On the 14th of May 1626, at the grand old age of 80, Malik Ambar, the man who turned the little village of Khadki into the city we now know as Aurangabad, halted Mughal ambitions in the Deccan with an entirely new kind of warfare, and almost single-handedly saved the Nizam Shahi Dynasty of Ahmadnagar from obliteration, breathed his last. An eyewitness of Deccan affairs over many years, the author Bhim Sen wrote in his Nushka-i-Dilkusha, “although Malik Ambar was dead, but his sweet fragrance still remained behind”. He was a man so remarkable that even Mu'tamad Khan, Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s biographer, who had no love for him, was forced to acknowledge, “in warfare, in command, in sound judgement, and in administration, he had no equal or rival”. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Malik Ambar was the fact that this Indian king, was in fact, not Indian, but African.
MALIK AMBAR: FROM SLAVE TO KING
Malik Ambar was born around 1549 or 1550 in a place called Harar in Ethiopia and was given the name Shambu (also spelt Shan-bu or Chapu). His impoverished parents, like many before them, likely sold him into slavery. In the Red Sea port of Mocha, in what is now Yemen, Shambu was purchased by Kazi Hussein for 80 guilders. Hussein had him converted to Islam, and gave him the name by which he would come to be known for the rest of his life – Ambar, meaning “precious jewel”. He re-sold him at the Baghdad slave market for 20 ducats and Ambar eventually came to be owned by Mir Qasim al-Baghdadi. Mir Qasim recognised that this slave had certain intellectual abilities, and hence taught him Arabic and trained him in finance and administration. In 1575, Mir Qasim brought Ambar with him to the Deccan, probably on a business trip, and sold him to Malik Dabir, aka Chingiz Khan (not to be confused with the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan).
|Corner arch inside the tomb
The Arabs called Ethiopia Al-Habsh (anglicized to Abyssinia) and the dark-skinned people who emerged from that country, Habshi. It is a word still used in India and has some rather unflattering connotations. Ambar found, to his great surprise, that his new owner was neither Persian, nor Indian, but rather Habshi, just like him. It was common for Africans to rise to high positions under royal patronage in the Deccan, and they formed a vital part of the political and military machinery of the state. Chingiz Khan or Malik Dabir was the minister (or Peshva) to Murtaza Nizam Shah I, Emperor of the Nizam Shahi Dynasty of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, a late medieval Indian Kingdom that had been established in 1490. Chingiz treated Ambar as a son and during his time under his new master, Ambar married a woman by the name of Karima Bibi. When Chingiz died, Ambar, now no longer a slave, left Ahmadnagar to seek his fortune in Berar. Here he put together a large army, composed of immigrant Arabs who were fiercely loyal to him. When disputes arose over him favouring Arabs over other races, he returned, with his army, to Ahmadnagar around 1596. Thanks to the legions he commanded, he was now referred to using the prefix Malik, literally meaning owner or Lord.
|Stone jaali inside tomb
Ahmadnagar now found itself besieged by the Mughal army. Emperor Akbar was expanding the boundaries of his Kingdom and in the battle with his forces, in 1595, Emperor Ibrahim Nizam Shah was killed. After a bloody war of succession, Ibrahim’s minor son, Bahadur Nizam Shah was installed as the new Emperor. Real power, however, was wielded by the regent Chand Bibi, daughter of the former Emperor, Hussain Nizam Shah. When Ahmadnagar fell to the Mughals in 1600, Malik Ambar escaped with his army and in the Maratha fortress town of Paranda, Ambar “discovered” an infant grandson of former Emperor Bahadur Nizam Shah I and named him the new Emperor, giving him the name Murtaza Nizam Shah II. By 1607 Malik Ambar had named himself “Vakil-us-Saltanat” or regent, and to cement his family’s position permanently in the Ahmadnagar ruling class, he insisted that the Emperor marry his daughter. While African slaves were not denied upward mobility in the Deccan, this was unheard of and the Emperor’s family were not happy even though they agreed to the marriage. When their repeated taunts and references to her lowly origin made her life miserable, the Emperor mysteriously died. Many say that Ambar had him poisoned, though there is no definite evidence for this. Malik Ambar had him replaced with a more compliant boy Sultan, Burhan Nizam Shah III.
|Dome of Malik Ambar's tomb
After the fall of Ahmadnagar, the Nizam Shahi Empire had been without a permanent capital. Malik Ambar chose the village of Khadki as the spot for his new capital in 1610. He planned the town, provided it with streets, waterworks, palaces, and a strong defensive wall to protect it from Mughal ambitions. Although the city now bears the name of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, Aurangabad still bears testament to the masterful town planning of Malik Ambar. As his power and influence grew, so did the number of men under his command. He had started out with 150 Arab horsemen. By 1621, he commanded more than 20,000. Malik Ambar would continue to rule as de facto king until his death of natural causes in 1626. Upon his death, his son Fateh Khan would take over. But Fateh Khan wasn’t half the man his father had been and by 1636 the entire area had been absorbed into the Mughal Empire.
