I blogged a while back on the lingering mystique of an Indian ruler who died in 1799 yet has refused to be forgotten. Tipu Sultan achieved that posthumous celebrity above all by developing a uniquely powerful symbolic language to promote his regime, its lasting impact reflected both in the initial rush to secure from Tipu’s capital Seringapatam some of his possessions after its sack by the East India Company–and in the intense interest that the art of Tipu’s Mysore continues to provoke, whether in museums or in auction houses, on the rare occasions pieces of his throne or examples of his weaponry come onto the market.
Well, yesterday a stunning collection of Tipu material was auctioned at Bonhams in London, and the day before, en route to Defining Beauty at the BM, I popped in to have a look. For me, as for Bonhams in their literature, the stand-out item was this musket. What follows will make a lot more sense if you study Bonhams’ photos of it (and Bonhams’ description is much fuller than mine here). To get a sense of how such a musket worked, this is a useful short video.
In 1793/4, when the musket was manufactured in Seringapatam, it was a cutting-edge piece of hardware, but it’s also an incredibly elaborate piece of visual propaganda. I am no kind of expert in firearms, and not much of a fan either, but what I can’t help finding fascinating are the methods used by rulers, and especially rulers whose legitimacy is insecure or in some way seriously disputed, to maintain their authority. That might in their various ways include Kim Il Sung, Elizabeth I or Domitian, and the British in India or Greeks in Bactria, all of them compensating for their insecurity with aggressive self-assertion. It certainly includes Tipu, whose father Haydar Ali had supplanted the longstanding Hindu dynasty that had ruled Mysore.
This being Tipu’s gun, the decoration has a dominant tiger theme. Most obviously, the butt of the musket is carved into the form of a crouching tiger (its stripes inlaid with silver) reminiscent of the famous clockwork Tipu’s Tiger, now in the V&A. But the lock and cocking mechanism are also in the shape of a tiger, and the steel barrel has the same stylized babri or tiger-stripe decoration (again inlaid with silver) all along its length. Tiny silver tigers function both as the safety catch and the foresight.
Tipu’s tigers were richly symbolic, expressive of India and royalty, but also carrying a strong religious force. The tiger had deep roots in non-Islamic India (Tipu’s subjects were overwhelmingly non-Muslim) as a figure of sacred power (cf. K. Brittlebank, Modern Asian Studies 29 (1995), 257-69), but it also connects to Tipu’s particular veneration of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Fourth Caliph: asadullah al-ghalib, “the triumphant lion of God,” an epithet of Ali, was a motto much favoured by Tipu, for example formed into the shape of a tiger’s face as at the head of this blog: many of the firearms in the Bonhams sale bore this motif. Ali wielding his sword Zulfiqar, needless to say, made a good patron for a pious warrior like Tipu.
There’s more than just tiger imagery on this musket, a sun motif, too, and a talismanic square bearing the letters of his father Haydar’s name: though as “Haydar” means “lion”, and lions and tigers were pretty interchangeable in Tipu’s symbolic language, even there we haven’t escaped big cats entirely.
The tiger decoration has more precise points of reference, too. On the butt of the musket a silver panel depicts a tiger overcoming the ghandabherunda, a two-headed bird which was the emblem of the Hindu Wodeyar dynasty overturned by Tipu’s father; while on a silver escutcheon at the top of the butt, and also on the underside of the trigger guard and the side plate, tigers maul European soldiers as with the clockwork Tiger. Either opponent, British or Hindu, may be considered the target of a quatrain of Persian poetry inscribed along the barrel: “The peerless musket of the Khusrow of India/ To which the blazing lightning is second/ Can seal the fate of the enemy/ If his forehead become the target.” Tipu will certainly have imagined this text to be more than decorative in effect: he had great belief in magic and the supernatural.
“Liberated” from Seringapatam in 1799, the musket was gifted to Lord Cornwallis, who is best known for losing America but who had had greater success earlier in the British campaigns against Mysore: the gift reflected the debt that East India Company felt to their former commander.
My last blog on Tipu was about the obvious influence Tipu continued to exert on the British celebration of his defeat. Surely the most significant thing about the musket I gazed at for half an hour two days ago is that over two centuries after the death of its owner, and long after the demise of the power that conquered Mysore, it and the other Tipu-related items are still causing a stir in the London art market.
Tipu’s elaborate tufang was estimated before the auction at £100,000-150,000. Its sale price (including the buyer’s premium) was £722,500.