How an African warrior founded a city in the Deccan

(Published in Conde Nast Traveller India, December 31 2022)

In the 1540s, a boy called Chapu was born into a tribe on the fringes of Ethiopia. When he was still a child he was enslaved by strangers who sold him for twenty gold ducats. First, he served a master in Baghdad, but by the time he was a man he was shipped to India. Here, in Ahmednagar, the seat of the Nizam Shahi sultanate, one can still visit the tomb of his new owner, Changiz Khan. Khan too was African; his career had also begun like Chapu’s—in slavery. Ethiopians (habshis), after all, were regularly imported to India as military labour, leaving over the centuries a cultural and political imprint in Bengal in the east, Uttar Pradesh up north, Gujarat in the west, and Karnataka in the south. Chapu—who would in time become famous as Malik Ambar—was also a fighter. Around 1580 his master died, liberating him, and soon he emerged as the leader of a mercenary band. But there were many like him, and he might have dissolved into obscurity, were it not for events propelling Ambar to greatness by the end of the century. The boy who began life in Africa, would, in fact, die a hero in India. Incidentally, he also founded a city in the Deccan: the place we now call Aurangabad. 

Today, Aurangabad is largely associated with the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, whose name it bears. And its most iconic monument—Bibi Ka Maqbara—is also linked to the same padshah; it is the resting place of his begum, Dilras Banu. The building looks strikingly like the Taj Mahal, which houses Aurangzeb’s mother’s remains, but is more modest in scale and effect. A popular tale claims that the emperor, while sanctioning the project, was stingy with the budget; he was fixated on conquering the Deccan, and resources were channelled towards war, not monuments. There may be truth to this, in that where the Taj cost millions, this poor cousin was raised for a few lakhs, largely through, it is said, the persuasions of Prince Azam, Dilras Banu’s son. Other connections to the Taj can also be traced: tour guides will inform you that it was the father of the Maqbara’s architect who designed the great mausoleum in Agra, explaining the resemblance. This is all, however, linked to the Mughals, who entered the city late in the day; if one were to look beyond the Maqbara and Aurangzeb, one would see in Aurangabad the life and work not of a parsimonious emperor, but that much-older Ethiopian warrior.

For this we need to go back in time. By the end of the 1590s, the Mughals had seized the Nizam Shahi capital of Ahmednagar, after the death of its gallant queen-regent, Chand Bibi. The sultan was captured, but others of his family scattered to safety. Among them was a relative, to whom Malik Ambar became protector. Ambar was an effective leader—and capable of liquidating rivals—so that by 1600, Ahmednagar’s military elite gravitated towards him. Where five years before, he was a regular warlord, commanding hundreds of men, Ambar now had thousands at his disposal. His army, which grew to half a lakh by 1610, became a multiracial entity: there were habshis like him, large numbers of Deccani Muslims, but most critically, also a mass of Marathas. Among them, interestingly, was a man called Maloji Bhonsle, whose grandson would in time become the first Maratha chhatrapati. Ambar also had his daughter married to the Nizam Shahi prince he had propped up, cementing his position. For upwards of twenty-five years hereon, he would stand as a wall between the Mughals and the Deccan. Before Shivaji more famously took the battle forward with Aurangzeb, this African resisted the imperial power when it was led by Jahangir. 

War did not, however, prevent other activities where Ambar was concerned. In 1610 he raised a new capital for the embattled Nizam Shahi sultanate at Khirki—the very town that in future Aurangzeb would rename after himself. Since his alliance with Maratha power brokers and chieftains was essential to his success, Ambar named quarters of this new city after many of them. In fact, it is likely these areas developed under those warriors’ subsequent patronage. Over the next decade and a half, despite the odd attack and sack by enemy forces, the man would keep building Khirki. Its great Bhadkal Gate, for example, was erected in 1612, after Ambar inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the Mughals. As if to stamp his own authority, years later when Aurangzeb acquired the place, he would add his own Delhi Gate. So also in 1616, Ambar built a palace, Naukhanda, though only parts of the complex now remain. The greatest of Ambar’s contributions, however, is the Jama Masjid: he was a devout Muslim, strict enough to ban alcohol in Khirki, and every day joined public prayers with his soldiers. 

Ambar did, of course, face reversals. In the mid 1610s, many of his Maratha generals betrayed him; his authoritarian tendencies may have had something to do with this. As much as he harassed the Mughals, there were occasions when he too lost battles and suffered serious losses. His son-in-law, the Nizam Shah, resented his control; Ambar had him murdered, and clung to power through a new (infant) proxy. Even allies deserted him. He had once remarked to Ibrahim Adil Shah II, sultan of Bijapur, how “It is my design to fight the Mughal troops so long as life remains in this body.” But sometime later, the same king came to terms with the enemy, the two dividing up captured Nizam Shahi territory to Ambar’s umbrage. But the latter, even if he lost this battle, kept the long war going. Emperor Jahangir in his frustration even had a painting made, showing the habshi’s head impaled on a spear: a goal that remained a fantasy. In 1626, when Ambar died aged about eighty years, he was again strong, having inflicted defeats both on the northern invaders and on his double-dealing neighbour in Bijapur. He was in the right on this matter: the Adil Shahs would sorely regret their alliance with the Mughals.

Ambar’s death was followed by a terrible famine in the Deccan, which weakened the resistance. Additionally, his son proved hopeless in filling his shoes, and in the 1630s, Shahaji Bhonsle—Shivaji’s father—took up the charge. But the wind had turned; the region was decimated by years of war and economic pressures, and in the end the Mughals won. Even so, Ambar remained an inspiration. He rests at a place called Khuldabad, about an hour’s drive from Aurangabad. His grave is relatively simple for a man who achieved so much, and whose life saw such a dramatic arc. And yet it has an air of confident, understated elegance. In life Ambar—a foreigner who became a local icon—had set an example, and in due course, his legacy would be claimed by Shivaji, the first king of the Marathas. In the Sanskrit Sivabharata commissioned by the chhatrapati in the 1670s, long after Ambar was dead, it is not surprising to find tributes to him and his valour. After all, as even a Mughal chronicler reported, though the great general had died, “his sweet fragrance remains behind.” And this inspired Shivaji to continue the war on the Mughals—which, of course, is a separate story.