The Nemesis of the Mughals
© 2021 Mohammed M Masood
The Mughals who ruled India for more than 300 years fought with various powers from Rajputs, Afghans, Marathas, Uzbeks, many Sultanates and various kingdoms in different regions of India as they sought to expand the frontiers of their Empire and become the dominant power in the Indian Subcontinent.
They also fought with some valiant warriors whose name has been etched in history on account of their heroic resistance against the Mughals – from Ibrahim Lodhi, Maharana Pratap, Hemu, Shivaji Bhonsle and many others.
Amongst these all great warriors one name that stands out but is lost in oblivion, the biggest foe of the Mughals, an underdog who could neither be bought, defeated, captured or killed during his lifetime - Malik Ambar – the Ethiopian slave turned king maker in the Deccan. He is called the Hero of the Deccan who had the colour of coal (1).
The thorn in the foot of two great Mughal Emperors - Akbar as well as Jahangir who both tried hard with their imperial armies but had to bite dust.
Malik Ambar , unknown Deccani artist, Wikimedia
Malik Ambar in whose army both Maloji Bhosale and Shahji Bhosale served (2) –the grandfather and father of Shivaji Bhosale and Shivaji who would later himself use the guerilla tactics that Ambar had developed against his fight with the Mughal imperial armies, it is therefore Ambar is referred as the military guru of the Marathas (3).
Malik Ambar was born as Chapu in Ethiopia around 1548 which was then a slave market and he was either captured in a war or sold into slavery by his impoverished parents. Being sold to a prominent merchant of Baghdad who recognizing his superior intellectual qualities raised, educated and converted him to Islam giving the name of Ambar (4).
In his youth of prime twenties, he accompanied his master to India on a trade journey where he was sold to the Peshwa (chief minister) of Ahmednagar. The new master of Ambar was himself a slave and had come to India under similar circumstances. His name was Chengiz Khan named after the famed Mongol warlord (5). In India Ambar realized that he would rise both in terms of wealth and power in spite of his slave status. For the first Delhi Sultanate in India was led by Turkic slaves and known as Slave dynasty as most kings of the dynasty were either slaves or heirs of slaves, Qutbuddin Aibak the first Delhi Sultan a slave of Mohammed Ghori who had handed over his affairs in India to him before setting out to Ghazni (6).
In about 5 years around 1575 his master died and the wife of his master set Ambar free. Ambar became a free-lance soldier and moved south from Ahmednagar to Bijapur, it is here serving for the Adil Shahis he earned the title of Malik by proving his mantle (7). However, after a few years he moved back to Ahmednagar with his small band of 150 soldiers.
It was in the mid-1590s and the Mughal Empire had turned its attention to South, the first hurdle on its way was the Nizam Shahi Kingdom with its capital at Ahmednagar , the Mughals were led none other than by Prince Murad Mirza the son of Akbar , Malik Ambar as he was now known played a vital role in this battle harassing Mughal forces, destroying provisions and disrupting supply lines – leaving no option for the Mughals but to lift the siege (8).
Malik Ambar knew the danger the Mughals posed to the Deccan so he did not stop preparing for battle and his followers swelled to 3000 in 1596 and then to 7000 by 1600’s compromising other Habshis or Africans as they were known in India , Marathas and Dakhnis. With his upward mobility the Marathas even invested a fable to couple his rise (9).
With the demise of Chand Bibi of Bijapur whom Ambar had sworned loyalty, the capital of Nizam Shahi – Ahmednagar fell to the Mughals. Ambar decided to champion the cause of Nizam Shahi by taking a prince of that household and declaring him to be the heir of the Nizam Shahis kingdom, he even got his daughter married to him after the marriage Ambar presided over the installation of his son is law as Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah II at his headquarters at Parenda -75 miles from Ahmednagar now under the Mughal control (10).
Ambar carried his fight in the name of this new sovereign, Prince Daniyal – the favorite son of Akbar got wary of these battles in the South that he made peace with Ambar who released Mughal soldiers in lieu of the Mughals recognizing the territory held by Ambar (11).
Akbar died and Jahangir came to the throne however the fight for the south continued and so did Ambar’s continued resistance against the Mughals. General after general were sent South but all had to bite dust , Ambar became a master of guerilla tactics , he defeated superior Mughal armies much, much larger than his force and even dislodged the Mughals from Ahmednagar in 1610. In that same year he even raised and sacked Surat the principal port of Mughals, inspiring Shivaji to do the same later (12).
