Among the objects in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, one of the most popular is Tipu’s Tiger, an Indian automaton of a tiger mauling a European soldier.
Tipu’s Tiger was created around 1795 for the Tipu Sultan of Mysore. The tiger was the sultan’s emblem and the symbolism here is quite blatant: a sign of the sultan’s power over European forces. The figure was crafted using Indian materials and design, with French mechanics. Inside the tiger is a mechanical organ, cogwheel and worm gear, with 36 brass pipes, leather bellows, button keys. By turning a crankshaft on the left side of the Tiger, air is pumped into the bellows of the Tiger and it emits a wailing shriek from the soldier (and twitching hand) and a mighty roar from the Tiger. The buttons keys on its side allow people to play music on the Tiger.
The Sultan himself was seen as a respected and capable figure; Scotsman Sir John Lindsay described the Tipu Sultan as “an expert soldier, and in the management of the horse, the bow, the lance or the musket, shone pre-eminent. He was also an excellent scholar, and even though inured to war from infancy, reputed a good poet and was respected in the army as an excellent and indefatigable soldier.”
The soldier in the picture has been surmised to be Sir Henry Munro, the son of General Sir Hector Munro, who had defeated Haidar Ali and his son, Tipu, in battle in 1781. Hugh Munro later died on December 22nd, 1792, on Saugor Island when he was attacked by a tiger.
Though the creation of Tipu’s Tiger was the Sultan’s personal “last word” over the outcome of that battle, the automaton has been a thrilling curiosity that has outlived both its inspiration and its commissioner. On May 4th, 1799, British forces invaded Tipu’s capital of Srirangapatnam and killed the sultan. The Tipu Tiger was transported to London by the East Indian Company Musuem and displayed there until 1808. In 1879, the Tiger was moved to the South Kensington Museum which later formed the Indian Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
And, for the curious, a demonstration of the button keyboard on Tipu’s Tiger: