Tipu’s Tiger, commissioned in the 1790s by Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in South India (1782-1799), is one of the V&A’s most famous and fascinating objects.
It consists of an almost life-sized, wooden, semi-automaton of a tiger mauling a figure in European clothes. Hidden inside the tiger is an organ, and when a handle on the side is turned, the organ can be played which causes the dying man to wail and his arm to lift up and down.
Other Indian rulers also collected musical automata, which were fashionable at the time; what makes this one so interesting is its uniquely personal significance for its owner.
Tipu Sultan was a sworn enemy of the East India Company, a commercial enterprise with its own armies and civil administration, which during the late 18th century was engaged in extending British rule in India. After four Mysore wars, the capital, Seringapatam, eventually fell to the British in 1799.
Tipu died fighting bravely in the struggle for the city and many of his belongings were seized as trophies. The wooden tiger was sent to the East India Company's museum at the India House in Leadenhall Street, London in 1800 where it became one its most popular exhibits. The Indian Museum, as it became known, moved several time before parts of the collections, including Tipu’s Tiger, were transferred to the South Kensington Museum, later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Tipu was obsessed by tiger mania and anglophobia, twin obsessions which were embodied in the toy tiger. Tigers and tiger symbols adorned most of his possessions, from his magnificent throne to the uniforms of his guards. His armoury included mortars shaped like sitting tigers, cannon with tiger muzzles, and hand weapons decorated with gold tiger heads, or inlaid in gold with tiger masks formed by an arrangement of Arabic letters meaning The Lion of God is the Conqueror.
Also found in Tipu's palace following his death was his Dream Book, a Persian manuscript detailing his preoccupation with tigers and his association of the cult animal with the extermination, or at least the driving out, of infidels (i.e. non-Muslims). Tipu saw himself as the royal tiger, the instrument of God, appointed to devour God's enemies, particularly the British.
By the end of the third Mysore War, Tipu had sustained heavy losses in territory. He had also been made to hand over two of his sons as hostages to the British commander, Lord Cornwallis. The boys had been well treated during their two years in Madras, but Tipu never forgot the humiliation. He ordered the walls of houses in Seringapatam to be painted with scenes of tigers mauling Europeans. Live tigers were kept in the city and there were stories of prisoners thrown into the tiger-pits.
Tipu must have been intrigued by a news item widely reported in India and Britain in 1793, only months after he had been compelled to sign the hated Treaty of Seringapatam. A young Englishman out shooting near Calcutta had been carried off by 'an immense riyal tiger...four and a half feet high and nine long', sustaining fatal injuries. The victim was the only son of General Sir Hector Munro, who had been involved in a crushing defeat inflicted on Tipu and his father, in the second Mysore War.
Far away in England 'The Death of Munrow' was commemorated by Staffordshire pottery figurines. The 'Tiger of Mysore' may have devised a more personal and exotic memento.
Playing Tipu's Tiger
Listen to the strange sound of the pipe organ being played by an 18th century instrument specialist.