What Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan had to do with Bangalore’s love affair with trees

February 5, 2017 / Harini Nagendra

It goes back to the early history of the city, as a new book details.

Both Hyder and Tipu kept captive wildlife. Hyder had a number of tame “spotted tigers” (clearly cheetahs) which, if stories are to be believed, he fed by hand with sweets. When possible, he engaged in large-scale hunts as often as twice a week, mounted on a horse. In these hunts, Hyder was accompanied by a large retinue of Abyssinian slaves, foot soldiers with spears, and members of the nobility carrying spears and shields. The hunt was for “the stag, the roebuck, the antelope, and the tiger”, and Hyder ensured that he cast the first stroke in the hunt.

Tipu used captive tigers to maintain discipline in his army, as described by a British captive: “Three of his principal officers, namely, his head inchewalla, or general postmaster, his buxey, or paymaster general, and another, were severally thrown to the tigers, and devoured in an instant, all but their heads; for which purpose the tigers were always kept hungry!” As captured animals had a short life span, a regular supply was provided by large hunting expeditions.

“One thousand horse, 500 puligars, or pikemen, with some foot, formed his hunting party. His tiger-cats, or leopards, would always accompany him, and with these, he used to course, as our gentlemen do with hounds. The elephants were caught in pits; and the tigers and other wild beasts in cages.”

There was limited time for leisure, whether in the landscaped gardens within the city, or on hunts in the wilderness outside.

The period of Hyder and Tipu’s rule of Bengaluru, between 1758 and 1799, marked a time of intense conflict with other local rulers, as well as with armies of the East India Company and their Indian allies. Tipu and Hyder were progressive administrators, bringing in a series of important land reforms. Yet the frequent battles around Bengaluru diverted their attention from land management, leading instead to large scale impacts on the landscape to support the demands of the warring troops for food, water and forage.

Bengaluru expanded further in size during this period, with the city growing beyond its formal boundaries of the pete (the original town created by Kempe Gowda) and kote (the fort established by Chikka Deva Raja Wodeyar). The new areas of Bengaluru included locations to the east of the fort that became known as Kalasipalyam (kalasis being tent-pitchers and organizers of military camps; this name is still in existence today).

Hyder Ali’s troops were believed to be close to 83,000 in number. The army was so extensive that the line of camps stretched all the way from Kengeri to Bugle Rock (a distance of about 11 km). Soldiers camped and cooked under the shade of large trees that protected them from the heat of the morning sun, ready to march to battle at short notice. Less than a century previously, during the rule of Chikka Deva Raja Wodeyar, the entire population of the city was less than a fifth of that of Hyder’s army, likely to have comprised of between 10,000 and 15,000 inhabitants in total.

This large army required an equally massive entourage for support, with vast quantities of provisions and explosives, carried by oxen, buffaloes, camels and elephants. The army was supplied with milk, wood and other essential supplies by itinerant forest dwelling tribes, “inhabitants of the woods”, who followed the army. The armies of Hyder, as well as of the Maratha and English, depended on fodder and grain from the surrounding countryside. To starve out Hyder’s armies, the Marathas burned the villages and razed the fields of the landscape surrounding Bengaluru.

In response, Hyder “issued the most peremptory orders to all his officers, civil and military, to break down the embankments of the reservoirs of water, on the approach of the Mahratta army; to poison the wells with milk hedge; to burn all the forage, even to the thatch of the houses; to bury the grain; to drive off the wulsa, and the cattle to the woods; and to leave to the Mahrattas neither forage, water, nor food.”

Animals played a significant role in Tipu’s war strategy.

In addition to foot troops and 18,000 cavalry (presumably needing an equal if not greater number of horses), his army consisted of 20 “war” elephants used to carry heavy artillery, 700 other elephants maintained “for the general service of his household and army, but only part of them trained to use”, and 400 camels and 300 mules, used to carry treasure. His vast army, equipped with large-sized native varieties of bullocks and elephants to carry heavy equipment over long distances, was able to cover distances of up to 30 miles in a day (in forced marches), achieving a remarkable speed of 3 miles per hour.

At Bengaluru, “wild bullocks were continually driven among the English troops, which had the desired effect of throwing some into confusion, and tossing others in the air.” Housing and feeding the troops and cattle required at times of war was a constant challenge, especially in numbers as large such as these.

The marshy landscape around Bengaluru, carefully selected by Kempe Gowda for its inaccessibility, served as a natural deterrent to invading troops, and provided a source of protection to Hyder and Tipu. As reported by an anonymous British officer, the marshy ground surrounding Bengaluru, with its waterlogged rice fields and numerous small streams and lakes, made it difficult for the British to move their artillery and heavy baggage without getting bogged down. Accordingly, British troops selected campgrounds to the west and south of the fort, locations that were “high and healthier”. The fort itself was well guarded “with a hedge so broad and thick and composed of such prickly materials that neither man nor beast can get into it”.

