Discovery of Mysore rockets

Striking legacy

Print edition : November 23, 2018

Rudrappa Shejeshwara, the curator of the Government Museum (Shivappa Nayaka Palace), Shivamogga, showing the rockets. Photo: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

Rockets various sizes and the tool used to stuff the silk wick into them. Photo: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

A cache of Mysore rockets stored in the museum in Shivamogga. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A cross-section of a rocket showing the space where the fuse would have been attached. Photo: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

A view of the museum in Shivamogga. Photo: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

The discovery of 1,700 Mysore rockets belonging to the 18th century gives a fillip to the argument that Tipu Sultan was a progressive king who made great advances in arms technology and was a formidable bulwark against the British East India Company in south India.

THE Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government in Karnataka has decided to continue the commemoration of the 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan’s birthday on November 10 as Tipu Jayanti. Ever since the Tipu Jayanti celebrations began in 2015 when the Congress, headed by Siddaramaiah, was in power in the State, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and right-wing Hindutva groups that accuse Tipu Sultan of being a religious bigot have opposed them vehemently.

As preparations for this year’s event began, Pratap Simha, the BJP Member of Parliament from Mysuru, asked Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy not to go ahead with Tipu Jayanti as it hurt Hindu religious sentiments.

The allegations that Tipu Sultan was a religious bigot were examined in detail in the previous issues of Frontline. The article titled “Contested legacy” (December 11, 2015) provided an overview of Tipu Sultan’s reign and his role in fighting the British East India Company. The article “Tipu–Fact & Fiction” (January 6, 2017) discussed the accusation that Tipu Sultan had forcibly converted Kodavas of Kodagu, and “Tipu in Malabar” (January 5, 2018) examined the charge that the Mysore ruler had committed religious excesses in what is today north Kerala.

Tipu Sultan and, before him, his father, Hyder Ali, ruled Mysore for a brief period, between 1761 and 1799, but left a lasting impression on society and polity in the region. Both of them consistently opposed the British and fought four wars (known as the Anglo-Mysore Wars) against the East India Company. Hyder Ali was a perceptive and ambitious leader, but Tipu Sultan’s fame transcended that of his father. Tipu Sultan died on May 4, 1799, battling British soldiers, thus establishing his legacy as one of India’s earliest fighters against colonialism. It is for this reason that he is still feted.

Ever since Tipu Jayanti began to be marked, there has been an overwhelming focus on Tipu Sultan’s religious policies, with scores of articles written on the theme, but what has not been examined substantially is another important aspect of his reign. During his brief rule, he attempted to bring about significant modernisation in a number of areas through the establishment of an industrial state. This includes advances in arms technology, a continuation from Hyder Ali’s time that would eventually have a global impact.

Of all the advances that Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali made in creating a modern army with lethal weapons, the rockets that were used against the British during the Anglo-Mysore Wars have left an indelible impression for two reasons. First, the rockets caused tumult and bedlam in enemy ranks. English soldiers have chronicled this aspect of Tipu Sultan’s warfare. For instance, the use of these rockets was the chief reason for the victory of the Mysore Army in the Battle of Pollilur (1780) in the Second Anglo-Mysore War. Rockets were also used subsequently, as documents show. Tipu Sultan’s army even had dedicated companies of rocket men. Colonel Bayly, a British officer, writes vividly about the havoc these Mysorean rockets caused as his regiment faced off Tipu Sultan’s army on April 5, 1799.

He wrote: “The ground of encampment was on the upper part of an inclined plane, at the foot of which, on the opposite bank of the River Cauvery, stood the proud fortress of Seringapatam, at three miles’ distance, from whence they already began to throw shot from guns of a huge calibre, and so pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from these rocket missiles.... The rockets and musketry from upwards of 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to its rear causing deaths, wounds and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them. The instant a rocket passes through a man’s body it resumes its initial impetus of force, and will thus destroy ten or twenty until the combustible matter with which it is charged becomes expended. The shrieks of our men from these unusual weapons was terrific; thighs, legs, and arms left fleshless with bones protruding in a shattered state from every part of the body, were the sad effects of these diabolical engines of destruction” (“Diary of Colonel Bayly: 12th Regiment” by Colonel Bayly, 1896).

The second reason is that Tipu Sultan’s rocket was the progenitor of the superior “Congreve” rocket, which was subsequently used by the British in the 19th century. The Mysorean rockets were found after the fall of Srirangapatnam and were transported to England, where they were studied closely.

About this, Roddam Narasimha, an aerospace scientist, writes that the Mysore “...rockets made an extraordinary impression on the British, and led, from 1801, to what would now be called a vigorous research and development programme (at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal). Sir William Congreve made systematic studies of propellants, analysed performance applying Newton’s laws, developed a series of rockets of different sizes and characteristics, made a comparative cost analysis and published three books on the subject. Rockets were soon systematically used by the British during the Napoleonic Wars and their confrontation with the U.S. during 1812-14.” (Rockets in Mysore and Britain, 1750-1850 A.D. by Roddam Narasimha, 1985.)

Monumental find

Considering that these rockets marked a profound moment in the history of armaments, there were surprisingly few extant samples available. Only five iron-case Mysore rockets were known to be available for more than two centuries. Of these, three were housed at the Government Museum, Bengaluru, while two were at the Royal Artillery Museum, Woolwich Arsenal, in England. The three kept in Bengaluru were incomplete as they were mere shells. So, when in July this year a cache of 1,700 iron-case Mysore rockets from Hyder Ali’s or Tipu Sultan’s era was found, it was nothing short of a monumental discovery.

