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  • Neeraj J

Politics of Faith: Contextualising the Actions and Legacy of an 18th century Sultan

‘Tipu Sultan Enthroned’. Anna Tonelli, 1800. (National Trust Collections)

The mention of 'Tipu Sultan' often generates mixed responses, from various ends of the spectrum, inspiring and provocative. Some envision him as a freedom fighter and an epitome of tolerance (one 20th-century Nationalist historian went so far as to describe him as a 'defender of Hindu Dharma'); for the other side, Tipu is seen as a religious bigot and cruel tyrant [1], engaging in forceful conversion. Unfortunately, neither views do justice to the complexity of Tipu and also lacks two critical factors involved in interpreting the past: context and nuance.

Gold coin of Haider Ali, depicting Shiva-Parvati on one side, and his initials in Persian on the other (Columbia University)

Sometime in 1797, Tipu wrote a letter to the Shah of Afghanistan, proposing an Afghan invasion followed by a joint 'holy war' campaign against 'infidels'. The details, however, are much curious. According to the plan, the Afghan forces were to first depose the Mughal emperor and then ally with the Rajputs, after which this massive force was then to march South, to Tipu's aid; the Rajput forces would draw the Brahmins and various other communities to their side, further swelling up their numbers, and together they would destroy the enemy 'infidels', these being: the British, the Nizam and the Marathas (emphasis added). Tipu had styled his kingdom as an Islamic Khudadad Sarkar (God-given-government), and he, its chosen representative. In his political vocabulary, an enemy of Mysore was equivalent to an enemy of God and could be conveniently branded as Infidel who needed to be eliminated [2]. Such tropes were often employed by Indian monarchs; the famous 18th-century ruler of Travancore, Martanda Varma declared Lord Padmanabha as his kingdom's true master while he was just God's servant, ruling on his behalf. Thus, his rule now had ‘God’s sanction’, and conquest could be justified in his name; let alone opposing, to even speak badly of the king was now akin to 'droham' or betrayal against the deity [3]. In Tipu's world, like that of most others, the lines separating religion and politics often blurred, and actions were driven not so much by zeal and devotion as by kingship.

While his father Haider Ali retained the Wodeyar monarch as a figurehead and worked almost entirely within the framework of traditional Indic kingship (one East India Company official went to the extent of calling him a "half-hindoo") [4], Tipu had no qualms shaking things up a bit, drawing his claims to sovereignty over Mysore through multiple avenues, deploying both Hindu and Muslim means. For instance, as Kate Brittlebank points out, his extensive use of the tiger motif would have simultaneously evoked amongst his populace the imagery of tiger-riding Gods and Goddesses, prominent Muslim figures [5] and other Sufi saints, apart from memories of old dynasties such as the Cholas and Hoysalas, which made use of the tiger in their royal insignia. Further, connections were established with Hindu monks and Sufi saints, and depending on the circumstances, temples could be patronized or knocked down.

Kerala’s Thiruvanchikulam Mahadeva temple was smashed by Tipu Sultan during his Malabar invasion. The present shrine was built in 1801, after his fall. (Wikimedia Commons)

To set the record straight, Tipu was no stranger to iconoclasm. His armies plundered many a temple during his war campaigns in the Malabar and Tamil regions, and within his own realm, at least three major shrines were destroyed [6]. But how does one then contrast this against the fact that he also supported numerous temples? [7] Furthermore, the two large Vishnu temples that stood right next to his palaces in Srirangapatna and Bangalore [8] run counterintuitive to the image of him as a cartoon cutout bigot driven solely by religion. Tipu's destructive acts against temples and churches, like that of his patronage too, were largely driven by politics (though one finds a religious tint as well). Destruction of sacred sites within enemy land was a common practice and served as a means of delegitimizing a ruler's authority, depriving him of his 'divine mandate' to rule [9], and not to mention the loot to be gained. Interestingly, one of Tipu's gifts to the Venkataramana temple at Bednur includes an Amsterdam cast bell that was most likely taken from a church in Kerala [10].

Emerald ‘Padshah’ Lingam of Tipu Sultan at the Srikanteshwara temple, Nanjangud; According to tradition, Tipu referred to the deity as ‘Hakim Nanjuda’ after it cured his favourite elephant’s eyesight. (Pinterest)

Functioning as a traditional south Indian king ruling over a population that was largely Hindu, Tipu was duty-bound to support and protect the temples within his territory, extending his patronage was one way to make his rule more acceptable. And so we see Tipu making large-scale donations to the various politically significant temples in and around Mysore such as in Melkote, Nanjangud, Kalale, and his own capital of Srirangapatna. The scholar Caleb Simmons notes that since some of these shrines were active as early as the 12th century, by indulging in pious acts of donation, Tipu was presenting himself as a worthy successor to the previous regimes which were associated with them in earlier times. His active correspondence with the Sringeri Shankaracharya and his continuous patronage of the matha can also be understood in this light. Throughout his reign, from 1783-99, Tipu wrote as many as 47 letters to the pontiff, whom he addressed as 'Jagadguru', and whose presence he considered vital for his kingdom's prosperity.

