In October of 1624 the army of the Ahmednagar Sultanate in southern Indias Deccan region led by Malik Ambar, confronted the attacking Mughal army at Bhatwadi scoring a major victory over the Southern Asian empire. The Mughal Empire continued to expand its territory in the 16th and 17th centuries covering southern Asia, but continued to face stiff resistance in the Deccan region (Southern India) from Malik Ambar, the army commander turned leader of the southern sultanate. He began his campaign harassing Mughal supply routes in 1595, after the arrival of the Mughals to southern India and continued to be a thorn in the side of the empire until his death in 1626. By the time of his death his force had grown from roughly 7000 soldiers to an estimated 50 000 including an army, cavalry and navy which maintained control of the Deccan Plateau and coast.
An Indian writer, Rangarajan, described some of Ambar’s leadership qualities:
“He was a rare combination of a skilful administrator, even handed ruler and an outstanding military commander. He was truly an extra-ordinary figure and his administrative reforms had a lasting impact.”
Jehangir, who by now was the Mughal emperor, was obsessed with Malik Ambar. Perhaps envious of his qualities, he wanted to see him crushed at any cost. That simply would not happen. Unable to defeat him in reality, Jehangir had to take to fantasy. Upon a royal commission, the famous Mughal artist Abu’l Hasan drew a painting of the Emperor shooting arrows into the severed head of Malik Ambar.
But Ambar’s leadership abilities were not the only intriguing thing about him. He also happened to be a foreigner, originally from the Harar region of current day Ethiopia. According to the 16th century Dutch merchant Peter van den Broecke, Ambar was “a black kaffir from Abyssinia with a stern Roman face”. The term “kaffir” meaning “non-muslim” in Arabic also had an alternative meaning among European explorers and merchants who would refer to Africans as “kaffir” regardless of their religious background. Ambar was said to be born as Shambu, in 1548 AD to the Maya tribe and sold into bondage as a child, eventually arriving in southern India to serve in the Habshi army of the Ahmednagar Sultanate, led by Nizam Shahi (also a former slave from the horn of Africa). References to the Maya tribe can be found in the 16th century chronicle entitled ‘Futuh al Habasha’ (The Conquest of Abyssinia). They are mentioned as a tribe inhabiting the territory “east of Shawa” which came into conflict with the Abyssinians as well as the Adalis, before eventually joining the army of Imam Ahmed. Most notably recalled about the Maya by Sihab ad-Din Ahmad, was their weaponry which consisted of bows and poisonous arrows used in battle.
During the campaign of Imam Ahmed the Mayans clashed with the Imams army, but eventually pledged allegiance to his army during the conflict in the 1530’s AD. By the time of Ambar’s birth, the Imam had been killed by a joint Abyssinian-Portuguese force and Emperor Gelawdios [1540-59] was exacting revenge in the territories which had fallen, which included the territories of the Maya. The plundering which his force engaged in involved the usual sacking, looting of property, and taking captives from among the conquered populations. The exact circumstances regarding the bondage of Malik Ambar are unknown, but the war between Adal and Abyssinia was a primary source in the region, many of which ended up in India. Once in India, these slaves would serve in the armies of Deccan sultanates and eventually came to form a warrior class known as the “Habshis”. Many of the Habshis would go on to serve high posts, even becoming rulers such as Nizam Shahi and Malik Ambar.
Slave raiding was common practice between the hostile states. In 1529, almost 20 years before the birth of Malik Ambar, Fanu’el, the governor of Dawaro which was a vassal state of Abyssinia at the time, launched an incursion into Adal in an incident documented by Sihab ad Din where the army of Fanu’el was said to have taken women and children captive . This incident sparked a swift response by Imam Ahmed, who was said to have attacked the caravan of Fanu’el and freed the captives, which included the family members of the Adali army. This incident sparked the decade long war between Adal and Abyssinia in which many of such raids were conducted by both sides in the conflict. This tradition of slave raiding was likely the reason for Malik Ambar ending up in India.
So what is known of Maya today? “Maya” is a word in the Oromo language, commonly used as a name ie. Most notably the city of Haromaya, or “Harroo Maayaa” (Lake Maayaa) along with other examples of locations which carry the name such as “Maayaa Qalloo” and so on. Ambar’s documented birth name, Shambu, is also a common Oromo name which is another indication of his origins. This sheds some light on the background of a man who remains to be somewhat of a mysterious icon in Indian, and Asian history.
1) A. Rangarajan, Malik Ambar: Military guru of the Marathas
2) E. V. Donzel, Slave-Trade in Ethiopia
3) Sihab ad-Din Ahmad, The Conquest of Abyssinia