The invisibility of the Mughal princesses

Painting by A.R Chughtai | Chughtai Museum

My piece published by the Himal Magazine 

The limitations of Southasia’s historical record can be seen in the indifference towards two notable Mughal princesses, Jahanara and Zebunnissa.

History – that mosaic of tales and fables that is generally, though not entirely, agreed upon – will always be contested and debated, often in the blood-lined bazaars of power. Indian history, which serves as the broad banner for the histories of Southasia, is certainly no exception in this. After all, Indian history has largely been one of power laced with the force of religion. In addition, during the course of this history, the rulers, ministers, clerics and soldiers have, with rare exceptions, all been male. Indeed, the annals of the sultanate and Mughal history, both medieval and modern, are largely tales of powerful and quarrelsome men vying for power and patronage. The local patriarchal society, influenced by the zeal of West Asian Islam, ensured the almost complete invisibility of women.

The brief reign of Razia Sultan (1236-1240) was an exception, though her ascension to the Delhi sultanate throne and subsequent dethronement and exile, as well as the continuous resistance of clergy and nobles to her political persona, only reinforced the predominance to patriarchy. Other than Razia Sultan and Queen Nur Jahan, who both gave up purdah and participated in the brutal politics of men, rarely did a woman rise to a position of authority or influence. For her part, Nur Jahan (1577-1645) experienced particular success, but her precedent was not the norm -she was Persian, after all, and was considered a particularly wily player of power politics. And Nur Jahan is demonised as a power-hungry monster, who supposedly subjugated the masculinity of her emperor husband to assume charge of the Mughal Empire. Indeed, in the words of that husband, Jahangir, the kingdom had been sold to his wife for a cup of wine and a bowl of soup. Nur Jahan has also been accused of misdeeds that were common to powerful men of that age: bribery, nepotism and the weaving of court intrigues. Such faint praise aside, all the while her lasting contributions to the Mughal court, the cuisine, lifestyle and trends of that age, have been largely overlooked, to appear as little more than feminine footnotes in the main narrative of Southasian power.

Lahore is where Nur Jahan and Jahangir married, and where they established their royal home. As a Lahorite, the childhood memories of this writer are inextricably mixed with those of many visits to Jahangir’s tomb. But the name of this much-celebrated monument is also particularly symbolic: it is not just the final resting place of Jahangir, but also that of the queen who lovingly designed the buildings and surrounding gardens, to their very last detail. Many of the architecturally significant additions made to the Lahore Fort, such as the zenana (female) quarters, have never been attributed to her. The irony, of course, is that Nur Jahan was the only queen who actually spent the majority of her royal life in Lahore. Other Mughal Emperors and Empresses lived in Agra or Delhi, save a few years of Akbar’s sojourn in Lahore. However, the histories of Lahore inevitably reduce Nur Jahan’s era to a brief footnote or an unread appendix.

But there is more to this story of the neglected women of the Mughal court than Razia Sultan and Nur Jahan. Buried within the folds of history is the tale of two princesses who have always remained well out of sight of the mainstream historical narratives of the Mughals. In recent decades, historians and novelists have indeed begun to explore the lives of princesses Jahanara and Zebunnissa, but the scanty primary sources available have largely thwarted these endeavours. Nonetheless, the stories of these extraordinary Mughal women dazzle through the mists of time, and their central paradox cannot be overlooked: the princesses were royal, and hence noteworthy, and yet they are almost completely invisible in what Southasians know as history.

Decades after Nur Jahan reigned, Princess Fatima Jahanara (1614-81) broke the longstanding taboo and became a major powerbroker within the complex dynamic of the Mughal court. Shahjahanabad (what is now referred to as Old Delhi) and its residents were familiar with Princess Jahanara, who had been a confidante of her father, the emperor Shah Jahan, as well as her eccentric brother, Dara Shikoh. Being the eldest daughter, she had a special role in the royal household, which fell under her control following the death of her mother Mumtaz Mahal, the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Interestingly, however, it was the mystical path that provided for both social and royal sanction for Jahanara’s high-profile public role.

Along with her brother, Dara Shikoh, Jahanara had been initiated into the Sufi faith, and was inspired by the saint Mian Mir of Lahore. Though Mian Mir adhered to the Sufi order known as Qadiriyya, Jahanara was also a devotee of the Chishti saints, particularly Nizamuddin Auliya and Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. In one notable instance, in 1643, the princess travelled to Ajmer after recuperating from severe burns, which had led to a near-death experience. It was this event, perhaps, that eventually led Jahanara to write her well-known biography on Chishti. In it, we learn of her pilgrimage to Ajmer, and of the mystical ecstasy that overcame her one evening while she was circumambulating the celebrated Chishti’s tomb. Thereafter, the princess ordered the construction of a massive marble pavilion directly in front of the tomb. Today, this vestibule is appropriately called the Begumi Dalan, a name derived from her title, Begum Sahib. Following her death, Princess Fatima Jahanara was laid to rest in the courtyard next to Nizamuddin Auliya’s tomb, in Delhi.

As a patron of mystical literature, Jahanara commissioned translations of several classic works, as well as erudite commentaries on these texts. As with Nur Jahan, Jahanara appreciated and promoted the arts, and was an accomplished poet in her own right. Her name was eventually romantically linked to various prominent men of letters of the time. Thus we have a female voice, personal and direct, from the 17th century, encompassed in Risala-i-Sahibbiyya (Madam’s treatise). Here, Jahanara records her journeys into mysticism, courtesy her spiritual guide Mullah Shah Badakhshi, interspersed with her verse. In this way, Sufism and its doctrine created a relatively genderless arena in which Jahanara could nurture her spiritual voice, and identify herself as a Sufi disciple as well as an artist and scholar in the literary and spiritual landscape of 17th-century Mughal India. The patronage of Sufi rituals also enabled a diluted purdah regime, and provided legitimacy to the public role as an active leader and contributor of an unmarried princess in the religious and cultural milieu of Delhi.

Following his son Aurangzeb’s order of house arrest, Shah Jahan was remanded to Agra Fort in 1658, where he eventually died in 1666. Jahanara remained loyal to her father, and stayed imprisoned with him until the end. Sixteen years later, she too died, and bequeathed all of her property to Khwaja Moinuddin’s dargah in Ajmer though her brother permitted only a third of the money to be so directed. Each time I frequent the Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi, I make sure to visit Jahanara’s small, serene tomb, with its delicately carved latticework on white marble that has gone brownish-pale with time, but which seeks to remind us of her soulfulness. The tomb has no ceiling, and fuses with the open skies in deference to her wishes. The inscription says it all: Let naught but green grasses cover my grave/For mortals poor, it’s a grave-cover brave.

Although few remember Begum Sahib’s concrete contributions, much has been made of the supposed adventurousness of her love life. Hindi cinema has dwelled on her unfulfilled love for her childhood companion, Mirza Yusuf Changezi. The well-known film Jahanara (1964), for instance, narrated the doomed romance of the princess, discussing how the dying Mumtaz Mahal reportedly made Jahanara promise that she would never leave her father. A heartbroken Yusuf then wanders the country, lost in her love. As I sat one evening at Jahanara’s tomb, I reminisced about her admirer, a Persian poet who fell in love with the princess at their first meeting. According to the tradition, pigeons would fly back and forth with messages of their love, and couplets and ghazals that sang of longing for each other. In all likelihood, this love story never reached its culmination in real life, unlike what the Hindi films of the 1950s tried to depict.

A more revealing anecdote pertained to the special bond between the emperor and Jahanara. Several European chroniclers suggested that Shah Jahan had an incestuous relationship with his daughter. One of these, Francois Bernier, wrote, Begum Sahib, the elder daughter of Shah Jahan, was very beautiful. Rumour has it that his attachment reached a point which it is difficult to believe, the justification of which he rested on the decision of the Mullas, or doctors of their law. According to them it would have been unjust to deny the king the privilege of gathering fruit from the tree he himself had planted. Whatever the veracity of these stories, this was clearly a unique relationship, as Jahanara spent the best years of her youth with her father, including the miserable years at Agra Fort under imperial custody. This was also the place where Dara Shikoh’s head is said to have been sent to the royals, as a present from Aurangzeb, who had had his elder brother murdered.

Of course, many of these anecdotes have been severely distorted over time, through the oral histories or via the accounts of semi-reliable European travellers. The titillating stories of incest and forbidden love have overshadowed her contribution to the making of Shahjahanabad. Her architectural contributions, such as the creation of the famed Chandni Chowk and travellers inns at Shajahanabad, are unique in their reflection of a feminine expression in their design. Similarly, her literary and poetic legacy is also ignored. Jahanara is the only woman among the Mughals buried next to Nizamuddin Auliya – a tomb that, ironically, does not allow women to enter.

Zebunnissa’s gardens

The other Mughal princess rendered largely invisible in men’s histories is Zebunnissa, whose outlook on life
is well reflected in these verses, composed by the inimitable princess:

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.

Princess Zebunnissa, the eldest daughter of Aurangzeb, was her father’s close companion for several years. Yet her remarkable story has been overshadowed by the political turmoil that led to Aurangzeb’s capture of the Mughal throne, the ruthless killings of Aurangzeb’s brother and the eight-year imprisonment of Shah Jahan at Agra Fort. Zebunnissa had always been a favourite of her father’s, and received great exposure to the affairs of the Mughal court. Having had a sound education in the arts, languages, astronomy and sciences of the day, Zebunnissa turned out to be a highly aware and sensitive princess. She never married, having rejected all of her suitors, and kept herself occupied with poetry and spiritual quests throughout her life.
This is perhaps the greatest of ironies, for Aurangzeb’s daughter was almost an antithesis of her father’s persona and politics. Unlike his predecessors, Aurangzeb was a devout Muslim and puritanical in his worldview, and is said to have banned music and overtly denounced Sufism. Zebunnissa, on the other hand, was a Sufi, a free spirit and a gifted poet, and there is to this day a major collection of Persian verse credited to her name. Given her father’s dislike of poetry, however, it is for this very reason that Zebunnissa could only be makhfi, “the invisible”, since she was not supposed to be prominent in the public domain. Dressed in a black robe symbolic of the medieval Islamic scholars, she held a hidden, parallel court. In addition, as with all rebels, there was much subversion in the princess’s life. She participated in literary and cultural events of the day in a veil, and also had a string of admirers, proteges and lovers.

Clearly, Zebunnissa did not share her father’s views on religion and society, which emanated from a literal adherence to the interpretations of Islamic thought, coded as Sharia. Steeped in mystical thought, her ghazals sing 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!

Her verses, comprising 400 ghazals, were later compiled as the Diwan-i-Makhfi. Here, makhfi is a metaphor that implies Zebunnissa’s invisibility at her father’s court, but also has cosmic implications, referring to the invisibility of god, her beloved. Today, only a fraction of Zebunnissa’s poetry has been translated into English and Urdu; a shame, as she has continued to remain unnoticed in mainstream accounts of history and arts of the Mughal era. A selection that has been translated is available at, including the following:

No moth am I that in impetuous fashion
Fly to the flame and perish. Rather say
I am a candle that with inward passion
Slowly and silently consume away.

Zebunnissa held a separate court, patronised the arts and letters, as well as many poets of her time. One of her longtime companions was the immigrant Iranian poet Ashraf. Zebunnissa managed to retain both her individuality and independence. In addition to following her own passions, she established many libraries, and arranged for the translation of several classical Arabic and Sanskrit texts into Persian, clear signs of the influence of her aunt Jahanara and her uncle, Dara Shikoh.

Zebunnissa also loved Lahore. Construction of the famous Chauburji gateway, once the entrance to a vast garden that no longer exists, is attributed to the princess. Today, the Chauburji building has an ayat-ul-kursi (an important Quranic verse, literally the Verse of the Divine Chair) inscribed on the main gate, and the date of its completion is recorded as 1646. S M Latif, the famous Lahore historian, translated the Persian verse carved at the entrance as follows: 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. Zebunnissa, it is said, would also sit in the marble pavilion of the Shalimar gardens, to enjoy the soothing rhythms of the waterfall there. Like Chauburji, this was a place that provided her with inspiration to compose poetry. Talking to the waterfall, she composed this lyrical quatrain:

O waterfall! For whose sake art thou weeping?
In whose sorrowful recollection hast thou wrinkled thy brows?
What pain was it that impelled thee, like myself, the whole night,
To strike thy head against stone, and to shed tears?

The imagery here is quite modern, and the verse bespeaks of passion and longing, although it is not known at whom the longing is aimed.

Eventually, it was not her eclectic pursuits but the rebellion of her brother Akbar against the Mughal state that hastened the undoing of Zebunnissa. In 1681, Akbar proclaimed himself emperor. While the rebellion was short and unsuccessful, the princess’s communications with her exiled brother eventually led to her imprisonment in the Gwalior Fort, where she remained until her death in 1702. Zebunnissa died in Delhi, where she was buried in the Garden of Thirty Thousand Trees, outside the Kabuli Gate. It is said that her tomb was demolished when a railway line was laid in 1903, and the coffin and the inscribed tombstone were ostensibly shifted to Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandara, in Agra.

Mughal Makhfi
Much as we may conjecture about a full life lived, a good measure of the passions and poetry of Zebunnissa will remain concealed and un-translated. It is rather ironic that Zebunnissa’s muse blossomed and that her alternative lifestyle flourished under the orthodox Aurangzeb. Despite the fact that he might not have approved of her ways, Aurangzeb clearly did display a noteworthy fatherly tolerance. His ultimate falling-out with the princess was on political grounds – motivations that, it should be reiterated, had previously prompted the emperor to kill his three brothers and imprison his own father. As Southasians around the region have come to learn in their history lessons, kingship knows no kinship.

In this way, excessive attribution of religious motives to Aurangzeb’s conduct could well be far from the truth. In the Subcontinent, however, clergy and patriarchy have joined hands to distort many histories, with much subverting and twisting of narratives in order to fit into a preconceived way in which to present the past. Whether it is the near-erasure of women from the flow of history, or the demonisation of a particular community, clerical order or tribe, there is a series of endless quirks that add up to make Southasian history a daunting arena into which to venture.

The lives of the two princesses, Jahanara and Zebunnissa, will most likely remain forever invisible, unless we want to see them. The task of re-writing and re-interpreting that has gained currency since over the past few decades needs to be bolstered. Popular media can play a role. In addition, alternative research methods, especially those utilising the vast treasures of poetry and folklore that abound in Southasia, can also help in this process of unveiling what has been hidden for so long. Only then will we liberate history from court chroniclers and stereotypes.

At the Nizamuddin dargah, visitors flock to the tombs of Nizamuddin and Amir Khusro, while entranced ladies dance around the adjacent tomb of another king, Mohammad Shah Rangeela. Very few take the time to visit Jahanara’s final resting place. Zebunnissa, buried near her majestic great-grandfather Akbar in Sikandara, is not even mentioned when the tourists finish up their visits to the site of Akbar’s mausoleum. Likewise, the tomb and gardens of that great queen, Nur Jahan, are largely invisible in today’s Lahore, despite the fact that she ruled a vast empire for decades. What can be done about a history that renders women invisible and reinforces violence, ambition and greed? Perhaps, continuously challenge and rewrite it.

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