Facts on the Tiger Motifs of Tipu Sultan

"In this world I would rather live two days like a tiger, than two hundred years like a sheep", these are the famous words of Tipu Sultan (r: 1782-1799), the ruler of Mysore.

Tipu and his Tigers:

Tipu Sultan called his dominions the 'Sultanate-i-Khudadad', which translates to the 'God-given government'. He adopted the royal tiger as his emblem, symbolizing his power and strength. Tipu Sultan envisioned himself as a fierce royal tiger, chosen by the divine to vanquish the enemies of God, namely the British.

In the palace yard, live domesticated tigers were kept for the Sultan's amusement. Tiger-related designs adorned almost every item in his palace, making the tiger synonymous with Tipu's name. His throne, textiles, armor, weapons, coins, flags and even the uniforms of his soldiers, were all decorated with bubri or tiger-stripe motifs. The walls of his palace were adorned with life-size caricatures of the British, some of which depicted British figures being attacked by tigers.

Tippoo's Tiger  - Victoria and Albert Museum

Tipu Sultan's weapons and ordnance bore a calligraphic representation of a tiger's face, reading "Asadullah Al-Ghalib", meaning "The Lion of God is the Conqueror"

"The title 'Lion of God' (Asadullah), was bestowed upon his son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib by Muhammad himself, in recognition of his bravery and skill in battle under the Prophet's banner. Tipu appears to have chosen Ali as the protector and patron saint of his dominions. The choice of the tiger as an emblem by Tipu Sultan seems to have been a tribute to Ali, as the people of Hindustan do not differentiate between a lion and a tiger. Therefore, the word "Asad," which means lion, is commonly used to refer to a tiger by the natives of Hindustan. Furthermore, Hyder, the name of his father, which also symbolizes a lion, but is interpreted as a tiger by the locals of Hindustan, is another honorific title of Ali. The name Hyder, thus distinguished by the triple circumstance of its being the title of Ali, the name of his emblem, and the name of his father, was introduced by him on every occasion; and either the word at length, or its initial letter, was stamped upon every article of every kind belonging to him", notes Major Alexander Beatson.

Tipu's Mechanical Tiger:


After the fall of Tipu Sultan in 1799, the British took possession of his royal treasury, which contained a number of valuable items, including the celebrated tiger throne and the mechanical tiger toy known as 'Tipu's Tiger'. The British discovered this toy tiger in the Rag Mahal, or music room, of Tipu Sultan's palace in Srirangapatna.

The celebrated toy is a remarkable painted wooden automaton that depicts a life-sized tiger attacking a British soldier [or officer]. The man is lying on his back, as the tiger sinking its sharp teeth into his neck. What makes this toy even more impressive is the fact that it contains a pipe organ and an 18-note ivory keyboard within the body of the tiger. By turning the crank handle at the side of the tiger, the organ can be played, and the man's left hand moves up and down in response. But that's not all - the organ also produces a sound that resembles the cries of a dying man, intermixed with the roar of a tiger. It's a haunting and unforgettable experience that will leave you in awe. The organ pipes and ivory keyboard can be revealed by opening a flap near the handle. 

The following is an account of the tiger toy, as reported in the Illustrated London News in January of 1858: "The cunning piece of workmanship, the toy, if it may be so called, of this warrior is a very rude imitation of a tiger carved in wood, partly hollowed. The outside of the tiger is painted in imitation of the stripes on the skin; and in the clutches of the savage beast is the effigy of a human being, intended to represent an Englishman, with a broad-brimmed chimneypot hat on his head, and other clothing suitable. On one side of the tiger is a handle, like those on organs, which communicates with certain pipes in the hollowed interior. On turning the handle the most horrible sounds are heard-a sort of roaring which may be supposed to issue from the throat of the savage beast; then come the shrieks and groans of the unfortunate Englishman. During the sounding of this music the head and some other parts of the sufferer are moved by springs, in something the same manner as the automaton figures exhibited in the London streets. In course of time the Englishman seems to breathe his last, when the tiger, with loud rejoicing, growls and worries up his prey. It is supposed that Tippoo Saib, when he failed to catch hold of one of our countrymen alive, subjecting him to an infliction something similar to that above described, was wont, during his leisure hours, to amuse himself with this effigy, which, no doubt, kept other similar pleasant sights in memory".

'Narrative Sketches of the Conquest of the Mysore: Effected by the British Troops and Their Allies' documents that Tipu's Tiger was "another proof of the deep hate, and extreme loathing of Tippoo Saib towards the English; this was a most curious piece of mechanism as large as life, representing a Royal Tiger in the act of  devouring a prostrate European officer. Within the body of the animal was a row of keys of natural notes, acted upon by the rotation of certain barrels in the manner of a hand-organ, and which produced sounds intended to resemble the cries of a person in distress, intermixed with the horrid roar of the Tiger. The machinery was so contrived that while this infernal music continued to play, the hand of the European victim was often lifted up, and the head convulsively thrown back, to express the agony of his helpless and  deplorable situation."

The Tiger toy dates back to 1793-94, and it is possible that the internal mechanism was crafted by a Frenchman in Tipu's service. Tipu may have commissioned this work inspired by the death of Hugh Munro, the son of his enemy General Sir Hector Munro, who had defeated him and his father Hyder Ali in the battle of Porto Novo during the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1781. Hugh Munro was attacked and killed by a tiger during a hunting spree near Bengal in 1792. It is said that Tipu's custom in the afternoon was to amuse himself with this 'miserable emblematical triumph of the Khudadad over the English Sircar'.

In 1800, Lord Wellesley sent Tipu's Tiger to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London. This magnificent piece of art was then transported to the East India House, the headquarters of the East India Company. Eventually, it was transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it has been preserved to this day. 

Today, Tipu's Tiger remains one of the most popular exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum, attracting visitors from all over the world. Its intricate design and historical significance make it a true masterpiece of art and engineering.


Royal Bengal Tiger is the national animal of India.


Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Tiger By Susie Green