Mysore, Tipu Sultan and Seringapatam

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By Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed *

Muslim women, even the more orthodox, are freer in a remote part of south India than in Islamist citadels such as Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Three cheers for Indian secularism 

I grew up listening to my father describe Tipu Sultan (the Tiger of Mysore) as a great warrior who fought the British and gained their respect even when he died fighting them. It had always been my desire to see for myself one day what all was there to know about that hero of my father. On February 19, 2013 I saw with my own eyes the exact spot where Tipu Sultan was shot dead.

A day earlier, I had left Bangalore for Mysore for sightseeing from where I was going to historical places, which would also take me to Seringapatam where Tipu Sultan (November 20, 1750-May 4, 1799) is buried. My friend Aakar Patel had arranged for me to rent a car for the two days I was going to be travelling out of Mysore. Ravi, the driver, turned out to be a very good conversationalist and guide. The people of south India are more cultured, polite and civilised. Why should this be deserves a proper study. To my very great surprise I even found a Sikh garment shop close to my hotel and talked to the owner. The family had shifted from Montgomery (Sahiwal) in 1947. Some exchange of pleasantries in Punjabi made me feel good.

Early morning on February 19 we first left for Somnathpur where the temples built in 1268 are a famous touristic spot. Although the followers of Lord Shiva predominate in south India, the Somnathpur temple complex belongs to the Vaishnavite branch of Hinduism. Therefore there were no images or idols of Lord Shiva. The ruins were impressive and one could feel that long ago it must have been a very popular place for worship and pilgrimage. Both the Ramayan and the Mahabharata epics were carved in stone. The workmanship was extremely delicate, almost as if it had been done by female hands.

Next we drove to Seringapatam. Suddenly the architecture changed completely. The typical central Asian style with the main edifice in the middle and open green lawns surrounding it reminded me of similar monuments and their layout in Lahore, Delhi and Agra. At the gate an elderly man approached me with a testimonial showing that he was a certified guide. He would charge me only Rs 70 to narrate the history associated with the mausoleum. I found that very reasonable.

Tipu Sultan’s father, Hyder Ali (1721-December 7, 1782) was a general of the ruler of Mysore who captured power and became king. Hyder Ali fought the British and never lost any battle. He died of a cancer on his back. Tipu Sultan too came into conflict with the British and although he inflicted many defeats on them, he finally was killed in a place some distance from where he is buried.

Both Hyder Ali and Tipu sought French support but the British proved more successful in the wars. Tipu Sultan sent an emissary to Istanbul to have his incumbency as Muslim ruler of Mysore affirmed in a firman (declaration) by the Ottoman sultan who was the symbolic caliph of Sunni Islam. Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan and his mother are buried in the main mausoleum. Outside are the graves of some of his children, wives and other relatives. We then drove to the Seringapatam fort and museum and spent a long time there. On the way back we also saw the exact spot where Tipu Sultan was shot dead.

I have been on many such guided tours and remember so many nice and decent people from whom I learnt the history of the place I was visiting. I had read a lot on Tipu Sultan before coming to Seringapatam but it was a real treat to listen to the guide in Seringapatam. His whole body quivered with emotions and pride as he talked about Tipu Sultan. Let me admit a false presumption I made: I took it for granted he was a Muslim. When I enquired he said, “No Sir, I am a Hindu.” He did not know that I was a Muslim. I wanted to embrace him but it might have shocked him and to others it might have appeared melodramatic but people like him, poor, hardworking and decent, always win my respect. I will always remember the very sincere look on his face. I think I gave him more than we had agreed on.

To my even greater surprise, while driving back to Mysore we suddenly saw two women riding a scooter, fully clad in burqas with only the eyes covered in dark sunglasses, go past us. The same day in Mysore I saw something similar again. So, Muslim women, even the more orthodox, are freer in a remote part of south India than in Islamist citadels such as Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Three cheers for Indian secularism.

Next day Ravi drove me up to the hill overlooking Mysore. I have always had a fascination for hills. I used to go up the one on Queen’s Road and try to have a panoramic look at Lahore in all directions. On the hill is another famous Hindu temple, which had lots of devotees. I believe India has outlawed the exclusion of Dalits from the temples and people of all sorts were going in and getting parshad (sweets). I also went to a park and as luck would have it saw a mongoose get hold of a snake. This was just a bonus.

The last leg of the trip to Mysore was sightseeing inside Mysore. Towards the end Ravi said to me, “Sir, please have a look at our church as well.” Because of his name I had thought he was a Hindu, but he turned out to be a devout Christian.

* The writer is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan; Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

JULY 2018

Vol. 12 - No. 12


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