Mughal Princess Zebunnissa

 Lady of the age

First published by The Friday Times

Mughal history ignores women of the empire, including Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un-Nissa: patron of the arts, poet, and a keeper of several lovers – according to rumours. The eldest daughter, she was Aurangzeb’s close companion for several years. She was born in 1638 to Dilras Bano of the Persian Safavid dynasty. Loved by Aurangzeb, she was named carefully to reflect his station.

A favourite, she was exposed to the affairs of the Mughal court. With a sound education in the arts, languages, astronomy and sciences of the day, Zeb-un-Nissa turned into an aware and sensitive princess. She never married and kept herself occupied by poetry and a spiritual Sufi quest.

This is the irony – Aurangzeb’s daughter was an antithesis of her father’s persona and politics. Zeb-un-Nissa was both a Sufi and a gifted poet. The Divan-i-Makhfi – a major divan – is credited to her name. Given her father’s dislike for poetry, she could only be makhfi – the invisible.

There was subversion too – like all rebels she attended and participated in the literary and cultural events of her age, dressed in her veil.

Unlike her puritanical father, Zeb-un-Nissa did not share her father’s orthodox views on religion and society. Steeped in mystic thought, her ghazals sang of love, freedom and inner experience:

“Though I am Laila of Persian romance
my heart loves like ferocious Majnun
I want to go to the desert
but modesty is chains on my feet
A nightingale came to the flower garden
because she was my pupil
I am an expert in things of love
Even the moth is my disciple!”
(translated by Willis Barnstone)

Her verses, comprising 400 ghazals, and
published as Divan-i-Makhfi would have
bothered Aurangzeb.

Her inclusive poetic vision, comprising
the 400 ghazals in the Divan-i-Makhfi, ran
against the puritanical state and society that
Aurangzeb cherished.

‘I bow before the image of my Love’
No Muslim I
But an idolater
I bow before the image of my Love
And worship her
No Brahman I
My sacred thread
I cast away, for round my neck I wear
Her plaited hair instead

In her poetry Makhfi – the hidden or invisible
one – is a metaphor for her invisibility at the main Court and at the cosmic level the invisibility of God.

One of her long time companions was the émigré Iranian poet Ashraf. It is said that theirs was more than friendship and a literary association, and that there were hints of indiscreet liaisons. However, no direct evidence on this subject exists.

Zeb-un-Nissa is also said to have been excessively fond of one particular kaneez
(serving girl), Mian Bai. This intimacy was a
subject of gossip. Perhaps it was the same
Mian Bai who was gifted the Chauburji garden
in Lahore.

The Chauburji building has the Ayat-ul-Kursi
inscribed on the main gate. The date of its completion was recorded as 1646 AD by SM Latif, the famous Lahore historian who translated the Persian verse carved at the monument entrance:

This garden, in the pattern of Paradise,
has been founded
The garden has been bestowed on Mian
By the beauty of Zebinda Begam, the lady
of the age

According to Latif, Mian Bai was the favourite female attendant of Zeb-un-Nissa. Shah Jahan Nama also throws some light on the gardens and their gift to the lucky Bai.

Since Mian Bai had supervised the laying out
of these gardens, the local people called it
Mian Bai’s gardens. Respecting local opinion,
Zeb-un-Nissa bequeathed these gardens to her favourite slave girl.

Eventually, she fell out of royal favour, not for her eclectic pursuits but for the rebellion of her brother Akbar, who proclaimed himself as emperor in 1681. While the rebellion was short and unsuccessful, Zebun-Nissa kept corresponding with her exiled brother; this landed her imprisonment in a Delhi fortress until her death in 1702.

A recent book, Captive Princess: Zeb-un- Nissa, daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb, attempts to examine the causes of her imprisonment,
her worldview and reconstructs her life. The work highlights the political differences
that she developed with her father and shows how alien Aurangzeb’s style of governance
was to her soul. She never accompanied him on his Deccan campaigns.

Jadu Nath Sarkar states that Zeb-un-Nissa
died in Delhi and was buried in the ‘Garden of
Thirty Thousand Trees’ outside the Kabuli gate.
It is said that when the railway line was laid at
Delhi, her tomb was demolished, and the coffin
and the inscribed tombstone were shifted to
Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandara Agra. According to SM Latif, a poet versified her chronogram in the following words:

A fountain of learning, virtue, beauty and
She was hidden as Joseph was in the well
I asked reason the year of her death
The invisible voice exclaimed: ‘the moon
became concealed’

Latif writes that the last phrase mahmakhfi-
cannot be adequately translated. Literally it means the concealed moon, but makhfi was also the nom de plume of Zeb-un-Nissa and there is a meaningful wordplay here. However, much as we make conjectures about a full life lived, a good measure of the passions and poetry of the princess shall remain concealed and quite un-translatable.

