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Shahzadi of the Mughal Empire
Zeb-un-Nisa Begum.jpg
The Imperial princess Zeb-un-Nisa
Born 15 February 1638
Daulatabad, Mughal Empire
Died 26 May 1702(1702-05-26) (aged 64)
Delhi, Mughal Empire
Burial Sikandra, Agra
House House of Timur
Mother Dilras Banu Begum
Religion Islam

Zēb-un-Nisā (Persian: زیب النساء مخفی‎‎)*[1](Ornament of Womankind)[2](15 February 1638 – 26 May 1702)[3] was an Imperial Princess of the Mughal Empire as the eldest child of Emperor Aurangzeb (3 November 1618 – 3 March 1707) and his Empress consort Dilras Banu Begum. She was also a poet, who wrote under the pen name "Makhfi" (مخفی, "Hidden One"). Imprisoned by her father in the last 20 years of her life at Salimgarh Fort, Delhi, Princess Zeb-un-Nissa is remembered as a poet, and her writings were collected posthumously as Diwan-i-Makhfi.[4]


Zeb-un-Nissa's palace, 1880, Aurangabad.

Zeb-un-Nissa, the eldest child of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (known as Alamgeer), was born during the reign of her grandfather, Emperor Shah Jahan (15 January 1592 – 31 January 1666). Her mother was Dilras Banu Begum, daughter of Mirza Badi-uz-Zaman Safavi (titled Shah Nawaz Khan), and a princess of the prominent Safavid dynasty, the ruling dynasty of Iran (Persia).[5][6] Zeb-un-Nissa was her father's favourite child, and because of this she could compel him to pardon people who had offended him.

Her father charged Hafiza Mariam, one of the women of the court, with the education of Zeb-un-Nisa. Emperor Aurangzeb paid the princely sum of 30,000 gold pieces to the ustad bi for having taught his cherished daughter well.[7] She seems to have inherited her father's keenness of intellect and literary tastes because Zeb-un-Nissa memorised the Quran in three years and became a Hafiz at age seven. This occasion was celebrated by her father with a great feast and public holiday.[8] The princess was also given a reward of 30,000 gold pieces by her delighted father.[9] Zeb-un-Nisa then learned the sciences of the time with Mohammad Saeed Ashraf Mazandarani. She learned philosophy, mathematics, astronomy,[10] literature, and was a mistress of Persian, Arabic and Urdu. She was also appointed at teacher named miyabai and learned Arabic in four years.[11][12] She had a good reputation in calligraphy as well.[13] Zebunnissa father place her under Mulla Said Ashraf Mazanddrani who was a great Persian poet.[14] Her library surpassed all other private collections, and she employed many scholars on liberal salaries to produce literary works at her bidding or to copy manuscripts for her.[9] Zebunissa's library was inspired by Akbar's collection, which had the Qur'an, Hindu and Jaina scriptures, Greek Methology, Persian texts, travel accounts of the scholarly Alberuni, translations of the Bible and contemporary writing about her ancestors.[15] Her library also provided literary works each subject, such as law literature, history and theology.[16] Zebunnissa was a kind- hearted person and always helped people in need. She helped widows and orphans. Not only did she help people but every year she sent pilgrims to Mecca and Medina.[17] Zebunnissa also took an interest in music and it was said that she was the best singer among the women of her time.[18] Zebunnissa was skilled in the use of arms and several times took part in war.[15]

Zeb-un-Nissa started to narrate poems in Persian from the age of 14, but as her father did not like poetry, she used to write secretly. Zebunissa was also taught Persian poetry by her great grandmother Salim Begam.[15] Ustad Bayaz, one of her teachers, found her poems and encouraged her to continue narrating them. It is reported that in the court of Aurangzeb, there used to be hidden literary and poetic parties among "great" poets like Ghani Kashmiri, Naimatullah Khan and Aqil Khan Razi, and Zeb-un-Nissa participated secretly in these parties.

