Among several allegorical paintings created by Abu’l Hasan, a chief painter at Emperor Jahangir’s court, is one depicting the Mughal sovereign shooting arrows at the severed head of an Abyssinian slave. Created somewhere in 1620, the painting is a perfect depiction of Jahangir’s furore towards a man considered his arch-nemesis, the one he lambasts as “the ill-starred” and “the black fated” and who, throughout his life, remained a thorn in the flesh for the Empire in the Deccan.
The story of Malik Ambar, an African slave turned warrior, is an unusual one. Sold and bought several times by slave dealers during his youth, fate brought him miles away from his home in Ethiopia to India. In India, not only did Ambar get his freedom back, but he also rose up the social ladder, got an army, vast estates, and founded a city that today goes by the name ‘Aurangabad’.
Sold and resold many times
Born in 1548 in southern Ethiopia’s Khambata region, Ambar is believed to have been associated with the Oromo tribe, an ethnic group that now represents over 35 per cent of the country’s population. He was known by the name of ‘Chapu’ until he fell into the hands of slave dealers. Historians believe either he was captured during a war or was sold into the trade by his poor parents due to poverty.
Soon, the young Abyssinian was paraded with other slaves in markets across the Middle East where he was bought by an Arab. Thereafter, he was bought and resold on several occasions.
Citing a contemporary European source and Persian Chronicles, Historian Richard M Eaton, in his book A Social History of the Deccan, 1300–1761 Eight Indian Lives, writes that Chapu was sold in the Red Sea port of Mocha (in Yemen) for the sum of eighty Dutch guilders. From there, he was taken to Baghdad and “sold to a prominent merchant who, recognising Chapu’s superior intellectual qualities, raised and educated the youth, converted him to Islam, and gave him the name ‘Ambar’.”
In the early 1570s, Ambar was taken to the Deccan as southern India was then called. Here he was purchased by a certain Chengiz Khan. Khan himself was a former slave who had risen to hold the office of Peshwa, or chief minister of the Nizam Shahi sultanate of Ahmadnagar in India.
The rise of the African slave
Ambar was amongst one of a thousand other ‘Habshi’ (a term used to refer to members of various ethnic communities from the Abyssinian highlands) purchased by Khan, when fate brought him to the Deccan.
Eaton notes that the Deccan sultanates were systematically recruiting the Habshis as slaves in the 16th century. They were highly valued for their physical strength and loyalty, and were frequently put to military service.
The 14th-century Medieval Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta in his writings mention that the Habshis were “guarantors of safety” for ships travelling in the Indian Ocean. He notes that the slaves had such a reputation that even if one was on board, the ship would be avoided by pirates.
However, in Deccan society, the slaves did not have a permanent status. Upon the death of their masters, they were usually “set free” and served as per their free will in service of powerful commanders in the Empire. Some even reached such highs that they were soon seen as political game-changers, as it happened in the case of Ambar.
Five years after taking him on, Ambar’s master and patron Chenghiz Khan died, and Ambar was set free. For the next 20 years, he served as a mercenary for the Sultan of neighbouring Bijapur. It is here he was given charge of a small troop and bestowed with the title “Malik”.
In 1595, Malik Ambar returned to the Ahmadnagar Sultanate and served under another Habshi lord. This was the time when Mughal Emperor Akbar laid eyes on the Deccan and began a significant military expedition towards Ahmednagar. This was also Akbar’s last expedition before he passed away.
“It was really during the Mughal invasion of Ahmednagar in the late 1590s that Malik Ambar truly came into his own,” historian Manu S Pillai writes in his book Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji.
“At the time of the first siege, he had less than 150 cavalrymen in his command, and he joined himself to a more established Habshi lord. But as war shred to pieces the nobility, and challenged the loyalties of large numbers of men, within a year Ambar held in his control 3,000 warriors; by 1600, this number rose to almost 7,000, now including Marathas and other Dakhnis – a ‘multiracial, multi-ethnic force that broadly shared a regional identity distinct from the northern Mughals’,” writes Pillai.
In the coming years, Ambar married one of his daughters to a 20-year-old scion of Ahmadnagar’s royal family in neighbouring Bijapur, projecting him as a future ruler of the Nizam Shahi state against the Mughals.
“Cleverly, using muscle when it was needed and trickery when that suited his ends, Ambar emerged as the principal force in what used to be the Ahmednagar state. At the height of his power, it was said that the Nizam Shahi of the western Deccan was simply referred to as ‘Ambar’s land’,” Pillai writes.
Along with the Marathas, Ambar’s feud with the Mughals – now led by Emperor Jahangir – lasted for decades. He was widely known for unleashing guerrilla warfare on the Mughal army.
Eaton’s book mentions that ‘general after general’ were dispatched from Delhi towards the south to beat the Ethiopian, but failed. “The more times he defeated superior Mughal armies, the more men rallied to his side; in 1610, he even managed to expel the Mughals from Ahmednagar fort,” Eaton notes.
Builder of Aurangabad
Apart from being an able fighter, Ambar was also a fine administrator. In 1610, after briefly expelling the Mughals from Ahmednagar, Ambar established a new capital, a city named Khirki (present-day Aurangabad in Maharashtra) for the sultanate.
The city eventually became home to over 2,00,000 people including the Marathas after whom several suburbs such as Malpura, Khelpura, Paraspura, and Vithapura came to be named.
“It was around 1610-11 that Ambar made Khirki his base, and this slowly emerged as a major urban centre, where like Ambar, much of his Maratha nobility and military leadership also built houses and developed localities,” Pillai says in an email interview with Indianexpress.com. “Waterworks and an underground canal were among the early developments he brought about, which is how a lot of cities in the dry Deccan area were able to expand. We see it with Bijapur as well, a few decades before, and this required considerable expertise in engineering and planning.”
In the coming wars, the city along with the Ahmadnagar Sultanate fell to the Mughals. It was under the reign of the 17th-century Mughal monarch, Aurangzeb, that the city came to be renamed as ‘Aurangabad’. “They too added to the city’s infrastructure and allowed the city to grow. This included improving and expanding the waterworks. But in the middle, there were also one or two devastating attacks on the city that ruined much of its beauty, even though it managed to recover and rebuild itself with time,” says Pillai.
Pillai says Ambar in building a new city in the first place seemed to mark his legacy. “This was, after all, a time of great builders and it would not be surprising that the Habshi warlord also wished to follow in that tradition. He is also supposed to have built both the Jama Masjid and Kali Masjid in Aurangabad, as the city was later named by the Mughals.”
The Abyssinian is also credited with establishing a more efficient land revenue model of the time which was used by the Marathas under Shivaji, whose grandfather (Maloji) was a close aide of Ambar. In years to come, Shivaji in his grand epic poem ‘Sivabharata’ also mentioned Ambar, referring him “as brave as the sun”.
Ambar died in 1626 and was laid to rest in a mausoleum, designed by him in Khuldabad.
Surprisingly, upon his death, Emperor Jahangir’s surrogate diarist, Mutamid Khan made an entry noting: “He had no equal in warfare, in command, in sound judgment, and in administration. History records no other instance of an Abyssinian slave arriving at such eminence.”
Further reading– ‘A History of the Deccan.’ In Sultans of Deccan India: Opulence and Fantasy, 1500–1700,’ by Richard M Eaton; ‘Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji,’ by Manu S Pillai; A Social History of the Deccan, 1300–1761 Eight Indian Lives by Richard M Eaton.