Tipu Sultan’s letter dated 5th August 1791 in Kannada to the Sringeri Jagadguru. Tipu’s emblem at the top: a blazing sun with ‘tiger stripe rays’ with ‘Bismillah’ written inside. (Rare Book Society of India)

Many aspects of Tipu's rule, however, display an increasing Islamicising trend [11]; the intent being to project himself as an 'ideal' Muslim monarch to a wider audience and gain more recognition. Cities were renamed: his birthplace of Devanahalli became Yusufabad, Chitradurga became Farkhyab Hisar, and so on; Kannada was replaced by Persian as the language of the court; and between 1795-98, we find that non-Muslims had to pay 1/4 times more tax than Muslim traders. In a letter addressed to a rival Nawab in Kurnool, Tipu boasted that he had converted around 40,000 kodavas to Islam[12]. While Tipu did indeed indulge in conversion and viewed himself as a spreader of the faith, in many places, the numbers appear exaggerated and seem to be more about him showcasing his 'prowess' and commitment to Islam.

The point of all this is not to weigh Tipu's 'goodness' against his 'shortcomings', but to point out that people behaved differently depending on the context, and were shaped by the times they lived in. A common conception is that Tipu was an aberration, to be seen in stark contrast against other kings and figures who can be assumed as 'noble', and often this plays to the 'good Hindu king'- 'bad Muslim king' stereotype. When the Sringeri pontiff wrote to Tipu in 1792 seeking aid after the Matha had been damaged, the culprits weren't any Muslim force, but the Maratha troops led by the general Parashuram Bhau. The attack had left many Brahmins dead, the sacred idol of Goddess Sharada was uprooted and Maratha accounts confirm that 'women were molested and some of them sacrificed their lives, the images belonging to the Swami...were plundered.' But rarely do we come across any such demands for 'justice' against Maratha excesses [13], as we often see in the case of Tipu. Then again, most past figures come with their own closet of skeletons and focusing solely on their worst aspects is to weaponise the past to serve the politics of the present.

Murals on the Sibi Narasimhaswamy temple in Tumkur depicting Tipu Sultan and Haider Ali holding court; completed in 1798, the temple was built by Nalappa and his brothers. Nalappa’s family had a long standing association with the court of Mysore. (The Hindu)

So to sum up, Tipu could be multiple things: a 'Dharmic' king mediating disputes between Sri Vaishnava sects and a generous benefactor who offered Shiva lingams to temples on one hand, and someone who indulged in graphic violence- blowing up temples with cannon and kicking down Goddess images on the other; The same person who held a reputation of being a 'Brahmin killer' was simultaneously dependent on the Brahmins back home to run his revenue department [14]. Most rulers, throughout the course of history, regardless of affiliation, were capable of being sophisticated and cultured, and yet equally brutal.


1 In his thesis, Michael Soracoe demonstrates that the increasing demonization of Tipu and his portrayal as tyrant was a strategy deployed by the East India company to divert attention from the atrocities they committed in India and to justify the spread of Empire for the greater good. See Soracoe, Tyrant! Tipu Sultan and the Reconception of British Imperial Identity.

2 For a reading of Tipu’s letter to Zaman Shah Durrani see Kalsar, Secret Correspondence of Tipu Sultan, no 22. pp. 139-40. For an analysis, see Simmons, Devotional Sovereignty: Kingship and Religion in India, pp. 87-94.

3 For a brief reading on Martanda Varma and his association with the Padmanabhaswami temple see Pillai, “The God Who Ate from a Coconut Shell.” Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and Their (Hi)Stories, pp. 2–18.

4 For an assessment on Haider Ali’s policies and rule, see Simmons, The Goddess and the King: Camundesvari and the Fashioning of the Wodeyar Court of Mysore, pp. 204-15.

5 A calligraphic tiger mask on Tipu’s banner reads ‘Asad Allah ul-Ghalib’ (victorious tiger of God), meant to represent the Imam Ali.

6 Brittlebank, Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy: Islam and Kingship in a Hindu Domain, pp. 125. These include the Hariharesvara temple at Harihar (part of which was also converted into a mosque), the Varahaswami temple at Srirangapatna and the Odakaraya temple at Hospet.

7 For a detailed list of Tipu’s donations to temples see Chetty, “Tippu’s Endowments to the Hindus and the Hindu Institutions.”, pp. 416-19. Also see Hasan, History of Tipu Sultan, pp. 354-63.

