International Women’s Day-This Aurangzeb’s daughter had her own lit fests!

Okay, let’s do a different thing this International Women’s Day. Let’s read the haunting tale of a Mughal princess who not just penned poems but also stood up against her ruthless father.

International Women’s Day is not just about politicians, doctors, actresses and businesswomen, it is much more than all these.

Here is an image of the beautiful Zeb which is preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

International Women's Day
Portrait of Zeb-un-Nissa

His name was Aurangzeb. Yes, you read it right, Aurangzeb, the third son of Shahjahan and Mumtaz Begum, and one of the last Mighty Mughals.

Zeb-un-Nissa was one of the many children of the redoubtable Aurangzeb and his Iranian wife, Diras Babu Begum.

Unlike her brothers, she was quite a contented soul and spent most of her time in Delhi and Lahore.

Born at  Daulatabad in 1638, little Zeb mastered the Quran when she was just seven. So happy was Aurangzeb on this occasion, that he ordered the closure of all public offices for two days. He also threw a grand feast for his officials to celebrate this occasion. Historians also tell us that she received a grand prize of 30,000 gold coins from her father!

When Zeb-un-Nissa entered her teens, she was given classes on Persian, Arabic and of course the Quran. And it was then when she discovered the joys of poetry.

She refined her poems by reading all kinds of literature -prose, and poetry- belonging to the various Persian and Arabic poets of the era.

Opposite to her dad

Aurangzeb became the Emperor of Hindustan in the late 1650s after killing his brothers in wars. He also imprisoned his father, Shahjahan, in his quest for father.

A few years after he became the Lord of the Mughal Kingdom, he banned poetry, wine, music and dance from his court. Aurangzeb was trying to win the support of the Muslim Ulema and could not afford to be seen as a liberal king like his great-grandfather, Akbar. Historians tell us that Aurangzeb was one of the most brutal and fanatic rulers the world has ever seen.

But unknown to him, his own daughter, Zeb-un-Nissa was not just penning seductive poetry but also inviting other poets to her palace! Among her circle of poets were Nasir Ali, Sayab, Shamsh Wali Ullah, Brahmin, and Behraaz. Out of these, she admired Nasir Ali very much for his attitude as well as his style of poetry.

Zeb-un-Nissa's Palace Garden
The Chauburgi, Lahore. Zeb-un-Nisa’s palace garden. Image Creds- Wikipedia

One reason for his ignorance could have been that he was very very busy in putting down the various revolts that were erupting in the empire.

Just read these lines that were penned by the beautiful Zeb:

“I am the daughter of a King, but I have taken the path of renunciation, and this is my glory, as my name Zeb-un-Nissa, being interpreted, means that I am the glory of womankind”
“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 around my neck I wear, Her plaited hair instead”
“Whether it be in Mecca’s holiest shrine, Or in the Temple pilgrim feet have trod, Still Thou art mine, Wherever God is worshiped is my God”
Had her father heard these lines, the Princess would have been immediately arrested and maybe executed! But she was aware of the dangers involved and that is why she used to write under a pseudonym, Makhvi, meaning, ‘The Veiled One’.
Her poetry still exists in the famous book, Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa, and her works are quite popular in some Central Asian countries. Zeb has written more than 5,000 verses and most of those can be found in the museums of Paris, London, and other European capitals.

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Ethereal Beauty

Zeb, apart from being a sensitive poetess, was a very beautiful woman too. Though she lived in the Mughal Harem, people have described this lady as having a mole above her lips, and having a fair complexion. Contemporary writers describe her as “being tall and slim, her face round and fair in color, 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 around her neck.”

Aurangzeb wanted his daughter to be married to the elder son of his brother, Dara Shukoh but this could not happen. Dara was executed by Aurangzeb so this marriage did not happen.

She was also betrothed to the son of the Persian king, Shah Abbas II, but the princess did not find her fiancee match her standards.

The Governor of Lahore, Aqil Khan was also smitten by this princess but did not have the guts to visit her in Delhi. Aurangzeb wanted this gentleman to marry Zeb, but the friends of the Governor terrified him by telling stories about the cruel nature of the Emperor! Such was the terror of the Mughal Emperor!

Did she have an affair with Aqil Khan, the Governor of Lahore? Well, some people suggest that she indeed did and that was the reason why Zeb-un-Nissa was later on jailed by her father!

Another account says that both the lovers used to meet in the gardens of Red Fort Delhi. One day, Aurangzeb discovered Aqil and had him boiled alive !

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But, she indeed had a colorful life. These lines give us a clue about her romantic life:

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.

Her death

Zeb-un-Nissa died a painful death. She was imprisoned in the Salimgarh Fort on the orders of her dad.

One of the saddest lines that she ever penned are these;

O idle arms,
Never the lost Beloved have ye caressed:
Better that ye were broken than like this
Empty and cold eternally to rest.

    O useless eyes,
Never the lost Beloved for all these years
Have ye beheld: better that ye were blind
Than dimmed thus by my unavailing tears.

    O foolish springs,
That bring not the Beloved to my abode;
Yea, all the friends of youth have gone from me,
Each has set out on his appointed road.

    O fading rose,
Dying unseen as hidden thou wert born;
So my heart’s blossom fallen in the dust
Was ne’er ordained His turban to adorn

Perhaps her association with Prince Akbar was not liked by the Emperor. Akbar had revolted against his father, Aurangzeb, much like the other Mughals.

The other reason could be that the Mullahs did not like her poetry and poisoned the ears of Aurangzeb against Zeb.

Whatever be the reason of her confinement, Zeb-un Nissa died in 1701 or 1702 in that royal prison and was later buried in the Tees Hazari area of Delhi.

In the 1880s, when the British were laying down the railway tracks in Delhi, her body was taken to Agra where it was re-buried, this time in Sikandra.

You can also read the following books on Zeb-un-Nissa

  1. Captive Princess 
  2. Princess Zeb-un-Nissa

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Thanks for reading this post on International Women’s Day, folks.


  1. Such a fulfilling life she seems to have lived. What is striking is that she was content with her life in spite of the cruel nature of her father.

    Her works are an inspiration and I wish women today follow their hearts to lead similar lives.

  2. A powerfully creative woman for International Women’s Day. Words are indeed very powerful, especially the words of a poet in love. And a beautiful one at that too. It’s just so sad that her life ended that way.

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