Foster child of Mysore's history: Tipu’s architectural legacy remains forgotten

The irony of Tipu Sultan’s rule is that it is celebrated much more in Britain and France than in India
Foster child of Mysore's history: Tipu’s architectural legacy remains forgotten
Foster child of Mysore's history: Tipu’s architectural legacy remains forgotten
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By Basav Biradar

One of the things about modern transportation is that it is designed not to allow you the time to notice. And it is easy not to notice Srirangapatna, especially if you are in a hurry to reach Mysore Palace. Well, the fast vehicles are not the only reason why you wouldn’t notice Srirangapatna. It is ironic that Tipu’s empire is a foster child of Mysore’s history while the Tiger of Mysore is celebrated by an empire that feared him.

Geographic Location and Religious Centres

Srirangapatna, or Seringapatam as the British called it, is an island on the river Cauvery about 20 kms from Mysuru and 120 kms from the state capital Bengaluru.  It is one of the three largest islands on the river Cauvery. The other two being Srirangam in Tamil Nadu and Shivanasamudra in Karnataka. All the three islands have been consecrated to Lord Ranganatha Swamy, hence the name Srirangapatna.

Ghulam Ali's tomb lies in a private farm today

An important statistic which summarizes Srirangapatna’s story is the population: During the peak of Tipu’s rule the population was said to be more than one lakh, according to the 2011 Census the population of the town is 25,061.

Historical Significance

The significance of this small town in the history of India and that of the world is of mammoth proportions. Due to its strategic geographic location Srirangapatna has been an important part of many ruling dynasties – Ganga dynasty, Vijayanagara kingdom, Wodeyar dynasty and finally the capital of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s kingdom. Of all these, the most glorious period was under the rule of the father-son duo Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan.

The Garrison cemetary

Under their rule Mysore kingdom stretched till the Krishna river in the north, Eastern Ghats and the Arabian Sea in the west. Although their rule was just under 40 years, it was under them that Srirangapatna went from being a regionally known kingdom’s capital to being known all over the world as the capital of one of the most prosperous kingdoms.

This was also the time when Marathas were incessantly attacking Mysore and the British Empire had slowly started rising. Over the 40-year period (1760-1799) the father-son duo fought four major battles with the British East India Company and their allies, popularly known as “Anglo-Mysore” wars. These wars were the most difficult, gruesome and damaging in British colonial history. To this day, the victory in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war is remembered and celebrated as one of the most important in the British Empire’s history. It was in the fourth war in 1799 CE that Tipu Sultan was finally killed on the battlefield. The “Treaty of Seringapatam”, signed after Tipu Sultan won the second Anglo-Mysore war is known to be the last surrender treaty signed on an Indian ruler’s terms.

During Tipu’s rule several monuments were built – A new bigger Jama Masjid after the second Anglo Mysore war, a third layer was added to the fortification, Dariya Daulat Bagh or the summer palace was built outside the fort, the Gumbaz for his father and mother’s tomb stones, another palace with a garden known as Lal Bagh near his father’s tomb stone, batteries and armouries at strategic locations within the fort.

An encroached armoury

One of the greatest contribution of Tipu to science and technology was the use of rockets as weapons. The places where the rockets were tested were known as ‘Rocket Courts’ and they were built all over the capital. His was the first army in the whole world to successfully use rockets as potent weapons which could fire as far as two kilometres. After the war, the British commissioned Sir William Congreve to study the technology behind these weapons and from this was born what is today known as ‘Congreve Rocket’. It is no surprise that NASA recognises Tipu Sultan as a pioneer of modern rockets. Unfortunately, it is very hard to find even one of the many rocket courts in Srirangapatna. Either they have been encroached upon or they lie dilapidated and used by children as a playground.

The ‘Siege of Seringapatam’ is one of the most famous war victories of the British empire and was celebrated with a lot of pomp and show in Britain. The soldiers were awarded a commemorative medal which had a picture of the English lion killing the Mysore tiger carved on it. The loot and plunder lasted for several days after the war and is documented in journals and memoirs of many of the British officers including Arthur Wellesley. The brutal war and the plunder meant that a lot of the structures in the fort were damaged. The main palace was demolished while Arthur Wellesley resided in the summer Palace or Dariya Daulat Bagh which probably explains the significantly better condition of the monument.