When Aurangzeb became the emperor after Shah Jahan, Zeb-un-Nissa was 21 years old. Aurangzeb found out about the talent and capacity of his daughter and began to discuss the political affairs of his Empire with her, listening to her opinions. It has been mentioned in some books that Aurangzeb sent all the royal princes for the reception of Zeb-un-Nissa each time she entered the court. Zeb-un-Nissa had four other younger sisters: the princesses, Zinat-un-Nissa, Zubdat-un-Nissa, Badr-un-Nissa and Mehr-un-Nissa. Among them, Zinat-un-Nissa and Zubdat-un-Nissa wrote poems too.

Zeb-un-Nissa did not get married and remained single her whole life, despite the fact that she had many suitors.This also came with the rise of speculative gossip about secret lovers and palace trysts.[19]

Her grandfather, Emperor Shah Jahan, had betrothed her to her first cousin, Prince Sulaiman Shikoh, the eldest son of her paternal uncle, Crown Prince Dara Shikoh. Shah Jahan had intended for her to become a future Mughal Empress as Sulaiman was the heir to Dara Shikoh, who was next in line for succession to the Mughal throne after Shah Jahan. The marriage would've been a perfect match but did not, however, take place due to Aurangzeb's reluctance, who hated his eldest brother, Dara Shikoh.[20] Zeb-un-Nissa spent all her life on literary works and poetry, as she herself said:

In some books it has been written that there was a secret love affair between Zeb-un-Nissa and Aqil Khan Razi, a poet and the governor of Lahore. However, others disagree with the prior theory. For example, in her poetic book (Diwan), some would argue that one cannot find a single Ghazal which supports this point and that all of her poems are based on the Sufi concept of the Love of God.

According to certain sources, "dehumanizing" scandals (created and/or written by some foreigners) regarding the lives of Mughal ladies were not uncommon (during the post-Renaissance era). For example, a claim of: "A sordid episode of [Zeb-un-Nissa's] carnal romance with Aqil Khan Razi and his death inside a hot cauldron with burning fire under it, gained wider currency and was eagerly picked up by the... populace." However, other sources state that Razi lived long (as a government official) and died naturally.[13]

Regarding her looks, "... 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."[21] Also with the way she dressed comes about her making an invention. " Zebunnissa invented a woman garment known as Angya Kurti. This was a modified form of the dress of the women of Turkestan. The modification was done to suit Indian conditions".[17]

Zeb-un-Nissa lived in a period when many "great" poets were at the peak of their reputation; e.g. Mawlana Abdul Qader Bedil, Kalim Kashani, Saa'eb Tabrizi and Ghani Kashmiri. There is a noticeable influence of Hafez Sherazi's style on the poetry of Zeb-un-Nissa. However, she is considered as one of the poets of the Indian School of Poetry 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."[22] Another talent that she had with writing was writing different kinds of Persian hand like nastaliq, mashkh and shikesta beautifully.[23]

Zeb-un-Nissa selected "Makhfi" (which means Hidden One in Persian) as her pen-name in her poetry. In addition to her poetic book or collection of poems, called Diwan, which contains approximately 5,000 verses, she also wrote the following books: Monis-ul-Roh, Zeb-ul Monsha’at and Zeb-ul-Tafasir. In Maghzan-ul Ghara’eb, the author writes that the poetic book of Zeb-un-Nissa contained 15,000 verses. Zebunnissa encourage complications and translations of various works also. A certain Mulla Safi-un Din Ardlei (Arabeli) under her patronage translated the gigantic Arabic work Tasifer -I-Kabir into Persian and named it Zeb-ut-Tasfir after her.[15]

Later years and imprisonment[edit]

