Tippoo’s Tiger

This almost life-size ‘musical instrument’ depicts a tiger devouring a British soldier.

Tippoo’s Tiger is one of the most enduringly famous artifacts in Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It was made in 1793 for Tippoo Sultan, ruler of Mysore, South India, between 1782 and 1799. He kept the wooden semi-automaton in the music room of his palace. When the handle on the side of the instrument’s body is turned, the mechanical organ hidden inside it makes the sound of the growling animal and the dying cry of the victim.

The tiger, considered a symbol of the power of its owner, was Tippoo’s personal emblem. He had many of his possessions decorated with tigers and tiger stripes. His throne, sitting on a life-size tiger, was embellished with jeweled golden tiger head finials. His swords and guns also incorporated tiger heads. He had made small bronze mortars in the shape of crouching tigers for his army, and dressed his soldiers in tunics with tiger stripes woven into the fabric. Even his coinage was decorated with tiger stipes.

Tippoo, the mighty leader, fought off a number of attacks on his kingdom by the army of British East India Company. The company had been founded in 1600 to trade in the region of the Indian Ocean. In the mid-1700s, they owned half of the world’s basic commodity trade, including cotton, silk, indigo, spices, tea, and opium. By the end of the 18th century, the company came to rule large areas of the Indian subcontinent: performing administrative functions and exercising military power. Their rule lasted until 1858, when the British Crown assumed direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj.

Tippoo was defeated and killed by the British in 1799. The instrument was taken from his palace and brought to London after his death. First, it was exhibited in the reading room of the East India Company Museum in 1808. It quickly became a favorite with visitors. At that time, the handle controlling the growling and wailing could be freely turned by the public. Eventually, the handle disappeared, much to the relief of the students using the reading room. The instrument was moved to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) in 1879, where it continues to intrigue visitors.


%d bloggers like this: