FEATURE-Liberal Indian sultan inspires religious harmony.
By Narayanan Madhavan
(c) 2002 Reuters Limited
SRIRANGAPATNA, India, March 25 (Reuters) - On an island where the swirling, green waters of the Lokapavani river meets the coconut-palm fringed Cauvery, some see not only a confluence of rivers, but also one of religions.
While India reels from the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in a decade, Srirangapatna, the island centre of Tipu Sultan's late 18th century rule, offers an oasis of lessons in religious amity.
As Hindu Brahman men with shaven heads and women in colourful sarees sat side by side with an old, bearded Muslim man washing his clothes under the morning sun, a muezzin at Tipu's mausoleum nearby praises him for blazing a trail of peace.
"It is the sultan's prayer," the Muslim holy man says. "And it is the sultan's command."
An admirer of the French Revolution and early rocket science, the sultan who ruled for 16 years to 1799 over a large swathe of southern India is now an inspiration for liberal Muslims.
In late March, an institute named after Tipu will start a multi-disciplinary course for Muslim clergymen, based on the ruler's philosophy that Islam is tolerant.
Kamaruddin Rahman, a former United Nations adviser who is setting up the Tipu Sultan Advanced Study and Research Centre, told Reuters the one-year programme was intended to remove narrow perceptions fostered by "madrassas" or Islamic schools.
The course would teach the clergy comparative religion, English, environmental studies and information technology. It aims to turn Friday prayers into a forum for social integration.
Rahman said Islam abhors extremism, and its concept of holy war is often misunderstood.
"The word jihad is misused," he said. "It means struggle towards perfection and against inner weaknesses and ego."
Rahman and Ziaulla Sheriff, a real estate tycoon funding the project, held seminars in northern India's Nadwa and Deoband Muslim schools last year, and have shortlisted 20 priests from 100 applicants for the course.
"We had difficulty in selling the idea to the madrassas," Rahman said.
"Citizen Tipu", as the sultan called himself, was depicted in portraits as a moustached, well-built man sporting a turban and gold-laced frock-like tunic.
He fell to British fire at the age of 48 in his fourth war with the colonial rulers, but his legacy continues.
His reign from Srirangapatna, located about 120 km (75 miles) from Bangalore, is seen as a model for a secular, democratic India offering equal rights for Muslims, who make up 12 percent of the country's one billion people.
Hindus and Muslims on the island seem unperturbed by the religious riots in western Gujarat state, which have claimed more than 700 lives in under a month, or by the dispute between Hindus and Muslims in the northern town of Ayodhya that led to the violence.
Rahman said the school will eventually have a sprawling complex costing about 500 million rupees ($10.3 million), but would start this month with open-air classes.
"It is a beautiful location," he said. "A sangam (confluence) of rivers and of all religions".
An epitaph describes the sultan as a "defender of the faith" but his followers say Tipu was a modern reformer as well.
"Italy got renaissance, Germany had reformation and France a revolution. He combined all these things in himself," Professor Sheik Ali told Reuters in Mysore, a town near the island.
Ali, a top authority on the sultan and a former vice-chancellor at Mangalore University, said freedom-loving Tipu admired French thinkers Rousseau and Voltaire, and sought military help from Napoleon to fight the British.
In the sultan's summer palace, now a tourist attraction, a colourful mural shows French cavalrymen in long hats, red overcoats and white breaches fighting alongside him.
The sultan also had a passion for rocket science, which led him to build a 5,000-strong rocket corps. Rockets helped the army of Tipu's father, Haider Ali, to a famous victory over the British in 1780.
Tipu inherited his dislike of the British from his father but also a liberal outlook inspired by Islam's Sufi sect that preaches unity of humankind. And both loved gardens.
The sultan built Lal Bagh, or Red Garden, one of several attractions that anointed Bangalore as India's Garden City before it became a technology centre.
But above all else, Tipu is seen as a man who preached religious harmony, though a few stray and much rebuffed accounts describe him as a fanatic.
An Internet site set up by his admirers (http://www.tippusultan.org/) quotes him as saying: "The (Koran) calls upon you not to revile the idols of another religion for it says: Revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they revile Allah through ignorance."
Professor Ali said the sultan wrote to a well-known Hindu Shankaracharya (pontiff) to pray for his kingdom's welfare and once employed Hindus as prime minister and commander-in-chief.
Srirangapatna is named after a temple to the Hindu god of protection, Vishnu. Pilgrims flock to the temple, whose tower overlooks a mosque built in 1787 which houses an Arabic school.
"The saying goes that he (Tipu) would listen to the temple bells and muezzin's azan with equal respect," Ali said.