Tipu—fact & fiction

Print edition : January 06, 2017

A 1792 potrait of Tipu Sultan. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

N.U. Nachappa, president of the Codava National Council, next to the stone memorial in Devatiparambu marking the supposed massacre, in December 2015. The Forest Department subsequently dismantled it. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A view of Madikeri, the headquarters of Kodagu district. Photo: VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

Srirangapatna Fort in Mandya district. A February 2016 picture. Photo: B. MAHADEVA

The opposition to the celebration of Tipu Jayanti in Karnataka is rooted in a distorted narrative of history that portrays the Mysore ruler as a religious bigot who massacred Kodavas in 1785 and indulged in mass conversions.

IN December 2015, a group of Kodava activists erected a stone memorial at a site called Devatiparambu in a forest some 30 kilometres from Madikeri, the headquarters of Kodagu district, to mark the supposed massacre of Kodavas by Tipu Sultan on December 13, 1785. While the Karnataka Forest Department subsequently dismantled the memorial, resentment against Tipu’s campaigns continue to fester among Kodavas more than 215 years after his passing in 1799.

Kodavas are native to Kodagu, a hilly district that is famed for its coffee plantations and has over the past two decades become a popular tourist destination in the south-west corner of Karnataka along its border with Kerala. Tipu’s attacks in the region in the 18th century find a salient space in the prosperous community’s historical narrative. When the Congress government of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah decided to celebrate the birthday of Tipu as Tipu Jayanti on November 10 in 2015, two people lost their lives in Madikeri in the ensuing disturbances. While no serious disturbance marked Tipu Jayanti in 2016, Kodavas protested vigorously in the days leading up to the event. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) support to the protesters over the past two years has galvanised them.

“An ethnic cleansing of Kodavas took place when Tipu attacked Coorg [Kodagu] in 1785,” contended N.U. Nachappa, the Madikeri-based president of the Codava National Council (CNC), an organisation that has advocated statehood for Kodagu in the past. “The massacre that took place at Devatiparambu can be compared to the Holocaust, and the CNC has written a letter to the French President seeking an apology for the role of French soldiers in this genocide,” he added. Nachappa says that 60,000 unarmed Kodavas were massacred at Devatiparambu.

His allegation is supported by Addanda Cariappa, a theatre activist and State convener of the “Tipu Jayanti Virodhi Horata Samiti” (Tipu Jayanti Opposition Struggle Committee) who has authored a book in Kannada titled Tipu Mattu Kodavaru (Tipu and the Kodavas). He says that Hyder Ali and Tipu attacked Kodagu 32 times, losing 30 of these battles. “Tipu cheated the Kodava army by inviting them for a parley. His army consisting of Muslim and French soldiers surrounded the venue after which the massacre began. The scale of the massacre was such that the waters of the Cauvery ran red after that event,” he said.

Tipu is also supposed to have captured 80,000 to 111,000 prisoners and taken them to Srirangapatna where they were forcibly converted to Islam. Muslim presence in the region, Cariappa contended, dates to the time when some of these Kodavas who had converted returned to Kodagu in 1792.

Another writer from the region, C.P. Belliappa, also cites the figure of 80,000 prisoners in his work Nuggets From Coorg History.

A.K. Subbaiah, an advocate based in Virajpet, contested this historical narrative. He said that no massacre took place and that Tipu captured only a handful of Kodavas. “The incidents that took place at Devatiparambu have been exaggerated by some Kodavas who have been completely communalised. The protests against Tipu are led by the Kodava Samajas [committees] that are controlled by these people. You should understand that a majority of Kodavas are BJP supporters,” he said.

All over the world, events in history have been used to delineate the contemporary contours of nationhood. In India, too, history writing has been used to provide legitimacy to the modern secular state, but this narrative has increasingly been dented by mischievous and agenda-driven amateur historians from the Hindu right wing who would like us to believe that every Muslim king who ruled in India was an outsider and an aberration in the glorious story of Indian nationhood. In the construction of the contemporary Muslim as the “other”, a narrative or a story has been fabricated of the bigoted Muslim ruler who was an alien in the Indian subcontinent.