There are multiple conflicting accounts offering explanations for the circumstances which ultimately led to her imprisonment at Salimgarh Fort, Delhi, at the edge of Shahjahanabad (present Old Delhi). In 1662, when Aurangzeb was taken ill and his physicians prescribed a change in the environment, he took his family and court with him to Lahore. At that time Akil Khan, the son of his vizier, was Governor of that city.[24] In the following period, Akil Kahn and Zeb-un-nissa allegedly had a brief yet failed affair,[25] after which Auranzeb began to distrust her and later imprisoned her[26] Other theories suggest that she was imprisoned for being a poetess and a musician (both anathema to Aurangzeb's austere, more orthodox and fundamental way of life and thinking).[27][28] Yet another explanation points to her correspondence with her younger brother,Muhammad Akbar. She supported the young prince in the inevitable ongoing conflict of succession, and was discovered to have written to him during the rebellion in 1681 AD (over the course of which he had publicly accused Aurangzeb of transgressions against Islamic law). Her punishment was to have her accumulated wealth confiscated, her annual pension of 4 lakhs nullified, and she was held prisoner at Salimgarh until her death.[29]

Here after 20 years of imprisonment, Zeb-un-Nissa died after seven days of illness still captive in Shahjahanabad while Aurangzeb was on a trip to the Deccan. Conflicting sources state the date of her death alternately as 1701 AD and 1702 AD.[29][30] Her tomb was in the garden of "Thirty thousand trees", outside of the Kabuli Gate, the west gate of the city. But when the railway line was laid out at Delhi, her tomb with its inscribed tombstone was shifted to Akbar's mausoleum at Sikandra, Agra[31]

In 1724, years after her death, her scattered and extant writings were collected under the name Diwan-i-Makhfi, literally, the Book of the Hidden One. It contained four hundred and twenty-one ghazals and several ruba'is. Subsequently, in 1730 other ghazals were added to the manuscript, which was also illuminated.[4]


Her poetic book was printed in Delhi in 1929 and in Tehran in 2001. Its manuscripts are in the National Library of Paris, the Library of the British Museum, the Library of Tübingen University in Germany and in the Mota Library in India. Zebunnisa loved the gardens in Agra and Delhi and a garden of Zebunnissa in Lahore is named for her.[15] The garden which she laid out in Lahore itself and which was called the Chauburgi, or four- towered, can still be traced by portions of the walls and gates remaining. Three of the turrets over the archway still stand, ornamented with tiles in patterns of cypress-trees and growing flowers, and the gateways have inscriptions in Arabic and Persian.[15] The Divin-i-Makhfi is widely read in India and is highly esteemed. Its poetry is chanted in the estatic concourses which is meet at festivals at the tombs of celebrated saints.[15]

Sample Translations[edit]

Her Ghazal is telling the story of love:

You with the dark curly hair and the breathtaking eyes,
your inquiring glance that leaves me undone.
Eyes that pierce and then withdraw like a blood-stained sword,
eyes with dagger lashes!
Zealots, you are mistaken – this is heaven.
Never mind those making promises of the afterlife:
join us now, righteous friends, in this intoxication.
Never mind the path to the Kaabah: sanctity resides in the heart.
Squander your life, suffer! God is right here.
Oh excruciating face! Continual light!
This is where I am thrilled, here, right here.
There is no book anywhere on the matter.
Only as soon as I see you do I understand.
If you wish to offer your beauty to God, give Zebunnisa
a taste. Awaiting the tiniest morsel, she is right here.

Translated by Sally Lee Stewart, Elena Bell and Maksuda Joraeva. [32]