The British troops were starved almost into retreat. The diary of the anonymous British soldier referred to above describes the desperate situation that arose from the lack of fodder. The cattle died in large numbers, and the health and morale of the soldiers suffered from the sight and stench of dead cattle. Their desperate state drove them to a last determined assault, with the fort and city of Bengaluru eventually falling to the British troops in 1791.

Even after this, the devastation of the villages in the countryside continued, with the British troops’ demand for fodder further straining the scarce resources of the countryside. The cattle managed to subsist on the dry thatch of the homes of unfortunate local residents as well as on an occasional supply of mango leaves from trees near British campsites around the city. “Uncommonly heavy” rains in 1791 led to high cattle mortality, forcing the British to delay their move to attack Srirangapatnam. A later visitor commented that Lord Cornwallis’s “marches from Bangalore may everywhere be traced by the bones of cattle, thousands of which perished through fatigue and hunger.”


                                                                   Distribution of trees and lakes in Bengaluru in 1791

Thus by 1791, the landscape around Bengaluru must have looked very different from what it did a century previously.

The fertile farmland, orchards and lakes were devastated by fire, breaching and assaults, and excessive harvest, presenting “a country already much exhausted” by war. Despite this, the fertility of the landscape around Bengaluru protected the region and ensured its agrarian resilience.

A couple of months after the loss of Bengaluru to the British in 1791, a British officer wrote that it was “highly satisfactory to see how much Bengaluru had recovered during these last two months…the gardens afforded a variety of vegetables and roots… the recommencement of cultivation proved that the neighboring country was recovering rapidly from the desolation”. The city continued to face turbulence until 1799 however, being returned to Tipu Sultan in a peace treaty signed after the third Anglo-Mysore War, and then in a few short years, lost again to the British in the fourth, and final Anglo-Mysore war.

As described, the landscape surrounding Bengaluru went through a number of drastic changes over several millennia of human inhabitation. Fertile valleys in the gentle slopes of the maidan, where small streams could be dammed, and natural trenches deepened to store rain water in lakes, became preferred locations for the establishment of settlements. The medieval city of Bengaluru was formed on land claimed and shaped by scores of these settlements, densely packed into a landscape of about a hundred square kilometers in area.

In 1537, Hiriya Kempe Gowda founded the medieval market town of Bengaluru, using the natural dry deciduous forest vegetation to create impenetrable defensive thorny barriers around settlements such as Halasur and Yelehanka, defended in frequent battles with adjacent chieftains. The topography of the terrain around the new medieval town of Bengaluru was further exploited by Kempe Gowda and his successors, building at least five large new lakes in low-lying areas surrounding the town to supply the increasing demand for water.

Successive rulers, including the Marathas, Mysore kings, and Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, acknowledged the importance of water to sustain the city, maintaining large water bodies for urban consumption and to support irrigated agriculture in the settlements around Bengaluru. Ornamental gardens were important places for recreation, beauty, and the assertion of royal prestige.

Gradually, Hyder and Tipu also introduced the use of gardens for experimentation with new forms of horticulture, sericulture and agriculture, attempting to increase the commercial importance of agriculture around the city through the import of new species of plants and insects. The forests around Bengaluru also played an important commercial role, with their importance as sources of the valuable sandalwood tree gaining especial prominence under Tipu.


                                                                         Distribution of trees and lakes in Bengaluru in 1885

The turbulent political history of the landscape also impacted nature.

Bengaluru constituted a location of numerous battles for control of the valuable agricultural, ecological, and commercial resource that it represented. Various rulers of the city deftly deployed the forests, wetlands and lakes around the city as protective barriers to discourage movement by enemy troops, using wildlife from the jungles around to good effect in war. The battles around Bengaluru had their effect on the landscape, however, with the breach of lakes, poisoning of wells, and the devastation of the fertile agricultural by fire, combined with the demand for food and forage by invading armies.

The location of Bengaluru, in a semi-arid yet fertile plateau, ensured its agrarian resilience. In a few short years after the conquest of the city in the Third Anglo-Mysore War, soon after Tipu Sultan’s demise in 1799, early 19th century Bengaluru presented a very different picture of agricultural fertility and commercial promise. The city entered a new period of stability, rebounding to prosperity as the new capital of the Mysore state.

The early history of Bengaluru is not one of stasis, peace and stability, but of turbulence and churn. In line with recent arguments by other scholars looking at non-urban environments across India, the early history of Bengaluru departs from a nostalgic picture of a pristine past where humans lived in complete harmony with nature. What we see is a complex tapestry worked with contrasting threads: forest denudation alongside protection, tree felling as well as plantation, and wildlife extermination and hunting as well as conservation. Yet the growth of the city was constrained by nature and shaped by geographical setting. In the period following the demise of Tipu, the restraints of ecology on the growth of the city weakened, as technological and economic progress ushered in population growth of a kind unimagined in centuries past. Nature continued to shape the city however, in myriad direct and indirect ways.

Distribution of trees and lakes in Bengaluru in 2015
                                                                     Distribution of trees and lakes in Bengaluru in 2015

Excerpted with permission from Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, Harini Nagendra, Oxford University Press, India.

This post was originally published in Scroll.