Old aqueduct bridge

In addition to being a great warrior feared by the British, Tipu was an able administrator. During his rule several industries such as the toy industry in Channapatna and the silk industry in Ramanagara flourished. His own personal toy “Tipu’s Tiger” was made by the toy makers of Channapatna. It is a life size toy and is still on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Current State and the Future

Srirangapatna’s gregarious place in history should have meant that it is one of the most visited and most well maintained heritage town in the region. Unfortunately, it is not. The Archaeological Survery of India (ASI), has 10 monuments in Srirangapatna under its jurisdiction while the rest are maintained by the state Archaeological department.

The old railway station

The 2010 amendment to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, was a ray of hope for heritage enthusiasts: Up to 100 meters from the protected limits were declared prohibited area and further beyond it up to 200 meters to be regulated area for purposes of both mining operation and construction. This meant that all encroachments in protected sites would be removed, but the enforcement of this provision has not been successful. A combination of lack of political will and lack of public participation are the main causes for the failure.

The beautiful minar on the old mosque

The 10 monuments protected by ASI have been relatively luckier than the others in Srirangapatna. ASI has done commendable work in protecting the structures by putting fencing around them and executing some restoration work. But they have not been successful in removing the encroachments. The State protected monuments such as the armouries, the old Jami Masjid, part of the fort, several Gates of the fort, Ghulam Ali Khan’s tomb are in need of plenty of work. One of the armouries near the railway station was under the threat of being demolished as part of the construction of the additional track. Luckily, this threat has been now averted after several people protested and authorities have now come up with a plan to “move” the armoury to a location far from the railway track. An American company has been awarded this important task. It remains to be seen how this drama of moving a built structure will unfold.

Ornate pillars at the old railway station

Also, as a part of laying of the same additional track, the old railway station, built from the beautiful ornate pillars from the old palace has been dismantled. Let us hope that these invaluable pillars are stored somewhere safe and will be moved to a museum soon.

The maddening pace of development in the region has not yet taken over Srirangapatna but it is not too far either. This is good news only if an integrated conservation plan is initiated and implemented soon. One of the primary focus of the plan has to be to include the local community in the management of the heritage sites. There have been several proposals in the past but there seems to be a peculiar lack of will when it comes to Srirangapatna. It is almost like Srirangapatna is the unfortunate foster child of Mysore’s history. The modern political discourse and controversy around Tipu Sultan’s rule has indirectly affected the conservation efforts in this historical town. The fear of offending one community or the other seems to be playing a big part in weakening the political will. While a lot of money has been spent on keeping the heritage alive in Mysore city, Srirangapatna is yet to see the shades of green. Interestingly, the first ever nine day long Navaratri festival in this region was held at a grand scale in Srirangapatna when it was the capital of Wodeyar rulers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The old mosque near the railway station

The various opinions and narratives around Tipu Sultan have to be looked in the context of history. It would be wrong to judge any monarch from history using today’s democratic ideals. Unfortunately, the education system at the grass roots level in our country is not developed enough to teach our children these nuances. The irony of Tipu Sultan’s rule is that it is celebrated much more in Britain and France than in India. The famous Victoria and Albert museum in London has a section dedicated to the tiger of Mysore, where the innovations and wealth from Tipu’s kingdom are displayed.

Restored graves at the Garrison cemetary

However, there is hope. Heritage enthusiasts and tourists still throng the place and keep discovering new stories from the vast history of this small town. One favourable outcome in the recent past was the restoration project of Garrison Cemetery supported by the descendants of the De Meuron family from Switzerland. The family was generous enough to fund the restoration of not only the eight graves of their regiment but all the 309 graves in the cemetery with little or no support from local authorities. There is a need to create an ecosystem where people with expertise and interest are able to work with government authorities and the local communities alike and bring back the glory to Srirangapatna lest it becomes only a blur on the superfast highways. 

(Basav Biradar is a heritage enthusiast and he has been conducting heritage tours in Srirangapatna, Bangalore and Mysore since 2010.)

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