We often hear of the famous Princess Jahanara and Princess Roshanara, but not much is known about a Princess, who true to her pen name, Makhfi, has been concealed from the public eye.
This princess was unique in many ways. While most Mughal queens and princesses receded into history, she is one of the few princesses who was able to preserve her name. Her name reflects what she truly meant to the empire- Zeb-un-Nissa, Ornament of Womankind. She was a great patron of the arts, a gifted calligraphist, collector of manuscripts, and one of the greatest poets the era had ever seen. She was a true example of beauty inside and out.
Zeb-un-Nissa had acquired the best qualities from her family. This was of no surprise as she was born to Emperor Aurangzeb and his first wife and chief consort Dilras Banu Begum, a Persian princess. She was her father's favorite and had a hold on his heart like no other. She seemed to have inherited the keen intellect and literary tastes of her father because in three years Zeb-un-Nissa memorized the Quran and became a Hafiz by the age of seven. Aurangzeb being a pious Muslim did not like spending money unnecessarily but he was so impressed by his daughter's achievement that he celebrated the occasion with a grand feast and a public holiday. He also rewarded his daughter and her teacher with 30,000 gold pieces out of joy.
Zeb-un-Nissa was not just a Hafiz. She learned all the sciences of the time, mathematics, astronomy as well as philosophy and literature. Later she became a mistress in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu. She was an avid reader whose library surpassed all other personal collections at the time. She was so wise that even Aurangzeb consulted her regarding court decisions. During Aurangzeb's accession she was only 21, but her father valued her capabilities and sought political advice from her all the time.
Her vast knowledge was not the only thing that made her stand out. Just her grandmother, Nur Jahan, she had an excellent taste in fashion. Zeb-un-Nissa invented a woman garment known as AngyaKurti, which was a modified form of the dress of the women of Turkestan, made to suit Indian conditions. She, herself, dressed in simple clothes, with only a string of pearls adorning her neck. She was graceful, elegant with a round face and two beauty spots on her left cheek. In Lahore Museum is a contemporary portrait, which corresponds to her description being tall, slim and fair with black eyes and abundant hair, thin lips, and small teeth.
Zeb-un-Nissa is an example of a princess who taught women the meaning of self-worth, self-love, consent and the importance of making their own identity. She did not just wait for her prince charming, rather she studied, she wrote and focused on developing herself. She was a kind-hearted woman who helped people in need- widows and orphans. Every year she sent pilgrims to Mecca and Medina to perform Hajj. She also took an interest in music and was a great singer herself. Just like her aunt, Jahanara and uncle, Dara Shukoh, Zeb-un-Nissa also had a Sufi aspect to her. Her Sufi nature heavily influenced her poems and is evident in her writings.
There are a lot of stories surrounding her love life but not many are true. She never got married because her thinking was unlike any other princess of that day and age. While she had many suitors, she was careful about who she chose to be her partner. She insisted on seeing the Princes and testing their skills to understand how accomplished they were. She did not want to be with someone who would not match her caliber.
Despite being such an extraordinary princess, her life met a very tragic ending. She spent the later years of her life in prison, as instructed by her father. While there are multiple conflicting accounts offering explanations for the circumstances which ultimately led to her imprisonment, we do not know for sure which one is the actual truth. Some say that she enraged Aurangzeb by breaking his trust and having an alleged affair with Akil Khan, the Governor of Lahore when they moved to the city.
Other theories suggest that Aurangzeb, being an orthodox Muslim, did not appreciate her being a poetess and musician and imprisoned her. However, both these explanations seem unjust and untrue. The only theory that can possibly be authentic is that she supported her younger brother, Muhammad Akbar during the battle for succession. Akbar had publicly accused their father of transgressions against Islamic law and Zeb-un-Nissa's support to that had led her to punishment.
Although Zeb-un-Nissa was way ahead in terms of her accomplishments than most princesses of her time, people have not let any opportunity pass by to mar her character. Zeb-un-Nissa did not get married and remained single her whole life, despite having many suitors. Her grandfather Emperor Shah Jahan, had married her to her first cousin Prince SulaimanShukoh, the eldest son of her father's brother, Crown Prince Dara Shukoh. Shah Jahan had expected her to become the eventual empress of Mughal, as Sulaiman was the successor to Dara Shukoh, who was next in the line of succession to the Mughal throne after Shah Jahan.
The union would have been a perfect match, but it did not take place because of Aurangzeb's reluctance; who hated his older brother. Her decision to remain unmarried also came with the rise of speculative gossip about secret lovers and palace trysts. Even writers like Bankimchandra have questioned her character and made up stories about her having an affair with Mubarak Khan.
It is unfortunate that the story of an accomplished princess, like Zeb-un-Nissa has been veiled in gossip about her love life. Even though these stories always succeeded in stirring up public imagination, it is about time we change this system and write authentic stories only. We need to learn that it is not okay to assassinate historic characters. When we write about someone, we cannot simply make up scenarios that are not true because these leave an impact on how a character is perceived by people reading their stories. The way we talk about Cleopatra and her accomplishments, Zeb-un-Nissa deserves to receive the same respect for her qualities.
It is a shame that the world has become such that history is written according to one's society whereas it is a vast subject representing that society in the entire world. History should never be presented based on the ideologies of a certain region, rather it should be written in such a way that when anyone questions the authenticity of the information empirical data can be shown to prove it is right.
In the current world movies and books prefer creating scripts in ways that meet public demand but this, in turn, leads to the rise of false descriptions about many historical events. The alternation of historical events and characters does not just change societal views but it also leads to barriers within societies and regions and disrupts world peace. The movie Padmaavat is a great example of the creation of characters based on public demand. We must not let this continue. Otherwise great personalities like Zeb-un-Nissa will be lost amongst the plethora of controversies and character assassinations.
One of the most talented, witty, sharp, opinionated, caring, courageous Princesses, Zeb-un-Nissa must be given her worth in an era where the truth about characters is heavily modified according to societal acceptance.
The writer is Chairperson of Siddiqui's International School and Treasurer of Bangladesh English Medium Schools' Assistance Foundation (BEMSAF)
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