Essay on Mysore State and Society in the Eighteenth Century

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Next to Hyderabad, the most important power that emerged in south India was Mysore under Haidar Ali. The kingdom of Mysore had preserved its precarious independence ever since the end of the Vijayanagar Empire and had been only nominally a part of the Mughal Empire.

Early in the eighteenth century two ministers Nanjaraj (the Sarvadhikari) and Devraj (the Dulwai) had seized power in Mysore reducing the king Chikka Krishna Raj to a mere puppet.

Haidar Ali, born in 1721 in an obscure family, started his career as a petty officer in the Mysore army. Though uneducated, he possessed a keen intellect and was a man of great energy, daring and determination. He was also a brilliant commander and a shrewd diplomat.

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Haidar Ali soon found his opportunity in the wars which involved Mysore for more than twenty years. Cleverly using the opportunities that came his way, he gradually rose in the Mysore army.

He soon recognised the advantages of Western military training and applied it to the troops under his own command. He established a modern arsenal in Dindigal in 1755 with the help of French experts. In 1761 he overthrew Nanjaraj and established his authority over the Mysore state.

He extended full control over the rebellious (warrior chieftains and zamindars) and conquered the territories of Bidnur, Sunda, Sera, Canara and Malabar. A major reason for his occupation of Malabar was the desire to have access to the Indian Ocean.

Though illiterate he was an efficient administrator. He was responsible for introducing the Mughal administrative and revenue system in his dominions.

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He took over Mysore when it was a weak and divided state and soon made it one of the leading Indian powers. He practiced religious tolerance and his first Dewan and many other officials were Hindus.

Almost from the beginning of the establishment of his power, he was engaged in wars with the Maratha sardars, the Nizam, and the British.

In 1769, he repeatedly defeated the British forces and reached the walls of Madras. He died in 1782 in the course of the second Anglo-Mysore War and was succeeded by his son Tipu.

Sultan Tipu, who ruled Mysore till his death at the hands of the British in 1799, was a man of complex character. He was, for one, an innovator.

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His desire to change with the times was symbolised in the introduction of a new calendar, a new system of coinage, and new scales of weights and measures.

His personal library contained books on such diverse subjects as religion, history, military science, medicine, and mathematics. He showed a keen interest in the French Revolution. He planted a ‘Tree of Liberty’ at Srirangapatam and he became a member of a Jacobin Club.

His organisational capacity is borne out by the fact that in those days of general indiscipline among Indian armies, his troops remained disciplined and loyal to him to the last.

He tried to do away with the custom of giving jagirs, and thus increase state income. He also made an attempt to reduce the hereditary possessions of the poligars and to eliminate the intermediaries between the state and the cultivator.

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However, his land revenue was as high as that of other contemporary rulers it ranged up to one third of the gross produce. But he checked the collection of illegal cresses, and he was liberal in granting remissions.

His infantry was armed with muskets and bayonets in the European fashion which were, however, manufactured in Mysore. He also made an effort to build a modern navy after 1796.

For this purpose he established two dockyards, the models of the ships being supplied by the Sultan himself. In personal life he was free from vices and kept himself free from luxury.

He was recklessly brave and, as a commander, brilliant. He was fond of saying that it was “better to live a day as a lion than a lifetime as a sheep”. He died fighting at the gates of Srirangapatam in pursuance of this belief. He was, however, hasty in action and unstable in nature.

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As a statesman, he more than any other eighteenth-century Indian ruler, recognised to the full extent the threat that the English posed to South India as well as to other Indian powers.

He stood forth as the steadfast foe of the rising English power. The English, in turn, looked upon him as their most dangerous enemy in India.

Though not free from contemporary econorhic backwardness, Mysore flourished economically under Haidar Ali and Tipu, especially when seen in contrast with its immediate past or with the rest of the country.

When the British occupied Mysore after defeating and killing Tipu in 1799, they were surprised to find that the Mysore peasant was much more prosperous than the peasant in British- occupied Madras.

Sir John Shore, Governor-General from 1793 to 1798, wrote later that “the peasantry of his dominions are protected and their labor encouraged and rewarded”.

Another British observer wrote of Tipu’s Mysore as “well cultivated, populous with indus­trious inhabitants, cities newly founded and commerce extending”.

Tipu also seems to have grasped the importance of modern trade and industry. In fact, alone among the Indian rulers, he understood the importance of economic strength as the foundation of military strength.

He made some attempts to introduce modern industries in India by importing foreign workmen as experts and by extending state support to many industries. He sent emissaries to France, Turkey, Iran and Pegu Myanmar to develop foreign trade. He also traded with China.

He even tried to set up a trading company on the pattern of European companies and thus sought to imitate their commercial practices. He tried to promote trade with Russia and Arabia by setting up state trading institutions in the port towns.

Some British historians have described Tipu as a religious fanatic. But this is not borne out by facts. Though he was orthodox in his religious views, he was in fact tolerant and enlightened in his approach toward other religions.

He gave money for the construction of the image of goddess Sarda in the Shringeri Temple after the latter was looted by Maratha horsemen in 1791.

He regularly gave gifts to this temple as well as several other temples. The famous temple of Sri Ranganath was situated barely a hundred yards from his palace.

But while he treated the vast majority of his Hindu and Christian subjects with consideration and tolerance, he was harsh on those Hindus and Christians who might directly or indirectly aid the British against Mysore.

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