At the Battle of Pullalur in 1780, troops serving Hyder Ali of Mysore inflicted on soldiers of the East India Company one of the worst military defeats of the century. Hyder himself had been in Kanchipuram nearby, engaged with another contingent, before joining his son Tipu to corner the enemy at Pullalur. In the confrontation that followed, the Mysore troops were aided by their innovative rocket corps (or “flying plagues", as one chronicler called them, with the “missile power of a javelin" and the “impulse of gunpowder"). Even without the rockets, though, the English were doomed: The Mysoreans had surrounded them, and reinforcements despatched from Kanchipuram were inadequate. The result was spectacular bloodshed before hundreds—including the commander—were seized and dragged to the dungeons of Hyder’s capital in faraway Srirangapatna.
The clobbering the English received at Pullalur was a source of tremendous embarrassment. While in the coming years they would win several victories over Mysore, only the final conquest of Srirangapatna two decades later, sweetened by the death of Tipu himself, would provide the company something that resembled redemption. The treatment of the prisoners in Mysore’s custody became part of English lore, though hyperbole played its role too. The hostages, it was recalled, were held in chains in grimy, rat-infested rooms. Many were forcibly circumcised and converted, while some were made to dress in women’s clothes and dance. Slow poisoning was also alleged, though by this time the commander of the troops captured at Pullalur was already dead. Of the hundreds arrested in 1780, in fact, only a few dozen survived to be released one day.
But if English accounts exaggerated the horrors that followed “Pollilur", the event was of great significance for Tipu too. In 1784, two years after his accession, the sultan constructed for himself the Daria Daulat Bagh palace in his capital. Its gardens were exquisite, and fruit trees were imported from different parts of the subcontinent and beyond. The structure itself was not particularly awe-inspiring—a relatively small building with verandas and dingy rooms, it resembled a house more than a kingly abode. But what was striking was Tipu’s decision to have local painters decorate practically every available surface of the building—outer and inner walls, in addition to the ceiling—with the most interesting artwork. While the ceiling inside had floral motifs and predictable ornamentation, the outside walls were truly striking, featuring what can be described fittingly as propaganda art.
One of the principal panels shows, for instance, the Battle of Pullalur. Though time has bleached its vividness, a hint of the colour and drama of the scene is palpable to visitors even today. As happened at the actual event, the painting shows the commander of the company troops at the centre of a tight, square formation of his surviving white troops. All around them is the carnage unleashed by Mysorean soldiers, with severed heads and decapitated bodies (besides horses wearing doleful expressions). One British writer would later describe this as a “curious" and “rude" painting, showing as it did the company commander in his palanquin, petrified and rather unmanly in demeanour. His face full of torment, the ill-fated Lt Col William Baillie is portrayed chewing on a finger, while Tipu waits nearby, mounted confidently on his handsome horse, enjoying the smell of victory from a hand-held rose.
At 31x17ft, the mural, according to scholar Janaki Nair, is one of India’s largest ever. But if this particular painting—featuring, as an Englishman put it, “pink elephants, yellow men, and sky blue horses", all held together “in glorious confusion"—depicts one of Tipu’s most delicious victories over his adversaries, other frescoes and panels at Daria Daulat Bagh are also a record of his ambition and self-image. The east-side wall, for instance, is packed with portraits, including of “rulers with whom Tipu may have held court or whom he wished to conquer", while elsewhere appear ordinary people engaged in everyday tasks. Englishmen are portrayed in ways that caused them to believe these were caricatures (one officer is threatening a woman in one scene, and elsewhere enjoying a dance performance)—a distinct possibility given Tipu’s dislike for the company and its servants.
But, as Nair argues, the palace and its paintings may also have existed for purposes of legitimacy and to place Tipu in the larger context of kingship. Stylistically inspired by the art of the Deccan sultanates, all of which had collapsed a century earlier, this was a record of his exploits, and if sometimes the sultan appears on a disproportionately large horse, it is not a caricature but a technique to make him immediately identifiable, with all the relevant marks of kingship. The rose he smells nonchalantly in the battle scene, for instance, was associated with portraits of royalty across centuries. And much attention was paid to detail: While heads and bodies are strewn all around the battle scene in the Pullalur mural, at least one colonial-era commentator noted that, counted closely, they all added up and for each head a corresponding body can also be found nearby. It was seemingly peculiar art but wedded to a wry exactness.
In the end, however, even if Daria Daulat Bagh was meant to serve as a record of Tipu’s power, the fall of Mysore in 1799 meant the future of the building was imperilled. It may well have been demolished by the company but for the decision of the victorious general, Lord Wellesley, to personally occupy the palace. While some details of the paintings were obscured, painted over, and damaged by locals, Wellesley spent liberally to retouch and preserve what survived. So attached was he to the place, in fact, that in the 1850s, when the palace was in disrepair, the then governor general ordered another round of restoration—but not because the “Tiger of Mysore" had once tried to enshrine his legacy there, but because after he was vanquished, one of the heroes of British imperium had occupied the palace. The artwork showed English defeat at Pullalur, but the general had turned the tables on Tipu’s murals and constructed a new colonial reality—one where he was the victor and the sultan a vilified memory.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai