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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
Father Aurangzeb
Mother Dilras Banu Begum
Religion Islam

Zēb-un-Nisā (Persian: زیب النساء مخفی‎‎)*[1] (15 February 1638 – 26 May 1702)[2] was an Imperial Princess of the Mughal Empire as the eldest child of Emperor Aurangzeb 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.[3]


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. 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).[4][5] 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. 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.[6] The princess was also given a reward of 30,000 gold pieces by her delighted father.[7] Zeb-un-Nisa then learned the sciences of the time with Mohammad Saeed Ashraf Mazandarani. She learned philosophy, mathematics, astronomy,[8] literature, and was a mistress of Persian, Arabic and Urdu.[9] She had a good reputation in calligraphy as well.[10] 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.[7]

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. 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. 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.[11] 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.[10]

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."[12]

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.

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.

Later years and imprisonment[edit]

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.[13] In the following period, they allegedly had a brief yet failed affair,[14] after which Auranzeb began to distrust her and later imprisoned her at the Salimgarh Fort, Delhi, at the edge of Shahjahanabad (present Old Delhi).[15] 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) and/or for being sympathetic to her brother Muhammad Akbar, who was persona non–grata with the Emperor.[16][17]

Here after 20 years of imprisonment, Zeb-un-Nissa died in 1702, while Aurangzeb was on a trip to the Deccan.

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.[citation needed] 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.[3]


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.

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. [18]




  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. ^ Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1979). A short history of Aurangzib, 1618–1707. Orient Longman. p. 14. 
  3. ^ a b Lal, p. 20
  4. ^ Lal, p. 7
  5. ^ The Nation: Aurangzeb daughter's monument in a shambles (16 July 2009)
  6. ^ Lal, p. 8
  7. ^ a b Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1912). History of Aurangzib: Mainly based on Persian sources, Volume 1. M.C. Sarkar and Sons. p. 69. 
  8. ^ WISE: Muslim Women: Past and Present – Zebunnisa
  9. ^ Sacred-texts.com: The Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa (Index) – Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook (1913)
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ "Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan, Volume 12". Research Society of Pakistan,. 1975: 26. 
  12. ^ Sacred-texts.com: The Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa (Introduction) – Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook (1913) p.13-14
  13. ^ Lal, p. 14
  14. ^ Lal, p. 16
  15. ^ Lal, p. 17
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ "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. 
  18. ^ Atlanta Review;Spring/Summer2002, Vol. VIII Issue 2, p 68.
  19. ^ Tahera Aftab (2008). Inscribing South Asian Muslim Women: An Annotated Bibliography & Research Guide. BRILL. p. 59. ISBN 9004158499. 

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