Posted on September 17, 2007
Filed Under >Raza Rumi, History, People, Women
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Raza Rumi

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.

Being 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 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 e’migre’ 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 Bai
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, Zeb-un-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 elegance,
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-shud 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.

NOTE: an earlier version of this post was published by the Friday Times

32 Comments on “Zeb-un-Nissa”

  1. ayesha sajid says:
    September 17th, 2007 8:13 am

    Thankyou Raza, this is one of the most interesting posts i have come across here in a long time. Pieces like these compell readers to research and find out more about the subject so you should be congratulated for sowing the seed of the quest for knowledge !

  2. Mahmood says:
    September 17th, 2007 8:58 am

    Good post.

  3. ahmer says:
    September 17th, 2007 9:29 am

    Beautiful piece. I enjoy everything you write, but this was just phenomenal. Could you give us a list of your references, so I can read more about this gem of the Mughal age?

  4. khair says:
    September 17th, 2007 9:39 am

    Dear Raza, Nice post. I wish you had dwelled more on the strained relationship of Zaibunnisa and Aurngzed. I read somewhere that Arungzeb had her lover murdered and due to that she did not talk to her father for rest of her life and always wore black dress. Her poetry also expresses that pathos of seperation.

  5. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    September 17th, 2007 9:53 am

    An other beautiful post by Raza Rumi. Did this poet-princess live in the famous Shish Mahal (mirror palace) built by her grand father Shah Jahan at the Lahore Fort? Her mother was Persian and she wrote in Persian, the official court language of the time. Is her work now translated in Pakistani Urdu language? Is there any historical building or street in Lahore named after her like we see in the case of Anar Kali? Are there any books exclusively written about Princess Zeb-un-Nissa? It will be interesting to learn more about this ‘Princess from Lahore’.

  6. Raza Rumi says:
    September 17th, 2007 10:50 am

    Ayesha and Mahmood: many thanks for the kind comments. It is great to hear that my quest is shared by others too.

    Ahmar: try and read this book on her that I have mentioned Captive Princess….. Annie Krieger Krynicki (Author), Enjum Hamid (Translator).

    Khair Saheb: Yes what you wrote has been reported by many historians – however, much of the tales related in respect of her lovers were based on bazaar gossip that travellers and chroniclers had compiled. It is said that her lover was killed at the Chauburji gardens as he had to hide in a cauldron – but the authenticity of such stories is a little suspect.

    On the black dress: there are two interpretations – traditionally black robe was the dress of Islamic/oriental scholars (guess where the Oxbridge dress code came from!). Men were supposed to wear it – so our dear Princess dressed in this mode and appeared in her personal court as a scholar-princess. She was highly educated and had set up one of the first astronomy labnear Jantar Mantar area in Delhi.

    The other interpretation is that one of the Persian lovers ( a poet) had been killed upon the orders of Aurangzeb who did not relate much to the Persian ancestry of Mughals; and resented his daugther’s unconventional manners. So she was in a dress of mourning.

    I adhere to the earlier interpretation given the evidence and historical roots of black dress.

  7. mahi says:
    September 17th, 2007 11:21 am

    Hi Raza,

    Good post. Its always nice to add breadth to our understanding of historical matters. Aurangazeb may have advanced the borders of the Mughal empire but certainly set back its future and that of his people.

  8. zakoota says:
    September 17th, 2007 4:03 pm

    Very informative, loved reading it. Im sure there must be other Mughals who might have contributed in literature but remained unknown for certain reasons.

  9. zensufi says:
    September 17th, 2007 5:56 pm

    In my living room hangs an awesome tapestry of Zebunissa writing a poem. The artist told me a wonderful story about the story behind the poem for a certain Persian Pince. It was the winner of a competition the Pince organized and Zebunissa won, but did not collect on. Prize = marriage to the Prince.


  10. MQ says:
    September 17th, 2007 7:42 pm

    We named what used to be Elphinstone Street in Karachi as Zebun Nisa Street by which name it is known today. It must have been renamed before Zia because Zia, like Aurangzeb, wouldn’t have approved of Zebunnisa’s extracurricular activities.

