Man’s fascination with the gruesome is often rooted in power—who has it, who doesn’t. In the case of Tipu’s Tiger, the 18th century Indian automaton that terrified and thrilled Europeans after the defeat of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, it was an emblem of domination. Much like Louis XIV and his golden sun, Tipu Sultan cultivated an affinity to the almighty tiger, stitching its image on his standard, running its stripes along his soldiers’ uniforms, and placing its head on the hilt of his favorite saber. Even his gold and jewel ornamented throne bore the tiger’s shape.
Unlike his father Sultan Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan understood the importance of a fearsome image. His nickname, the Tiger of Mysore, was reinforced in his palace and beyond, but the depth of his representations weren’t understood by the west until the sack of Seringapatam in 1799 when many of his treasures were seized by the British. Enter the object of Tipu’s amusement.
TIGER EATS WESTERNER WHILE PLAYING ORGAN MUSIC
Attribution: Victoria and Albert Museum
Like any good Indian Sultan, Tipu grew up hating the British East India Company. Their expansion across his father’s kingdom was an affront that resulted in four Anglo-Mysore wars, the first two bannered by Hyder Ali, the third and fourth by Tipu Sultan. It was during the Second-Anglo Mysore War in 1781, when his father suffered a loss of 10,000 men to the British General Sir Hector Munro, though, that a cruel fate was sown. Eleven years after Indian blood had been shed, a hunt for deer commenced on Saugur Island. Bengal tigers had a reputation among westerners for being vicious predators, but they were unpredictable, sometimes attacking, other times retreating. Sir Hector Munro’s only son, Hugh Munro, was not lucky enough to come upon a retiring tiger. He stumbled upon a beast to make Tipu Sultan proud and died from the mauling within twenty-four hours.
Many think the automaton Tipu’s Tiger specifically commemorated the event. One of the charms of his automaton–if it may be called that–is that when you turn a crank, the tiger emits a bellow while the man cries in agony. You can see Tipu’s Tiger played in the video below, though from what I can tell we’re hearing the organ play a tune rather than the wretched sounds of Hugh Munro’s earthly departure.