The Mughal king Aurangzeb, for instance, whose rule and personality had many nuances within it, has been reduced to a religious bigot in reductive and truncated popular history. In Karnataka, Tipu has become an easy target. Among the allegations made against him are that along with Kodavas he forcefully converted to Islam Catholic Christians from Mangalore (now Mangaluru) and Nairs from northern Kerala. It is useful to remember that Tipu spent significant time and energy quelling rebellions in these areas and that the threat of British intervention and influence was strong. In this essay, Tipu’s campaign in Kodagu is examined in some detail to understand how history is constructed and then refashioned to suit partisan agendas.

The story of Tipu’s life and his battles with the British has been discussed in some detail in the past in Frontline (“Contested legacy”, December 11, 2015). Tipu was born in 1750 (or 1751) and his father, Hyder Ali, who had risen through the ranks of the Mysore force, became the de facto ruler of Mysore in 1761. Even before Hyder Ali assumed control of the kingdom, the Wodeyar rulers of Mysore had tried to make Kodagu a part of their kingdom. Hyder Ali first ventured into Kodagu in 1765 and then again in 1773. At the time Kodagu was ruled by a dynasty of Lingayat kings called the Haleri Rajas whose internal feuds had led Hyder Ali to exploit the situation.

Hyder Ali died in 1782. His modern biographer Mohibbul Hasan writes: “Tipu succeeded to a large kingdom that was bounded in the north by the river Krishna, in the south by the state of Travancore and the district of Tinnevelly [Tirunelveli], in the east by the Eastern Ghats and in the west by the Arabian Sea.” Kodagu was also a part of his kingdom and was strategically important as it lay on the direct path between Srirangapatna and the sea. There had been frequent rebellions in Kodagu against Hyder Ali and Tipu and the internecine rivalry between factions in the royal court played their part in this.

Tipu in Kodagu

When his generals could not deal with the situation, Tipu himself came to Kodagu (in 1785). Mir Hussain Ali Khan Kirmani, the primary chronicler of his reign, writes in some detail about this campaign as Tipu spent a considerable amount of time in the region. He strengthened the fort in Madikeri during his stay there. Kirmani describes the people and landscape of Kodagu and the various victories that Tipu’s army secured. While there is no description of any massacre, Kirmani states that “in the course of seven months and a few days eighty thousand men, women and children were made prisoners”. He writes: “When the Sultan arrived at Seringapatam, the prisoners taken in the country of Coorg, who had been all made Musalmans and were styled Ahmadees, were formed into eight Risalas or regiments, and veteran officers were appointed to train and discipline them, and they with very little labour having instructed these wild men, soon made them perfect in their military exercises and movements.”

Kirmani’s work constitutes the primary source that Nachappa and Cariappa cite in their discussions about Devatiparambu, but the work itself has no mention of any mass killing. Almost all astute historians of Tipu have used Kirmani’s work with considerable caution. Mohibbul Hasan, whose biography of Tipu remains the most comprehensive work on the king even though it was first published in 1951, while acknowledging that Kirmani knew Tipu and his father, points out: “After the fall of Seringapatam, he [Kirmani] became a pensioner of the English and wrote his work under their patronage in Calcutta. He is, therefore biased in their favour. Besides, his dates are usually wrong.… Furthermore, although his delineation of Tipu’s character is on the whole sympathetic, being himself a fanatic, he represents the Sultan also as a bigot whose every action was determined by his religion, and whose life mission was to spread Islam by the sword.”

