Big Cat Hunting at Seringapatam

They do say that teachers learn as much from their students as vice versa. Well, this all began with an image posted on Twitter by Aymenn Jawad.

BdO63hzCEAAHP0P.jpg large

I’d never come across the Seringapatam Medal before, but when I read more about it, it reminded me of Greek and Roman coins I’ve studied in the past: small discs of metal which, partly because they are so small and the messages they carry so concentrated, can convey a huge amount about the historical context that produced them.

Aymenn’s photo was of what is technically known as the “obverse” of the medal. After some tough negotiations, He was kind enough to post the other side (the “reverse”):

Sirangapatan reverse1

The medal commemorated the storming of the island city of Seringapatam (more correctly known as Srirangapatna) by the forces of the British East India Company and their allies in 1799. Seringapatam was the capital of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, and its capture ended the reign, and the life, of an Indian ruler who had been a thorn in the side of the British for some time.

There’s a very full description of the medal in Nidhin Olikara’s interesting blog The Seringapatam Times. It was produced at the famous Soho Mint in Birmingham, and two names are especially important, Conrad Heinrich Küchler, the engraver, and Sir Charles Wilkins, a famous academic and orientalist who seems to have been the brains behind the design. Olikara explains how a vast number of these medals were issued, all the troops involved in the capture (for the first time) receiving one, with a gradation of metals (gold, silver-gilt, silver, bronze and tin), from highest to lowest rank. Aymenn’s example is bronze, and would originally have been awarded to an Indian officer or Indian or British non-commissioned officer, or someone considered to have comparable status. See W. A. Steward, War Medals and their History (1915), 11-14 for the details of the issue, but here’s a slightly less glamorous specimen, tin and by now much corroded, such as would have been given to the lower ranks:


What caught my interest most about this medal was the writing on it, which I think is extremely clever, but also very revealing about Tipu, and about the difficulties the British faced in India at the close of the eighteenth century. I’ll try in what follows to explain what I mean, but let’s start off with the design.

On the obverse (the first image) there’s a lion overcoming a tiger, the lion’s tail wrapped around a penant with a Union Jack and some text in Arabic, اسد الله الغالب, asadullah al-ghalib, “The triumphant lion of God.” In the exergue of this side of the medal, a Latin date, IV MAY. MDCCXCIX, 4th May 1799, the day of the capture of Seringapatam.

On the reverse there’s a depiction of the actual assault. The sun high in the sky indicates the time of the attack, 1 pm. Soldiers storm the city, some carrying flags, others scaling-ladders. The city’s landmarks, a Hindu temple, its central mosque and monumental flagstaff, are visible amid billowing smoke. The assault on this heavily fortified city was predictably bloody for the attackers, and we have an account of its aftermath by Col. Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington:

Nothing… can have exceeded what was done on the night of the 4th. Scarcely a house in the town was left unplundered, and I understand that in camp jewels of the greatest value, bars of gold, etc. etc., have been offered for sale in the bazaars of the army by our soldiers, sepoys, and followers. I came in to take the command on the morning of the 5th, and by the greatest exertion, by hanging, flogging etc. etc., in the course of that day, I restored order among the troops, and I hope I have gained the confidence of the people. They are returning to their houses and beginning again to follow their occupations, but the property of everyone is gone.

In the exergue of this side, again, there’s writing, but this time it isn’t Arabic or Latin but the lingua franca of princely India at this time, Persian. It is the longest text on the medal: srirangapatan ra khoda dad 28 ziqa’dah 1213 hijri (سری رنگپتن را خدا داد ۲۸ ذیقعده ۱۲۱۳ هجری), “God gave Seringapatam the 28th of Ziqa’dah [the eleventh Islamic month] 1213 by the hijri calendar.” 28th Ziqa’dah or Dhu’l-qa’dah in 1213 hijri converts tidily into Saturday 4th May, 1799. The organization of this Persian text gives strong emphasis to the words khoda dad (خدا داد) at the bottom: “God gave…”

The overt message of this medal is clear enough. Tipu Sultan was very keen on tigers: tigers decorated his furniture and his firearms, like this cannon at Powis Castle; tiger stripes featured in the decor of his palaces, and his troops wore tiger-stripe uniforms (on the right of this painting); he even had tiger watermarks in his books (my thanks to Ursula Sims-Williams for that beautiful image). Here Bonhams publicise some gorgeous Tipu items at an auction, tigers prominently to the fore.

Most notoriously, “Tipu’s Tiger” is a near-life-size mechanical model of a tiger mauling a prostrate Briton, which contains a concealed pipe-organ simulating the tiger’s growling and its victim’s cries as he moves his arm up to and away from his mouth. A contemporary note explains the symbolism, makes a proposal, and gives us some information which will be useful later on. Tipu, it says,

frequently amused himself with a sight of this emblematical triumph of the Khodadad over the English Circar [or Sircar: government/authority]… It is imagined that this characteristic memoreal… of Tippoo Sultaun may be thought deserving of a place in the Tower of London. Tippoo called his dominions the Sircar e Khodadad or god-given Sircar.

Tipu’s Tiger is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there’s lots of interesting information about it on the V&A website. But what’s obvious enough is that the tiger was Tipu’s special emblem. As the “Tiger of Mysore”, Tipu could present himself both as a courageous and powerful Muslim sultan (the tiger being an age-old symbol of Persian royalty), and as a figure that also appealed to his many Hindu subjects through the tiger’s associations with the god Shiva.

On the medal, of course, the tables are turned, and a British lion overcomes Tipu’s tiger. The penant above the two big cats drives the point home. Alongside the Union Jack, the message: the lion of God is triumphant.