    And, by the way, I thought Mughals were of Turkish descent, not Persian as you mention in your comment. Safvids, who ruled Iran were also of Turkish descent, I guess. Wallahu Alam.

  11. Zia says:
    September 17th, 2007 8:58 pm

    Very nice post Raza.

    MQ , As far I know Mughals were descendents of Mongol and Safavids were a mix.

  12. Owais Mughal says:
    September 17th, 2007 9:06 pm

    MQ saheb, I was also thinking about Zeb-un-Nissa street and wondering after whom it was named. For general knowledge there also used to be a digest called ‘Zeb-un-Nissa’ :)

  13. MQ says:
    September 17th, 2007 9:24 pm


    That’s a beautiful poem. “Yahan pe kuch nahin badla.” For some reason I couldn’t leave a comment there. That’s why here.

    Regarding Mongols being the ancestors of Mughals, I guess, the people in Cenral Asia must have Mongol genes in their gene pool. But didn’t Babur belong to Farghana Valley, which today is in Uzbekistan?

  14. Zia says:
    September 17th, 2007 9:46 pm

    MQ, Thanks…glad you liked it..feel free to visit and leave comments. I hope Raza will excuse us for communicating in this post.:)

    As far as I know Babur was a descendent of Timur Lung, who was a mongol ….that is how the word evolved into ‘Mughal’. He went on to conquer through Iran and then Central Asian Republics. He spoke Turkish and liked the Persian culture that is why people in that region seem to be a mix.

  15. mozang bijjli says:
    September 18th, 2007 12:00 am

    Very good post. The thing i liked best in it is “mahemakhfi shud” its very romantic, sweet and delicate.

  16. Ibrahim says:
    September 18th, 2007 12:46 am


    MQ: In your zeal to drag Ziaul Haq’s name through mud at every opportunity, try not to jump to conclusions. Zeb-un-Nisa Street in Karachi is named after Zeb-un-Nissa Hamidullah and NOT this fahash (if what’s written is true) daughter of Aurangzeb…not that Zeb-un-Nissa Hamidullah should be a great role model for Muslim women, but she’s definitely thousand times better than Aurangzeb’s daughter (again, if what’s written is true).

  17. MQ says:
    September 18th, 2007 1:29 am

    Who was Zebunnisa Hamidullah? And when was this street named?

  18. Raza Rumi says:
    September 18th, 2007 2:07 am

    Great comments again! No, Zia you are welcome to make further comments and lead a discussion – this is an open and democratic forum.

    I am not sure about the Zebunnissa street but the digest was surely named after this Mughal name.

    Mughals were of Turk-Mongol descent but in the subcontinent they localized themselves. Hamayun married a Persian Princess Hamida Bano and received Persian protection when Sher Shah Suri challenged him and drove him out of India. Later, Akbar married a Rajput princess who was also the mother of Mughal princes.

    With the ascent of Noor Jehan (of Persian origin) there were two strong groups at the Mughal court – the Persian/Shiites and the Turks and there was much tussle for power betweent the two for titles and governor-ships.

    This rambling was to set the context.

    About Ibrahim Saheb’s view of the poor Sufi princess, I have nothing to say except quote a Persian verse:

    fikr-e-har kas baqadre himmate oost..

  19. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    September 18th, 2007 10:14 am

    Exchange between Zia & MQ & Ibrahim is very interesting and informative. The old Elephantine Street in Karachi is most likely named after Zeb-un-Nisa Hamidullah. Some how we Pakistanis are not very fond of Moguls even though their period is when most of our cultural ethos where established. Taimoor’s Empire extended all the way up to Lahore and what is Pakistan today was once part of his Central Asian Empire. So checkered is our history. But I just love the phrase ‘Mah-e-Makhfi Shud’. So poetic.