Pattole Palame’

A second source that Nachappa and Cariappa refer to while vilifying Tipu is Pattole Palame, a compendium of Kodava folk culture written by Nadikerianda Chinnappa and first published in Kannada in 1924. The figure cited in this book about the number of people captured by Tipu is 111,000. Pattole Palame was translated into English in 2003 by the grandchildren of Chinnappa, who, in a conversation with Frontline, stated that the figure cited in the compendium was highly exaggerated. “I think our grandfather must have added an extra one [1] to the number as the number of prisoners could not have been more than 11,000,” Boverianda Nanjamma said. She and her husband, B.M. Chinnappa, have worked extensively in the region for more than a decade chronicling the folk culture of Kodavas. “From all of our readings and field studies all over Coorg, we have learnt that a few thousand people must have been taken as prisoners by Tipu’s army and not all of them were Kodavas as there were other communities as well in the region.” When asked how the figure could have been used, Nanjamma responded: “Our grandfather must have got that exaggerated figure from some British source.”

Some demographic evidence provided by Western writers makes one question the high number of prisoners. Writing in 1855, Hermann Friedrich Moegling, a German missionary, estimated the population of Kodagu to have been 25,000 or 26,000. “In former days they [Kodavas] seem scarcely ever to have mustered more than 4,000 or 5,000 fighting men,” he wrote. In the first district gazetteer of Coorg published in 1870, Rev. G. Richter gave the figure for Kodagu’s population as 112,952 and broke it down as 24,585 Coorgs (Kodavas), 80,934 Hindus and 5,774 Muslims. In 1871, the first census was conducted in India, and it put the numbers for Coorg as 154,476 Hindus and 11,304 Muslims. A contesting contemporary account by Ramachandra Rao Punganuri (a Mysorean Hindu) that could be closer to the truth claimed that only 500 men, women and children were captured in Kodagu and brought back to Mysore. All these figures show that the numbers cited by Nachappa and Cariappa are exaggerated. While Richter’s numbers could be flawed, they give one a fairly clear idea about the small proportion of Kodavas in the population of Kodagu.

Muslims in Kodagu

Folklore says that 90 families who had converted to Islam returned from Mysore after the Third Anglo-Mysore War in 1792 when Tipu had to give up his rights to Kodagu. Interestingly, the story goes that when they returned many of them were not accepted by their families and were settled by the Lingayat Rajah of the time in 20 locations across Kodagu. It is clear that some Kodavas did convert to Islam, but the numbers must have been low. That there are “Kodava Muslims”, or “Jemma Mapille”, in Kodagu who speak “Kodava tak” (the language of the Kodavas) proves that conversions did take place at the time. Some of these Muslims continue to retain the family names of Kodava clans. However, the claim that there were no Muslims in Kodagu before Tipu is false. In Yemmemadu, around 30 km from Madikeri, there is the tomb of a Sufi saint called Sufi Shaheed, and the Muslim presence in the region supposedly dates back to his activities. A booklet published by the trust that manages the affairs of the dargah says the saint came to the region some 350 years ago, and in this foundational myth of the saint’s miraculous powers, his intimate links with one Kodava family (the Manavittara family) has been clearly chronicled.

Husain Khan Lohani, a Muslim, was the munshi of Maharaja Vira Rajendra of Kodagu. There were also aristocratic Muslims whose presence in the region dates back to the mid 18th century (they speak Urdu and are called Jagir Thurkas). Their descendants continue to live in Kodagu to this day. If we can rely on Kirmani’s account, he writes about voluntary conversions of Kodavas. There were Muslim traders in the region who must have come from coastal Karnataka and north Kerala.

After his defeat in the Third Anglo-Mysore War, Tipu had to cede his rights to Kodagu under the terms of the Treaty of Seringapatam. The strategic importance of the region to the Mysore kingdom can be understood from Tipu’s statement when he heard of this demand: “To which of the English possessions is Coorg adjacent? Why do they not ask for the key of Seringapatam? They know that I would have died in the breach sooner than consent to such a cession and durst not bring it forward until they had treacherously obtained possession of my children and my treasure.” The British eventually annexed Kodagu in 1834. The last king of the Kodagu kingdom made a spirited defence of the kingdom when it became clear that the British intended to take over his domain. Before the short battle, the king called upon both his Hindu and Muslim subjects to rise under the banner of the Haleri dynasty against the foreign despots.