  1. ^ Also romanized as Zebunnisa, Zebunniso, Zebunnissa, Zebunisa, Zeb al-Nissa. زیب Zēb means "beauty" or "ornament" in Persian and نساء Nissa means "women" in Arabic, Zebunnisa means "most beautiful of all women"
  2. ^ Sarkar, Jadunath (1989). Studies in Aurangzib’s Reign (Third ed.). Sangam Books Limeted. p. 90. ISBN 9780861319671. 
  3. ^ Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1979). A short history of Aurangzib, 1618–1707. Orient Longman. p. 14. 
  4. ^ a b Lal, p. 20
  5. ^ Lal, p. 7
  6. ^ "Aurangzeb daughter's monument in a shambles". nation.com.pk. 16 July 2009. 
  7. ^ Raman, Sista Anantha (2009). Women in India A Social and Cultural History. Library of Congress Catologing –in – Publication Data. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-275-98242-3. 
  8. ^ Lal, p. 8
  9. ^ a b Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1912). History of Aurangzib: Mainly based on Persian sources, Volume 1. M.C. Sarkar and Sons. p. 69. 
  10. ^ WISE: Muslim Women: Past and Present – Zebunnisa
  11. ^ Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook (1913). "The Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa: Introduction". sacred-texts.com. pp. 13–14]. 
  12. ^ "The Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa Index". sacred-texts.com. 
  13. ^ a b Hadi, Nabi (1995). Dictionary of Indo-Persian Literature. Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, Shakti Malik Abhinav Publications, Tara Chand Sons. pp. 638–639. ISBN 81-7017-311-6. 
  14. ^ Mirsa, Rekha (1967). Women in Mughal India. Munshiram Manoharlal. p. 90. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g Mukerjee 2001, p. 73
  16. ^ Nath, Renuka (1990). Notable Mughal and Hindu women in the 16th and 17th centuries A.D. Inter-India Publications. p. 161. ISBN 9788121002417. 
  17. ^ a b Nath, Renuka (1990). Notable Mughal and Hindu women in the 16th and 17th centuries A.D. Inter-India Publications. p. 163. ISBN 9788121002417. 
  18. ^ Nath, Renuka (1990). Notable Mughal and Hindu women in the 16th and 17th centuries A.D. Inter-India Publications. p. 162. ISBN 9788121002417. 
  19. ^ Hutton, Deborah (2015). A Companion to Asian Art and Architecture. john Wiley & Sons. p. 220. ISBN 9781119019534. 
  20. ^ "Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan, Volume 12". Research Society of Pakistan,. 1975: 26. 
  21. ^ "The Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa: Introduction". sacred-texts.com. 
  22. ^ Ziad, Zeenut (2002). The Magnificent Mughals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195794441. 
  23. ^ Mukherjee, Soma (2001). Royal Mughal Ladies and their contributions. Gyan Publishing House. p. 72. ISBN 81-212-0760-6. 
  24. ^ Lal, p. 14
  25. ^ Lal, p. 16
  26. ^ Lal, p. 17
  27. ^ Annie Krieger Krynick; Enjum Hamid. Captive Princess; Zebunissa, Daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb. Retrieved 31 May 2009. The book revolves around Princess Zebunissa (1638–1702) who is defined as the symbol of female power of the Mughal dynasty and portrays their stature in the court life in the seventeenth century...For her the name signified a life dramatically suppressed, cut off from the world. Her mysterious and unexpected imprisonment is also described in this book: Zebunissa's fate changed drastically when she was sent to prison by her father Aurangzeb, where she died leaving a landmark near the Red Fort of Delhi. 
  28. ^ "Memories of Ferghana". Retrieved 31 May 2009. MUSIC and dance? But wasn't that '‘unIslamic'’ in a country celebrating an Islamic revival, I'd thought back then, as I twirled at an Uzbek soiree at Kokand in the Ferghana Valley. My hostess had snatched up a daf (dafli in India) and was dancing slowly to a sad Persian song by Zebunissa 'Makhfi', an Uzbek-Tajik favourite. She was a princess of Delhi via Ferghana; Aurangzeb's daughter, whom he jailed for 20 years in Salimgarh, next to the Red Fort, because of her Sufi sympathies. Aurangzeb had killed music in his realm. Zebunissa's voice sang in her ancestral homeland, though lost to Delhi. 
  29. ^ a b Misra, Rekha (1967). Women in Mughal India. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal. p. 51. OCLC 473530. 
  30. ^ Smith, paul (2012). Makhfi The princess Sufi Poet Zebunnissa. Book Heaven. p. 25. ISBN 978-1480011830. 
  31. ^ Raza Rumi (10 May 2013). DELHI BY HEART: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller. HarperCollins Publishers India. ISBN 978-93-5029-998-2. 
  32. ^ Atlanta Review;Spring/Summer2002, Vol. VIII Issue 2, p 68.
  33. ^ Tahera Aftab (2008). Inscribing South Asian Muslim Women: An Annotated Bibliography & Research Guide. BRILL. p. 59. ISBN 9004158499. 

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