|Tomb of Malik Ambar
THE TOMB OF MALIK AMBAR
The tomb of Malik Ambar is to the North of the town of Khuldabad, about 100 metres to the west of the Dargah of the Muslim saint Shaykh Zar Zari Zar Baksh. The impressive domed monument was built by Malik Ambar’s himself. Built of pinkish Basalt, it stands on a raised plinth. Three-lobed arches are set into each side of the monument. The central arch on each side contains a jaali screen with finely cut geometric patterns. A line of smaller arches is seen on the upper level, above which is a projecting cornice or “chajja” supported by ornate stone brackets. At each corner is a minaret, made to look like a miniature pavilion. Stylised palm leaves decorate the parapet while a line of petals runs around the drum of the flattish dome which I found painted white.
|View from Malik Ambar's tomb at sunset. Karima Bibi's tomb on right, rest-house on left. Note structure on hilltop
Entrance to the tomb is through the door in the central arch on the West. Inside, the one thing which fascinated me most was the powerful echo. In the centre of the room lies the simple grave of Malik Ambar. It is a raised stone platform with no inscriptions anywhere. While the ceiling is double height, the dome is unadorned except for two lines of arches, one larger and one smaller and a line of floral patterns running along the drum. Each corner of the room has arched recess. Even on a hot day, I found the interiors remarkably cool. The tomb is probably home to a family of bats because the distinctive smell of bat dung was present. Not too many people visit this place, and the tomb was locked. But lucky for me, the caretaker was nearby and was happy to open it up for me.
|Photograph by J. Johnston in 1860. Note structure on hilltop. Image courtesy British Library
OTHER MONUMENTS AROUND MALIK AMBAR’S TOMB
Malik Ambar’s tomb is inside a walled compound. On the southern side of the compound stands a vaulted hall which probably served as a guest house. To the South East of the tomb are several smaller graves. These may have been of servants or loyal followers, there is no way to verify exactly. Immediately outside the compound wall, 50 metres South West of the tomb of Malik Ambar is another, similar but much more plain domed monument. This is the tomb of Malik Ambar’s wife, Karima Bibi. 70 metres further South West is a smaller, but very interesting domed monument. An octagonal domed chamber on a square plinth, with octagonal free-standing pillars at the corners, this is the tomb of Malik Ambar’s grandson.
|Tomb of Malik Ambar's grandson
|Unidentified domes 300 metres to the East
But there are several tombs in the area which cannot be identified even today. 150 metres to the North West of Malik Ambar’s tomb is another very similar domed monument, within a walled compound. Until recently this was thought to be the tomb of a Nizam Shahi nobleman. No one is sure exactly who is buried here. Around 300 metres to the East of Malik Ambar’s tomb are two more domed monuments, one larger than the other. No information is available about who is buried here, or indeed if anyone is buried at all. More such domes may be found near the Daulatabad Fort, the Ellora village and indeed all over the Aurangabad district. About 300 metres to the South West of Malik Ambar’s tomb, on top of a hill, is a structure that looks to me like a mosque. Since it shows up in photographs of the site from the 1860’s, there can be no doubt that it is old. But I have no idea what it is, and since I got to Malik Ambar’s tomb after an entire day of getting roasted in the heat, I had no energy to find out. A road leading 100 metres to the North brings you to the PWD guest house, which is, interestingly, the grave of Abul Hasan Qutb Shah, known as Tana Shah, or Tani Shah, the last Qutb Shahi ruler of Golconda. He was given that nickname as a child and it means child saint, but today, the Urdu/Hindi term for dictatorship is “Tana-Shahi”. How did that happen, I wonder?
|Open graves to the South East
MALIK AMBAR AND THE SAINTLY SANDWICH
|Dargah of Hazrat Syedna Shah Yusuf Mohammad Al-Husaini
Malik Ambar’s tomb is quite literally sandwiched between the Dargahs of two Islamic saints. To the West is the Dargah of Hazrat Syedna Shah Yusuf Mohammad Al-Husaini Rahmatullah Alaih, popularly known as Shah Raja Qattal Husaini, although some people also seem to call him Raju Qattal. That nickname made me very curious. Doesn’t Qattal mean murder? But Saint Raju the Murderer?! That doesn’t sound right?! As it turns out, Qattal is a title of great honour, attached to the names of those who have completed a process a mystic initiation or “rah saluk”. Rahmatullah Alaih is a suffix of respect, meaning May Allah’s blessings be upon him. Not much information is available about the origin of Shah Raja Qattal Husaini, but then, Khuldabad was known as Roza or Rauza, meaning paradise, and some 1600 saints are buried in this little town. It seems Raju Qattal is the man who gave Abul Hasan Qutb Shah his nickname Tana Shah.
