Tipu in Malabar

Tipu Sultan’s largesse to temples as recorded in the 19th century Inam Registers of Malabar shows that he was sensitive to the religious sensibilities of Hindus.

Published : Dec 21, 2017 12:30 IST

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah paying tribute to Tipu Sultan in Bengaluru on November 10.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah paying tribute to Tipu Sultan in Bengaluru on November 10.

The Congress government in Karnataka led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has marked the birthday of Tipu Sultan on November 10 as “Tipu Jayanti” for the past three years. While Tipu is honoured as a freedom fighter for opposing the British in the Anglo-Mysore Wars and dying on the battlefield in 1799, there are intense protests against this event as well. The protests are led by a wide array of bodies that draw their support from the Hindutva ideology spearheaded by mainstream politicians of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka. They allege that Tipu was a religious bigot whose reign was marked by the plunder of temples and forceful conversions of Hindus to Islam.

There are allegations that Tipu forcefully converted non-Muslims in three parts of his domain: first, among the Kodavas of Kodagu in modern Karnataka; then among the Nairs of Malabar in present-day north Kerala; and the Christians of Mangalore (now Mangaluru) in coastal Karnataka. Frontline has discussed the broad reign of Tipu Sultan and his legacy (“Contested legacy”, December 11, 2015) and scrutinised the allegations of religious excesses made against him in Kodagu (“Tipu-Fact & Fiction”, January 6, 2017). This essay attempts to analyse the allegations made against Tipu Sultan in Malabar.

The Inam registers

Deep inside the Regional Archives of Kozhikode, amid lakhs of valuable documents, is a set of seven registers dating to the 19th century, compiled by J.W. Robinson, the Inam Commissioner of Malabar. The seven British-era taluks the Inam registers pertain to are Ernad, Choughuat, Old Betatnad, Calicut, Kurumbranad, Valluvanad and Wynad. (These taluks have been absorbed into various districts in modern Kerala.) An “inam” is a gift, and inam land is land given as a tax-free grant to an institution or an individual, usually in perpetuity unless it is rescinded, as happened all over India through various land reform laws after Independence. The registers have archived for posterity the minutiae of the process of renewal of inams in the region.

The registers are long and broad and the calligraphy is stylised to the point that at first glance all that one can discern is a series of neatly slanted squiggles.

The register pertaining to Choughuat taluk (also known as Ponnani) lists nine temples whose inam lands were renewed. Of this, the largest land grant (of 613.2 acres) that was renewed belonged to the Guruvayur temple in central Kerala. A close perusal reveals that the text lists the beneficiary as Uralers, or trustees, of the “Guruvayur Kshetram”.

The extended note reads: “A sum of Rs.1,428-9-2 [rupee-anna-paisa] appears to have been allowed for the support of the temple by Tippu Sultan and continued by the British Government upto 1841, when the necessary examination was made and the money allowance commuted into a grant of the lands yielding an annual assessment equivalent to the money grant. The lands are still held as inams and are accordingly confirmed as such for such time as the conditions of the inam are fulfilled under date the 20th Nov. 1841.” This note was endorsed by G.A. Ballard, the then Collector of Malabar, and subsequently confirmed by W.J. Blair, the then Officiating Inam Commissioner of Malabar, on June 20, 1866. In other columns relating to this entry, a mention is made that the inam was first granted by Tipu Sultan in 1776-77 and verified by the British administration of Malabar. The basis of the British confirmation was the pioneering “paimash” (survey) land revenue records prepared by the Brahmin administrative clerks of the Mysore rulers, who wrote in the Modi script, the precursor to the Devanagari script used to write modern Marathi.

The Archives have around 500 bundles of these land revenue records, each around 100 pages. The pages are slightly frayed but the script is legible. These records in the Modi script are a gold mine for academics interested in the land reforms carried out by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan in Malabar, which had a long-term impact on Kerala society.

What is more germane to our times, when Tipu’s legacy is hotly debated, is that the Inam Registers contain detailed records of the substantial land grants he made to several temples. This is valuable evidence to counter reductive Hindutva propaganda that alleges that Tipu was a religious bigot whose ambitious expansionist ventures were only a jehad to spread Islam by destroying temples and forcefully converting Hindus in the region.

According to an estimate made by Muhamad Ismail, details of which are available in his unpublished PhD thesis, 6,931.03 acres of land were given as inam by Tipu Sultan. Of this, 5,434.07 acres were given to Hindu institutions and individuals, while 1,494.27 acres were given to Muslim institutions and individuals (“Religious Policy of Tipu Sultan: Malabar Region”, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, 2016).

Grants were made under three categories: devadayam grants to 48 temples, dharmadayam grants to seven “sathrams”, and grants to three individuals (see table). Considering that local Muslims known as “mappilas” made up about a quarter of the population of Malabar, this stark disparity in the largesse of a “religious bigot” is startling. If anything can be argued through these land grants, it is that like in other parts of his kingdom, Tipu was keenly sensitive to the religious sensibilities of Hindu citizens in Malabar as well. He wanted to establish a long-term presence in Malabar, and his perspicacity is evident in his support to temples.