    Akbar started the practice of marrying Rajput princesses for the political expedience but by the time Noor Jahan entered, the royal court was so heavily influenced by the locals that the practice had to be checked, if nothing else then at least for the political reasons. She made sure that Shah Jahan married her own niece, a girl of Persian origin. Early Moguls were Turkic but the royal household had heavy Persian influence. The court language eventually was changed from Turkish to Persian, a much more advanced and sophisticated language at the time.

  20. Ibrahim says:
    September 18th, 2007 1:46 pm


    Who was Zebunnisa Hamidullah? And when was this street named?

    She was Pakistan’s “first” female journalist and was quite famous. Also, a leading “feminist”—whatever that means. The street was named after her in the ’60s (see wiki link below). But, had it been named after Aurangzeb’s daughter, it would have been changed and right so (again, if what’s written is true) by Zia.

    Read more about her: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaib-un-Nissa_Hamidullah

    Raza Sahib: Please translate the persian couplet you mentioned. In any case, I regret using the word fahash not because I think things ascribed to her do not fall under fahashi (they clearly do and she is NOT a “sufi” by which if you mean religious/pious/zaahidah) but because the information cannot be substaniated (as you mentioned there are many rumors as well). Again, I’m going by what’s stated here.

  21. YLH says:
    September 18th, 2007 3:10 pm

    Wow. Great post.

    Is this the daughter to whom Aurangzeb addressed his final letter … asking her to tell the Mughal pinces like they once had?

  22. Raza Rumi says:
    September 19th, 2007 12:33 am

    Alvi Saheb: many thanks for the context setting.
    YLH: you are kind. Your comment was not clear – most of Aurangzeb’s letters were addressed to her until he imprisoned her. What a sad man.

    Ibrahim Sb: the translation very loose and broad is: each to his own way of looking at the world.
    I am glad that you corrected the word Fahashi in view of the lack of evidence. About her faith and piety neither you nor I can judge because it is for the Almighty to deliver a verdict on her. We are nobodies!

    Just a thought, would you also consider all the male [Mughal] kings as fahash since they had harams with hundreds of women (and not all being legal wives); and also the present-day ‘ayaash’ kings and monarchs of the middle east (including those who keep the holy keys in their pockets)?

  23. Babar says:
    September 20th, 2007 10:41 am

    Beautiful story Raza. Your post brings much needed information about our history. Now I can appreciate Chauburji’s significance.

    By the way, I recently enjoyed reading Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire by Diana Preston and Michael Preston. Why not compile your posts in a book!

  24. MQ says:
    September 20th, 2007 10:50 am


    You say, “What a sad man!” I would say not sad but sadistic.

  25. Ibrahim says:
    September 20th, 2007 12:01 pm


    Just a thought, would you also consider all the male [Mughal] kings as fahash since they had harams with hundreds of women (and not all being legal wives); and also the present-day ?ayaash? kings and monarchs of the middle east (including those who keep the holy keys in their pockets)?

    Oh, of course! Is there any doubt about that? But, if they had relationship with their 4 wives or cocubines, which they got legally, then there is no problem. In any other case, yes of course. If one sit in religious circles, you will find crticism of such actions done by whomever. I mean, among Mughals, outside of Aurangzeb and maybe Baber do “religious” people praise the other kings? I don’t think so. In fact, people consider the start of Mughal empire, the start of the end of Muslim rule/clout in Indian Subcontinent.

    Fahash is not limited to women only, you know. I would encourage you to look into your thought process (this is a sincere advice) because I’m surprised you would think a Muslim would see the alleged actions of Zeb-un-Nisa as fahash but not that of men, yesterdays or todays.

  26. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    September 20th, 2007 2:33 pm

    Mughals were immoral or not. Emperor Alamgir was a pious and correct person or a sadistic one; this debate would go on. What I have read so for about Aurangzeb makes me think that he got a bum deal from the early historians. His religious orthodoxy is seen a reason enough to cast him in the role of a villon. As an emperor of a vast empire perhaps he had no choice but to quell the challenges posed to his authority. He was ruthless to his all opponents regardless of their religion. Sikh, Afghan and Marhatta challenges had to be dealt with. So he did. We are speaking of a seventh century Imperial monarchy and not that of a twentieth century republic. A balanced, unbiased and fresh look at his half century rule is needed. May be he was not all bad as portrayed by his opponents.