When the rhetoric against Tipu vis-a-vis his campaign in Kodagu is not backed by evidence, how then has this deep animosity among Kodavas developed historically? A Kodava journalist based in Bengaluru, who did not wish to be named, speculated that answers to this question can be located in the deep and intimate patron-client relationship Kodavas developed with the British through the 19th century. Kodagu was a province the British directly governed from 1834 to 1947. In the British narrative of the conquest of India, Tipu was vilified and reviled as a “religious bigot”. The journalist contended that Kodavas, who were the main beneficiaries of British colonial rule in Kodagu, imbibed this poisonous hatred for Tipu from the British.

Demonisation of Tipu

The British demonisation of Tipu began early and continued through the 19th century. British writers such as Colonel William Kirkpatrick and Mark Wilks wrote vitriolic accounts of Tipu’s military campaigns. Rev. Richter, writing in 1870, refers to Hyder Ali as “Wolf” Hyder. Tipu’s fall in 1799 led to the swift expansion of colonialism as he was, in some ways, the last bulwark against the spread of the East India Company’s domination in the subcontinent.

Michael Soracoe’s PhD work is germane to this discussion. He writes: “The increasingly vilified and caricatured representations of Tipu allowed the East India Company to portray itself as fighting a moral crusade to liberate southern India from the depredations of a savage ruler. Company servants were recast in British popular imagination from unscrupulous nabobs into virtuous solider-heroes that embodied the finest qualities of the British nation.”

The foremost current historian of Tipu, Kate Brittlebank, writes: “For thirty years, first Haidar Ali, Tipu’s father, then Tipu himself, had been at the forefront of the British public’s consciousness…. So by the time he died at the hands of General Harris’s troops, as they besieged his island capital in 1799, Tipu Sultan was probably the most famous Indian, if not villain, in the United Kingdom.”

Tipu’s legacy as a freedom fighter was resuscitated in the early 20th century when the Indian national movement gained some traction under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Tipu emerged as an icon of the struggle against the British. An article in 1930 in Young India edited by Gandhi said: “Fatehali Tipu Sultan of Mysore is represented by foreign historians as a fanatic who oppressed his Hindu subjects and converted them to Islam by force. But he was nothing of the kind. On the other hand his relations with his Hindu subjects were of a perfectly cordial nature. And it is a rare pleasure to dwell upon them at a time when Hindus and Musalmans, all oblivious of the presence of the ‘enemy within their gate’, are ready to fly at one another’s throats and have lost all power of clear thinking.”

In an interview in 2015, Prof. Sheik Ali, the nonagenarian historian of Tipu, stated that there was a campaign from the 1950s itself to portray Tipu as a partisan religious ruler. In 1980, the book Tipu Sultan X’Rayed: An Untold Story of a Puffed Up Nawab published by I.M. Muthanna, a Kodava, vitalised the prejudicial rhetoric against Tipu. With misinformation galore and running to almost 700 pages, Muthanna’s work reads like a long pamphlet written by someone in the throes of an apoplectic fit. There are only two things in it that are interesting for the purposes of this essay: first, Muthanna dedicated his book to the British, who he said inaugurated an era of “modern development, enlightenment, education and progress after restoring the country’s ancient pride, religion and culture”, and secondly, the effusive foreword written by Purushottam Nagesh Oak, who was at the time the president of the Institute for Rewriting Indian History. (Oak is known for his absurd contention that the Taj Mahal was originally a Siva temple called Tejo Mahalaya.)

Over the past few decades, the BJP has gained immense support in Kodagu and among Kodavas and is the most popular political party there. Folklorists such as Nanjamma and Chinnappa contend that Kodavas are not Hindus but are a tribe. It is a community that has been “Sanskritised” to a great extent. This process did not start recently but was first documented by the reputed social anthropologist M.N. Srinivas in his book Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India (1952).

