From being sold several times as a slave in his childhood to creating his own mercenary force that fought and defeated several Mughal emperors, Malik Ambar had done it all. Such is the story of many of the mercenaries in Mediaeval India - they started as mere slaves, fought in local wars and eventually ended as rulers of several kingdoms.
Malik Ambar, a Siddi military leader, was hired by local kings of Deccan region for his superior guerilla warfare tactics in the early 17th century. More than 10,000 Habshis and 40,000 Deccanis joined his army by 1610. Ambar fought Mughal emperor Jahangir and halted his attempt to take over the Nizamshahi dynasty of Ahmednagar, as mentioned in Chinmay Tumbe's "India Moving: A History of Migration".
Ambar also founded a new city, Khadki, which was later invaded by Emperor Aurangzeb and changed to Aurangabad in around 1658 to 1707.
Oher than Malik Ambar, Medieval India had actually seen a huge number of mercenary warriors, especially Europeans and Africans coming and fighting for the local emperors and rulers. Some of their descendants are still living in some parts of India.
Fighting as a mercenary had gained so much popularity that it became a source of income for some communities.
Thousands of Europeans came to India as mercenaries in the 16th and 17th century. The European mercenaries served in the courts of Indian rulers for near 300 years, according to William Dalrymple's "White Mughals: love and betrayal in eighteenth-century India".
Portuguese historian João de Barros stated that at least two thousand Portuguese were fighting in the armies of various Indian princes back in 1565.
Alan Machado Prabhu in his "Sarasvati's Children: A History of the Mangalorean Christians" mentions that the indigenous Goan Catholic and East Indian soldiers and sailors were included among the mercenaries. They were employed by Maratha Emperor Shivaji Bhosale in his navy.
Mughals and Maratha Emperors usually sought them as artillery experts.
A special Firingi (Foreigners') regiment was formed by Portuguese, French and English mercenaries under the command of a Frenchman named Farrashish Khan. So many Europeans took up service at the Mughal Army during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan that a distinct suburb was built for them named Firingipura (Foreigners' Town).
Rajput led mercenaries, also known as Purbiya mercenaries from Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh featured in kingdoms in Western and Northern India. Later they were recruited by the Marathas and the British, as narrated in Dirk H.A. Kolff's "Peasants fighting for a living in early modern North India".
The Purbiyas played significant role in several wars in Western India including Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British. One of the notable figures of that rebellion, Mangal Pandey, was a Purbiya who served in the 34th Bengal Native Infantry.
Earlier, Purbiya mercenaries were largely preferred by the East India Company for their expertise with firearms. The Malwa rulers were also keen to recruit them for the same expertise. Purbiyas, as described in Mason Philip's history book "A Matter of Honour", were designated as 'The fighting tribes of the Hindoos and the Musselme' by the British East India Company.
Many Africans, mostly known as Siddi, came to India primarily as slaves and traders, but eventually settled down, playing an important role in India's history of kingdoms, conquests and wars. According to BBC, they came to India as early as the 4th century. But they really flourished between the 14th century and 17th century.
Deccan sultans also apparently relied heavily on African soldiers because Mughal rulers of northern India did not allow them to recruit soldiers from Afghanistan or other central Asian countries.
Qasim Yakut Khan, also known as Sidi Yaqub, was a prominent mercenary leader of African descent who played a significant role in defeating East India Company in 1690. He primarily served the Bijapur Sultanate, a Shia Muslim dynasty as a young man before serving the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb where he rose to become an admiral.
Yakut Khan went into a war with the Marathas when he had to enter the seven islands of Bombay in 1672. He destroyed the towns of Pen and Nagothane. He had also saved the Portugese earlier from the Marathas and enjoyed a cordial relationship despite a tense political situation back then.
Dr Sylviane A Diouf of the Schomburg Center told BBC "African men were employed in very specialized jobs, as soldiers, palace guards, or bodyguards; they were able to rise through the ranks becoming generals, admirals, and administrators."
Africans were an integral part of several Indian sultanates and some of them even started their own dynasties, according to BBC.
Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat, Hyderabad of India are still home to around 20,000 Siddis. Their roots trace back to Africa and they are the descendent of Bantu people of East Africa. They have a unique tradition and culture which is blended of both Indian and African heritage. A huge number of Indians have a hard time believing they are Indian just for their African looks, though they have completely and wonderfully assimilated into Indian culture, traditions and language.
There were few notable Central Asian mercenaries in Medieval India as well. Dost Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun, was one of them. He founded the Bhopal State in central India.
Dost Mohammad joined the Mughal army in 1703 and quickly rose through the ranks. He was assigned to Malwa province in Cenral India. According to William Hough's "A brief history of the Bhopal principality in Central India", he created an army of around 50 Pathan mercenaries after the death of Emperor Aurangzeb.
According to William Hough's "A brief history of the Bhopal principality in Central India", Khan provided mercenary services to the local rulers in the politically unstable Malwa region.
Mercenaries marching in to the battlefields, especially during the Medieval period of India has played an important part in written history. They might not be the true patriots for they fight for another countries or rulers only for money, but they were true professionals.