The Slave Who Built a City

The Slave Who Built a City - Aurangabad

I will be talking today about an Indian planned city in the Deccan whose name most of you won’t recognize: Khadki. It is now known, in honour of the Mughal prince who conquered it in the 1630s, as Aurangabad. But in the decades before it became Aurangabad, and centuries before the construction of Chandigarh in Punjab or Bhubaneswar in Odisha or Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh, Khadki was a model planned city. That it was designed and built by a former habshi (i.e. Abyssinian) slave – a man named Malik Ambar – is just one of its remarkable features. Perhaps even more remarkable is that the city owes its genesis to a form of knowledge that also produced a distinctive Deccan martial art perfected by Malik Ambar.

Any martial art entails training the body to a superior degree of physical ability. And martial skill is acquired through endless repetitions of moves – punches, kicks, pushes, grapples, springs – which instill in the warrior a set of reflexes that bypass his or her conscious decision-making processes. A warrior whose fighting reflexes are so deeply ingrained can seem like a singular automaton or machine. But the machine that motors a martial art is not a singular human body. It’s a vast ensemble of elements, human and non-human. The warrior works in concert not just with his or her weapons but also with a larger physical environment in which she or he has learned to fight. Learning a martial art means adapting one’s body to the distinctive features of a specific terrain: hard and soft surfaces, throughways and obstacles, slopes and their gravitational effects. In the process, the warrior’s body develops an intimate muscle memory of its environment, and in a way that exceeds simple cartographical knowledge. Cartography functions in two dimensions by mapping points on a flat plane. By contrast, the martial art practitioner’s embodied knowledge of his or her terrain is topographical. Unlike cartography, topography functions in three dimensions, plotting the vertical elevation variations as well as horizontal extensions of a landscape.

The martial art that Malik Ambar practised in the Deccan was particularly attuned to the topographical details of his environment. And this sympathy to the environment was crucial to his military success. Let me relate one particularly illustrative instance.

It is May, 1621. The Mughal emperor Jahangir has been fighting a long, grinding war in the Deccan against the rebel troops of Ahmadnagar. Jahangir’s army has had to contend with a redoubtable enemy. Despite the Mughals’ numerical supremacy, superior artillery and greater cavalry strength, Malik Ambar and his troops have stubbornly managed to maintain their ground. But “ground” is perhaps not the right word. And that’s because the terrain the rebels occupy is anything but solid. Although the Mughals have succeeded in sacking much of Ahmadnagar, they come unstuck on a sticky wicket: Malik Ambar has led his troops into a zone near their stronghold of Daulatabad that Jahangir, in his memoir chronicle the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, calls chihla u jamjama – marshes and quagmires. This murky terrain confounds the much more regimented Mughal army, used to campaigns on solid battlefields. From the marshlands, Jahangir tells us, the rebels have “scattered in all directions,” disappearing into the rocky hills of the Deccan to fight another day. It is a miraculous vanishing act and, for Jahangir, a massive disappointment. Malik Ambar – with whom Jahangir has become so violently obsessed that in 1616 he commissioned an official portrait of himself shooting arrows into the Ahmadnagar general’s decapitated head – successfully resists the Mughals until his death in 1626.

When the news finally reaches Jahangir’s court of Malik Ambar’s long-awaited death (albeit from old age rather than decapitation), the aging Mughal emperor is himself too ill to write about his joy at having outlived, if not outfought or outsmarted, his great adversary. By this time, the composition of the Tuzuk-i-Jahangri has been out-sourced to a hired Mughal court scribe, Mu’tamad Khan. And unlike his choleric master, Mu’tamad Khan offers a decidedly sober, even admiring account of Malik Ambar. “In warfare, in command, in sound judgment, and in administration,” he writes, “he had no rival or equal … He well understood that predatory warfare, which in the language of the Dakhin is called bargi-giri.”

