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 responses to “Zeb-un-Nissa”

  1. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    “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.

  2. Raza Rumi says:

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

  3. ali m.m. khan says:

    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.

  4. Raza Rumi says:

    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.

  5. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    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.

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