Princess Zaibun Nisa, the Obscure

July 7, 2019

Emperor Aurangzeb’s favourite daughter, a highly intellectual and gifted woman, has been hidden from the extensive chronicling she is worthy of. Worse, she and her tomb, are conflicted and no one really knows whether it is her inside the ruined tomb in Nawakot or not

Princess Zaibun Nisa, the Obscure

The forlorn and forgotten tomb along the main road near the Nawakot locality in Lahore, famous for the two trees that provide shade to the grave, is said to be that of the Mughal Princess Zaibun Nisa (1637-1702).

Born to Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir and his Safavid wife, Queen Dilarus Bano Begum, Zaibun Nisa was the ‘favourite’ daughter among their five children, including crown prince Mohammad Azam and the youngest rebellious son, Akbar (Dirk Collier; The Great Mughals and Their India). Rana Safvi, a noted chronicler of the Mughals, wrote in her essay, ‘Princess Zaibun Nisa: The Concealed One’ that "Zaibun Nisa was destined to ascend the Mughal throne betrothed, as she was to Sulaiman Shikoh, the eldest son of Dara Shikoh."

Nisa was a highly intellectual and gifted woman. In her book, Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions, Soma Mukherjee writes, "Aurangzeb was extremely fond of his eldest daughter who with her eloquence and knowledge of the Quran, gave ample reasons to her father to be proud of her. She spent most of her time in literary pursuits, since she received good education from her tutor Hafiza Mariam, Miya Bai, and a poet named Shah Rustom Ghazi."

Nisa also had expertise in Persian, Arabic, arithmetic and astronomy.

The most celebration-worthy achievement of Princess Zaibun Nisa, whose name literally translates as ‘a jewel among women,’ is her collection of poetry -- over 500 poems (nazm and ghazal), and thousands of quatrains (rubaiyyat), translated in English in 1913, as the diwan of Zaibun Nisa, by Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook. In the introductory chapter of the collection, Westbrook chronicles the intellectual and literary life of the princess -- from early childhood, when she began her poetic journey by writing in Arabic but soon shifted to Persian. Her tutor chanced upon some of her work, which she had kept hidden, and was so impressed that he managed to coax the poetry-hating Aurangzeb Alamgir to arrange for a sitting of poets -- a mushaira -- for the princess so she could be introduced to the poetic literati of the sub-continent.

This was a first -- not only for Mughal women, although a lot of them wrote poetry, but also for the common women writers. "Among the poets of her circle were Nasir Ali, Sayab, Shams Wali Ullah, Brahmin, and Behraaz. Nasir Ali came from Sirhind, and was famous for his pride and poverty, for he despised the protection of the great. Nisa admired his verses, and in a way he came to be regarded almost as her rival poet. Her coterie used to engage in a poetical tournament -- a kind of war of wits. One would propose a line--sometimes it would be a question; another would answer it or contradict it or qualify it or expand it, by a line or lines in the same metre, rhyming with the original line. This is called mushaira -- a poetical concourse; and in this quick repartee, Nisa excelled."

Westbrook goes on to write that Nisa, being a daddy’s girl, had the liberty to engage with men of literature, hold discussions with them, and exchange poetic intelligence.

One of her poetic influences was her uncle, Dara Shikoh, a poet himself with strong Sufi leanings. Nisa, born to a puritan Muslim father, grew spiritually closer to her uncle’s liberal Sufism. She even contributed to Dara Shikoh’s collection of poetry. One strong reason for the proximity between the niece and uncle must be the fact that Shah Jahan himself had decided the future marriage of Nisa with Dara’s eldest son, the hopeful crown prince. Sulaiman Shikoh and Nisa had been betrothed. According to Dirk Collier, Sulaiman was Shah Jahan’s favourite grandson.

There is a story attached to her tomb -- one of a Tees Hazari Bagh -- the garden of 30,000 trees, which Princess Jehan Ara (Nisa’s paternal aunt, and Aurangzeb’s sister) had commissioned in Delhi. There is no location name and no details except that there were thirty thousand trees in a ten-acre garden which housed Nisa’s tomb since she had bequeathed it to be her last dwelling.