Bargi-giri: what an utterly sublime word. Its very sound might seem to evoke the bruising physicality of fierce hand-to-hand combat. One can imagine a modern Hindi action film of that name starring a shirtless Salman Khan as Malik Ambar, somersaulting in slow-motion as he kick-boxes, karate-chops, and scimitar-scythes his way through a battalion of Mughal dupes. But unfortunately, at least for modern directors and film stars, the art of bargi-giri is not the stuff of today’s action movies. It is instead a guerilla martial art concerned less with muscular face-to-face combat than with long-term tactical battles of attrition in the Deccan’s challenging terrain. Malik Ambar’s vanishing act in the chihla u jamjama near Daulatabad is a perfect illustration of bargi-giri. It no doubt demanded a measure of military athleticism; but it primarily entailed using the soft Deccan marshlands to wrong-foot the overly regimented Mughal troops.

Malik Ambar’s command of bargi-giri bespeaks an extraordinary intimacy with the rocky ranges as much as the swampy bogs of the Deccan plateau. But it hints too at topographical knowledge gleaned from a life that had traversed nations and continents. For Malik Ambar was not originally from the Deccan. He had been born in the highlands of Ethiopia, and spent many of his formative years in Baghdad. And he was not originally a malik or lord: he had arrived in India as a slave destined for military service.

Much of Malik Ambar’s early life remains veiled to us. Some commentaries claim that he was born a slave in Harar, a largely Muslim city in eastern Ethiopia. But a 17th-century Deccan record reports that he was born free and only later sold into slavery as a child by his impoverished parents. This record also states that Malik Ambar’s birth name was Chapu. As the Indian Ocean historian Richard Eaton has pointed out, the name – which is unmistakably both non-Muslim and non-Christian – indicates a point of origin in the pagan Kembata region, some 350 kilometres south of Addis Ababa, the modern capital of Ethiopia.

One experience from his childhood probably stayed with Chapu throughout his migrations: living in arid highland territory. Kembata is on the lip of the Great Rift Valley, which cuts a swathe through Ethiopia. It is situated at considerable altitude, with a climate that is relatively mild and even chilly at night. The terrain is considered fertile by Ethiopian standards, which is why its population density is unusually high. But Kembata also endures long periods of no rain and, as a result, frequent drought and famine. Its rocky hills and seasonal creeks make it difficult to sustain good soil for subsistence farming, and annual crop yields vary considerably from year to year. Working what arable land there is poses significant physical challenges: scaling the hill slopes at altitude demands enormous athleticism and aerobic strength. As a result, anyone whose livelihood depends on farming these highlands runs the constant risk of depleted body-salts, especially in times of drought. The chronic seasonal lack of water is partly offset, however, by the area’s main crop, ensete, a potassium-rich cousin of the banana that is a good antidote to dehydration. Kembata’s altitude, climate and ensetes may provide good training conditions for modern Ethiopia’s many long-distance runners. But in the 16th century, Kembata was also a good training ground for a man who was to spend most of his adult life as a guerilla warrior on the highlands of the Deccan plateau. One can imagine the young Chapu skillfully scaling steep slopes, negotiating the boggy soil of silted creeks, and acquiring an intuitive sense of the patterns of rain and water flow through the hills and ravines. All these skills would serve him well later in his Indian life.

Chapu’s enslavement and forced migration to Baghdad and then India was not an isolated or individual event. It was part of the larger political economy of the Indian Ocean, in which Ethiopia was linked, through trade, to the Middle East and India. As Richard Eaton has noted, royals at the Abyssinian courts of the 16th century greatly valued Indian silk, a tendency remarked on by several European visitors. It appears that these silks were often bought from Indian traders in exchange for local slaves. The exchange was driven by a growing demand in the Deccan sultanates for military slave labour, a demand met partly by the political instability and economic deprivation of the southern highland areas of Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of habshis from Kembata were enslaved and relocated to the subcontinent in the mid-16th century.

Chapu was not initially bought by an Indian-bound trader, however. The Dutch travel writer Pieter Van den Broecke reports that he was taken from Harar and re-sold in the Red Sea port of Mocha, in what is now Yemen, for eighty guilders. Chapu’s owner, Qazi Hussein, converted him to Islam, as a result of which he was given the name Ambar (meaning “ambergris” or “precious jewel”). Soon Qazi Hussein re-sold Ambar for twenty ducats; he was resold twice subsequently, and eventually became the possession of a leading Baghdad merchant named Mir Qasim al-Baghdadi. Ambar’s time in Baghdad proved to be something of a turning point for him, laying much of the foundation for his eventual life in India.