Mughal Empire in the 16th century. (Source: Colin Davies)
Exhausted and feeling disgraced by these defeats the Mughal Emperor Jahangir spewed expletives against his arch rival from referring to him as “Ambar, the black-faced”, “the crafty Ambar”, “that disastrous man”, etc. (13). How frustrated the Emperor had become can be seen when he commissioned a painting showing him shooting an arrow on the decapitated head of Ambar surrounded by owls both dead and alive. A feat which he could never accomplish in real life.
He also did away to the prince of Nizam Shahi on account of his other wife calling his daughter dark and a slave girl and raised their son to the throne (14). After the conquest of Ahmednagar – Ambar also founded a new city known as Khirki presently known as Aurangabaad (15). Ambar was quite religious and humble as well as a Mughal general noted that he offered his prayers with the common people. He had also outlawed alcohol consumption in his dominions (16).
Painting by Abu'l Hasan, showing Emperor Jahangir shooting an arrow on the decapitated head of Malik Ambar, something he could only dream of.
Ambar finally suffered a defeat in 1616 from the Mughal forces where his city of Khirki which he had lavishly built was laid to waste , he also lost many forts and territory, the Mughal army this time was led by Prince Khurram – the next Mughal Emperor who would be known as Shah Jahan (17).
Prince Khurram also got into an alliance with the Bijapur state in 1617 to dislodge Ambar and share the territories equally among them, Ambar now had to face enemies both from South and North (18).
However, the recent defeat and this new alliance did not deter Ambar, battles happened between combined forces of Bijapur and Mughals in 1616, 1618-19 however Ambar had his revenge in 1624 when he attacked the Bijapur’s capital unexpectedly and provoking Ibrahim II’s armies to engage in a spot chosen by him to inflict a crushing defeat on them. He also flooded the Mughal army’s path by breaking the banks of a lake stranding them in slush unleashing fire and blood upon them. It was a disaster for the allies and a decisive victory for Malik Ambar. In words of Ali “Malik Ambar swollen to greatness from this victory, from an ant into a snake, enriched with wealth exceeding the treasures of Corah, and troops numerous beyond imagination” (19). The victory was followed by numerous other victories where in 1625 he also took the city of Solapur from the Bijapur Sultanate.
Malik Ambar had also survived a number of assassinations attempts on him during his long career however he finally died in 1626 because of natural causes. It was only a matter of time that after him the Nizam Shahi state would crumble, his son was unable to carry his legacy and after some fight finally became a pensioner under the Mughal rule.
Tomb of Malik Ambar at Khuldabad
A brilliant strategist, an able general, an excellent military commander and truly a worthy foe of the Mughals – Malik Ambar!
© 2021 Mohammed M Masood
Notes & References:
1. Manu S Pillai, Rebel Sultans
2. Manu S Pillai, A slave who defied the Mughals [ https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/a-slave-who-defied-the-mughals-11576211733059.html , last accessed on 12th June 2021]
3. A Rangarajan , Black Sultan of India & Military Guru of the Marathas [ https://www.sanskritimagazine.com/history/malik-ambar-black-sultan-india-military-guru-marathas/ , last accessed on 12th June 2021 ]
4. Richard Eaton, A Social History of Deccan
6. A.R. Chaudhary, The Story of Slave Rulers in South Asia [ https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/the-story-of-slave-rulers-in-south-asia-b76208c2a898 , last accessed on 12th June 2021 ]
7. Manu S Pillai, Rebel Sultans
8. Aqil Ghani, Indo-Africans: The Siddi People of South Asia and The Story of Malik Ambar [ https://aqilghani.com/2020/07/30/indo-africans-the-siddi-people-of-south-asia-and-the-story-of-malik-ambar/ , last accessed on 12th June 2021]
9. Manu S Pillai, Rebel Sultans
10. Richard Eaton, A Social History of Deccan
11. Manu S Pillai, Rebel Sultans
13. Richard Eaton, A Social History of Deccan
15. Sahil M beg , Malik Ambar: The African slave who built Aurangabad and ruined the game for Mughals in the Deccan [ https://indianexpress.com/article/research/malik-ambar-aurangabad-mughals-jahangir-akbar-shivaji-6397143/ , last accessed on 12th June 2021]
16. Manu S Pillai, Rebel Sultans