8 These include the Sri Ranganathaswami temple at Srirangapatna and the Kote Venkataramana temple in Bangalore.

9 See Eaton, “Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States.”

10 There are many such instances of Church bells finding their way into Hindu temples. See Lopez, Rachel. “Why Bells from Portuguese-Era Churches Ring in Temples across Maharashtra.” Hindustan Times, 22 Dec. 2018. For Tipu’s complicated relationship with the Christians see More, “Tipu Sultan and the Christians”.

11 See Yazdani, India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.), pp 308-44.

12 Tipu Sultan. Select Letters of Tippoo Sultan to Various Public Functionaries, no 196. pp. 228-30. In another occasion concerning the Kodavas, we find Tipu ordering his Brigade commander that even the dead along with the captives were to be converted to Islam (see letter no 117).

13 For details regarding the destructive Maratha raids on Bengal see Sarkar, Fall of the Mughal Empire. Vol. 1, 1739-1751, pp. 54-6, 63-4.

14 His own Diwan, Purnaiah was a Marathi Brahmin.

Bibliography and Further reading

Primary Sources:

· Ramachandra Rao Panganuri. Memoirs of Hyder and Tippoo: Rulers of Seringapatam, Written in the Mahratta Language. 1849.

· Tipu Sultan. Select Letters of Tippoo Sultan to Various Public Functionaries. Translated by William Kirkpatrick, 1811.

Secondary sources:

· Balakrishna, Sandeep. Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore. Rare Publications, 2015.

· Brittlebank, Kate. “Among the Unbelievers: “Non-Muslim” Elements in Tipu Sultan’s Dreams.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, 2010, pp. 75–86,

---. Tiger : The Life of Tipu Sultan. New Delhi, Juggernaut, 2019.

---. Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy: Islam and Kingship in a Hindu Domain. Oxford University Press, USA, 1997.

· Chetty, A. Subbaraya. “Tippu’s Endowments to the Hindus and the Hindu Institutions.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress , vol. 7, 1944, pp. 416–19,

· Davis, Richard H. Lives of Indian Images. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2021.

· Eaton, Richard. M. “Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States.” Journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 1 Sept. 2000, pp. 283–319,

· Gandhi, Rajmohan. Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times. Rupa, 2017.

· Hasan, Mohibbul. History of Tipu Sultan. Aakar Books, 2005.

· Jain, Meenakshi. Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples: Episodes from Indian History. Aryan books International, 2019.

· Kalsar, Kabir. Secret Correspondence of Tipu Sultan. India, National Book Trust, 1980.

· Menon, A. Sreedhara. A Survey of Kerala History. DC books, 2006.

· Miller, Roland E. Mappila Muslims of Kerala: A Study in Islamic Trends. Orient Longman, 1976.

· More, J. B. P. “Tipu Sultan and the Christians” Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, vol. 14, no. 3, July 2003, pp. 313–324,

· Nair, Janaki. “Tipu Sultan, the Power of the Past and the Possibility of a “Historical Temper.”” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 43, no. 4, 3 July 2020, pp. 581–597,

· Pillai, Manu S. “The God Who Ate from a Coconut Shell.” Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and Their (Hi)Stories, Westland, 2021, pp. 2–18.

· Saletore, B. A. “Tipu Sultan as Defender of Hindu Dharma’.” Confronting Colonialism: Resistance and Modernization under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan, edited by Irfan Habib, New Delhi, Tulika books, 2002, pp. 115–130.

· Sarkar, Jadunath. Fall of the Mughal Empire. Vol. 1, 1739-1751. Hyderabad, Orient Longman, 1988.

· Sen, Surendranath. “The Shringeri Letters of Tipu Sultan.” Studies in Indian History, 1930, pp. 155–69.

· Sil, Narasingha. “Tipu Sultan in History: Revisionism Revised.” SAGE Open, vol. 3, no. 2, 2 Apr. 2013,

· Simmons, Caleb. Devotional Sovereignty: Kingship and Religion in India. Oxford University Press, 2019.

---. The Goddess and the King: Camundesvari and the Fashioning of the Wodeyar Court of Mysore. 2014.

· Soracoe, Michael. Tyrant! Tipu Sultan and the Reconception of British Imperial Identity. 2013.

· Yazdani, Kaveh. India, Modernity and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.). Leiden, Brill, 2017.

News articles:

· Daniyal, Shoaib. “Forgotten Indian History: The Brutal Maratha Invasions of Bengal.”, 21 Dec. 2015,

· Lopez, Rachel. “Why Bells from Portuguese-Era Churches Ring in Temples across Maharashtra.” Hindustan Times, 22 Dec. 2018,

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