Mir Qasim al-Baghdadi didn’t treat Ambar as a menial slave. For whatever reason – maybe he spied some talent in him, maybe he needed someone to perform clerical work for his businesses – he had Ambar formally educated in Arabic. And in Baghdad, the young slave also received other forms of education. Ambar again had an experience of water in a dry climate, but one radically different from what he had encountered in the highlands of Kembata. The city had been conquered by the Ottomans in 1534, and had begun to fall into a period of decline. But it still retained much of the old functional infrastructure of the Abbasid Caliphate period from half a millennium earlier. In particular, the Abbasids had successfully negotiated the considerable challenges of Baghdad’s near-desert location by building numerous aqueducts and canals that conveyed water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to all parts of the city. Only one of these aqueducts, carrying water to the shrine of Abdul al-Qadir, survives today; in the 16th century, however, most of the system was still operational. Indeed, medieval Baghdad was the exemplar of a modern, well-watered city. After the chronic water shortages of Kembata, this must have left a strong impression on the former Chapu.

A second major turning point came in 1575, when Mir Qasim took Ambar to the Deccan, presumably on a business trip. There he sold his Abyssinian slave to a nobleman named Chingiz Khan, the peshva (prime minister) of the Nizam Shah of Ahmadnagar. Ambar must have blinked twice upon meeting his new, powerful master. For Chingiz Khan, unlike many other local lords, was not a Persian or a Deccani. Like his new slave, he too was a habshi. The medieval Deccan ruling class was not ethnically homogenous. It included two dominant groups – Iranians or “westerners,” and Deccanis or “locals” descended mostly from the royal Turkic and Afghan dynasties of northern India. In Ahmadnagar and Bijapur, these two groups were supplemented by a number of Maratha chiefs, mostly regional rajas and landlords who paid tribute to the sultans. But there was also a significant African presence among the lords or maliks. Chingiz Khan was typical of the Deccan’s African lords: all of them were former military slaves from Kembata and Ethiopia who, having enjoyed royal patronage, had been granted high political offices. In other words, the habshi slaves were not denied social mobility. Indeed, they constituted a vital part of the Deccan political culture and lent it much of its distinctly military character.

Ambar followed a career path similar to his new master’s. We do not know what prompted Chingiz Khan to favour Ambar, though it is quite possible that the slave had received a strong recommendation from Mir Qasim al-Baghdadi. Ambar’s formal training in Arabic, for long one of the official languages of Ahmadnagar, would have given him another significant advantage. In any case, Chingiz Khan soon began to treat Ambar as a confidante and surrogate son. After Chingiz Khan died, Ambar was not formally manumitted; but he seems no longer to have been considered a slave. For reasons that remain unclear, he decided to leave Ahmadnagar and seek his fortune in the neighbouring sultanate of Berar. It was here he received the title of “Malik,” or “lord,” in honour of his military and administrative skills. Here too he put together an African army loyal specifically to him. A dispute with other lords over the composition of his army led to his leaving Berar in the 1590s and returning, with a large number of soldiers loyal to him, to Ahmadnagar, where the power of his retinue suddenly made him an influential player in the sultanate’s ongoing political and military struggles.

The Ahmadnagar regiments Malik Ambar commanded initially consisted just of Arab and habshi troops. At this point, he is alleged to have had 1500 men under his command. Most of the habshis serving in the Ahmadnagar regiments would have come from the mountainous highlands of the south of Ethiopia. Though it is likely that they spoke Dakhni, they may well have spoken with Malik Ambar in his native Kambaatissaata. Whatever language they spoke, it is clear that the habshi troops felt an extraordinary loyalty to their general, one that was based not just on military discipline or on racial, cultural and linguistic solidarity. One imagines that they had also cultivated a strong sense of community grounded in a shared topographical endeavour. The habshis, like Malik Ambar accustomed since childhood to scaling hills at altitude, collectively plotted the highways and the byways of the Deccan landscape, getting to know its every rocky nook and cranny in order to defend it against the Mughal forces.

