Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter, Zeb-un-Nissa, had mastered subjects like philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, history, theology and literature. Also, she was identified to have been an excellent calligrapher.

It was all between a father and a daughter. A father, whose love and veneration for the orthodox Islamic ideals led him to despise poetry and music as an anathema and a daughter, who inspite of being her father’s eldest and his most favourite, expressed her desire to worship the almighty the Sufistic way and eventually chose to be a poetess and a musician, a way of life that was earlier preferred by her father’s arch rival: the late Dara Shukoh, Padshahzada-i-Buzurg Martaba.
It was all between the poignant Mughal Emperor Muhiuddin Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir and his eldest daughter (born of Dilras Banu Begum, Aurangzeb’s first wife and a Safavid princess), Zeb-un-Nissa.

‘Hafiza’ is an Arabic term given to women members of the royal Mughal household who have an exemplary command over the Quran and have succeeded in memorising its verses thoroughly. Zeb-un-Nissa’s story begins from her being distinguished from the other women of her time as a Hafiza, at the young age of seven.
Aurangzeb (then Shahzada Muhiuddin) was so impressed with this feat of hers that, in his capacity as the viceroy of the Deccan, (Daulatabad is where they lived and Zeb-un-Nissa was born) he presented his daughter with 30,000 precious gold pieces, as told in ‘History of Aurangzib: Mainly based on Persian sources, Volume 1’ by Sir Jadunath Sarkar.
In ‘Women in India: A Social and Cultural History’ by Sista Anantha Raman, it is also stated that an additional reward of 30,000 gold tankas were paid as a princely gratification to Hafiza Mariam, the princess’ teacher, for having taught the princess (who apparently possessed her father’s intellect and literary passion), so well.
Furthermore, Rekha Mirsa in her work entitled, ‘Women in Mughal India’ carefully attempts to detail us on Zeb-un-Nissa’s educational accomplishments. She states that once the princess had been recognised as a Hafiza, she was entrusted to one Mohammad Saeed Ashraf Mazandarani, a Persian poet, for her study of arts and sciences.
In a few years from then, Zeb-un-Nissa’s mastery had extended over subjects like philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, history, theology and literature (that further was extant to Arabic, Persian and Urdu).
Additionally, she was also identified to have been an excellent calligrapher or so is penned down by Nabi Hadi in his ‘Dictionary of Indo-Persian Literature’ (for Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, 1995).
Thereafter broke out a vociferous war of succession between the four sons of Shah Jahan: Padshahzada Dara Shukoh, Shahzada Murad, Shahzada Shuja and the emperor’s least favourite, Shahzada Aurangzeb. This war virtually changed every course of Zeb-un-Nissa’s life.
She had earlier been betrothed to her cousin Mirza Sulaiman Shukoh, son of the heir apparent Dara Shukoh, by her grandfather Shah Jahan. But, soon after in 1659, Dara was brutally executed by the new emperor Alamgir and his son Sulaiman, Alamgir’s only remaining threat was captured and interred in the darkest realms of the Gwalior dungeon (until his assassination on his uncle’s orders in 1662).
When every hostility had been crushed and every revolt won over, Aurangzeb (now a stable emperor) recognised the administrative and economic capabilities of his daughter, as a result of which she was appointed as the Emperor’s advisor at 21.
In an introduction to the Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa, as translated by Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook in 1913, her appearance at the eloquent court is shown to be magisterial and power possessive. “… she is described as being tall and slim, her face round and fair in colour, with two moles, or beauty-spots, on her left cheek. Her eyes and abundant hair were very black, and she had thin lips and small teeth. In Lahore Museum is a contemporary portrait, which corresponds to this description… In dress she was simple and austere; in later life she always wore white, and her only ornament was a string of pearls round her neck”, it quotes.
It is believed that the Emperor sent for the Royal princes to receive her in an entourage, each time she entered the Mughal durbar.
But these good and imperious times are for all, bound to end one day. And, so they did, even for the daughter of the mightiest of all Mughal Kings of Hindustan.
Her love for poetry gradually rendered itself into a passion and eventually, into her self chosen profession. She soon developed for herself, in the likeness of the other great poets of her age (Kalim Kashani, Saa’eb Tabrizi, Ghani Kashmiri and others), a pseudonym that was called ‘Makhfi’, literally meaning ‘the Hidden One’ in Persian.
“Zebunnisa was trained in the serious study of religious doctrine and in matters in faith, and she was known as an excellent scholar in several academic areas and as a literary figure and parton of some renown. She sang well and composed songs and planted many of the gardens of her day”, pens Zeenut Ziad, in her book ‘The Magnificent Mughals’.
A poet who followed the Indo-Persian school of poetry, Zeb-un-Nissa’s attachment to the fictional world distanced her from Aurangzeb, the Badshah who dearly loved her like anything. But, Zeb-un-Nissa gradually became a being of the abstract world.
Around this time (in 1562), the Emperor’s ailing health took him and his family to Lahore whose governor Akil Kahn (also a poet) is said to have a brief romantic relationship with the princess. This was again resented by Aurangzeb.
Later, on their return to Delhi and while the Maratha wars broke out in the Deccan, Prince Muhammed Akbar, another of Aurangzeb’s favourite children, broke ties with his father and revolted. Zeb-un-Nissa, who was fond of her younger brother, wrote letters to him around 1681, as a consequence of which Aurangzeb developed distrust for her and had her imprisoned at the Salimgarh Fort, a punishment to be revoked only on her death. Aurangzeb had always considered the princess to be his favourite. Yet, such was his rage for her connections with Akbar that he not only had her imprisoned for life, but also nullified all grants and salaries given in her name, besides confiscating her property and wealth. Coincidentally, Salimgarh is a fort famous for having housed the emperor’s brothers, the imprisoned Murad Baksh and Dara Shukoh in his initial days.
Zeb-un-Nissa was barred from the outside world and the emperor always hoped that her story would fade away soon.
But Zeb-un-Nissa’s prison days were more of a pilgrimage to her. A virgin for life, she devoted these days to worship the Allah in her Sufistic manner at her pleasure and dedicated around 15,000 couplets to him, some of which would later, after the death of the princess and her father, along with a few Rubāʿīas come to be compiled as Diwan-i-Makhfi (en: the Book of the Hidden One).
Zeb-un-Nissa passed away in 1702, in silence, unattended by her family or people whom she adored. Her father, the great emperor Aurangzeb, on a visit to Deccan then, had a tombstone erected at Tees Hazari Bag near the Kashmiri Gate of Shahjahanabad, the capital of the erstwhile gargantuan Mughal Empire.
Her legacy gradually faded away behind the high rise walls of Salimgarh. People pretermitted her name. Poets lost touch with her couplets. The gardens she laid were soon wiped out and so was her tombstone.
And yet she remained, in all her grandeur, in the pages of history that forgive none, serving the Lord, as she always did, her verses ever vibrant, declaiming to herself:
“Oh Makhfi, it is the path of love and alone you must go.
No one suits your friendship even if God be though.”
Author is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London