A review and analysis of Sandeep Balakrishna’s Tipu Sultan: The tyrant of Mysore

“Haider Ali was a remarkable man and one of the notable figures in Indian history. He had some kind of a national ideal and possessed the qualities of a leader with vision…His son Tipu continued to strengthen his navy. Tipu also sent messages to Napoleon and to the Sultan in Constantinople.”

– Jawaharlal Nehru1

“…Almost all Hindus in Calicut are now converted to Islam. Only a few are still not converted on the borders of Cochin State. I am determined to convert them also very soon. I consider this as Jehad to achieve that object”

– Tipu Sultan2, in a letter written to Syed Abdul Dulai (18.1.1790)

What was Tipu Sultan? A normal man or an abnormal monster? A benevolent king or a sanguinary tyrant? A tolerant ruler or an intolerant bigot? Contemporary opinion was very sharply divided

– Surendranath Sen3 (eminent historian)

Tipu Sultan , the Islamic ruler of the Mysore state in the 18th century has remained an enigmatic historical figure whose stature in history continues to generate enormous historical controversy. In 1989, a dramatic adaptation of Bhagwan Gidwani’s rather ahistorical novel ‘The Sword of Tipu Sultan’ which heralded the Sultan as the epitome of righteousness, courage and patriotism faced considerable outrage from Hindus who retained awareness of the depredations of Tipu in the Malabar and Coorg regions4. More recently, the Congress government’s decision in Karnataka to honour Tipu Sultan with a tableau at the annual Republic Day parade event was met with strong reservations and protest5.

Nehru’s India required legitimization of its Islamic past to fulfill its “secular agenda” and creation of a new India devoid of communal tensions of its medieval past. In other words, the need to invent new ‘secular and Muslim heroes in Indian History’ became the objective of historical writing. This required what Koenraad Elst has dubbed as the negation and sanitizing of the bloody track record of Islamic rule in India. Unfortunately, Tipu’s role in tormenting non Muslims (Hindus and Christians), their forced conversion and destruction of their places of worship especially in neighbouring kingdoms is backed by incontrovertible historical evidence including his own testimony.

To compensate for such historical excesses, “secular” historians were compelled to discover some other redeeming values in Tipu’s personality and conduct. His penchant for inflicting cruelty on his prisoners of war recorded in British accounts was blamed on the latter’s prejudices against Tipu for he had dared to stand against the colonial challenge whose own conduct was disgraceful. The Marxist historian Irfan Habib admits that “Tipu action’s of punishing rebels in Coorg and Malabar by forced conversions cannot be covered by any apologia” but rejects the theory of Tipu’s oppression of his Hindu subjects for “the evidence to the contrary is almost definitive6. Much of this so called evidence is derived from Tipu’s active patronization of the Sringeri Math especially after his defeat in the third Anglo Mysore war.

Some reflecting on Tipu’s bloodbath in Coorg and Malabar have deemed it to have been necessitated by rebel uprisings and the treatment meted to Hindus was considered similar to that accorded to recalcitrant Muslims in an age of tyranny. Tipu is also credited with making some progressive agricultural reforms, introduction of sericulture in Mysore and strengthened of the navy7.

Sandeep Balakrishna’s work is an effort to challenge this emergent “secular” consensus on Tipu Sultan. Provocatively titled “Tipu Sultan the tyrant of Mysore”, Balakrishna’s brief account cites extensively from British contemporaneous accounts, Islamic hagiographies and Tipu’s epistles to build a powerful case against the “secular” imagination which paints Tipu as a progressive, tolerant and benevolent despot. Balakrishna shows there exist enormous evidence to the contrary.

First, Balakrishna addresses the sources of Tipu’s history since much has been made of the colonial prejudices against Tipu which allegedly coloured British historical accounts and portrayed him in negative light8. Balakrishna shows there is a remarkable consistency in British biographies, foreign traveler accounts, Christian missionary narratives, Muslim hagiographies and Tipu’s own personal correspondence especially with regard to his attitude and conduct towards Non Muslims especially Hindus predominantly Nairs and Brahmins of Coorg and Malabar region.

To instantiate, the Portuguese missionary Fr. Bartholomew in his eyewitness account recorded in his ‘Voyage to East Indies’ illustrated the dark side of Tipu’s fanaticism during the raid of Calicut, “Most of the women and children were hanged in Calicut, first mothers were hanged and their children tied to necks of mothers. That barbarian Tipu Sultan tied the naked Christians and Hindus to the legs of Elephants and made the elephants to move around till the bodies of the helpless victims were torn to pieces” (p. 111)

Similarly, Mir Hussein Kirmani who authored a hagiography of Tipu portrayed a similar exercise during Tipu’s incursions into Coorg, “The conquering Sultan….dispatched his Amirs and Khans with large boies of troops to punish those idolaters and reduce the whole country (Coorg) to subjection….attacked and destroyed many twos with 8000 men, women and children taken as prisoners…collected an immense crowd like a flock of sheep or herd of bullocks” (p. 105). There is also a wealth of Hindu oral history to complement such testimonies.

