Indo-Africans: The Siddi People of South Asia and The Story of Malik Ambar

Group of Siddi men playing music and dancing during a celebration in Hyderabad, Pakistan.

Throughout history, if there is one thing that unites people of different cultures, it is trade. In the case of Africa and South Asia, this is no different. Trade relations date back to as early as the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation (3300-1300 BCE) as Pearl Millet, a crop originally domesticated in West Africa, and the burial site of an African woman was found at the Indus settlement of Chanhu-Daro[1]. Trade relations would continue for centuries to come. According to the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a manuscript detailing ancient trade routes written in the first century, both South Asia and East Africa were connected via the lucrative Indian Ocean trade routes[2]. Merchants from the Kingdom of Aksum, a trading empire located in modern-day Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia, would trade gold and soft-carved ivory in exchange for cotton and other goods from South Asia. By Medieval times, Indo-African trade had grown to even greater levels, and the African presence in South Asia began to take on a more political role.

With the rise of Islam strengthening connections between different cultures in Africa and Asia, more and more Africans would begin to settle in the Indian Subcontinent permanently. The first African settlers came from a range of different backgrounds including merchants, sailors, indentured servants, slaves, and mercenaries but mostly descended from the Bantu people of East Africa[3]. These African settlers and their descendants would come to be known as the “Siddi”/“Sheedi”, believed to be derived from the Arabic “Sahibi” and Urdu/Hindi “Sahib”, meaning master[4]. The Siddi would go on to establish various communities and, in some cases, rule over native Indians. Siddis ruled the State of Janjira (1489-1948) located on the Konkan Coast and, in 1759, Jafarabad State (1650-1948) located on the Kathiawar Peninsula, 320 km northwest of Janjira, became its dependency[5]. Some Siddis would also rise to positions of power within the various royal courts of India. For example, Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut, a prominent slave-turned-nobleman was a close confidant of the infamous Razia Sultana of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1555)[6]. Similarly, many Siddi served as warriors and generals in South Asian armies such as General Hoshu Sheedi who died fighting the British in 1843[7]. However, there was one Siddi, in particular, that would go on to distinguish themselves as a mighty military general and ruler: the legendary Malik Ambar[8][9].

Malik Ambar (1548-1626)

Malik Ambar was born in 1548 with the birthname of “Chapu” and belonged to the Maya people of central Ethiopia. He spent his early childhood living a peaceful pastoral life until, at the age of 12, Chapu would become one of the thousands of people from non-Abrahamic communities that were enslaved by the Solomonic Christians and Adal Muslims. The young Chapu was captured by Arab traders and taken to a slave market on the coast of Yemen. Chapu would eventually end up being sold to a merchant by the name of Mir Qasim who took him to Baghdad, the cultural centre of the Muslim world. Qasim converted Chapu to Islam, giving him the name “Ambar”, and taught him to read, write and manage finances. Ambar would remain in Baghdad for a decade before accompanying Qasim to the Deccan Plateau in 1571 where he would be sold once again to the chief minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate (1490-1636), a Siddi, by the name of Chengiz Khan (no, not that Chengiz, a different one).

Political map of South Indian states (1400-1650)

The Deccan at the time was divided into five sultanates which comprised of Muslim elites ruling over a Marathi Hindu majority as well as many Indo-Turks, Persians, and European merchants. The Deccan was a land plagued by war and intrigue as rulers would have to always watch over their shoulders lest their own soldiers slay them. Violent coups were the norm, and it was rare for a ruler to hold power for more than a few decades. To make things worse, the rising Mughal Empire (1526-1857), to the north, was slowly becoming the most dominant force in India and had its sights set on the Deccan.

Ambar would serve as a warrior-slave but soon distinguished himself becoming Chengiz Khan’s personal aide. However, much in the nature of Deccani politics, Khan would be framed by his fellow courtiers, who were jealous of his power, for conspiracy against the state and was subsequently executed. Following his master’s death, Ambar legally became a free man and decided to travel south to the neighbouring Bijapur Sultanate (1489-1686). There he got married to a fellow Siddi, by the name of Karima, and enlisted in the Sultan’s army.

