Tipu's Tiger

'Tipu's Tiger', a carved and lacquered wooden semi-automaton in the shape of a tiger mauling a man, Mysore, India, about 1793. Museum no 2545 (IS).

'Tipu's Tiger', a carved and lacquered wooden semi-automaton in the shape of a tiger mauling a man, Mysore, India, about 1793. Museum no 2545 (IS).


'Tipu's Tiger' (detail showing organ), 1790. Museum no. 2545(IS)

'Tipu's Tiger' (detail showing organ), 1790. Museum no. 2545(IS)

The Tiger comes to London

'Tipu's Tiger' is an awesome, life-size beast of carved and painted wood, seen in the act of devouring a prostrate European in the costume of the 1790s. It has cast a spell over generations of admirers since 1808, when it was first displayed in the East India Company's museum. On the dissolution of the Company fifty years later, its properties were transferred to the Crown, and the contents of the museum eventually dispersed to appropriate institutions. The tiger was among items allotted to the Indian Section of the South Kensington Museum, now called the V&A.

The Man-Tyger-Organ: A mechanical toy

Concealed in the bodywork is a mechanical pipe-organ with several parts, all operated simultaneously by a crank-handle emerging from the tiger's shoulder. Inside the tiger and the man are weighted bellows with pipes attached. Turning the handle pumps the bellows and controls the air-flow to simulate the growls of the tiger and cries of the victim. The cries are varied by the approach of the hand towards the mouth and away, as the left arm - the only moving part - is raised and lowered.

Another pair of bellows, linked to the same handle, supplies wind for a miniature organ of 18 pipes built into the tiger, with stops under the tail. Its structure is like that of European mechanical organs, but adapted for hand operation by a set of ivory button keys reached through a flap in the animal's side. The mechanism has been repaired several times and altered from its original state. It is now too fragile to be operated regularly.

Tipu (Tipu Sahib to his European contemporaries) was Sultan of Mysore in South India from 1782-99. The painted wooden casing of his tiger is unmistakably Indian, but there are indications that the mechanism came from a European hand. A French source seems likely, as many French artisans were employed in the Sultan's workshops under Citizen Tipu's unofficial alliance with the Revolutionary government. Other Indian potentates also collected musical automata, which were fashionable at the time; what makes this one so interesting is its uniquely personal significance for the owner.

Mysore against the Company

Unknown, 'Tipu Sultan', about 1790-1800. Museum no. IS.266-1952

Unknown, 'Tipu Sultan', about 1790-1800. Museum no. IS.266-1952

He was the implacable 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 dominion in India. In the south the conflict of interests between the Company and the Mysore regime made war inevitable.


Tipu's father, Haidar Ali, a Muslim of humble origin, had risen to high command in the Mysore army, until by 1762 he was strong enough to unseat the Hindu raja and make himself master of the state. Thus a weak province became one of the strongest and most militant in India.

There followed the four Mysore Wars, during which Tipu succeeded Haidar, and which ended in 1799 with the siege and fall of the capital, Seringapatam, to the British. Tipu died fighting bravely in the struggle for the city, and many of his belongings were seized as trophies in the plundering that ensued. The wooden tiger aroused great interest from the first, and was soon despatched to the Company's museum at the India House in Leadenhall Street, London.

Further adventures of a Tiger

Tipu and his exploits captured the popular imagination in Britain, figuring prominently in art, literature and drama far into the 19th century. Keats, who visited the India House while the tiger was on show there, in Cap and Bells envisaged a personal performance by the Sultan on his  Man-Tyger-Organ. The Storming of Seringapatam unleashed a flood of prints and broadsheets. It inspired one of the largest paintings in the world, exhibited in London as a panorama. It was featured as a vast spectacular at Astley's Amphitheatre, and cut down to size for the juvenile drama. As late as 1868 it set the scene for Wilkie Collins's novel The Moonstone.

The Lion of God is the Tiger of Mysore

Theatrical print, 1823. Theatre Collection

Theatrical print, 1823. Theatre Collection

This enduring fascination can be explained by Tipu's much-publicized 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. This text is highly relevant to Tipu's psychology. Victorious Lion of God, and Haidar, meaning a lion, were titles bestowed by the Prophet on the Imam Ali, after whom Tipu's father was named. (Lions and tigers were regarded as interchangeable in such a context.)

Tipu's Dream Book - a Persian manuscript found in the Palace after his death, and preserved in the India Office Library - reveals 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). He was in effect the royal tiger, the instrument of God, appointed to devour God's enemies, particularly the British, whose continuing presence in South India guaranteed opposition to the aggrandizement of Mysore. His opponents felt in him the mingled dread and allure of the 'tyger burning bright', irresistible to the European then as now.

English translations of the dreams were published in 1800. By the end of the third Mysore War Tipu had sustained heavy losses in territory and indemnities. He had also been obliged to hand over two of his sons as hostages to the British commander, Lord Cornwallis. The boys had been well treated, even feted, 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.

A Tiger's Vengeance, or, The Death of Munrow

Tipu's Tiger', emblematic organ, 1790. Museum no. 2545(IS)

Tipu's Tiger', emblematic organ, 1790. Museum no. 2545(IS)

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 concerned in a crushing defeat inflicted on Haidar and Tipu in the second Mysore War.

Far away in England 'The Death of Munrow' would be commemorated by Staffordshire pottery groups for the cottage chimney-piece; The 'Tiger of Mysore' may have devised a personal and more exotic memento.

Written by Veronica Murphy, 1976, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series. Revised 2006.

For an updated history of Tipu Sultan and the Tiger, see Susan Stronge's 'Tipu's Tigers', V&A Publishing, 2009


 

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Tipu's Tigers

Tipu's Tigers

Tipu's Tiger is one of the V&A's most enduringly famous and fascinating objects. Commissioned in the 1790s by Tipu Sultan of Mysore, who kept the …

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