Second, Balakrishna highlights the orthodox constitution of Tipu which identified him predominantly with Islamic religious motifs. Immediately after ascension of his throne, Tipu unleashed his reformist agenda by renaming most existing cities of his kingdom with Islamic names. (p. 68-69) Muslims were disproportionately dominant in administration and revenue departments despite their small numbers which reflects Tipu’s anti Hindu bias. The author by further citing M H Gopal (Tipu Sultan’s Mysore: An economic study, 1971) shows how Muslims were exempted from paying the house and grain taxes while converts to Islam were given tax concessions and other benefits (p. 71). Such measures expectedly made Tipu rather unpopular among his majority Hindu subjects.

Third, Balakrishna correctly identifies the criticality of French forces in Tipu’s landmark victory over a small British force led by Colonel Braithwaite and the fortuitous circumstances which enabled the signing of the Treaty of Mangalore in 1782. The treaty was repeatedly violated with impunity by Tipu but the British refrained from exacting any military revenge for reasons which have not been explored adequately in this volume. During this period of prolonged Anglo Mysore armistice, Tipu enacted vengeance and bullied tiny Hindu dominant principalities led by “weak and powerless and chieftains” who pleaded for British intervention to rescue their people and way of life (p133-134). That between 1782 and 1789 Tipu avoided direct conflict against the British hints at agendas other than nationalism dominating his vision and debunks the myth of “colonial aggression” against Tipu.

Fourth, Tipu and his armies participated in large scale temple destruction in the Malabar region. Balakrishna has conscientiously catalogued the names and locations of such temples destroyed (p. 124-25). He further asserts that the “bigoted handwork of Tipu is clearly visible even today in the temples of Parampathali, Panmayanadu and Vengidangu” (p. 127) but regrettably does not supplement his narrative with any pictorial evidence.

There was probably an official edict issued by Tipu to destroy Hindu temples in his dominions except those of Srinagapattana and Melukote although the primary source is lacking. However, Balakrishna quotes Lewis Rice, the British epigraphist at length who had noticed that “in the vast empire of Tipu Sultan on the eve of his death, there were only two Hindu temples having daily pujas within the Sreerangapatanam fortress”. Rice further estimates in his Mysore gazetteer that Tipu had destroyed about 8000 temples in South India (p. 122). Therefore, under the weight of such evidence, the idea that a land grants and endowments to temples and the Sringeri Math could compensate for such immense temple destruction and that it entitles Tipu Sultan to the hallowed title of “Defender of the Hindu Dharma”9 is preposterous and renders a travesty of Tipu’s legacy.

Fifth, contrary to popular perception, Tipu’s interests in European technology did not extend into the domain of the modern sciences. Even a Tipu apologist like Irfan Habib concedes that “Tipu’s intellectual horizons remained restricted to the old inherited learning“. Tipu possessed little interest in Western Sciences. The monumental event of the French revolution and its aftermath apparently failed to create any impression on him. Tipu also exhibited a poor understanding of geopolitics. Balakrishna aptly points out that Tipu was unaware that the British were not an object of inveterate hatred in the Muslim world and his estimation of the latter’s strength was a morbid exaggeration. Consequently, no help was forthcoming from the Ottoman Empire.

Sixth, Balakrishna correctly denounces the creative positioning of Tipu as some national hero. The exploits of an unpopular sultan merely fighting the British for personal interests could not be deemed representative of acquiring national character. Balakrishna reproduces several letters shared between Tipu Sultan and Zaman Shah, the ruler of Afghanistan (p. 174-75) which conclusively rejects the position of historians like Irfan Habib who allege that in the eyes of Tipu it is the English who were held to be infidels, and the employment of religious idiom was necessitated for acquiring “strength and ardor against an alien foe.” Instead Tipu’s letters to Shah reveal that his mission was to wage Holy war together with Zaman Shah against both “infidels and polytheists (who) may be destroyed by the avenging sword of those who have been selected by God to exercise dominion” (p. 175).