|Dargah of Shaykh Zar Zari Zar Baksh
To the East is the Dargah of Shah Muntajab-ud-Din, aka Shaykh Zar Zari Zar Baksh. Although his association with the Chishti Sufi tradition is beyond doubt, no details are available about his life. It is a very popular shrine and especially during the summer months people may be seen flocking to the Dargah. Many women come here seeking the saint’s assistance either in conceiving a child or finding a husband. Many of the visitors to the shrine happen to be Hindu, which is a common phenomenon in Sufi Dargahs.
MALIK AMBAR – THE LASTING LEGACY
It took England’s most famous architect, Sir Christopher Michael Wren, 35 years to complete London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. When he died 13 years later, he was entombed within it. Near his grave Wren’s son placed a dedication, with the words “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” – reader, if you seek his monument, look around. Although Malik Ambar’s tomb contains no dedication or inscription, the same most definitely applies to him. The Bargi-giri that he initiated would be fine-tuned and used against the Mughal Empire to great effect by the great Maratha hero Shivaji. In 1741, Marathas under Bhaskar Pandit ravaged Bengal, looting, pillaging and killing some 400,000 Bengalis in a period of 10 years. A Bengali lullaby, known to every Bengali child even today, tells the story of this invasion where the Marathas are still referred to as “Borgi”.
|Rest house to the south of Malik Ambar's tomb
But a much more lasting legacy is the city that he founded. As a young man in Baghdad, Malik Ambar had seen how the desert city was effectively watered by the aqueducts built by the Abbasids. Khadki did have a small stream flowing through it, but the waters of the Kham were not adequate for the city’s 700,000 residents. The nobles in his court had laughed at the elaborate network of canals, conduits, waterfalls, aqueducts and reservoirs, which looked surprisingly like a modern subway plan when he had proposed it. But more than 400 years after it was built, it continues to operate and is known as Nehr-e-Ambari. The most striking feature of this network is the Panchakki, a watermill that is turned by water from an underground fountain some 8 kilometres away.
|Unidentified Nizam Shahi tomb to the North West of Malik Ambar's tomb
Mu'tamad Khan, Mughal Emperor Jehangir’s biographer, writes in Tuzuk-i-Jehangiri, “History records no instance of an Abyssinian slave arriving at such eminence”. Born in Ethiopia, brought up in Iraq and finally adapting all that he had learnt to the conditions of India’s Deccan – Malik Ambar was perhaps the earliest example of a global citizen.
- By Deepanjan Ghosh
NOTES FOR VISITORS
- GPS co-ordinates for Malik Ambar’s tomb - 20.014213, 75.184588
- There are no entry fees for Malik Ambar’s tomb; however, access may not be possible after dark.
- For photographers, since the tomb faces west, it is best to visit it around 4pm.
- The best time to visit Aurangabad is between late December and early February. Even in November, I found the heat to be merciless.
- There are small basic eateries around Khuldabad, but proper restaurants can only be found in Aurangabad. You can also try the MTDC restaurant and beer bar opposite the Kailash Temple at Ellora. They serve a very reasonably priced Indian “thaali” which is gigantic and delicious.
MORE STORIES FROM KHULDABAD
MORE STORIES FROM AURANGABAD
- Bibi Ka Maqbara
- Aurangabad Caves
- Alamgir Masjid: Aurangzeb’s Personal Mosque
- Photography Inside Ajanta Caves: Recommendations, Tips & Tricks
- The Gates of Aurangabad
Sohoni, Pushkar – Aurangabad with Daulatabad, Khuldabad, and Ahmadnagar
Harris, Jonathan Gil – The First Firangis
Shyam, Dr. Radhey – The Kingdom of Ahmadnagar
Ali, Shanti Sadiq - The African Dispersal in the Deccan: From Medieval to Modern Times
Chatterjee, Indrani / Eaton, Richard M. - Slavery and South Asian History
Yimene, Ababu Minda - An African Indian Community in Hyderabad
The Cambridge History of India, Volume 3
Jenkins, Everett, Jr. - The Muslim Diaspora (Volume 2, 1500-1799)
Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Volume 18, Part 2
Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Volume 12: Khandesh