Following the 1600 Mughal siege and conquest of Ahmadnagar, Malik Ambar and his regiment fled to the hills. But he then pulled off the feat that led to all his future successes: in the Maratha fortress town of Paranda, he uncovered an infant grandson of the former Ahmadnagar ruler, Bahadur Nizam Shah I, and declared him the new sultan. As the power behind the throne, Malik Ambar’s ensemble of political and civic responsibilities radically expanded. By 1607, Malik Ambar had had himself appointed vakil-us-sultanat, or regent of Ahmadnagar, a post that he was to hold till his death in 1626. As Malik Ambar’s power grew, so did the size of his regiment. By 1610, he is supposed to have had 7,000 men under his control; by 1621, over 20,000.

This dramatic increase can be attributed to an exponential rise in the number of habshi slaves exported from Ethiopia to the Deccan in the early 17th century. But Malik Ambar’s regiments were swollen in large part by his vigorous recruitment of local Maratha chiefs and warriors. Like the habshis, the Marathas had acquired a special aptitude for dealing with the Deccani landscape. Their knowledge, of course, was a more local one, gleaned from lives spent in the rugged, dry highland terrain of what is now eastern Maharashtra at the northwest tip of the Deccan plateau.

Indeed, Malik Ambar seems to have clicked with the Marathas as fellows not just in arms but also in skills of highland survival. Because Malik Ambar’s mixed habshi-Maratha army spent days and even weeks at a time out in Ahmadnagar’s wild highlands, they would have had to have become skilled at finding nourishing food on the fly. Here Malik Ambar and his fellow habshis probably drew on their past experiences in Africa, looking for dehydration-beating kelas or bananas related to the ensete with which they had grown up. Even more, Malik Ambar and his men must have become skilled in finding water in a dry climate. This would have entailed far more than simply knowing the locations of springs, lakes and clean streams. It would have also required repeatedly tracking the flow of water down hills and through ravines and valleys – and, in the process, developing a strong sense of the lie of the land and its gravitational planes. In other words, while roaming the Deccan highlands Malik Ambar and his soldiers must have honed not just their geographical but also their topographical skills. These skills certainly came in handy for the urban planner of Khadki

Indeed, the city is Malik Ambar’s most lasting legacy. Designed and built in 1610, Khadki was a modern, multicultural city not unlike Hyderabad, built at much the same time by the Adil Shah of Golconda. Khadki, like Hyderabad, boasted attractive masjids, mandirs, and even a church. Also like Hyderabad, Khadki was designed to withstand Mughal aggression. The city thus featured not just striking public buildings, but also extensive fortifications and well-armed city walls. Most notably, Khadki also offered its citizens state-of-the-art civic amenities, including an innovative water system of Malik Ambar’s own design called the Neher – also known in Dakhni Urdu as the Nahr-e-Ambari – which survives to this day. At a time when the citizens of Ahmadnagar had long endured chronic water shortages in the arid highlands of the Deccan, Malik Ambar’s design was nothing short of a miracle of civil engineering.

When its initial phase of construction finished in 1612, the Neher was already one of the most sophisticated water-supply systems in the world, consisting of an elaborate network of canals, conduits, waterfalls, underground channels, aqueducts and reservoirs. Although Khadki had a small perennial stream flowing through it – the Kham – this was insufficient to provide for a city of the size that Malik Ambar had imagined, especially with its enormous military garrison. So he had to devise other ways of bringing water to Khadki, especially via routes that were not susceptible to attack from the outside. When he first shared his design for the Neher with the other lords of Ahmadnagar, it provoked scorn from some of them, including the Vazir, Mulla Mohammad, who derided Malik Ambar’s plan as “imaginary and preposterous.” The Vazir had a point. The local hilly terrain around Khadki made it extremely difficult to build raised aqueducts on pillars; instead, the water had to flow through a combination of elevated and underground tunnels employing a variety of technologies relying on gravity and water pressure. Yet despite its doubters, Malik Ambar’s plan worked, providing enough water to meet the needs of Khadki’s 700,000 inhabitants.

