Tipu Sultan at Nedumkotta (Travancore Lines) on 29 December 1789: Exaggerations & Facts

In this post, we are not going into the details of the Mysore-Travancore war, but rather focus on the exaggerations made by some British and Travancore historians following the first Mysore invasion on Travancore on the night of December 28th and morning of December 29th, 1789.

The First Invasion, as it came to be known:

Finding it impossible to peacefully settle the various points of dispute with Rama Varma (or Ram Raja, as Tipu address him), the Raja of Travancore, Tipu Sultan marched his armies to the vicinity of the Travancore Lines (otherwise known as Nedumkotta). On December 24, he encamped four miles from the Lines, in the hopes of inducing the Raja to reach an amicable agreement.

On the night of December 28th, 1789, a skirmish occurred on the frontier when a detachment of Mysorean troops attempted to apprehend a group of Malabar rebels who had sought refuge in the nearby jungle. Unfortunately, they encountered resistance from Travancore troops, resulting in a violent confrontation. As the rebels were being escorted to the camp, the Travancoreans opened fire. This provoked the Mysore troops who retaliated and seized a large portion of the Lines. The Travancore troops hastily retreated to the Lines, closely pursued by the Mysoreans, until they reached a square enclosure. Here around 800 Nairs managed to halt the enemy's advance and, with the help of reinforcements, inflicted heavy losses on them. The Mysoreans were attacked from both sides and were forced to flee in disarray.

Regarding this attack, Rama Varma wrote to Hutchinson on 2nd January 1790, "On 29th December, the troops of Tippoo Sultan consisting of horse and foot about 15,000 appeared in front of my fort, commencing an attack, and 3000 of them entered my fort. My people opposed them and a battle ensued, when some of them were killed, others wounded and the remainder fled. My people are now strongly entrenched."

Wilks records that Tipu barely escaped, "The Sultan was only saved by the exertions of some steady and active chelas, who raised him on their shoulders and enabled him to ascend the counterscarp, after having twice fallen back in the attempt to clamber up; and the lameness, which occasionally continued until his death, was occasioned by the severe contusions he received on this occasion. His palanquin remained in the ditch, the bearers having been trodden to death, his seals, rings and personal ornaments fell as trophies into the hands of the enemy."

"The Sultan himself was thrown down in the struggle and the bearers of his palanquin trampled to death. Though he was rescued from death by some of his faithful followers, yet he received such injuries that he never forgot in this episode in his invasion of Travancore. Tipu's State sword, signet ring and other personal ornaments fell into the hands of the Travancore army....Tipu retreated with great shame and chagrin and Diwan Kesava Pillai returned to Trivandrum in triumph bringing with him Tipu's sword, shield etc. as trophies....The Nawab of Arcot requested the Raja to send Tipu's sword, shield, dagger, belt, palanquin etc and they were accordingly forwarded," notes Shankunni Menon.

The claims of these writers are:

1 Tipu Sultan was present in the battle

2 Tipu Sultan used palanquin while fighting

3 Tipu Sultan fell into a ditch and went lame for life

4 Tipu's palanquin, sword, seals, rings etc. fell as trophies

Was Tipu Sultan himself Present Before Nedumkotta on That Day?

Contemporary evidence is lacking to confirm whether Tipu Sultan was present during the attack. In a letter to Hollond dated 1st January 1790, Tipu Sultan made it clear that the engagement had occurred without his knowledge and that as soon as he heard of it he immediately recalled his troops and ordered the return of the Travancore prisoners to the Raja. Hollond subsequently wrote to Captain Kennaway that "the attack was made by accident without any orders from Tipu."

In a letter to Powney dated 26th January, 1790, Tipu Sultan declared, "Agreeably to the treaty of peace between this Circar and the English Company there has not, until this time, been on either part the smallest deviation therefrom, nor will there be any."

Palanquin: Alexander Beatson notes, "He (Tipu) was fond of riding and particularly excelled in horsemanship; he disapproved of palanquins, hackeries and all such conveyances as proper only for women."

"He was usually mounted and attached great importance to horsemanship, in which he was considered to excel. The conveyance in a palanquin he derided and in great degree prohibited, even to the aged and infirm," observes the same Wilks who wrote that Tipu fought on his palanquin.

[Roderick Mackenzie claims that Tipu Sultan was on a white horse, which on being shot, he had a narrow escape for his life. According to 'The British Mercury or Annals of History, Politics, Manners, Literature, Arts Etc. of the British Empire', 40 sepoys, 5 horses, 2 colours and a drum were the trophies captured. This account also states that Tipu was there on a white horse; the horse was wounded and he was obliged to mount another and ride off!]

