December 24, 2013

A Traitor's Tomb - Ghulam Ali's Tomb at Srirangapatna

(This article was published in Deccan Herald - Spectrum on 24-Dec-2013)

We literally asked as many people as possible in Srirangapatna for the tomb of Ghulam Ali. No one had heard of him and almost all pointed us towards either Gumbaz(the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan and his family) or Dariya Daulat Bagh(Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan). Tired and battered we rested for a nimbu-soda(aerated soda with lemon) outside the Gumbaz and asked the soda-wallah if he knew anything about the tomb. And what followed next was the spurt of knowledge from this road-side vendor from whom we least expected.

He claimed that Ghulam Ali or famously known as Langda or Gumchi, was a traitor and no one worshipped, let alone care for him. He was buried under a dome-like structure where pigeons flocked and littered the entire place with their excreta. The soda-wallah was careful enough to point that no pigeon drop would even a spoonful at Gumbaz whereas we would find buckets of excreta at the tomb of Ghulam Ali. He also told us that the place was cursed and no one, not even the muslims, visit there. Nevertheless he was pretty excited about the prospects of we visiting there and asked us to venture there with care. His directions to the tomb were carefully etched in our memories now and our adrenaline levels shot upto new levels, as we picturized the non-decrepit structure housing the remains of Ghulam Ali.

As we drove along the mud road, padded with paddy and sugarcane fields, we soon saw a structure overlooking the paddy fields on the right. The ruins were clearly visible and the large dome clearly demarcated the green fields from the blue skies.  As we drove along the road, laden with crushed grass and dried up sugarcane, we soon stumbled on a gate which was otherwise to be the entrance to the structure. A few dogs came running by and we were too scared to leave our car. The mystery surrounding this place increased as we saw the canines standing between us and our goal. Determined not to back out, we shoo-ed them away and shouted for someone to open the door. A watchman emerged with whom we had to haggle a lot to let us in.

View of the tomb from the kuccha-road

Entrance to the Tomb of Ghulam Ali, Srirangapatna

We were enthralled by the structure that was standing in front of us. Highly decrepited, and shrouded with foliage and an air of mystery, the dome looked imposing despite being in shambles. The structure was built in two levels and had beautiful crafted mini-minarets at the corners. The arches at both levels were classic of Islamic architecture.  It was disheartening to see the overgrowth all over the structure and we had to placate ourselves not entering it for the fear of getting bitten by a snake or some rodent or insect. Parts of structure seemed to have been vandalized or fallen down with the brick work being exposed in what looked like an otherwise very strong building. The dome has a stronger linear demarcation compared to the Gumbaz and also is bigger than the latter.

I was in for a larger surprise when I started doing the post-travel research to know more about Ghulam Ali and why he was called as a traitor and to know more about this tomb. Loads of research on the Internet and the experience of Prof.Karimuddin of Srirangapatna helped in crafting a story around this entire episode and his persona.

Ghulam Ali was the head vaqeel of Tipu Sultan and was also the home minister under his Kingdom of Mysore. He also is supposed to have led a delegation to Constantinople and also faced Viraraja of Coorg in the battle of 1789. He was also to travel to France, but did not end up going. Given all these, he definitely sounds a person of immense importance but what was interesting was the fact that he was called a ‘traitor’ by the locals. It is believed that Ghulam Ali stole many gifts from his travels which were supposed to be for Tipu and the Kingdom. Ghulam Ali was even jailed for it and was released later due to the magnanimity of Tipu. He was also given a substantial pension by the Britishers post their siege of Seringapatanam and hence it is very much possible that he had federated with the British. Locals call this pension as ‘namak-haram’ pension.

Ghulam Ali's Tomb


Next was to understand why he was called ‘langda’. The painting by Robert Home on “The reception of the Mysorean hostage princes by Marquis Cornwallis” depicts Ghulam Ali seated on a silver palanquin while all others are seen standing. Though there is a claim that he suffered from sciatica, Prof.Karimuddin points out that Ghulam Ali did not want to stand during the reception in the court when Tipu approached it, for he believed that Tipu was much younger to him and did not mandate the respect. He feigned a false limp and created an excuse in such a way that he did not have to stand when the King approached.

The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis, 26 February 1792 , by Robert Home
Source : BBC

Next quest was to understand the importance of the structure in itself which looked beautiful in this scenery. It is believed that Tipu had this constructed for his parents initially, but the experts pointed out that the architecture had some remnants of Shia style and hence was not suitable for a Sunni Muslim like Tipu. Also, the river Kaveri had almost flooded the structure once. Because of this, Tipu moved his plan for the tomb to the present day Gumbaz and later Ghulam Ali bought this from him.

Closeup of the structure

A note by John Thomas mentions that Ghulam Ali was a Senior Mysorean military commander and lived from 1758 to 1863 and died in 1863 at the age of 105 at Krishnagiri and is buried there. This claim seems to be put to rest by Prof.Karimuddin who did mention that Ghulam Ali did die somewhere else, but his body was interred under this present day decrepitated structure and not in Krishnagiri. Sunni muslims have a distinction between the tombs of male and females and here too destiny seems to have played its game, as the tomb of Ghulam Ali resembled that meant for a female. This theory puts the rest to the fact that the tomb was not constructed by Ghulam Ali for his wife (and hence no resemblance with the love story of the Taj Mahal). We also found three bodies buried in the same compound with no enclosing structure and with no epitaph and sans ornamentation of their tombs. These are the relatives of Ghulam Ali.

Tombs of relatives of Ghulam Ali

The quest for Ghulam Ali and the secret behind his tomb finally seemed to have found an end as the stories and the folklores around him started making sense. The structure still stands isolated from the tourist frenzy and away from any hussle-bussle in a private farm. With parts of it crumbling due to the travails of time and sheer neglect, this beautiful structure will soon be part of the earth.

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