The wise saying, “When work can be done by making friends, then what is the need for enmity,” holds true. Who could have predicted that someone brought from Africa as a slave to India would one day challenge his “masters,” and that his methods would inspire a community to adopt a unique path to liberate India? Malik Ambar is a figure that cannot be ignored, regardless of whether you support or oppose him. In this article, we will introduce you to Malik Ambar and explore how he rose from the streets of Ethiopia to become a significant figure in India’s medieval politics. Let’s get started without further delay.
From Ethiopia to Ahmednagar
The Mughals, like many other conquerors, harboured a dream of controlling all of India. However, for various reasons, they were unable to achieve this goal. When Prince Salim ascended the throne as Emperor Jahangir, he made it his mission to realise this dream by marshalling all his resources. However, Malik Ambar, who was born in Harar, Ethiopia, as Wako, stood in the way of Jahangir’s ambition. Wako was captured and sold into slavery at Baghdad’s market, where Khwaja Pir bought him.
Subsequently, Wako, who was renamed Malik Ambar, arrived in South India with Khwaja Malik. There, he was bought by the minister of Murtaza Nizamshah, Genghis Khan. Due to his sharp mind, talents, and generosity, Malik Ambar quickly rose to prominence among the other slaves. Under Genghis Khan’s protection, he gained valuable experience in Nizamshahi politics and military management. However, after Genghis Khan’s sudden death, Malik Ambar found himself adrift in the Nizamshahi state for some time.
As the Mughals gained control of Ahmednagar and the Nizamshahi state was on the brink of collapse, Malik Ambar saw an opportunity to display his unwavering courage, strength, and leadership. When a rebellion by Prince Salim caused the Mughal army to retreat from the south, Malik Ambar took advantage and asserted his authority over the Mughal-conquered territories, seizing control of almost the entire southern region. This strengthened his position and by 1605, he had established a firm footing.
But Malik Ambar was not content with just holding on to his power. During his battles with the Mughals, he made his opponent, Khanekhana, chew iron gram. Jahangir, infuriated by the defeat of his army chief, summoned Khanekhana to his court to explain the situation. Upon hearing the details, Khanekhana was sent back to the south to suppress the growing power of Malik Ambar. Jahangir saw Malik Ambar as nothing short of a nightmare and directed his anger towards him.
Malik Ambar sought the aid of Bijapur and Golconda and launched an attack against the Mughals, thwarting Khanekhana’s plan. As Malik Ambar’s power grew, the situation escalated to the point where Asaf Khan requested the emperor’s personal intervention in 1610.
However, before the emperor could arrive, Khanekhana and his sons devised a surprise attack on Malik Ambar. Malik Ambar was prepared for this and freed the six Mughal princes, compelling Khanekhana to retreat to Burhanpur and sign a treaty. Following this, Malik Ambar captured the nearby territories of Ahmednagar and laid siege to its fort. He also established a city called Fatehpur, which was later renamed Aurangabad by Aurangzeb.
Unique relationship with Marathas
Malik Ambar had an unusual association with the Maratha community. Being of Ethiopian origin, he was commonly referred to as Siddi, either directly or indirectly. Siddi’s tendency was to associate more with those who held power and had the ability to wield it, specifically those whose weapon was their buffalo. During a particular period, he collaborated with the Marathas to form an army, place a member of the Nizamshahi family named Ali on the throne, and create a new capital in Parenda.
Through the reorganization of a degraded state and the establishment of an atmosphere of happiness and peace, Malik Ambar sparked a new awakening. While his initial motives may have been to demonstrate his power and benefit the Nizamshahi, his methods had a lasting impact on the Maratha community. His leadership influenced notable figures such as Shahji Bhonsle, father of Maratha pride Chhatrapati Shivaji, and demonstrated Malik Ambar’s multifaceted talent as both a capable commander and shrewd ruler. He even innovated a new military system specifically tailored to the Maratha’s military attitude, although he unfortunately passed away in 1626 before its implementation. Malik Ambar’s ability to revive a ruined state as a former slave stands as a rare example in Indian history.
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