The Armour of Tipu Sultan


 Text and Photographs By Biswa Pratim Bhowmick, PhD.



The word “garter” would typically make one have thoughts about women’s stockings. But in England, the Order of the Garter has nothing to do with stockings. That was one of the things I learnt during my attempt to seek out the last Armour of Tipu Sultan. In an area called the Berkshires on the outskirts of London stands an imposing mansion that lures tourists from all over the world. Like the much-photographed Buckingham Palace, its claim to fame lies in its designated status as one of the official residences of British royalty. But there is another aspect to Windsor Castle not many are aware of: its association with Indian history. That, in fact, was a part of the place’s attraction for me when I decided to visit it.


Having explored London mostly on my own, I had opted for a conducted tour of Windsor Castle that started from central London. I was grateful to find in our tour guide, Ian Rutherford, an energetic and well-informed young man who was as keen on explaining to us the history of the place as we were on exploring it. The castle, he told us proudly, “was among the larger inhabited ones in the world, serving for centuries as a royal residence”, right from the time of William the Conqueror who had had it constructed in 1080. Ian warned us with a grin, however, that the edifice had gone through several modifications since then and looked somewhat different today from the way it used to in the eleventh century. “What we will see today is what the castle has developed into, as successive monarchs and their consorts made additions to the building over the years,” he explained.


We were told that the current monarch, Elizabeth II, used Windsor Castle as a weekend residence, for vacations and for hosting state dinners. At that, one of our group members wondered aloud if Her Majesty was in residence that day. To which came the prompt reply that we should thank our lucky stars that she was not! For had she, indeed, been in residence, access to the castle for visitors like us would have been severely restricted. He felt none of us had the remotest chance of bumping into Her Majesty as we went about investigating how a contemporary British monarch lived.


It was during Easter that Windsor Castle served for an entire month as the Queen’s official residence, the longest period in the year that she spent time there. “And she is always there in June to honour the members of the Order of the Garter,” Ian added. Before anyone could seek clarifications on what seemed to be an intimate piece of feminine clothing, our guide explained its significance in the present context. “The Order of the Garter,” he elaborated, “was founded in 1348 by King Edward III and represents the oldest symbol of British honour.” Today, it is Her Majesty who directly chooses the Knights of the Garter.


            The castle at Windsor turned out to be an imposing structure rising from a hilltop. Regal in bearing, it overlooked the charming town of Windsor, which it seemed to enfold in its benevolent embrace. As the Queen was not in residence, the Union Jack fluttered proudly in the wind. Had she been present, Ian explained, the Royal Standard would have been flying from the flagpole.


While the thrill of Her Majesty’s presence was missing from our tour, we were just in time to watch the change of guards, a daily ritual that never failed to impress visitors, so awe-inspiring was the sense of grandeur it conveyed. As with most royal residences and castles that boasted an impressive collection of artefacts collected over the centuries, Windsor Castle too had its treasures. The beauty of its elegantly done up rooms was further enhanced by the collection of paintings on display by famous artists from a bygone era. We were a little disappointed, of course, that the private rooms used by the Queen and her immediate family were out of bounds for visitors, but I suppose expecting to be escorted en masse into her boudoir would have been an unreasonable demand, to say the least.


            I will always remember when I first set my eyes on a striking item in the castle’s collection: Queen Mary’s doll’s house. When one thinks of a doll’s house, different images come to mind. This particular version was so special, it stood apart from our usual concept of how a doll’s house was meant to be. Here was a plaything truly fit for a queen. Huge in scale, it measured almost ten feet square in floor area and almost equally high. It was the largest of its kind that I had come across on my visits to many a castle and palace during my travels through Europe. But in other ways, it seemed to resemble the conventional doll’s house, as it stood in solitary splendour at the centre of a spacious room. As we circled it, we were fascinated by the intricate details that defined the interior of the house, down to the faucets in the bathroom and the tiny one square inch portraits that hung on the wall and the dainty curtains that hung at the windows!


            I was so taken by this tourist attraction that had I not strolled into an adjoining room quite by chance, I might have missed the sight that now met my eyes. For I had stumbled upon the very artefacts that had impelled me to come all the way to this place in the Berkshires: a collection of priceless articles that celebrated the grandeur of the famous Tipu Sultan I had read so much about in my history books while at school. I paused at every display and read all the little notices posted around the room to get a complete idea of what the exhibits represented.

Standing transfixed before a large glass box containing a scarlet garment, I observed how it was reinforced with intricate golden metal embellishments that were intended to provide protection for the more vulnerable parts of the body. I also took in the pair of boots arranged beside it. As I moved from one display to another, the information I was absorbing fell into place. I realized that I was looking at the battle Armour of “The Tiger of Mysore”, our very own Tipu Sultan! This was the garment the monarch had donned on 4 May 1799, the day he would be killed in the battle against the British. Although the ravages of time had leached the red dye out of the garment, it could not entirely diminish the impression of a strong, imposing warrior with a commanding presence that must have dominated every gathering he graced.


My eyes strayed from the red garment to the other objects lying beside it. These too had belonged to Tipu Sultan. They clearly indicated how greatly he had revered the tiger, the king of the jungle, as a symbol, possibly, of strength, courage and power. In fact, many of his possessions were stamped with the head of the beast, in the form of an engraving, a sculpture or an etching. The most impressive of the ruler’s memorabilia was, however, the life-size head of a tiger sculpted in gold that had once constituted a part of his throne.


After the monarch was killed in battle, General Baird, the British Commanding Officer at the time, had removed his Armour and sent it, along with his other processions, as a gift to his own monarch, King George III. It explained how these items had travelled across the seas and eventually become a part of the royal collection at Windsor Castle.


            Overwhelmed by nostalgia, I walked out of the castle and straight into the present. I needed a breath of fresh air and the beautiful, sunlit day was just right for exploring the town of Windsor. It turned out to be a quaint and picturesque little place with its very English flavour. As was usual with me whenever I visited a new place, I found myself at one of the many charming outdoor cafes that offered a view of the castle. Settling myself at a table, I gazed at the large international tourist crowd milling around the place, keen on taking in the sights and sounds. And the light breeze blowing across town simply enhanced my enjoyment of coffee with ice cream as the world went by. But my mind was elsewhere, still lost in contemplation of what I had left behind at Windsor Castle: images from the room that contained the memory of Tipu Sultan and had mesmerised me during my visit to Windsor Castle.


Getting There: Jet Airways, Air India and British Airways have daily flights to London . From Kolkata one can use Emirates to connect through Dubai.

When to Go: Best times would be the summer months; May through August.

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