'art and soul
Malik Ambar: A remarkable life
The African presence in the history and politics of India remains generally obscured from view. B. N. Goswamy writes about the role of an emphatic figure who played a decisive role in the history of the Deccan

The emperor Jahangir shooting an arrow through the head of Malik Ambar. A 19th century version of the painting by Abu’l Hasan, dated 1616; Mughal
The emperor Jahangir shooting an arrow through the head of Malik Ambar. A 19th century version of the painting by Abu’l Hasan, dated 1616; Mughal.

A little like an image embedded in a hologram, the African presence in the history and politics of India remains generally obscured from view. It is only when the parchment that is the past is taken in the hand and lightly moved, in the manner of a ‘beam of coherent light’ needed to train upon a hologram, that this presence reveals itself. Then names begin to emerge, some historical developments start to make sense, and the role of a number of emphatic figures can be seen in true perspective.

Malik Ambar (1546-1626), who played such a significant role in the history of the Deccan, and became eventually such a thorn in the flesh of the Mughals, is one such emphatic figure. The entire career of this extraordinary man, his meteoric rise, appears especially startling because it seems to run against all perceived notions of the role and status of slaves.

Born in the mid-sixteenth century at Harar in Ethiopia, and known simply as "Chapu", he was sold by his poor parents to an Arab slave merchant, landed up in Baghdad, and from there, in the early 1570s, in the Deccan – known for its polyglot and tolerant culture which included many blacks or ‘Habshis’ as they were called (from the Arabic word ‘Habsh’ for Abysinnia, the older name of Ethiopia) – where he was sold again to a prominent noble at the troubled court of the Nizam Shahs of Ahmednagar.

At that time, Mughal forces, fired by Akbar’s ambitious plans to bring the south also under his control, were knocking at the very portals of the Deccan, as it were. A relatively weak king on the Ahmednagar throne, bitter rivalries at the court where factionalism was rife, Abysinnians constantly flexing their muscles, an enemy at the gates: it was a nearly perfect ground in which a man like Malik Ambar – the name was given to him by a former master, and the title by a Bijapur Sultan whom he served for a short while – a powerfully built man with a brilliant mind and the abilities of a great military tactician could rise quickly to power.

The Mughals did take Ahmednagar in 1600, but Ambar broke through the besieging lines and escaped with his followers eventually to control the countryside of Ahmednagar while the occupying forces held only the fort and the small area around it. This is when the lines of hostility between him and the Mughal overlords were clearly drawn.

One cannot go into the life and career of Malik Ambar in any detail here, except for registering the fact that as the power of this rank outsider kept growing, that of the Mughals in and around Ahmednagar kept steadily declining. Ambar trained his followers in the art of guerilla warfare, raised a very considerable force that remained loyal to him, and remained defiant of the Mughals. Eventually, he even located a young scion of the Ahmednagar dynasty in neighbouring Bijapur, married him to his own daughter, and placed him on the throne of Ahmednagar as Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah II, with himself as the regent of the state.

Now from Peshwa, or chief counsellor, he had become regent, father-in-law, and virtual ruler of Ahmednagar. With a clear vision, he also launched great architectural projects, constructing or strengthening fortifications at vulnerable spots, building a church for Christians, raising noble monuments at Khirki which later came to be called Aurangabad, and endowing the town with a sophisticated water-supply system.

The Mughals, meanwhile, chafed. Especially Jahangir (1605-1627) under whose skin Malik Ambar succeeded in getting. The emperor, it seems, was obsessed with Ambar, whose outstanding military skills he could understand but could not bring himself to acknowledge, given his own exalted position as ruler of what was then perhaps the world’s mightiest empire. In his Memoirs he referred to Ambar several times, but always in angry, almost abusive terms: "Ambar, that black wretch", "Ambar of dark fate", that "crafty, ill-starred one", and so on.

The two never came face to face or took the field against each other. But a painter at the Jahangiri court – the greatly gifted Abu’l Hasan – realised for his patron a triumphal dream, for he painted for him an allegory, in which the emperor is seen standing atop the globe of the world and shooting an arrow through the severed head of Malik Ambar that is impaled on a tall pike.

The event never came about of course, but looking at the painting must have given the emperor great satisfaction. For woven into it are subtle references and remarkably flattering allusions. While on the hapless head of Ambar an owl sits and then falls along the pike as the arrow goes through the open mouth of the black general, a bird of paradise descends from the heavens and heads towards the emperor’s crown placed on a tall golden structure at right, as if to add its own feather to it; the globe masterfully held under his delicately shod feet by the emperor — in a clear reference to his name, Jahangir, "Seizer of the World" — rests on the back of a bull who, in turn, stands upon a large, outsized fish, allusions to ancient Hindu myths: the saving of the earth by Matsya, the universe resting upon the noble bull called Dharma; from the sky above, from behind clouds, little cherubs descend, bearing divine weapons for the emperor, as it were.

Scattered over the painting, in a very minute hand, are also verses in Persian, like: "The head of the night-coloured usurper is become the house of the owl", or "Thine enemy-smiting arrow has driven from the world (Ambar) the owl, which fled the light".

Jahangir, in this elaborate allegory, is clearly meant to be seen as symbolising the forces of goodness and light while Ambar those of darkness and evil. It is doubtful if the whole matter would have been seen like this by a Deccani painter working for Malik Ambar. But then nothing approaching this has survived from there.