Lameness: There are no evidence to prove that Tipu received severe contusions which lamed him for life. Malet wrote to Robert Abercromby on April 11, 1790, that "A man of mine is just arrived from Tipu's camp before the Travancore Lines, which he left the middle of February. He assured me that he saw Tipu the beginning of that month in perfect health, and that he had not been wounded. His cousin Qamar-ud-din Khan received two wounds on his breast, of which it is expected he will recover."

Trophies of War: With regard to the trophies of war, the Travancore records mention only a flag, its staff and one bell; and regarding prisoners of war, Travancore records speak only of five Europeans and three Indians.

Moreover, Rama Varma never claimed to have captured Tipu's palanquin or the supposed objects in it. He only mentions 'two stand of colors (flags), four horses and 1-2 drums.

According to article on 'The Hindu', the ceremonial flag carried during the Arattu procession from the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is a replica of the flag seized from Tipu Sultan by the Travancore army. Interestingly, 'While Tipu's sword and shield were returned to him, his cap (likely a turban), another trophy from the battle, was adopted as the design for the headgear worn by security men at the palace"! This information contrasts with Shankunni Menon's claims, who wrote that Tipu's sword, shield, dagger, belt, palanquin etc were forwarded to the Nawab of Arcot!

Travancore Records:

I. Receipt for flag and flagstaff brought into revenue account, 16th Thai, 965 Malayalam Era [M.E.]

The forces of Tipu Sultan having arrived before the Nedumkotta in the north and attacked Melurkotta by way of the hills on 18th Markali [Margazhi], among the booty captured and sent from the palace through Anaval Tanuvan Nilakantan, were flag-one made of 'Kunnimala'-silk, and stitched with green silk in the center and along the border and its flagstaff-one-made of 'Panamkatir' [chiseled Palmyra shaft], with fixed iron lance at the top and bottom and 'Kikal'. The above flag (with staff) handed over to Palpayasa matham accountant, Kulakkattu Veettil Raman Narayanan.

Among the booty captured was one large brass bell with handle, weighing 32 3/4 palams, brought to the palace.

II. Dispatch dated 17th Masi 965 M.E. [Nittu from Valiya Meleluttu Pilla to the Sarvadhikaryakkars of Tovala and Agastisvaram]:

Five Europeans, a person called Jivanna Rao, Buttayyan and a Rajput, who were captured from Tipu Sultan's camp are being sent in the custody of swordsmen, with instructions to Valiya Yajaman Kuncirayuman Pilla, for [their] confinement in the Padmanabhapuram [fort]. As instructions have been issued to confine the five Europeans in the Udayagiri [fort], five idannalis of rice, five tudams of oil and other necessary provisions and campa be provided without interruption. As Jivanna Rao and the Rajput are ordered to be confined in the Padmanabhapuram fort, they be supplied with two idannalis of rice, ghee, oil and others provisions from the royal account. Buttayyan be supplied with rice and curry from the Pakkam by Brahmins.

Rama Varma's Letters:

A. Raja Rama Varma to John Hollond: "My friend, on that day (29th December 1789) the Sultan, with his Sirdars and a large force, made an attack upon my lines and the engagement was very smart. As the aid of the Almighty and the good fortune of the Company, were on my side, the detachment of the Sultan were not able to stand the assault, and were repulsed; near a thousand were killed and wounded by the guns and small arms. Three of his Sirdars, men of renown, were slain. When they were repulsed, my people took two stand of colors (a battalion's flags), four horses and a drum. I attributed this victory to the assistance of the Almighty, and the good fortune of the Company, which ever vanquishes their enemies. The Sultan hurt at this repulse, is daily making ready to attack me, while I have not at this time any protection, or look for any assistance whatever, but from the Company, I am now engaged with a powerful enemy." — 1st January 1790.

B. Raja Rama Varma to General Medows: "I had agreeable to the directions I had received from the Company's government, given positive orders to those who had the care of the defense of the lines, to be careful not to begin hostilities; they at the time of the attack, checked him for a time, but the enemy being in force and power were not prevented from taking possession of the lines. When report of this circumstance reached my Sirdars, who were at the distance of two coss, they collected a body of about 1000 men, advanced and stopped the enemy; the engagement lasted full two hours, at last...the enemy being no longer able to bear the attack on them, turned their faces and fled, and about 1000 men, or possibly more, were either killed or wounded by the fire of the guns and musketry; four Sirdars of renown were slain by arrows at the time of their flight; four horses, two stand of colours and two drums, fell into the hands of my people..." — 1st May 1792.