The Bijapur Sultanate was ruled by Sultan Ali Adil Shah I until he died in 1579. Following his death, his nine-year-old nephew, Ibrahim Adil Shah II, became his successor. After several bloody battles, his wife Chand Bibi, by turning various generals against each other, came out on top as regent to the young Sultan. As regent, Chand Bibi introduced the idea of fidelity to the salt, which espoused loyalty to the land rather than any single ruler or dynasty. During this time, Ambar slowly climbed the ranks of the Bijapur army gaining a following of veteran cavalrymen due to his bravery in battle, earning the respect of Chand Bibi and the symbolic title of “Malik”, before returning to Ahmadnagar. Chand Bibi would follow suit, and at the end of her regency, she too returned to Ahmadnagar, the kingdom of her birth.

In 1595, the Mughal Empire decided to turn its full attention to the Deccan following the death of the Sultan Burhan Nizam Shah II of Ahmadnagar in a border war with Bijapur. Chand Bibi laid claim to the Ahmadnagar throne which led its chief minister to seek the Mughals for protection. The Mughal Emperor Akbar sent his son Murad Mirza, with a mighty imperial army, to secure the Sultanate. Realising his mistake, the chief minister fled, and Chand Bibi became the leader of the resistance. Donning full armour, she led her men in defence of Ahmadnagar Fort, and after a long unsuccessful siege, the much more powerful Mughals opted to make peace in exchange for the cessation of the Berar province to the east. Chand Bibi accepted, becoming regent of Ahmadnagar, and entering an uneasy truce with the Mughal Empire. However, in 1599, in typical Deccani fashion, Chand Bibi was slain by her own soldiers on false accusations she was going to sell out Ahmadnagar to the Mughals. Without Chand Bibi to defend it, the Mughal Empire subsequently invaded the Sultanate and imprisoned its young Sultan.

Without a ruler to lead them, Malik Ambar took it upon himself to oust the Mughals from Ahmadnagar. Siddis, Indo-Turks, Persians and Marathi Hindus all rallied behind the great commander as he carried out cross-border raids against the Mughals. By 1600, his forces grew from around 150 cavalrymen to 7,000; insignificant compared to the manpower the Mughals were capable of mustering. Out-gunned, out-manned, out-numbered and out-planned (a little reference for all you Hamilton fans out there), Ambar realised he couldn’t take the Mughals head-on and began to pioneer guerrilla war tactics in the Deccan. One such tactic was to use light Marathi Hindu cavalry, famous for their lightning-fast assaults, to attack Mughal supply lines. The Mughal’s heavy cannons and war elephants were unable to keep up with the continued harassment from Ambar’s forces. The Mughals were eventually forced to retreat from Ahmednagar city. With the Mughals out of the picture, for the time being, Ambar went about rebuilding Ahmadnagar’s government.

Deccani politicians were unlikely to accept a Siddi as their ruler, and so Ambar went about finding a puppet he could proclaim as Sultan. The Mughals imprisoned almost all the royal family with claims to the throne except for a young prince by the name of Ali who was currently staying with Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur. In 1600, Ali was crowned Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah II of Ahmadnagar. To cement his power, Ambar gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to the new Sultan. Malik Ambar was subsequently appointed Prime Minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate making him the de facto ruler.

In 1603, Malik Ambar put down a rebellion launched by three of his officers all whilst feigning a treaty with the Mughals to prevent them from taking advantage of the situation. A testament to Ambar’s skill in balancing the pressures of external and internal threats to his power. In 1605, following the death of Akbar, his successor Emperor Jahangir restarted incursions into Ahmadnagar territory but to no avail due to Ambar’s superior guerrilla war tactics. The Mughal Emperor was so enraged that he ordered a painting to be drawn of him shooting the decapitated head of Malik Ambar. This fantasy would remain just that, a fantasy.

Emperor Jahangir’s fantasy painting.

In 1610, Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah II turned against Malik Ambar and his daughter. He was swiftly assassinated and replaced by his five-year-old son, Burhan Nizam Shah III. In the same year, Ambar founded the city of Khadki close to the Mughal border and made it his new capital. In 1612, a treaty was secured with the Mughal Empire, allowing Ambar to focus on developing his kingdom. The next decade saw Khadki become a booming economic hub: the construction of an aqueduct system to bring fresh water to the new capital, the maintenance of over 40 forts to secure the Sultanate’s borders, the flourishing of Muslim and Hindu arts, and the building of masjids and palaces to increase Ahmadnagar’s prestige.

