Looted Tipu riches as global exhibits

Looted Tipu riches as global exhibits

The most significant of Tipu's memories lie at the Scottish National War Museum in the Edinburgh Castle.

Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, whose birth anniversary celebrations became a contentious issue recently, is avidly remembered, ironically, through his countless artefacts and personal effects displayed in museums and art galleries in England and Scotland. The soldiers and commanders too fought valiantly for this great warrior king, the only monarch to have died on the battlefield fighting the British. 
After Tipu was killed on May 4, 1799, Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington,  gave a free hand to the victorious army to pillage Tipu’s palace and arsenals in Srirangapatnam. The excited British soldiers indulged in such  acts of loot and confiscation that there was no one in the army who did not carry  multiple artefacts  as souvenirs and war spoils.

Most valuable ones like the swords, ivory goods, pistols, cannons and jewellery were to the turn of the high ranking officers. The remnants of war rockets, Tipu used to the bewilderment of the British, numbering 700, were shipped to England where they were subjected to reverse engineering to unravel the process of making them.

The iconic 42 inch sword  that Tipu held on the fateful day of his death and presented to General David Baird  as war trophy, was bought by the now beleaguered liquor baron Vijay Mallya in 2003 at a Sotheby auction for Rs 1.57 crore. It is reported that Mallya also bought several other war items like carved quires, flint lock pistols, cannon and other personal items of Tipu.

A finger ring with the word Ram engraved in Devanagari script, recovered from Tipu’s body, was exhibited in the British museum. It is said that the ring was later presented by Wellesley to his niece, Lady Fitzroy Somerset. The gorgeous Tipu’s throne with a gold canopy was ripped out and all its eight large diamond studded tiger heads that formed the front of the throne were shared among the generals.

One of them was presented to Edward Clive (son of Robert Clive), then governor of Madras, is now exhibited in Clive Museum at Powis Castle in Wales. A pair of Tipu’s golden slippers, his glittering tent, a camp cot, swords, walking stick with tiger head etc, are also seen here.

Of all the curious  objects  of  Tipu, the “toy tiger” displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, is the most important. It is an awesome life-size wooden toy seen in a military uniform. This impressive toy has in its body a mechanical pipe organ hidden and by turning a handle, creates wailing shrieks and a loud roar while the victim’s hand moves up and down in despair.

The design of this toy tiger is said to have been inspired by the death of the son of the Scottish General Sir Hector Munro, a bête noire of Tipu. There are also several items of jewellery taken from Tipu’s palace which are on display in this museum.

In 1999, Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, as a part of the bi-centennial celebrations of Tipu’s death, held a special exhibition in which  a replica of Tipu’s toy tiger was made for the occasion. It continues to be in the museum now.

A significant legacy of Tipu  was the proliferation of paintings and sketches the contemporary artists produced. Due to these paintings, the image of Tipu was entrenched in the collective memory of the British so well that in 1831 when Ram Mohan Roy visited England, he was embarrassed to face hostile booing crowds at many places. As Ram Mohan Roy’s headgear resembled Tipu’s turban, he was mistaken to be a descendant of Tipu Sultan.

Castle’s war museum
The most significant of Tipu’s memories lie at the Scottish National War Museum in the historic Edinburgh Castle. Here are preserved  swords, daggers, war medals and other articles taken from the arsenals at Srirangapatnam. There are numerous ornamental swords belonging to several prominent Scottish army generals who saw action in the Mysore wars.

Swords presented to the generals as souvenirs are also on display. The names, Carnatic, Mysore and Srirangapatnam carved on stones, indicate the importance the Scots bestowed on their combats against Tipu. An armlet of Tipu, found on his body that was presented to David Baird, is also preserved here.

At the concluding ceremony of Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) held annually, a spectacular display of fireworks takes place outside of the castle in commemoration of the Mysore wars. The exquisite Amaravathi sculptures excavated from near Guntur in 1845 by Sir Walter Elliot, now exhibited at the British Museum, and the enigmatic Kohinoor diamond  taken away in 1850 after the Second Sikh war and presented to Queen Victoria, form part of the crown jewels displayed now in the Tower of London. They attract millions of tourists from all over the world annually.

The indiscriminately looted Tipu’s Srirangapatna treasures, now as global exhibits, stand as quintessential reminders of the nature of the British colonial aggrandisement in India.

(The writer is retired professor of History, University of Hyderabad)
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