The legacy of Tipu's armouries

The legacy of Tipu's armouries

Half-buried, the 18th-century structure once packed a powerful punch, battle-ready to inflict devastating blows on the marauding British. But its enormous significance in Tipu Sultan’s military history lay in tatters, 200 years later. The armoury in Srirangapatna was, by all accounts, destined to decay. Vandalised by graffiti, the monument of neglect would have remained so. But an unprecedented attempt to shift it away from a railway path has put the spotlight back on. As beams, cranes and skilled individuals converge for a dramatic operation, history beckons. It is time to dust those sands of time.

History beckons

The gaze shifts back to the summer of 1799. Armed to the teeth, 50,000 plus soldiers from the British East India Company and allies stood there, ready to attack. Srirangapatna was about to witness the bloodiest battle in its history. But despite his inferior troop strength, despair did not overwhelm Tipu.

His eight armouries, spread across Srirangapatna, had enough stocks to keep the marauders at bay. Pulverising vast swathes of his kingdom, the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War was at its peak. Yet, the armouries had not failed him. Latter-day historians would explain Tipu’s unwavering faith in his enormous stockpile of arms. The confidence stemmed from the structural strength of the armouries. Built with lime and stone mortar, compacted with a mixture of eggs, jaggery and soap nuts, the armoury walls were impregnable.

Two centuries later, an American team inspecting the structure would vouch for that solidity. For Tipu, it was a necessity dictated by the needs of war, an unceasing reality of his reign. But the walls had to be thick for another critical reason: To keep the gunpowder stored inside cool. “There was a danger of the powder exploding in high temperature,” says Mansoor Ali, a keen Tipu researcher. This also explains why the armouries were half-buried.

Structurally, its partially underground plan posed a challenge: Rainwater flooding. Designed with help from French engineers, the armouries had remarkable drainage capability. As Mansoor Ali explains, the water would quickly drain out through a small hole behind the armoury, no matter how much it rained.

Tragically for Tipu, a loophole in this scheme of things would prove fatal. Mir Sadiq, a general in the Mysorean Army, plugged the drainage hole, flooding the armouries.

Death and defeat loomed for Tipu and his army as the damp gunpowder stock lost its potency. As Mir Sadiq deliberately pulled away the Mysorean army from the battlefield, the British troops stormed the fort’s boundary wall. The defence was weak and Tipu’s death, precariously close.

A steady supply of gunpowder was also critical to fill the cartoche boxes carried by every gun-wielding soldier. “Trained by the French, Tipu’s army had modernised itself to European standards, arguably the first to do so in pre-independent India,” says Nidhin George Olikara, a seasoned heritage blogger.

Many of Tipu’s military divisions, contends Nidhin, were commandeered by French officers. Aided by French expertise, the armouries too were placed strategically at vantage points inside the fort.

The British knew their best bet would be to lob cannon balls onto the fort targeting the stockpiles within. They were sure the exploding ammunition in the armouries would trigger massive destruction, easing their entry. That most armouries have survived the onslaughts is testimony to their inherent strength.

Today, as Western technology sharpens its tools to lift and shift one of these armouries away from a railway path, the Tipu legacy demands another recall: the Mysorean rocket, developed by Tipu and his father Hyder Ali, a know-how that later spurred European rocketry.

Deployed with great success against the British, these rockets were well stocked in the armouries. Historians assert that these ‘missile’ pioneers had swords affixed.

Once fired, the rockets would pierce the air and proceed menacingly towards the enemy. The swords would fall first, their edges sharpened for maximum damage.

Powered by high thrust and range that touched 2 km, the rockets were high-value assets in the armouries. The British were impressed by the sophistication of that technology, unthinkable in that age. Centuries later, looking for insights into early rocketry, India’s missile man Abdul Kalam knew exactly where to go.

For the engineers perfecting a seamless location shift of the armoury, a grasp of the structure’s history was not an urgent need. But its strength did surprise them.

History would teach them why it had to be so. Months of intense planning and preparation had given the team a measure of what was in store. Excavating tonnes of mud and dirt around the armoury, the Joint Venture team of Wolfe House Movers and PSL Engg team knew the shifting task was mammoth. It had never been attempted before, anywhere in India!

The 13.33 metre by 10.12 metre structure weighed over 900 tonnes. Its walls were four feet thick, but the foundation was filled with irregular boulders. Inserting beams – fabricated in Jabalpur by PSL Engg – underneath its massive frame would prove tough. To shift the structure 450 feet away to a new location identified by the Department of Archaeology, a support system had to be designed. The process had Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, the Mumbai-based STUP Consultants and the Archaeology Department draft a plan, that was later approved by the Railways.
New possibilities

Five main beams and 11 cross beams formed a frame supporting the load. Thirty seven lifting jacks were secured underneath the frame, lifting the entire structure by two feet on February 24. Once the jacks are removed and replaced with rollers, the critical phase of shifting will begin on March 8. Hydraulically pushed on roller ramps, the armoury will first move 350 feet in a straight line. The rollers would then be reset at 90 degrees to shift the structure by another 100 feet to the right.

The shifting could potentially spark renewed interest in the armoury. But could its reputation as India’s first relocated structure give a push to tourism covering the entire area? Archaeological conservation engineer K Krishna believes so, despite paucity of funds.

Long neglected, the Tipu fort housing nine armouries is now in a state of utter decay. Its disintegrating walls paint a picture of misplaced priorities, as the huge potential for heritage tourism remains untapped. Krishna is certain that a step-by-step upgrade of all the armouries, combined with reconstruction of the fort wall can spark a revival of Srirangapatna’s lost glory.

Avid heritage trackers and historians earnestly hope that the armoury relocation goes beyond a costly, token gesture.

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