The Mysorean interlude

The late 18th century was a period of transition in Indian history. The Mughals were in a state of continuous decline and the East India Company had emerged as a major player in the affairs of the subcontinent after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The Marathas had established their sway over vast swathes of the subcontinent as well. In peninsular India, various powers were battling for expansion of their territories. Hyder Ali, a faujdar (military commander) in the Mysore Army, rose to become the de facto ruler of Mysore in 1761. His territory was threatened by the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nawab of the Carnatic and the English under the aegis of the East India Company. The French were also an important power that could not be ignored.

North Kerala at the time was broken up into several small principalities. An early estimate states that there were four important kingdoms and 42 principalities across Kerala. Hyder invaded Malabar through Mangalore and Cannanore (now Kannur) in February 1766. Hyder was embroiled in the affairs of Malabar indirectly from the time he was in Dindigul. The Raja of Palghat (now Palakkad), who had a constant feud with the Zamorin of Calicut (now Kozhikode), reached out to him for help, providing Hyder the excuse he needed to come to Malabar as he had always wanted access to a long coastline and a share in the lucrative trade of spices. His fort in Palakkad, around which the modern town has developed, also dates to this era. Tipu, the eldest son of Hyder, who would have been a teenager at the time, accompanied his father on this campaign.

Hyder’s invasion was successful and he swiftly conquered the minor principalities of Malabar. The Zamorin of Calicut, defeated and forced to pay a tribute, committed suicide. The disunity among the rulers of Malabar and the disciplined approach of the Mysorean Army led by its cavalry were responsible for this easy victory for Hyder, who intended to march all the way down south to Travancore via Cochin), but the monsoon hindered his plans. He returned after appointing a governor called Madanna and fixing tributes for the local chieftains. Soon after, his outposts in Malabar were threatened by a rebellion led by the Nairs, who formed the fighting corps of the Kerala kings.

While this rebellion, which some historians see as a native resistance to a foreign ruler, was quelled, it did lead to Hyder severely restricting the privileges of the Nairs. Many upper caste Hindus, including the Namboodiris, the Nairs and chieftains, fled to Travancore during Hyder’s invasion.

Over the next few years, Hyder was fighting the marauding Marathas and the First Anglo-Mysore War (1767-69) and could turn his attention to Malabar again only at the end of 1773. This time, many local chieftains who had not been regular with their tributes were not reinstated, and Malabar came to be directly ruled as a province of the Mysore kingdom. Hyder’s plan of attacking Travancore was again left incomplete. A detailed land survey was done by Sreenivas Rao, the governor in charge of civil affairs, and the land records at the Regional Archives of Kozhikode date back to this era.

When Hyder came to Malabar, several European powers, led by the East India Company, were already deeply involved at various levels in local affairs as they all had trading outposts along the coast of Malabar. They included the English, the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese and the Danes. Among them, the English and the French had substantial trading interests from their bases in Tellicherry (now Thalassery) and Mahe. During the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-84), Tipu was in Malabar fighting the English. He was about to score a crucial victory when he received the news of Hyder’s death. Tipu swiftly returned to Seringapatam (now Srirangapatna), but his territory in Malabar was restored to him as per the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784. Malabar remained a part of Tipu’s domain until the end of the Third Anglo-Mysore War in 1792, but he had lost control over it by 1790. It eventually became a part of the Madras Presidency as Malabar district.

Impact of Mysorean rule

“The great significance of the Mysorean occupation of Kerala for more than 25 years, lies in the fact that it marked an era of transition from the medieval to the modern,” writes C.K. Kareem in his book Kerala Under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan (1973). Although Malabar was officially part of the Mysore kingdom between 1766 and 1792, the Mysore rulers had only limited control for many years. Tipu ruled the region directly only for six years. While the period of direct rule was short, it had a long-term impact on Malabar society. Hyder and Tipu brought about an integration of the small principalities of Malabar for the first time and a feudal system of administration was replaced by centralised rule, much like it had been done in Travancore. A network of roads was built in the region for the first time. Trade and industry flourished during the time and European merchants who had secured favourable terms from the Malabar chieftains suffered as Tipu imposed a state monopoly on a number of items, including pepper. He also attempted to build a navy here and appointed the ruler of Cannanore as the chief of his naval force.

Perhaps the greatest impact of Hyder and Tipu was in the area of land administration. In this area one can also see the displacement of dominant castes, which gave rise to accusations of religious bigotry. Historians have written about how there were no land taxes in Malabar before it came under Mysore rule. The “jenmis” (landed aristocracy) were the absolute owners of land with the tiller having no claims. The Mysorean rulers shook up this system and settled land revenue claims directly with the tiller. In this way, Hyder and Tipu can be seen as early reformers in land administration. The rulers ensured that temple land remained untaxed. Land settlement became easy because the landowners—the Namboodiris, the chieftains and the Nairs—had fled from Malabar to Travancore. The tenants, who were mainly mappilas or lower caste Hindus, benefited from this.