“The rockets were found in and around a large well owned by a farmer named Nagaraja Rao in Nagara village,” said Rudrappa Shejeshwara, the curator of the Government Museum (Shivappa Nayaka Palace) in Shivamogga. Nagara is around 80 kilometres from Shivamogga town in western Karnataka and was an important town in the 18th century. The site was chosen for excavation as a chance discovery at the same location a few years ago had revealed 160 rockets. They were not identified immediately, but were recognised subsequently as the famed Mysore rockets of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. The State’s Department of Archaeology, Museums and Heritage, sanctioned an expedition and this led to the discovery of a larger cache of rockets.

The rockets are housed at the Government Museum in Shivamogga. They are not uniform and vary in length, measuring between half a foot and one foot. The small ones weigh about half a kilogram while the larger ones can almost weigh up to 2 kg. While some can be grasped easily, there are a few that are so thick that it is not possible to grasp them. It is remarkable that the farmer did not sell the rockets, which look like unusual pestles, as scrap. Nagaraja Rao actually had the foresight to communicate the information to the Archaeological Department.

While the fact that the Mysore rockets were a pioneer in arms technology is known, detailed tests on the rockets had not been conducted before simply because there were not enough samples to conduct tests. With the Shivamogga find, it became possible for the first time to conduct a thorough examination to find out what made these projectiles provide a fillip to the strength of the Mysore Army. Nidhin G. Olikara, an independent researcher based in Shivamogga, and Shejeshwara have sought to study just this aspect. They have co-authored a paper on their recent findings (“Rockets from Mysore under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan: Preliminary Studies of ‘Tipu Rockets’ from the Nagara Find” by Rudrappa Shejeshwara and Nidhin G. Olikara published in Journal of the Arms and Armour Society, Vol. XXII, No.6, September 2018).

Olikara explained how the rockets worked. He picked up a piece of paper and made a cylinder out of it. “Steel plates were folded into cylindrical tubes like this. Then, they were coated with clay, as this would act as a thermal insulator, and then stuffed with saltpetre and sealed at both ends with metal discs,” he said, as he cut two circular strips of paper and wedged them on the ends of his paper tube.

Pointing to the rockets, in which a tiny hole that has been sealed can be discerned, he said: “A fuse, most probably made of silk as these rockets were used even during the rainy season, was then tightly inserted perhaps by using a tool, which we found at the site. The rocket would then be tied to a bamboo staff with leather strips,” Olikara said. He pointed to a painting by Robert Home, called “Mysore rocket man”, which is currently in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “Once the fuse was lit, the rocket would travel for two to three miles,” he said.

The Mysore rulers, he said, used different kinds of rockets. While some would fly through the air before landing on enemy ranks, others would whoosh through the enemy lines at knee level. There were also swords attached to some of these bamboo poles, thus making them deadlier as they scythed through the disciplined lines of East India Company soldiers.

What is more interesting about these rockets is that they were not cast from a mould but forged from steel sheets that contained a very low level of carbon, which in itself was a grand technological advancement for the time.

Olikara and Shejeshwara write: “There can be no doubt that the Mysorean Rocket with its ferrous metal case and deployment in large numbers was unparalleled anywhere else in the world. It represented the pinnacle of Mysore’s technological prowess and its capability to experiment and innovate. It also showed that Mysore possessed the prerequisites to manufacture iron-cased rockets on an industrial scale. As a consequence of such qualities, Mysore was able to stem the colonial tide for twenty years whilst internecine strife was sweeping most other Indian states into the subjection of Britain.”

Why were so many rockets found in Nagara? Nagara was an important town of the Keladi empire. Hyder Ali conquered it in 1759, expanding the power and wealth of the Mysore kingdom substantially. Thus, it is not surprising that Hyder Ali and, subsequently,Tipu Sultan set up a manufacturing unit in the region.

T. Venkatesh, Commissioner, Karnataka’s Department of Archaeology, Museums and Heritage, who oversaw the discovery in July, concurred with this. He said: “While we are not yet certain about why the rockets were found at this location, we strongly suspect that a manufacturing unit must have been located in the vicinity.”

Ajay Kumar, an independent researcher based in Shivamogga, painstakingly began to work with the knowledge that a manufacturing unit had to be present in the region. Using Google satellite imagery, he identified spaces close by that had large quantities of iron slag. Going back and forth from contemporary chronicles of the 18th century to travelling around in the region, Ajay Kumar took six months to piece together his findings.

“To manufacture these rockets, you needed iron ore, saltpetre, bamboo, silk wicks, strips of leather, limestone, charcoal and clay. Based on my research, I have identified five sites in the villages of Tammadihalli and Chittihalu [pronounced as Chattanhalli by locals], which are 60-65 km from Nagara, as possible manufacturing units. We can also see pieces of iron in these iron slags that must have been part of the tuyere required for iron smelting,” he said.

It is unclear why these rockets were discarded in a well, but the serendipitous finding tangibly reinforces the idea of Tipu Sultan as a progressive king who used modern weapons. He was the last bulwark against the East India Company’s push to rule India directly.

At an event held in Bengaluru on October 30, the BJP’s national spokesperson, Sudhanshu Trivedi, said Tipu Sultan was a killer of Hindus. He said he would urge the Union Railways Minister to rename Tipu Express, which runs between Bengaluru and Mysuru.

The BJP’s opposition to the celebration of Tipu Sultan’s legacy stems from his Muslim identity. But it is not possible to disregard the various contributions he made to the region and to rocket technology. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan made a deep impact in the area of southern Karnataka, which formed the nucleus of their kingdom.

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