Diwan Purnaiah


The loyal Diwan of Mysore State (1746-1812)

There is a folk song in Kannada that says Punya Madidare Purnaiah navarnaguti. This means that if you do good deeds you will become Purnaiah. So who is Purnaiah? And why is his name synonymous with good deeds?

Purnaiah was a Diwan, an important minister of Mysore State from 1799-1811. He served Hyder Ali, his son Tipu Sultan – Muslim rulers of Mysore kingdom, and finally Prince Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar. His clear cut logical thinking and his administrative skills were well known. In fact, the British requested him to accept the Diwan position after the death of Tipu Sultan, when the state of Mysore was in political turmoil.

Born into a poor family in Tirukambur village of Tiruchirappalli district in 1746, his childhood was steeped in poverty. His father was a Sanskrit scholar who died when Purnaiah was 11. At the age of 14 Purnaiah joined a merchant Ranga Shetty as a clerk. There he came in contact with Annadana Shetty who used to supply groceries to Hyder Ali’s palace. He soon caught the eye of Hyder Ali who recognised his skills with accounting. Hyder Ali recruited him and he led the accounts department. He was a trusted and loyal employee of Hyder Ali and often used to accompany him to the battle field.

When Hyder Ali died in 1782 and his son was not present, he made sure to keep the death of the king a secret. He sent a message to Tipu Sultan speedily and managed to avoid riots and violence in the State due to the death of the king.

In Tipu’s times he was the head of the treasury department. He was a lone Hindu in an otherwise dominant Muslim court. Yet he stuck to his religion of belief, and refused to convert. According to the accounts of Francis Buchanan, a surgeon of Lord Wellesley, the Governor General of India, Tipu once asked Purnaiah why he didn’t take up the Mohammedan religion. For this Purnaiah said, “I am your slave” and keeping his pheta (turban) down he walked away. It was his way of saying that though he was loyal to the ruler, the subject of his religion was not open for discussion.

However, he was much trusted by Tipu and was a part of his inner cabinet. In fact, Tipu Sultan entrusted the care of his elder son to Purnaiah’s hands during his last battle fought with the British. In 1799, after Tipu’s death, the British offered to lend him protection and to also extend it to Tipu’s son if he helped in the administrative matters. Thus he became the first Diwan of Mysore State after the fall of Tipu, at the insistence of the British.

The region after Tipu Sultan’s death was not stable. Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar was still a minor. So he had to be guided by Purnaiah. Purnaiah looked after the state matters assisting the dowager queen Lakshammanni. His job was a tough one. He had to fill the empty treasury of the Mysore, pacify the army, look after the Wodeyar family, and fulfil the expectations of the British. He also had to deal with suspicions of the royal family. After all Purnaiah was hitherto loyal to the Muslim kings.

Yet, he rose to the occasion quite admirably. He helped in the restoration of law and order and helped in re-establishing the army and also strengthened the revenue department.

In 1810 the Wodeyar king came of age. In 1811 the Diwan resigned citing health and age as reasons. People who did not like him and were jealous of his growth spread rumours that he had cheated on money matters. The dowager queen who had believed and supported him had died the previous year. In 1825 Governor General Minto proved that the honest Diwan had not cheated on any money matters. Though the Diwan was rewarded with grants for his services, he did not live to enjoy these privileges. He died in Srirangapatna in 1812.

–Usha Hariprasad is a freelancer who is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writing about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. Currently, she works in a trekking organisation.