Tipu also saw himself as a social reformer and attempted to change some of the traditional aspects of Nair society. For instance, he was appalled when he found out that Nair women cohabited with several men. He was also disgusted by the practice of lower caste women not being permitted to cover their breasts. Tipu forbade these practices, which was resented by the Nairs, who saw this as an encroachment on their religious and social rights.

Nairs and Namboodiris comprised a fifth of the population of Malabar and the upheaval wrought about by Hyder and Tipu in the caste and class privileges of these two communities led to social upheaval. The Namboodiris and the Nairs suffered the most during the time of Tipu. These two castes were severely affected by the political, social and economic reforms undertaken by Tipu. Kareem writes: “It was, therefore, the economic and social reforms that paved the way for the accusations of religious bigotry brought against Tipu Sultan.” It was also easy to see the issues of land and social reform along religious lines, as the main beneficiaries of Tipu’s land reforms were the mappilas. Some scholars have also made connections between the social upheaval caused due to the Mysorean interlude and the mappila rebellion of 1921.

Problematic sources

Mark Wilks, an officer of the East India Company who participated in the final storming of Srirangapatna in 1799, recorded in his work that Tipu warned the Nairs that if they continued to adhere to their regressive caste practices and disobeyed his commands he would march all of them to Srirangapatna and convert them to Islam. The aspect of Tipu threatening conversion is strangely not contained in the account of Mir Hussain Ali Khan Kirmani, the avid court chronicler of Hyder and Tipu’s reigns who tinged his histories with an Islamic slant and never failed to present Tipu as a champion of Islam. The early works of writers like Wilks provided the basis for later writers like William Logan, who, as Collector of Malabar, wrote the two-volume Malabar Manual in 1887. Much of the allegations against Tipu regarding religious violence in Malabar come from this writer.

Thus, if one were to examine closely the various sources that vilify Tipu in Malabar, they are usually of two kinds: first, British writers who found in Tipu their arch villain and exaggerated aspects of his religious policy, and second, the writings of local upper castes who had lost considerable privileges during the Mysore rule.

However, there are young historians like M.P. Mujeebu Rehman, assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Calicut, and Abhilash Malayil, a PhD student at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, who have assessed the Mysorean interlude in Malabar history objectively by faithfully historicising the period rather than seeing it in the surcharged communal atmosphere of contemporary politics.

Rehman writes in his book The Other Side of the Story: Tipu Sultan, Colonialism and Resistance in Malabar (2016): “The falsified image of Tipu Sultan, popularised fervently by the colonial writers, in fact was of ‘religious bigotry’. They had realised the fact that no other stereotypes could be so sensitively worked out among the Hindu believers than that of religious bigotry. Both colonial and nationalist historians highlighted religious aspects of Mysorean interventions concealing its political or economic aspects. For instance, they maintained that Tipu invaded Malabar and hundreds of thousands of native non-Muslims were hanged, circumcised or exiled. Several such statements have reverberated even in contemporary discourse without any substantial evidence other than the colonial narratives.”

Muhamad Ismail writes: “It is high time that we reinvestigate on the basis of true historical records, however meagre they may be, everything that has been unleashed against Tipu Sultan and the Mysore administration. It has been proved by recent historians engaged in the study of the Sultan’s history that the descriptions of the widespread arson, loot and violence that the Hindus of Malabar faced at the Mysorean interlude were mostly fallacies of imagination or the result of the retaliation of the Sultans against rebels.”

Tipu was aware that he was a Muslim king while his subjects were mainly Hindu and he legitimised his reign through generous support to temples in his domains. As the Inam Registers have shown, Tipu gave generously to the temples of Malabar as well and none of his actions suggest that he was a religious bigot.

S. Rajendu, a Palakkad-based historian and author of Mysore Padayottam-Irunnoottiyanpathu Varshangal (Mysore Rule-250 Years) (2017), says: “There are instances of Hyder and Tipu plundering temples but that was only because wealth was hoarded in the temples in Malabar. There was no conception of nation or religion at the time that motivated the ruler’s actions.”

This become evident when we see that mappilas like Athan Gurukkal of Manjeri also revolted against Tipu in 1788-89 and Tipu suppressed this rebellion with the help of Ravi Varma, who belonged to the Zamorin’s family.

Tipu intended to have a long-term base in Malabar and even began to build a fort at a place that he founded some distance from Calicut called Farooqabad (now Feroke). Construction began at the site when Tipu visited Malabar in 1788, but it was never finished as Tipu’s forces were driven out before it could be. Locals who have seen the site say that the foundations and initial constructions are still visible, but access to the site is now blocked as the path leading to the fort falls in a site that is being legally contested. A sign from the Kerala Department of Archaelogy at a locked gated passage greets visitors attempting to look for the fort of Farooqabad, the capital that Tipu planned for his province of Malabar.

Soon, Tipu would cede his claim on Malabar and in 1799, this last bulwark against the great expansion of the East India Company, would be killed on the battlefield.

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