Predictably, the fragile peace with the Mughals was eventually broken and, in 1616, Ambar experienced his first major defeat allowing the Mughals to regain a foothold in Ahmadnagar once again. By 1618, Malik Ambar’s ally to the south, Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur, believing Ambar’s time was up, began to conspire against him and collaborate with the Mughals. To force the Bijapuris onto the backfoot, Ambar began raiding the Bijapur countryside. This forced the Mughal Empire and Bijapur Sultanate to meet Ambar on his own terms. In September 1624, Ambar won a decisive victory against a joint Mughal-Bijapur army at the Battle of Bhatvadi. Thereby, humiliating the Mughals once again, foiling the attempts of his Bijapuri rival, and securing his realm’s independence.

In 1626, Malik Ambar passed away peacefully at the age of 78 and was succeeded by his son Fateh Khan, who changed Khadki’s name to Fatehnagar. Unfortunately, he lacked his father’s military genius and, within ten years, the Mughal’s managed to conquer Ahmadnagar under the leadership of Emperor Shah Jahan. In 1653, when Prince Aurangzeb was appointed leadership over the Deccan, he made Fatehnagar his capital and renamed it to Aurangabad, which it is called to this day. Prince Aurangzeb would go on to become Emperor in 1658.

Today an estimated 250,000[10] Siddis are living in Pakistan mainly concentrated in Karachi and its coastal regions. Meanwhile, in India, there are at least 25,000[11] Siddis primarily concentrated in Karnataka, Gujarat, and Hyderabad. The majority of Siddis practice Islam, although there some Hindu and Christian Siddi communities. Although Siddis have largely adopted the language and traditions of their localities, some traditional Bantu practices have been preserved. Gujarati Siddis practice the Ngoma style of dance and music. Similarly, the annual festival by the name of Sheedi Mela in Pakistan also has notable African influences. Unfortunately, Siddis still experience discrimination and prejudice from the broader South Asian community. Despite this, many Siddi have managed to rise to prominence in India and Pakistan such as Urdu poet Noon Meem Danish, singer Younis Jani as well as politicians Tanzeela Qambrani of Pakistan and Shataram Budna Siddi of India to name a few.

The Siddi people serve as a testament to the shared global history of humanity and have undoubtedly added to the diverse fabric of the Subcontinent; their contributions to South Asian culture and society should not go unnoticed.


[1] Kennedy, K. and Possehl, G., 2012. Were There Commercial Communications Between Prehistoric Harappans And African Populations?. Advances in Anthropology. [online] Research Gate. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276490753_Were_There_Commercial_Communications_between_Prehistoric_Harappans_and_African_Populations> [Accessed 27 July 2020].

[2] Schoff, W., 1912. The Periplus Of The Erythraean Sea. Longmans, Green.

[3] Shah, A., Tamang, R., Moorjani, P., Rani, D., Govindaraj, P., Kulkarni, G., Bhattacharya, T., Mustak, M., Bhaskar, L., Reddy, A., Gadhvi, D., Gai, P., Chaubey, G., Patterson, N., Reich, D., Tyler-Smith, C., Singh, L. and Thangaraj, K., 2011. Indian Siddis: African Descendants with Indian Admixture. American Journal of Human Genetics, [online] 89(1). Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135801/> [Accessed 27 July 2020].

[4] Albinia, A., 2018. Empires Of The Indus: The Story Of A River. John Murray (Publishers).

[5] Ali, S., 1996. The African Dispersal In The Deccan. Sangam.

[6] Meri, J. and Bacharach, J., 2006. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopaedia. Routledge.

[7] Soomro, F., 1977. Cultural History Of Sind. National Book Foundation.

[8] Ali, O., 2016. Malik Ambar: Power And Slavery Across The Indian Ocean. Oxford University Press.

[9] YouTube. 2019. Malik Ambar: African King In The Heart Of India. [online] Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VY9RIGEWD_o&t=9s> [Accessed 28 July 2020].

[10] Trip Down Memory Lane, 2012. Blacks in Pakistan (Afro-Pakistanis). Available at: <https://kwekudee-tripdownmemorylane.blogspot.com/2012/08/blacks-in-pakistan-afro-pakistanis.html> [Accessed 29 July 2020].

[11] The Sidi Project. n.d. The Sidi Project. [online] Available at: <https://thesidiproject.com> [Accessed 29 July 2020].

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