  27. Raza Rumi says:
    September 22nd, 2007 11:46 am

    Ibrahim: thanks for the clarification
    Alvi Saheb: Yes Aurangzeb has been demonised for his orthodoxy. Much of it is a historical bias – however, most historians also agreed that his ruthless rule particularly in the last twenty five years of his 50 years accelerated the decline of Mughal Empire.

    He spent almost 25 years in Deccan waging wars against the Muslim kingdoms of Bijapur and Golcanda and neglected his control and administration of North where the centrifugal forces gained strength. Right after his death the disintegration of Mughal Empire started. This is why history has a rather unfavourable verdict on his rule, policies and governance.

    About his piety I am not too sure: Considering that he killed his three brothers, imprisoned his father for 8 years (along with his sister Jahan Ara) and then imprisoned his daughter until she died only shows that he was just another ruthless emperor willing to preserve his power at any cost. Personal piety in this case becomes a ‘personal’ issue between man and his God.

  28. ali m.m. khan says:
    September 23rd, 2007 8:02 am

    wow…What an interesting read …from thr original post and through out the whole discourse. I have some things to say.
    First how little do we know of our own Pakistani Origins which are of Aryan, Persian, Greek, Central Asian, Turk, Dravidian and Arab decent.
    Second, We learn of our own history through the eyes, voices and writings of European/western writers.
    Third, Even the language we communicate and discourse in is of European origin. ( iguess that cant be helped for the times we have born into). The same has been the case in the past when European elite and courts preferred Arabic.
    I consider myself somewhat of a Sufi and find no contradiction in zebunnissa and Islam and sufism. One of the companions o the prophet (pbuh) has said that he learnt 2 kinds of “ilm” from Rasool Allah (pbuh) one that he was informing the people with and other(ilm) of which, if he mentioned anything about his head would be chopped off.
    Anyways being a fervent student of history and islam i thought i would add my two cents.

  29. Raza Rumi says:
    September 24th, 2007 4:27 am

    Ali M M Khan: thanks for such insightful comments here. It was heartening to note that you appreciated the central message here.

  30. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    September 24th, 2007 9:43 am

    “First, how little do we know of our own Pakistani Origins which are of Aryan, Persian, Greek, Central Asian, Turk, Dravidian and Arab decent”.

    ali m.m. khan: You said it right. It is the blend of all of the above that makes us unique and uniquely Pakistani. No other nation can claim such wonderful heritage. First we must know our unique heritage and then be proud of it.

  31. AMJAD Iqbal says:
    March 20th, 2009 6:50 am

    THe tomb of the princess Zeb un Nissa is there near Saman Abad Chowk,Lahore, along the main road, a desolated and deserted place. There is a controversy as for the built of the Chahar Burj Garden by Zeb un NIssa or someone else; but i am of the view that the garden was built by Zeb un NIssa definitely.

    Well, the princess is lying peacefully; come to pray for her !

  32. Kanwal Chopra says:
    September 19th, 2009 1:03 am

    Just finished reading ‘Captive Princess’ and was instantly floored ! Strangely, Zebunnissa’s fate keeps hitting you back again and again. You keep wondering how come a life so regal, enlightened and majestic can be left to wither away so callously at the hands of some one who would be expected to afford best protection for it!

    Indeed, we all need to remain in perpetual awe for Almighty’s designs for us and never let our individual egos get the better of us. Whenever veering around, just think about Zeb’s life and get back to the right path. Perhaps then only her wandering soul might get some peace!

    Salimgurh’s visit near Red Fort is next in the diary but don’t know when can I visit her Chouburgi’s remnants. I have turned her fan now and pray that her soul rest in peace for ever!

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