“The elephants have always received ghee and goor [jaggery] along with their rice; and they would certainly suffer very much, perhaps be rendered quite unserviceable if these articles were now struck off entirely.”–Captain R. Barclay reporting on the Sultan of Mysore’s royal elephant stables in a letter to his colleague Captain John Macleane, 23 May 1800.1
Barclay went on to remark that in his experience, Bengali elephants were not quite so pampered. Unlike their Mysorean cousins, they did not demand ghee and goor, nor did they require two handlers apiece to service them.
But wait, there’s more. The Battle of Pollilur, 1780-1784 C.E. may not be a very well known painting, but it is a significant one.
It depicts Tipu Sultan’s victory over British forces, a key moment in the Indian nationalist narrative in the struggle for independence. The painting hung in Tipu’s palace till it fell into British hands, along with the kingdom of Mysore, in 1802. In 2010, the painting was sold to the Qatar Museum of Islamic art for a little under a million pounds.
Why was Qatar so keen to acquire this painting? One might assume that the average Qatari, unlike the average Indian, probably has little knowledge of or interest in these events.
It turns out that the Battle of Pollilur was also a key moment in a pan-Islamic narrative. According to Edward Gibbs, the senior director and head of Sotheby’s Middle East department, who handled the sale, “The Battle of Pollilur was arguably the greatest victory by Muslim forces over a Christian army since Mehmet, the conqueror, captured Constantinople in 1453, or Saladin restored Jerusalem to Islam in 1187.”
One battle, two very different histories.