‘Tipu’s Tiger’ and the Importance of Visual Language

Written by: Laila Ghaffar

In the narrative of the British colonisation of India, it would be very easy to understand the Indians as passive and helpless in the face of rapid British expansion. After all, history is written by the winners. However, one look at ‘Tipu’s Tiger’ and an entirely different story is conveyed. 

The statue, which is on display at the Victoria and Albert museum in London, depicts a life-size tiger mauling a European soldier lying on his back. The tiger entirely overwhelms the soldier beneath. But the wooden statue is not just a visual display of might and ferocity. Hidden behind a hinged flap within the tiger is an organ, which can be exposed by turning the handle next to it. Upon doing so the soldier’s arm goes up and down, and noises intended to resemble screams are produced by the automaton. Hence, the statue invokes a multi-sensory experience of terror and alarm. 

It comes as no surprise that the patron of the work, Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), who ruled the Kingdom of Mysore, was a fierce enemy of the British. After taking part in his first Anglo-Mysore war at the mere age of seventeen, he dedicated his life to relentlessly opposing the expansion of the East India Company, and engaged them in four separate rounds of fighting from 1767 to 1799. He was quick to recognise the British threat to the independence of India and urged the rulers of neighbouring kingdoms not to align themselves with them. His letter to the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1796 states: 

Know you not the custom of the English? Wherever they fix their talons they contrive little by little to work themselves into the whole management of affairs.

And, indeed, he was right. The British system relied entirely upon dismantling and draining the kingdoms and princely states of their resources, rendering them entirely dependent on the Company. Equally, the British relied upon inflaming religious sentiments to better facilitate their expansion in India. Here too, Tipu recognised the importance of conserving the Indo-Islamic tradition which had endured for centuries in India. As a Muslim ruler of a Hindu majority kingdom, he ensured that the Hindu temples within Mysore were protected as state property. Moreover, his personal library was compiled of over 2,000 books written in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Urdu, representing the linguistic traditions of the major religions active in the Indian Subcontinent. Both publicly and personally, Tipu was tolerant of diversity and treated all religious groups residing in his kingdom with respect. 

Yet perhaps the biggest surprise and challenge for the English was Tipu’s fascination with modern technologies. He attempted to engage with technological developments outside South Asia, and looked to French military advancements for inspiration. Thus, his army was supplied with sepoy flintlocks, which were far more effective and advanced than the British matchlocks. He also experimented with the use of water power to drive machinery, another example of imitating French technology. Furthermore, Tipu turned his gaze eastward and sent envoys to southern China to bring silkworm eggs back, with the aim of establishing and encouraging sericulture in Mysore. This is a tradition that has endured and shaped the cultural and economic landscape of contemporary Mysore, and is just one part of Tipu’s significant legacy on the region. Therefore, Tipu frightened the British, because, as British historian William Dalrymple suggests, ‘he was frighteningly familiar’. Hardly resigned to the inevitability of British colonialism, he possessed a powerful imagination and utilised Western technologies against its creators. 

Tipu’s imagination also influenced the way he manipulated visual language. He adopted the tiger as his symbol and adorned his possessions in tiger memorabilia. Jewelled tiger heads adorned the finials of his throne, and the coinage of Mysore was stamped with tiger stripes. Moreover, his soldiers wore uniforms with tiger stripe patterns sewn into them, leaving no doubt as to their allegiance, or their ferocity on the battlefield. All of Tipu’s personal possessions were embossed with tiger stripes, such as his swords and guns. Hence, Tipu very closely and calculatedly intertwined his personal association and rule with the symbol of the tiger, an animal which has traditionally been understood to represent the entirety of India. The effect of this visual association was deeply profound on the British. Upon Tipu’s defeat and death in his capital of Seringapatam in 1799, each British soldier involved in the victory was presented with a medal, on which one side depicted a lion wrestling a tiger to the ground and the other bearing the Arabic words ‘Assadullah al-Ghaleb’, meaning ‘the conquering lion of God’. The implication here is clear: the British lion has emerged victorious over the Indian tiger, Tipu. The desire to assert this notion using the same visual language as Tipu, reveals how significantly his branding of himself as the tiger had affected the British psyche and morale. 

Tipu’s swords

It is probably worth noting that examples of Tipu’s possessions are highly prized collector’s items and fetch very highly at auction. On 23 October Sotheby’s will auction one of Tipu’s swords – with a tiger stripe pattern embossed on the blade and a gold tiger head handle, for a high estimate of up to £150,000. This only proves that the affiliation of the tiger with Tipu’s memory has withstood the test of time, despite subsequent British efforts to dismantle his memory and legacy. 

The story of Tipu is an especially potent example of the importance of visual language in contributing to the way in which history is told and understood. ‘Tipu’s Tiger’ diverges far from the traditional account of the Indians as submissive, whilst also contributing to our understanding of Tipu as a single man and ruler. While history may be written by the winners, the appreciation of visual language may give rise to a more nuanced and complex awareness of narratives and characters. 

Tipu’s Tiger

Bibliography: 

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2019), V&A, Tipu’s Tiger, (online) avaliable at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/tipus-tiger ; (accessed 20 October 2019).

ThoughtCo. (2019), Biography of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, (online) available at: http://www.thoughtco.com/tipu-sultan-the-tiger-of-mysore-195494 ; (accessed 20 October 2019). 

Dalrymple, William, (2019), The Guardian, An Essay in Imperial Villain-Making, (online) available at: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2005/may/24/foreignpolicy.india ; (accessed 20 October 2019).

Scottish History and Archaeology, (2019), Tipu Sultan and the Siege of Seringapatam, (online) available at: http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/tipu-sultan/ ; (accessed 20 October 2019). 
Sotheby’s (2019), Auction Lot 251: A Rare Sword with Burri-Patterned Watered-Steel Blade, from the Palace Armoury of Tipu Sultan, India, Seringapatam, Circa 1782-99, (online) available at: http://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2019/arts-of-the-islamic-world/a-rare-sword-with-bubri-patterned-watered-steel ; (accessed 20 October 2019).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s