But there’s a bit more going on here. In Tipu’s symbolic language, lions and tigers were pretty interchangeable. In other words, Tipu was equally happy to call himself a lion, and the implications were essentially the same. In actual fact, the Arabic expression used on the British medal had been a motto favoured by Tipu. If you look at these images from Bonhams of a gun made for Tipu, you’ll see at the far left of the written decoration on the barrel the face of a tiger, but that face is actually composed of the very same Arabic words, asadullah al-ghalib, “The triumphant lion of Allah,” in mirror image. Here’s a close-up of this exquisite calligraphic tiger:


Asadullah al-ghalib was a name of Imam ‘Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet who is especially celebrated by Shi’a Muslims: Tipu trod a fine line between Shi’a and Sunni Islam, as well as keeping his Hindu subjects on-side. But when the British claim to be the “triumphant lion of Allah”, they’re using his own words against him.

I think we can see something similar happening on the other side of the medal. The important words here are srirangapatan ra khoda dad, “God gave Seringapatam”. Khoda dad means “God gave…”, but khodadad can also be an adjective, “God-given”. And as we learned from that contemporary account of Tipu’s mechanical tiger, Khodadad, “The God-given”, was the name that Tipu used for his Kingdom of Mysore: Tipu was its divinely ordained ruler. From the British Library, and the wonderful Ursula Sims-Williams, comes an image of the front cover of a gorgeously bound copy of the Quran taken from Tipu’s library at Seringapatam. The script at the centre-top reads Sirkar-i Khodadadi, “the God-given government”:

Loth 7_front top

But again the British medal turns Tipu’s own words against him: Allah showed his true favour by taking Seringapatam away from Tipu, and giving it to the deserving British.

What I find fascinating about this medal design is how far Tipu Sultan, dead and buried, continues to set its terms. The symbolic argument of the medal, particularly as it’s made in the Arabic and Persian texts, presents the capture of Seringapatam in pointedly Islamic terms, in language and thought: the British are doing Allah’s work, and this in itself suggests how fragile Britain’s position in India was in 1799, thoroughly dependent on Indian allies and Indian manpower in its armies. It’s important to realise that the most important targets of the messages of this medal were Indian, not British.

But what the medal also conveys is what an incredibly potent propagandist Tipu had been.  We know that Sir Charles Wilkins was closely involved in designing the medal, and it’s certainly Wilkins, the first Englishman to master Sanskrit (an achievement which assumes, in eighteenth-century India, complete fluency in Persian), who will have provided the Arabic and Persian text. He did a good job, too: it’s a witty and in one sense devastating contradiction of Tipu’s claim to authority.

(I should add that Wilkins is best known for an enormously influential translation of the Bhagavad Gita: here, for example, is Thoreau reading it beside Walden Pond. Eric Sharpe ends his study of Western responses to the Bhagavad Gita, The Universal Gita, with the arresting claim that “it was on the appearance of Charles Wilkins’ Gita translation in 1785 that “Hinduism”, all unawares, took its first step towards its present identity.”)

And yet in that imagery of big cats, in the panorama of Tipu’s glorious capital at Seringapatam, but above all in those words, it’s all done in Tipu’s own language of self-promotion. The respect for Tipu that the medal betrays, despite itself, gives the lie to the demonization of Tipu as a cruel and fanatical Muslim despot that a lot of British accounts of the time indulged in, and that Tipu’s Tiger particularly seemed to embody. (His legacy remains controversial to this day, as these responses to this Republic Day float (representing the state of Karnataka) in Delhi make clear.)

Tipu was no Tigger, for sure, a ruler as ruthless as any other in eighteenth-century India, but he also presided over a court of culture and sophistication, something that the British again tacitly recognised by looting his artistic masterpieces and shipping them and his extensive library back to their big houses and museums in Britain. (Tony Theaker reminds me that one of the most famous fictional treasures, Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone, came into British hands at the capture of Seringapatam, “an ornament in the handle of a dagger” belonging to Tipu, “who commanded it to be kept among the choicest treasures of his armoury.”) Sir Charles Wilkins later became librarian of the East India Company, where his role was mainly to look after the Company’s collection of Eastern manuscripts–a large proportion of them also picked up in 1799 at Seringapatam, like that Quran we saw earlier. I’m not with William Dalrymple with everything he says in this polemic, drawing parallels as he likes to do between the Twenty-first Century and events 200 years ago, but where I think he’s absolutely right is on the real source of the fear that Tipu provoked in the East India Company. “What really worried the British was less that Tipu was a Muslim fanatic, something strange and alien, but that he was frighteningly familiar.”

And the fact a British medal marking a famous victory speaks Tipu’s language tells us that as clearly.

I’ve read some quite fascinating stuff on Tipu over the last week,and I particularly recommend A. Buddle, The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India; S. Stronge, Tipu’s Tigers; and M. Archer, C. Rowell & R Skelton, Treasures from India: The Clive Collection at Powis Castle. Arezou Azad seemed to find the medal as interesting as I did, and you should all buy her book, too. And thank you, Aymenn.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

8 responses to “Big Cat Hunting at Seringapatam”

  1. Olikara says :

    Very well written. But I do agree with Dalrymple’s comparison of the events leading to the Seringapatam war and the recent one in Iraq. They are eerily similar.

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Thanks for these. I’m always a bit resistant to “history repeating”: it’s used to death in relation to Afghanistan, & I don’t think it really helps (or that it’s entirely true). But we can differ on that one! All best, and congratulations on your excellent blog.

  2. Olikara says :

    And this particular point that you made is extremely important: ‘It’s important to realise that the most important targets of the messages of this medal were Indian, not British’.

  3. Matt Adams says :

    Sharpe’s Tiger, by Bernard Cornwell is another account of the fall of Seringapatam.

  4. Jan Drew says :
    If you’d like to see some big guns associated with Tipu, grab the link!

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