Balakrishna needs to be credited for meticulously perusing the primary sources and extracting some useful references which shed immense light on Tipu’s religious zeal, ill treatment of Hindu subjects or prisoners of war and his large scale temple iconoclasm. Unfortunately, Balakrishna has neglected to scrutinize some of the seminal secondary sources including biographies by Mohibbul Hasan (1951), Kate Brittlebank’s “Tipu Sultan’s search for legitimacy: Islam and kingship in a Hindu domain” (1997) and some more recent historiography on the subject.

Overall, the book may prove to be immensely gratifying for readers who are keen on reaffirmation of their belief that Tipu was a religious zealot and tyranny personified especially in his conduct towards non Muslims. Those looking for reassurance that Tipu indeed directed the slaughter of hundreds of Hindu prisoners of war and indulged in the forcible conversion of women and children often forcibly marrying them to Muslim soldiers will find ample testimony from predominantly primary sources in the book’s contents. In binary opposition to the “secular historians” who invented a virtuous hero through selective reading of historical texts, Balakrishna discovers the legacy of Tipu Sultan to be built on a quicksand of irredeemable sin.

Nevertheless, the narrative while consistent and written in flowing prose is plagued by an over-enthusiastic ambition to pass judgment even at times when the nature of interpretation could have been left to the reader’s inference. Repeatedly assigning colourful adjectives to the historical personality of Tipu like petty, coward, barbaric, savage, cruel, fanatic, zealot and others do not add any depth to the narrative.

There are apparently some factual errors in the text. Balakrishna deems Tipu an unpopular character among Muslims although he enjoys the status of a nominal saint (Hazrath) and a martyr (Shaheed) among many11. Furthermore, Tipu indeed made a few small endowments to Hindu temples even prior to his defeat in the Third Anglo Mysore war10. Tipu’s relationship with the Sringeri math as its prime patron is a conundrum which Balakrishna is unable to convincingly fathom. Moreover, he remains silent on the issue of the Math’s plunder by Maratha warriors and its restitution by Tipu.

The Sringeri Math apparently enjoyed a cordial relationship with Tipu which requires separate historical inquiry – had the Math made peace with Tipu or did it ever register appeals with the Sultan to protect the lives of Hindu inhabitants of the kingdom or did Tipu experience a crisis of faith following his extensive losses in the third Anglo Mysore war which led him briefly to pursue unchartered territories of a ‘heretical’ faith.

Finally, for someone who in his preface has expressed deep reverence for Arun Shourie, it is ironical that the significance of footnotes and academic citations seems to have been completely lost on the same author. The excuse in the book’s preface that “this is a book of popular history meant for easy reading. It is intentionally shorn of elaborate footnotes in order to not impede the flow of the narrative” does little to justify Balakrishna’s mistake in compromising the basic tenet of modern historical scholarship. Moreover, it undermines some of his assertions – for instance Balakrishna refers to Tipu’s final desperation and appeal to South Indian Muslim rulers to fight against the kaffirs (British-Maratha alliance) but does not furnish any citation (p. 136).

Considering this is his first book, one hopes that the promise he exudes will translate into a more rigorous and substantial academic work in a future edition.


1. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India

2. Letter to Syed Abdul Dulai, K.M. Panicker, Bhasha Poshini – Aug 1923, cited by Sandeep Balakrishna, Tipu Sultan: The tyrant of mysore, 1st ed, Rare Publications, p. 112

3. Surendranath Sen, Studies in Indian History: Historical records at Goa, The Shringeri letters of Tipu Sultan, p. 155

4. Tipu Sultan, Villain or Hero, K Govindan Kutty – “What is resisted is the move to use a nationally-owned medium to glorify a historical figure whose name is intimately associated with torture and forcible conversion of Hindus in one part of the country“, Voice of India, 1993

5. Vikram Sampath, Why we love to hate Tipu Sultan

6. Irfan Habib – “Introduction: An essay on Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan”, Colonialism: Resistance and Modernization under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, a volume of essays edited and with an introduction by Professor Irfan Habib, Ed. Irfan Habib, Tulika, 1999, p. xxvi

7. Ibid, p. xxviii-xxxiv

8. Prejudice against Tipu, a fallout of colonial historians’ bias: Sheik Ali The Hindu 19.1.2013

9. B A Saletore, Tipu Sultan as defender of the Hindu Dharma, in Colonialism: Resistance and Modernization under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan ed. Irfan Habib, Tulika, 1999, p. 115

10. A Subbaraya Chetty, Tipu’s endowments to Hindus and Hindu institutions, in Colonialism: Resistance and Modernization under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan ed. Irfan Habib, Tulika, 1999, p. 111

11. The light of Islam: Tipu Sultan as a practicing Muslim

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Saurav Basu

Saurav Basu is an independent researcher with interests in history and politics