To distribute its water so widely among the residents of the city, the Neher had to be planned not as a centralized singular water body with one origin and one destination but as an entire network with multiple points of input and output. A map of the Neher’s various tributaries and blueways looks uncannily like a modern Metro Rail plan: it consists of twelve lines with numerous “stations” and “interchanges” designed to reach as much of the city as possible. The main line was a canal that branched in two directions, the first providing water to the Naukhanda Palace on a hill in the centre of the city (Malik Ambar’s headquarters, again built by him), the nearby Juna bazaar, and several wealthy suburbs; the other supplied the Shah Ganj area. This line was criss-crossed by numerous other lines, mostly ceramic water-pipes that drew water from tanks fed by external wells, dams, and mountain springs. Of the twelve original lines, four still function today. Others were added over time, building on the foundations of Malik Ambar’s elaborate network. Arguably the most striking feature of the Neher is a water mill called the Panchakki, situated one kilometre outside old Aurangabad, and connected via an underground channel and water-pipe to a spring in the mountains more than eight kilometres away. The mill, which grinds grain into flour for pilgrims to the adjacent dargah for the Sufi saint (and migrant from Bukhara) Baba Shah Musafir, is powered by an artificial waterfall; it also contains a mosque surrounded by dancing fountains – an extraordinary integration of religious devotion with sophisticated water-flow technology. The mill, waterfall and fountains date from the time of Aurangzeb and are rightly regarded as feats of Mughal engineering. But each of these eye-catching innovations depends on an ingeniously designed subterranean water-relay system initially laid out by Malik Ambar in 1612.

Many might see the Neher simply as a feat of civil engineering. I prefer to characterize it as an exercise in migrant poetry using not language but water, not verse but pipes. The Neher was every bit as much a creative exercise in adapting to India as was the firangi poet Thomas Stephens’s remarkable Kristapurana, written in Marathi and Konkani at exactly the same time Malik Ambar build Khadki. Stephens employed languages foreign to him and made them flow in beautiful lines; Malik Ambar did the same with the mountain water of the Deccan. Stephens organized his clusters of Marathi and Konkani phrases into elegantly compressed stanzas; Malik Ambar organized his own mixed media (elevated aqueducts, open-air channels, underground ceramic pipes) into equally elegant networks. And, most importantly, both the Kristapurana and the Neher derived their innovative power from a migrant’s embodied knowledge of a new Indian landscape. Stephens’ poem pays extended homage to the transformative effects of the Goan coconut on his English body; Malik Ambar’s creation pays homage to his experience of water in the Deccan plateau.

Malik Ambar’s skill in water-supply design had probably been honed during his years in Daulatabad, the Ahmadnagar stronghold where he had been based on and off in the first decade of the 1600s. The city, just sixteen kilometres to the northwest of the Khadki, was a hill fortress in a strategically important location. Built on top of a tall conical slab of basalt, Daulatabad was accessible only through a narrow path hewn through the rock and a bridge that could fit no more than two people standing abreast. In other words, it was close to unassailable. But it also suffered from serious water-supply shortages. Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the Delhi sultan, had made Daulatabad his capital in the 1300s because of its defensive capability; but he soon had to abandon it because of the difficulty of obtaining water there. The Ahmadnagar sultanate faced similar problems.

In the early 1600s, Malik Ambar devoted considerable time and energy to designing and constructing a basic water-supply system for Daulatabad, some of which – an aqueduct and a long ceramic pipe encased in stone – has only recently been rediscovered in an orchard near the city. For whatever reason, however, Malik Ambar and the Ahmadnagar ruling class decided to follow in Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s footsteps and abandon Daulatabad. Perhaps Malik Ambar had concluded that the task of providing sufficient water to the hill-city was too difficult; perhaps too he had conducted a thorough investigation of the region and decided that Khadki was better located for the kind of extensive water-management project that was necessary to support a capital city. But his early experiments with water supply in Daulatabad provided him with an excellent platform for what he later achieved with the Neher. These experiments may have owed something to age-old Deccan engineering technologies employed by earlier Buddhist, Jain and Hindu cultures in the nearby Ellora and Ajanta caves, a mere 10 kilometres from Daulatabad. But Malik Ambar also drew on his experiences of water in other parts of the world, from Africa to the Middle East. These experiences are legible in the design features of the Neher.