Published on February 16, 2007 at 6:18 pm  Comments (21)  

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21 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. How very interesting. One wonders about any possibly influence she might have had regarding Aurangzeb’s apparent softening in his later years. If they ever turn up any correspondence between the father and daughter, given their contrasts, that would be amazing.

  2. Your post comes at a very important moment 🙂
    Read about the controversy here

  3. Sharique, many thanks for providing the link to the ongoing controversy on Aurangzeb..RR

  4. I am glad to have found your site.

  5. I didn’t know so much about Zebunnissa and this iformation has really helped me in my project!

  6. It is the sadness that History associates us everytime we come across rare literary gems who were much ahead of their times. Zebunissa is the beacon of the golden age of Mughal empire where art and culture flourished and gave us gems like Taj Mahal, Shah Nama, Akbar Nama etc. It was, I feel, a curse that the gifted Akbar had to decree that Mughal princesses shall not marry, which led to the wastage of the talents in the confines of Mughal harem politics. Dara Shikoh had promised Jehan Ara that he would lift the ban but as he perished in the battle of succession against Aurangzeb, the dark veil was never lifted. I feel, like many others, that the history of the subcontinent would have been different had Dara gained grounds over Aurangzeb. Both Zebunissa and Jehan Ara are two of the most gifted persons in the Mughal lineage that mark themselves as sad, lonely icons. My regards to this site. Let us cherish our heritage.

  7. Manoj and other friends – many thanks for your comments and encouragement. Indeed, we have to understand and respect our heritage for a common, bright future..

  8. I had read a verse by Zeb-un-Nissa in “the scimitar and the veil” by Jennifer Heath:

    O waterfall, why lament?
    What grief wrinkles your face?
    What pain, that all night
    You strike your head on the rocks and cry?

    • what poignancy!

  9. What many people fail to understand is that emperor Aurangzeb was not opposed to Sufism/Tasawwuf as it was (as it is now) considered to be part of Islamic orthodoxy. Almost every major Islamic scholar was a Sufi, and this is welldocumented. Even the son of the founder of Wahhabism wrote that his father was not opposed to Sufism.

    It should also be noted that while Akbar had fourteen Hindu Mansabdars (high officials) in his court, Aurangzeb actually had 148 Hindu high officials in his court.

    • stop your lies

  10. To me Princess Zebunnissa is beyond the bars of words. I am very happy to have found this article on her. I never liked aurangzeb, however, when ever I enter the Badshahi masjid, it reminds me of her daughter and forces me to forgive him. Zeb Un Nissa is a hidden trasure and perhaps one of the few muslim women wrote their names in the history of the world. Our cultural heritage is the Mughal Era, while the mughals’ cultural heritage was zebunnissa!

  11. nice effort but rather simplistic in the way it outlines her absolute ideological opposition to Aurangzeb. The point made by Alamgir is important – historians are increasingly looking beyond the stereotyped image of Aurangzeb so there is probably a nuanced interpretation of Zebunissa out there too…

  12. Amazing article,

  13. Adaab, You have such a beautiful site. It is the perfect restorative when one wants to meander through spirituality history architecture poetry……an aesthetic treasure. I found your site while googling the Princess in fact. Bahu bahut shuqriya

  14. Thank you for sharing this wonderful information. Would you happen to know about a Mughal Princess that was part of a planned kidnapping by her brother? He attempted to kidnap her but failed because of a slave by the name of Taz. Taz supposedly fought off 4 guards in order to save her. She was a kind princess and everyone loved her. She treated the slaves like humans and for that they loved her. Her brother was jealous and supposedly hired someone to kill Taz! I know it sounds crazy but if it sounds familiar please respond!

  15. this is a wonderful site but stii i amm hving many oustions like why do belive that aurangzeb and his daughter will come take revenge?

  16. Wonderful article. If only more children had access to info like this, ‘history’ could become so much more fascinating for them and not dry facts as it is in school books today.

  17. Just a little more information to add to my fascination of the mughal period.

  18. […] Read many comments on this article from my older blog-site >> Tagged as: Aurangzeb, Captive Princess, Chauburji, dynasty, empire, hidden, History, invisible, Jadu Nath Sarkar, Latif, mugdivan, poet, poetryhal, princess, religious, Safavi, sufi, Zebunnisa Leave a comment Comments (9) Trackbacks (0) ( subscribe to comments on this post ) […]

  19. wonderful information on these beautiful and admirable persnalities PRINCESS jAHAN ARA and Princess ZEB.Amazing artical.I hope such blog helps to upgrad our knowledge about these great persnalities.

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