali, Tippu Sultan, the surrender of his sons to Cornwallis in 1792 after the third Mysore War, the British siege of Bangalore fort and the seige of Seringapatam, near Mysore, where Tippu made his last, defiant stand against the combined might of the British and their Indian allies – self seeking Indian states who saw, in their fellow Indian’s fall, an opportunity for themselves – in an epic battle that has refused to die out from the annals of the Indian struggle for independence.
And last, but not least, that touching depiction of the hour in which the battered body of Tippu was retreived from the battlefield: the emotion was there very clearly for Max to feel; the people crowding around the body, holding aloft lanterns in their hands, while the very British general looked on. The expression on the faces told it all as it happened on that somber evening of the 4th of May, 1799. The clash of steel, the sound of muskets and cannons, of the screams of men, the smell of blood and of death, and the sense of a great tragedy: all unveiled themselves to Max’s sensitivity even as he stood gazing with the pain for something precious that was irretrievably lost.
Max had considered himself alone in that exhibit room, half-full of people, with his sensitivity and reflective mind until he heard something of a very faint sniffling sound next to him. The spell of the images confronting him broken, Max glanced to his right in some alarm. There, standing next to him was an elderly visitor to the palace seemingly as lost in the images as Max had been and so lost, in fact, that his eyes were actually brimming with tears as he stared at the distraught face of the Sultan as he lay dead of the bullet wound to his temple.
Max wished he had not turned so sharply, but it was already too late. The man next to him had already caught the look in his eye. He wiped off the tears in one fluent motion before looking up at Max, and then smiled.
“It is tragic, isn’t it?” Max asked directly, knowing that there was no evading the subject now.
The man nodded slowly. “Yes. More than we can ever imagine.”
His head lowered, the man moved alongside Max, as they filed past the other people in the room. There was something about the man which intuitively told Max that he knew and felt deeply for Tippu Sultan in a way that few others amongst the countless visitors to this historical monument would ever know.
“Have you come to this summer palace before?” Max asked thinking that the man might be on a visit to Bangalore.
The man looked up again and smiled wryly. “Of course. I cannot but visit this palace often, you know.”
The way in which the man put those words, with that strange twinkle in his eyes, was enough to unsettle Max already. But he wished to make him say more. As they moved out of the exhibit room and on to the porch facing the lawn, Max was again attracted to the sculpted figurines on the walls of the Sri Venkataramana Temple just adjoining the palace.
“Isn’t it strange,” he asked, “that Tippu Sultan, who is known to have patronised Hindu temples and festivals and to have admonished the archbishop of Goa to take note of the fact that his Christian subjects were not conforming to Christianity, should have been later projected as a religious bigot and Muslim fanatic who destroyed temples and trampled upon other faiths with impunity?”
The other man sighed deeply. “Well, that’s not really strange, considering the fact that the conquered have always had this tendency to humiliate their conqueror in whatever way they can, for, by force of arms or by raw objectivity, they know they can never get the better of them. So it has to be by crooked means, by calumny and slander so that at least succeeding generations will fail to appreciate the virtues of their foe; of the cause of their humiliation. And in that, the Britishers had a score to settle with Tippu for the several crushing defeats that he had handed out to them on the battlefield. So it was fitting in their eyes that the myth of the Sultan’s intolerance be spread far and wide.”
The man had spoken slowly but his words were well measured and to the point: something, which Max always admired in other people. His interest in the old man was piqued again. He had spoken in fluent Urdu and Max agreed with him fully for, he had read that as much as the British hated Tippu, they feared and respected him in even greater measure. For instance, the use of rockets by Tippu Sultan’s army and the extent of damage suffered by the British, must have made a deep impression on the British administration because soon after Tippu’s death, the British administration permitted a certain Colonel Congreve to carry out experiments with rockets of the type Tippu Sultan pioneered and to improve upon them for future use in their army.
The improvised rockets were successfully deployed by the British with deadly effect at Leipzig and were also used to bombard the French at Boulogne. Copenhagen was put out of action by starting huge fires through the use of these rockets. In the First World War, the rockets so used were called ‘Bangalore Rockets.’
Furthermore, no other Indian prince in the subcontinent had ever ventured to foster an international alliance with the French under Napolean Bonaparte for the explicit purpose of uprooting the British from Indian soil. Indeed, it was the communication of Napolean to Tippu to this effect which fell into British hands which supposedly became the last of the many pretexts under which the then Governor-General of India, Richard Wellesly, swung into action with the combined might of the British and the conspiring Indian armies to launch the fourth and the last Mysore War.
The man of daring and extra-ordinary vision that he was, Tippu had no equal in the subcontinent of those times who foresaw the threat posed by British aggrandizement in India and who actively pursued a national and international policy that aimed at removing the British power from India. Indeed, he is reported to have once told Hari Pant, the chief of the Maratha delegation when it came to visit him after the Marathas had participated with the British in the 1791 siege of Seringapatam:
‘You must realize that I am not at all your enemy. Your real enemy is the Englishman of whom you must beware.’
Of this reputation of Tippu, the British knew only too well.
“Tolerance for other faiths is one thing,” Max was holding on to the theme that was still the source of some confusion for him, “but what of Tippu’s active patronizing of religious institutions and festivals of the Hindu or Christian tradition? I never could reconcile myself to that, you know! At least in our Islamic scheme of things!”
