A traitor's tomb

Last Updated 23 December 2013, 14:24 IST

Ghulam Ali’s Tomb in Srirangapatna is in ruins, but the story behind the controversial character who is said to have federated to the British during Tipu’s reign is a fascinating one, writes Venkatraman S

We literally asked as many people as possible in Srirangapatna for the tomb of Ghulam Ali. No one had heard of him and almost all pointed us towards either Gumbaz (the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan and his family) or Dariya Daulat Bagh (the Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan). 

Tired and battered, we stopped for a nimbu-soda (aerated soda with lemon) outside the Gumbaz and asked the soda-wallah if he knew anything about the tomb. And what followed next was the spurt of knowledge from this roadside vendor which we least expected.

He claimed that Ghulam Ali, famously known as Langda or Gumchi, was a traitor and no one worshipped, let alone cared for, him. He was buried under a dome-like structure where pigeons flocked and littered the entire place with their droppings. 

The soda-wallah cheekily pointed out that not a spoonful of pigeon dropping would be found at Gumbaz whereas one would find buckets of it at the tomb of Ghulam Ali.

He also told us that the place was cursed and no one, not even Muslims, visit it. Nevertheless, he was pretty excited about the prospect of us visiting the place and cautioned us to be careful. His directions to the tomb were carefully etched in our memories now and our adrenaline levels shot up to new levels as we picturised the decrepit structure housing the remains of Ghulam Ali.

As we drove along the mud road, padded with paddy and sugarcane fields, we soon saw a structure overlooking the paddy fields on the right. The ruins were clearly visible and the large dome clearly demarcated the green fields from the blue skies.

As we drove along the road, laden with crushed grass and dried up sugarcane, we soon stumbled on a gate which was the entrance to the structure. A few dogs came running by and we were too scared to leave our car. Determined not to back out, we shoo-ed them away and shouted for someone to open the door. A watchman emerged with whom we had to argue a lot to be let in.

Beauty in ruins

We were enthralled by the structure that was standing in front of us. Highly decrepitated, and shrouded with foliage and an air of mystery, the dome looked imposing despite being in shambles. The structure was built in two levels and had beautifully crafted mini-minarets at the corners. The arches at both levels were of classic Islamic architecture.

It was disheartening to see the overgrowth all over the structure and we had to tell ourselves not to enter it for the fear of getting bitten by a snake or some rodent. Parts of the structure seemed to have been vandalised or fallen down with the brick-work being exposed in otherwise what looked like a very strong building.

The dome has a stronger linear demarcation compared to the Gumbaz, and is also bigger than the latter. I was in for a big surprise when I started doing the post-travel research to know more about Ghulam Ali and why he was called as a traitor, and to know more about the tomb.Research on the Internet and the experience of Prof Karimuddin of Srirangapatna helped get clarity on who Ghulam Ali was.

Ghulam Ali was the head vaqeel of Tipu Sultan and was also the home minister in his kingdom of Mysore. He is also supposed to have led a delegation to Constantinople and also faced Viraraja of Coorg in the battle of 1789.

He was also to travel to France, but did not end up going. Given all these, he definitely sounds like a person of immense importance, but what is interesting is the fact that he was called a ‘traitor’ by locals. It is believed that Ghulam Ali stole many gifts from his travels which were supposed to be for Tipu and the kingdom. Ghulam Ali was even jailed for it and released later due to the magnanimity of Tipu.

He was also given a substantial pension by the Britishers post their siege of Seringapatanam and, hence, it is very much possible that he had federated with the British. Locals call this pension as namak-haram pension.

Story behind the limp

Next was to understand how he came to be called langda. The painting by Robert Home on ‘The reception of the Mysorean hostage princes by Marquis Cornwallis’ depicts Ghulam Ali seated on a silver palanquin while all others are seen standing. Though there is a claim that he suffered from sciatica, Prof Karimuddin says that Ghulam Ali did not want to stand during the reception in the court when Tipu approached it, for he believed that Tipu was much younger to him and did not mandate the respect. He feigned a false limp and created an excuse in such a way that he did not have to stand when the King approached.

The next quest was to understand the importance of the structure itself. It is believed that Tipu had this constructed for his parents initially, but back then, some experts are said to have told him that the architecture had some remnants of the Shia style, and was hence not suitable for a Sunni Muslim like Tipu.

Also, River Kaveri had almost flooded the structure once. Because of this, Tipu moved his plan for the tomb to the present day Gumbaz, and later, Ghulam Ali bought it from him.

A note by John Thomas mentions that Ghulam Ali was a senior Mysorean military commander and lived from 1758 to 1863, and died in 1863 at the age of 105 at Krishnagiri, and is buried there. 

This claim seems to be put to rest by Prof Karimuddin who did mention that Ghulam Ali did die somewhere else, but his body was interred at this tomb and not in Krishnagiri. Sunni Muslims have a distinction for tombs of males and females, and here too, destiny seems to have played its game, as the tomb of Ghulam Ali resembled that meant for a female. 

This puts to rest the theory that the tomb was not constructed by Ghulam Ali for his wife (and hence no resemblance to Shah Jahan’s love story). We also found three graves in the same compound with no enclosing structure and no epitaph, sans ornamentation of their tombs. These are the relatives of Ghulam Ali.

The quest for Ghulam Ali and the secret behind his tomb finally seemed to have found answers as stories and folklores around him started making sense. The structure still stands isolated from the tourist frenzy and away from the hustle-bustle, in a private farm. With parts of it crumbling due to the travails of time and sheer neglect, this beautiful structure will soon be part of the earth.

(Published 23 December 2013, 14:24 IST)

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