Powney's Letters:

A. George Powney to Earl Cornwallis: "The Raja's troops coming from the right and left placed them between two fires. The conflict lasted four hours, when the enemy were repulsed with great slaughter. Tipu himself was present and had a horse shot under him. Jamaul Beg, Commander of a Cossum [Cushoon], is among the killed, and likewise another person of consequence said to be Mir Qamar-ud-din Khan, a son of the late Mir Sahib; as soon as he fell his own people cut off his head and carried it with them." — 4th January 1790.

B. George Powney's report: "Tipu has met with a repulse from the Raja's troops. He breached a weak part of the Lines and filled the ditch with bales of cotton and earth for his cavalry to enter. He made attack with 7000 men...Some horses and prisoners were taken...A Brahman of some consequence is among the prisoners; he says that Tipu was at the attack, and had a horse shot under him..." — 5th January 1790.

C. George Powney to John Hollond: "That he (Tipu) is wounded is corroborated by some Harkaras (messengers), who came from his camp the night before last: they say that Tipu had been obliged to leap from the ramparts of the Lines. As he had filled the ditch with bales of cotton at the place where his troops entered, and these had been set fire to. That in his fall he had been very much bruised and torn by a bamboo hedge which grows in the ditch; others mention that he is wounded in the shoulder by a musket ball. The Harkaras likewise add that there was a general mourning in his camp on account of the death of his brother-in-law Mir Qamar-ud-din Khan." — 10th January 1790.

D. George Powney to John Hollond: "Every account which has been brought in says that he was wounded in the attack, to which cause it is reasonable to ascribe his present inaction; that he was there himself is without doubt, as his palanquin was left in the ditch, in which was a silver box, containing several valuable diamond rings and other jewels; his large seal with his titles; his fusee and pistols, with his name upon them; and likewise his sword." — 13th January 1790.


From the letters of Powney, Wilks and his followers came to the following conclusions:

1. Tipu leapt from the ramparts of the Lines into a ditch and got bruised

2. Tipu was wounded in the shoulder by a musket ball

3. Qamar-ud-din Khan died

4. Tipu personally lead the battle, because his palanquin containing a silver box with diamond rings and other jewels; his seal, fusee, pistols and sword were left in the ditch.

5. Tipu's horse was shot under him

By analyzing Powney's letters, it is evident that the news of 'Tipu fell into a ditch' was carried by the Travancore harkaras, who also reported the death of Qamar-ud-din Khan. "Considering the fact that Qamar-ud-din Khan survived Tipu's onslaught and lived on to the nineteenth century, this tale reported by the harkaras regarding Tipu has to be taken with a pinch of salt," observes Praxy Fernandes.

A conclusion which can be legitimately drawn from the early reverses suffered by the Mysore troops was that they were not prepared for war. Tipu made it clear that he had no intention to take over Travancore. He knew that an invasion of Travancore would mean declaring war against the British. If he really wanted to conquer Travancore, why was there a need for such an extensive exchange of letters with the Raja and the British? This alone proves that his intentions were good and friendly.

Tipu Sultan's three demands from Rama Varma were: (1). The demolition of that part of the Travancore Lines which stood in Cochin, a Mysore tributary; (2). Delivery of the Malabar fugitives, who have taken refuge at Travancore; and (3). Withdrawal of Travancore troops from the Dutch fort of Cranganore.

Even after this initial border skirmish, Tipu Sultan wrote to the Governor of Madras to mediate the dispute with the Raja and invited Powney to his camp. However, the change of the Governor of Madras finally sealed any possibility of a settlement. [Edward John Hollond replaced John Holland as Acting Governor on 13th Feb 1790, and General William Medows took charge as Governor of Madras on 20th Feb, 1790]. Tipu took the final step of invading Travancore on April 13, 1790.


John Hollond [Acting Governor of Madras]

Alexander Beatson [Lieutenant-Colonel and Author of 'A view of the origin and conduct of the war with Tippoo Sultaun']

Mark Wilks [British Resident at Wodeyar court and Author of 'Historical Sketches of the South of India in an Attempt to Trace the History of Mysore']

Charles Warre Malet [British Resident at Pune court]

General William Medows [Governor of Bombay/Madras]

George Powney [British Resident at Travancore court]

John Hutchinson [Commercial Resident at Anjengo]

Robert Abercromby [Governor of Bombay]

Captain Kennaway [Lord Cornwallis's aide-de-camp]

Lord Cornwallis [Governor-General of Fort William]


Mysore-Kerala Relations in the Eighteenth Century By A. P. Ibrahim Kunju

Kerala Under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan By C. K. Kareem

History of Tipu Sultan By Mohibbul Hasan

The Tigers of Mysore: A Biography of Haider Ali & Tipu Sultan By Praxy Fernandes

Tipu Sultan: A Study in Diplomacy and Confrontation By B. Sheikh Ali

Tipu Sultan By P.K. Balakrishnan