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Malik Ambar, a short biography

Malik Ambar, a short biography

Neelesh Chatterjee

Malik Ambar was born to poor Abyssinian parents in 1548 CE. He was only an infant when he was sold off into slavery. Changing hands and continents many times, he was in his 20s when he finally set foot in India. He took employment in the Nizam Shahi Sultanate, an Indo-Muslim state based in Ahmednagar with much of Maharashtra under control.

The young Abyssinian soon realised that the state he had opted to serve was in dire straits. One of the most powerful men known to history, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, was knocking at the gates of Ahmednagar. Jalaluddin’s generals were openly boasting that “the crows and kites of the Deccan, who squat like ants or locusts over a few spiders” stood no chance against the “descendant of Timur at whose court many kings do service.”

Malik Ambar rises to power

Ahmednagar fell soon and most thought that the Nizam Shahi Sultanate was over and done with. The young Abyssinian, however, had other ideas. Rising from Nizam Shahi’s ashes like a phoenix, the young Abyssinian breathed new life into the dying kingdom.

Picking up the reins of the Nizam Shahi government, the Abyssinian turned into a nightmare for the belligerent northerners. Legion after legion poured into the Deccan, but the resolute Abyssinian managed to stem the tide every single time.

Exasperated, now the Mughal Emperor Jahangir vented out his rage in words and colours. He called the unyielding Abyssinian “black-faced”, “black-fated”, and “ill-starred”, apart from commissioning a portrait that featured him aiming for the decapitated head of the Abyssinian impaled on the tip of a spear.

Jahangir shooting Malik Ambar, painting by Abu’l Hasan c. 1616

Administrative reforms

The Nizam Shahi premier, however, remained too busy to care much about the feathers he was ruffling. Apart from his engagement with the Mughals, there were also a great many domestic affairs to look into. In his kingdom, he put into place a brand-new revenue administration system that considerably reduced the pressure on the peasants.

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The relationship with the warlike Marathas was improved, and a town he founded had quarters named after his Maratha friends: Malpura, Khelpura, Paraspura and Vithapura. Plus, the army was put on a firm footing — strict discipline was enforced in the ranks, so much so that molten lead was poured down the throat of anyone caught drinking wine — and this awesome force was used to make sure that the two southern neighbours — the Adil Shah of Bijapur and the Qutb Shah of Hyderabad — didn’t cosy up to the Mughals.

Malik Ambar Tomb in Khuldabad

Malik Ambar passes away

The Abyssinian passed away at the ripe age of 80, and by that time he had earned enough spurs to merit praise from even his staunchest enemy: the Mughals. The veteran Abyssinian confessed the Mughal historian Mutamid Khan, “was an able man. In warfare, command, sound judgement, and administration, he had no equal… He kept down the turbulent spirit of Deccan, maintained his exalted position to the end of his life, and closed his career in honour. History records no other instance of an Abyssinian slave arriving at such eminence.”

(Reference: Burhan-i Maasir)

Last updated on May 20th, 2023 at 12:05 pm

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