Local legend in the Kingdom of Mysore tells the following tale.
One day, a young prince named Tipu went out hunting in the jungle with a friend – sometimes portrayed as a French mercenary in the service of the prince’s father – the fearsome Hyder Ali. While tracking a local deer or antelope the two men were surprised by a giant tiger leaping out at them from the undergrowth.
As stealthily as they had been while stalking their prey; the tiger had been even quieter, more stealthy, more cunning. The beast seized Tipu’s companion by the throat, crushing his windpipe and severing his jugular in one fell swoop. Before Prince Tipu could react, the big cat spun around on him, knocking his gun from his hand. Tipu drew his sword, but the tiger leapt, striking him full force in the chest; sending the sword flying.
Pinned to the canopy, the Prince and the tiger wrestled on the ground for what seemed like an eternity. When he finally successfully grasped his sword, Prince Tipu – bloodied and beaten – mustered the strength to stab the tiger. The Prince stabbed and slashed, cut and thrust till the tiger lay dead.
This, at least, is the tale explaining why Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, from 1782 – became known as ‘The Tiger of Mysore’. Tipu would adopt the tiger in his art and architecture, military uniforms (striped), even his signature.
The Kingdom of Mysore was an empire in the South of India, established at the end of the 14th Century by the Wadiyar dynasty. By the middle of the 18th century, power had passed to Tipu’s father, Hyder Ali – an Indian born soldier of possibly Iraqi or Arabian descent. Through military and political prowess Hyder Ali ascended to the throne in 1761. Father and son ruled in extremely turbulent times.
From the middle of the 18th Century, the Indian Mughal Empire began to lose much of their power, and the British East India Company – originally in India just as merchants – began vying with France to fill the power vacuum. The following series of conflicts became known as The Carnatic Wars. The British corporation, led by the sociopathic Robert Clive, won the war, taking over tax collecting rights for swathes of India and kicking British colonialism into a higher gear. This also set the scene for a conflict between the East India Company and The Kingdom of Mysore.
This tale is not about the Anglo-Mysore wars – well it is only tangentially so. The East India Company fought four wars against the Kingdom, from 1767 to 1799. These wars were bloody, and anything but one sided. While it is easy to imagine the British having the upper hand technologically, Tipu’s kingdom came to the battle with Mysorean rockets, quite possibly the first true rockets used in war. Towards the end of the war there was also a very real concern Mysore would ally with Napoleon. They only didn’t due to Bonaparte’s defeat at the Battle of the Nile of 1798 forcing him out of the region. The first war almost went Mysore’s way, the second was fought out to a very costly status quo antebellum – a draw. The third went against Tipu, costing him close to half his empire.
The fourth Anglo- Mysore war would cost The Tiger of Mysore his life. This brings us to the topic of this Tale.
On 4th May 1799 the fortress of Seringapatam fell. The Tiger of Mysore was killed in the battle. Looting was rife in the city. While going through a music room the British found a remarkable device. To quote from a note compiled for EIC Governor General, Marquis Wellesley
“In a room appropriated for musical instruments was found an article which merits particular notice, as another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English. This piece of mechanism represents a royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition. The whole of this design was executed by Order of Tippoo Sultaun. It is imagined that this memorial of the arrogance and barbarous cruelty of Tippoo Sultan may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London.“
Known widely as Tipu’s Tiger, the automaton depicts a near life-sized white man being mauled by a large tiger. From pipes within the device you can trigger sounds like a man screaming, and a tiger roaring. There is also a keyboard, which you can use to play the automaton as a pipe organ. It is believed Tipu’s Tiger was built some time around 1795. The British have long been convinced it depicts the 1792 mauling of EIC General Sir Hector Munro’s son by a Bengal tiger. I don’t know nearly enough about the history of the region to comment, though I do have to wonder if the British have it right? One day, legend tells us, a young prince and his European companion went hunting in the jungle after all.