At one level, the Neher is the design of a migrant to India familiar with the Baghdad aqueduct system. Indeed, much about the Khadki city plan is redolent of medieval Baghdad. That Malik Ambar was able to pull off the feat of civil engineering that is the Neher testifies to more than just his skill as an administrator or urban planner. It also suggests a vivid first-hand experience of Baghdad’s water supply, one that he communicated powerfully to Ahmadnagar’s engineers (some of whom too may have been familiar with the Arab technologies of water conveyance). But the Neher is the design also of someone who had spent considerable time in the wilds of the Deccan surveying its topography – not with modern surveying instruments, but with his body and the bodies of his habshi and Maratha troops. Malik Ambar had developed a keen sense of where water came from, which way it flowed, where it was most and least vulnerable to outside attack. And his topographical knowledge was in turn the consequence of years of body knowledge acquired in the highlands of Ethiopia, scaling its slopes and tracing its creek-beds. Which is to say: Khadki was designed by a man accustomed to Deccan water patterns, Baghdadi aqueducts, and Kembata droughts. If, as Hillary Clinton says, it takes a village to make a child, sometimes it takes a globe to make a city.

This seemingly paradoxical combination of cosmopolitanism and localism, of homelessness and rootedness, is the recurring theme of Malik Ambar’s story. The habshi vakil-us-sultanat was a Deccan nationalist who had successfully made a foreign land his home; he did so by drawing on his experiences of African and Middle Eastern terrain even as he adapted to the distinctive topography of the Ahmadnagar highlands. Yet within his new land he was also curiously homeless, and this condition was crucial to his military and political success. The art of bargi-giri entailed constant nomadic motion – like the flowing water whose movement he so carefully traced – over mountainous and inhospitable terrain. Perhaps this constant movement was encoded in the very word bargi-giri. In the Dakhni term, Jahangir and his Persian-speaking courtiers may have heard an echo of another word, one freighted with meaning. Describing the effects of chasing Malik Ambar over the desolate Deccan landscape for many years, Jahangir claimed that the Mughal troops had suffered considerable hardship from a condition that he calls, in Persian, bi-jagiri. The term means “want of a settled home or residence.”

For Jahangir and his Mughal troops, long separated from the nomadic lifestyle of their Turkic and Mongol ancestors, this homelessness was a disabling condition. Indeed, it was part of what made Malik Ambar and his army so foreign to them. Despite the much-vaunted multiculturalism of the Mughals, who welcomed migrants from many parts of the world to their principal cities and championed religious syncretism, Jahangir persisted in regarding Malik Ambar as irredeemably alien, as illustrated by his repeated rants in the Tuzuk-i-Jahangri against the “black-faced Ambar.” Though Jahangir understood Malik Ambar racially, his animus was also driven by a perception that his adversary refused to stay in one place. But for Malik Ambar this restless movement was an empowering precondition of his ascendancy. He moved a long way in his life, from Chapu to Ambar to Malik Ambar, from Africa to Mesopotamia to India. And even in Ahmadnagar, he kept moving across the hills, ravines, and marshlands of the Deccan. His bi-jagiri was crucial to his bargi-giri; his homelessness was crucial to the foundation of a home state. And this paradox, of moving yet settling, is at the heart of the planned city of Khadki.

The above is the transcript of a talk given by Professor Harris at a Sarmaya Talks event in Mumbai.
Born in New Zealand, educated in England and employed in America for 23 years, Jonathan Gil Harris took the long route to India, moved here in 2013 and is now the Professor of English at Ashoka University and President of the Shakespeare Society of India. He is primarily interested in questions of migration, foreignness and globalization, and is the author of six books, including the recent best-seller, The First Firangis: Marvellous Tales of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans and Other Foreigners Who Became Indian. His next book, Masala Shakespeare, will be published by Aleph Books in 2018.