The man leaned back on one of those intricately sculpted pillars that supported the main arch at the entrance to the building, moved his fingers over the meticulous artwork, and glancing across at the Sri Venkataramana Temple beyond the palace walls, said, “There are questions today that can no longer be avoided by the believer once he has encountered the adherents of other Faiths. The Muslim or the Christian who has habitually regarded all others as infidels is forced to ask himself or herself whether one can continue to believe in a God who has apparently chosen to lead astray the majority of His creatures throughout the ages by permitting them to follow false religions and who chooses to send them to Hell for the only reason that they worshipped Him sincerely but in the wrong way.”
The man paused, but what he said had already disturbed Max.
‘Are we to suppose that God mocks sanctity when it is arrived at by methods other than our own and do prayers go unaccepted unless addressed to Him in the name of Jesus, from the Christian viewpoint, or within the frame work of the Islamic creed from the Muslim viewpoint?’
“Well, perhaps you might have a point there.” Max conceded although he was still not very sure of himself. “I suppose that Qur’anic verse which says: ‘And if God had not checked one group of people with another, the earth would have been filled with corruption and the synagogues and the churches and the mosques, in which the name of God is remembered often, would have all been pulled down in utter destruction’ makes sense in the context which you seem to refer.”
“Exactly!” The old man seemed thrilled. “God does acknowledge the church and the synagogue as being similar in function to the mosque.”
Max nodded in partial agreement. Tippu’s explanation of his religious policy in the proclamations of 1787 made some sense now, based, as it was, on the Quranic verse:
‘For each of you We have appointed a divine Law and a way of Life. Had God so willed He could have made you one people; but so that He might try you by that which He hath bestowed upon you (He willed otherwise). Therefore compete in doing good. Unto God ye will all return, and He will enlighten you concerning that wherein ye differ.’
In retrospect, it seemed to Max that a believer was faced, in today’s world, with alternatives which his ancestors never knew. Either all religions are false and are fictions invented by man in his search for inner security in a world that gave no hints about what his tomorrow would be like, or else each is valid in its own way and represents a particular perspective in relation to one Truth.
“But what of the Qur’an when it says: ‘Whoever follows any other religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he shall be among the losers?’” Max was somehow not prepared to accept the principle that the old man was driving at just yet. There was still something in it which disturbed him.
“Should we not understand the word Islam as self-surrender (to God)? In that case isn’t the surrender of heart and will to God a basic principle of every authentic religion?” The old man’s counter-questions were, indeed, searching ones.
“Yes,” Max agreed, “it should be the basic principle of every religion that is, at least, in its origin, authentic. And in its original purity every authentic religion must be respected.” Max held the argument down.
The two of them were now walking back to the gate through the lawn; each an island of thought and reflection in himself. Max wished that the Wayfarer was there then to end the confusion. He almost called out:
“Wayfarer, how fare you this day?’
“Do you belong to Bangalore?” Max asked wishing to break the chain of thoughts coursing between the two of them as they reached the gate.
“Well, son.” The old man smiled slowly. “My parents settled in Calcutta a long time ago. And I grew up in the streets of Calcutta. It has been a hard life there for us what with all the financial burden that we never really managed to cope with in all these years.”
“But how then are you in Bangalore?”
“Well, our ancestors have come from Karnataka, you know. Mysore to be precise. And we still have claims to some property in Mysore: property, which we feel, will somehow ease us of our financial debts back in Calcutta. So I have come all the way from Calcutta nearly five years ago, and had to settle somewhere near here until our property entitlements in Mysore are made over to us legally. Until such a time, I can have no peace.”
“But, sir,” Max interjected, “Making claims and fighting for ancestral property rights can be a tricky business in Karnataka nowadays.” When the man nodded as if in agreement, Max asked, “Is there a particular village in or around Mysore where your properties lie?”
“Yes, son. There is.” The man paused as he looked back at Max. “It’s called Seringapatam.”
The surprise in Max’s eyes then was abruptly arrested as the man suddenly asked him the time. “It’s five minutes past six,” Max answered.
“It has been nice talking to you but I really must be hurrying now, before I miss the train to Mysore that goes in an hour from the Cantonment station.” With that, the man bade farewell and was soon lost in the evening crowd in the street outside the palace compound.
“His ancestors hail from Tippu’s hometown and he didn’t even let me have his name.” Max shook his head in some amazement as he turned back to look at the imposing Rashk-e-Janna before he started to leave the premises himself.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” the guard outside the gate remarked to Max, as the last of the day’s visitors walked past outside onto the street.
“It certainly is!”
“It’s such a pity, though.” The guard remarked again.
“What…?” Max looked at the guard.
“It’s such a pity that the members of the old Royal Wodeyar family that was reinstated by the British after Tippu fell have had all the privileges and their last member is today an MP in parliament. This is while the descendents of Tippu are reported to be living out their lives in the slums of Calcutta.”
“No!” It was a short cry that escaped Max’s lips. He stared at the guard incredulously as what he heard suddenly sank in.
“Didn’t you know?” The guard looked at Max in some astonishment. “Back in 1999, we had some of the seventh generation descendents of Tippu Sultan who had come all the way from Calcutta to claim their ancestral properties in Seringapatam. Only time will tell if they will ever get anything from what truly belongs to them!”
The guard turned away from the young man who stood before him so profoundly shocked at his words. It was well past six in the evening and the gates to the palace had to be closed to any further visitors.
Max glanced back quickly across the length and breadth of the street, but, no, the old man was there no longer. He was gone, maybe never again, for them to meet once more.
To share the joy.
Of a ‘tiger, burning bright!’
And the pain.
Amidst ‘the forest of the night!’