The first iron-cased rockets in the world to be successfully deployed for military use, Tipu Sultan’s Mysorean rockets also handed the British some of their worst defeats in India.
“In this world, I would rather live two days like a tiger, than two hundred years like a sheep.” – Tipu Sultan
(- From Alexander Beatson’s book, A View of the Origin and Conduct of the War with Tippoo Sultan)
More than two centuries after he died defending his capital Srirangapatna from the British, the legend of Tipu Sultan continues to live on. The ‘Tiger of Mysore’ posed one of the strongest military challenges ever faced by the British in the sub-continent, ultimately laying down his life fighting them.
Here’s the story of his historic tryst with Mysorean rockets, the first iron-cased rockets in the world to be successfully deployed for military use.
Rockets had been used in warfare since the 13th century. The Chinese had used them to defend themselves against Mongol invaders, the Mughals frequently used them on the battlefield and the Europeans had started experimenting with them by the 15th century.
However, these rockets were built with flimsy materials like cardboard and were not very effective in inflicting damage on the enemy, similar to modern-day firecrackers. Thus, their use as a weapon had been discarded in favour of cannons and other forms of artillery.
It was the de facto ruler of 18th century Mysore, Hyder Ali, who developed the first prototypes of sturdier explosives-filled rockets. His innovation was further fine-tuned by his son Tipu who planned, designed and crafted cylindrical iron tubes that would allow for great compression of the filled gunpowder and consequently, greater range (nearly 2 km).
Tipu then fastened them to swords or bamboo poles to provide stability, that woul, in turn, lead to better accuracy. Thus, the predecessor of the modern rocket was born. It had a greater range, better accuracy and a far-more destructive bang than any other rocket in use, making it the best in the world at that time.
During the Anglo-Mysore wars of the late 1700s, Mysorean rockets were used by Tipu to great effect.
Especially during the Battle of Pollilur (the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1780), when a devastating barrage by Tipu’s rocket corps set fire to the East India Company’s ammunition dumps to hand the British army one of its worst ever defeats in India.
The shocked British infantry had never seen the likes of them before and quite literally didn’t know what hit them. Such was their fear and confusion that British soldiers would go on to describe the iron tubes of gunpowder mounted on swords of Tipu’s army as “flying plagues”
Major Dirom, who was the deputy adjutant general of British forces in India in 1793, later described the rockets used by the Mysorean army as “Some of the rockets had a chamber, and burst like shells; others, called ground rockets, had a serpentine motion, and on striking the ground, rose again, and bounded along till their force be spent.”
Utilizing the advantage provided by the superior quality of hammered iron available in Mysore, Tipu also established four taramandalpets (that translates to ‘star-cluster bazaars’) at Srirangapatna, Bangalore, Chitradurga and Bidanur (present-day Nagara in central Karnataka) to conduct research on rocket technology.
At this medieval tech parks, craftsmen-turned-rocketmen (called jourks) conducted experiments to improve the iron casting, accuracy and range of the rockets. Furthermore, they were taught basic calculations to help them fine-tune launch settings that would allow rockets of different sizes and weights to hit targets varying distances and elevations. For instance, wheeled carts were fitted with multiple rocket ramps so as to allow the rocket artillery brigades (called cushoons) to launch about a dozen missiles at a time.
The many encounters in the 1700s between the colonial army and Tipu’s rocket corps also formed the basis for many interesting anecdotes. Here’s how one of them about Arthur Wellesley, the famous British hero of Waterloo.
In 1799, Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington) was on reconnoitering mission in an areca nut grove (near Srirangapatana) when he found himself under attack. Having never encountered Tipu’s rocket fire before, he was scared silly by the ferocious barrages and ran away from the scene.
Later, he was so abashed by his behavior that he promised himself that he would never show fear on the battlefield again. With time, he famously came to be known as a man who could not be rattled by anything. So, the Iron Duke’s spine of steel was actually forged in Srirangapatna!
Interestingly, APJ Abdul Kalam was fascinated by Srirangapatna’s historic connection with modern missiles. During his tenure as President, he was keen on preserving the Rocket Court ( the laboratory where Tipu tested his rockets) and developing it as a museum — an idea that found mention in his book ‘Wings of Fire‘. At his behest, DRDO scientist Sivathanu Pillai (who later headed Brahmos Aero Space) visited the ruins to study the site. However, work is yet to begin in this regard.
As for the Mysorean missiles, after the fall of Srirangapattana in 1799, the British army found 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets at Tipu’s fort. Many of these were sent to the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich (where two specimens are still preserved), inspiring it to start a a military rocket research and development program in 1801.
It was here that William Congreve started studying them and did some fine reverse engineering to invent the Congreve rocket (it had collapsible frames for launching). In a quirk of fate, it was Iron Duke Wellesley who would go on to use these Congreve rockets systematically against Napoleon and defeat him at Waterloo in June 1815.
Today, there is not much left in Srirangapatna to stand testimony to one of the most interesting technological episodes in Indian history. The mark of Mysorean rockets on world military history, however, remains indelible. As aerospace scientist Professor Roddam Narasimha explained in one of his lectures,
“It was Tipu who first realized the full potential of rockets as weapons — both in his mind and on the field — and used them to create havoc in the East Indian Company lines. Thus, all the rockets in the world today can be traced to those used during the wars in Mysore.”