While Kodavas constitute a minority (around one-fifth of the population of Kodagu), many of them feel they have a historical claim to the region. It is common to meet Kodavas who rail against newer migrants to the area. While a lot of Hindus have migrated to the region, many Kodavas reserve their intense ire for the Moplah and Beary Muslim traders (from north Kerala and coastal Karnataka). Thus, one must locate the hatred for Tipu among Kodavas in a complex mix of historical and contemporary factors.

As the discussion about the sources for Tipu’s Kodagu campaign shows, there is no evidence that any massacre took place at Devatiparambu and that the number of prisoners taken from Kodagu to Srirangapatna was between a few hundred and a few thousand. A few conversions did take place, but as historians of Tipu have argued, he did not have any religious zeal for conversions but used them as a shrewd political gambit in areas where there were repeated rebellions. As a Muslim ruler of Mysore, a kingdom largely populated by Hindus, there is a lot of evidence to show that the ambitious Tipu shrewdly sought legitimacy for his rule by appointing several Hindus to high positions in his administration apart from providing support for temples.

Tipu’s dream

On May 4, 1799, a mixed force of the East India Company consisting of British and Indian soldiers crossed the shallow Cauvery river and breached the twin ramparts of the fort of Srirangapatna. Tipu, the ferocious foe of the British, was defeated and killed in this fourth and final battle between the expanding colonial forces and his Mysore kingdom.

In the sacking of Srirangapatna that followed, Col Kirkpatrick found a booklet in Tipu’s bedchamber. Written in the hand of the recently expired king, the booklet contained the dreams of Tipu that he had jotted down in Persian. The eclectic set of dreams would fascinate a psychoanalyst and provide insights into the mind of the 18th century savant-king. Of the 37 dreams contained in the booklet, number 22 is titled “The Extraordinary Idols” written sometime in the year 1795 or 1796 and is worth quoting in full as it challenges the idea that Tipu was a religious bigot: “There seemed to be a big temple, the back portion of which was slightly damaged. It contained several large idols. I went into the temple along with a few other men and noticed that the idols were seeing like human beings and their eyes were in motion. I was surprised to see the eyes of the idols moving like those of the living and wondered what it could be due to. Then I approached them. In the last row there were two female idols. One of these two, drawing out her sari from betwixt her two knees, stated that both of them were women while the rest of the idols were the images of men and other objects. She added that they had been praying to God for a long time and everyone ought to nourish oneself. I said to her, ‘That is fine, do keep yourself occupied with the remembrance of God.’ Having said that I ordered my men to repair the dilapidated building. In the meantime I woke up.”


1. Belliappa, C.P. (2008): Nuggets from Coorg History.

2. Brittlebank, Kate (2016): Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan.

3. Boverianda, Chinnappa and Nanjamma (2014): Ainmanes of Kodagu: Ancestral Homes of Kodagu and their Socio-Cultural Significance.

4. Cariappa, Addanda (2015): Tipu Mattu Kodavaru (Tipu and the Kodavas).

5. Hasan, Mohibbul (1951): History of Tipu Sultan.

6. Kirmani, Mir Hussain Ali Khan (1884): History of Tipu Sultan: Being a Continuation of the Neshani Hyduri, translated by Col W. Miles.

7. Moegling, H., Rev. (1855): Coorg Memoirs: An Account of Coorg and of the Coorg Mission.

8. Pande, B.N. (1996): Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan: Evaluation of Their Religious Policies.

9. Richter, G., Rev. (1870): Gazetteer of Coorg: Natural Features of the Country and the Social and Political Condition of its Inhabitants.

10. Soracoe, Michael (2013): “Tyrant! Tipu Sultan and the Reconception of British Imperial Identity, 1780-1800”, PhD thesis.

11. Sultan, Tipu: The Dreams of Tipu Sultan, translated by Mahmud Husain.

12. (2001): “Yemmemadu Sufi Shaheed”.

13. Young India (1930): January 23.