"She came out in the court, and helped in her father’s councils, but always with the veil upon her face. Perhaps she liked the metaphor of the face hidden till the day when the Divine Belovèd should come; perhaps, life behind carven lattices had a charm for her; for her pen-name is Makhfi, the hidden one," as written in Nisa’s diwan.

Another achievement of Nisa, which could not see completion, was her commentary (tafseer) of the Quran since she was highly versed in Arabic and had a good understanding as well as memorisation (hifz) of the holy book at the age of seven, which was a great deal for Aurangzeb and he celebrated the occasion with great fervour: Nisa was rewarded with 30,000 gold coins, and 30,000 golds mohurs were distributed among the poor. Besides, feasts were held, and sweets were distributed in the streets. (Francois Bernier; Travels in the Mogul Empire).

However, the emperor was not happy to learn a few years later that his daughter, having come of age and sound intellect, had begun writing her own commentary of the Quran. She was ordered to stop writing because it was not ‘correct’ for a woman to dabble in such serious business.

Nisa went on to write what she set out to. Magan Lal and Jessie’s research explores the writer within Nisa and reveals that she was a hoarder of books, and the Lahore Fort had a special section for her collection -- a personal library.

She also had a "scriptorium" -- or, the "human printing press" -- in her ‘workplace’ where she had hired Kashmiri calligraphers who would copy rare and valuable scripts for her on Kashmiri paper since it was of best quality, as well as help her put together her own manuscripts. "Her personal interest in the work was great, and every morning she went over the copies that had been made on the previous day.


Nisa had contemporary fame as a poet, and "literary men would send their works for approval or criticism." In modern terminology, she was a publisher, editor, reader, author, reviewer, and a celebrity writer who wrote blurbs for other authors, poet. "She had a yearly allowance of four lakh rupees and she spent most of it in literary pursuits," writes Jessie Westbrook. The translators and researchers of her diwan, Magan Lal and Jessie Westbrook, indeed to clarify that Zaibun Nisa is buried inside a tomb in the Nawakot (Sanamabad) neighbourhood of Lahore. The Archaeology Department of Punjab, Pakistan, notifies the tomb to be of the Princess’s. There are graves of unknown persons in the tomb but popularly associated with Nisa, the eldest and most celebrated daughter of the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb.

It is also said that the tomb was built by her in 1669 A.D., in the midst of a beautiful garden.

Bhola Nath Waris, in his book, Tareekh e Shehr e Lahore, accounts her alleged love affair with one Aqil Khan, the handsome governor of Multan. (This could be reviewed since multiple sources quote him to be the governor of Lahore, the city where Nisa came in her adolescence and grew a fondness for a lush green garden with fountains).

He writes, once Aurangzeb Alamgir had refused her request for accepting the marriage proposal by Khan. Nisa was annoyed with her father and pushed herself into self-exile in a sanctuary. Here she started a free food service (langar) for the needy.

Waris also suggests that Nisa and Aqil lived in the sanctuary as lovers and once Aurangzeb found that out, he had Khan killed, actually boiled in a cauldron (degh) since he was hiding in it.

Also, Nisa was kept in a ‘house arrest’ in the same place where she lived until her death, and was buried in the same place, in Lahore. A rare book, Zaibun Nisa kay Aansoo (Tears of Zaibun Nisa), translated by Paul Whalley in 1913, revealed that the "Princess led a tragic life. Due to Aurangzeb’s dislike for Dara Shikoh, her marriage to Shikoh’s son was called off. She watched her lover being burnt alive in front of her by her father. Even her poetry and music suffered under Aurangzeb’s orthodox rule."

The popular account about Sulaiman’s death is chronicled by poust (opium) poisoning. Aqil’s death is rumoured to be closer to this account but Sulaiman’s details are authentic and Aqil’s are not.

Quoting from the source of Waris, Haroon Khalid, in his book, Imagining Lahore, suggests: "Perhaps, the emperor was aghast at the princess’s audacity in choosing a suitor for herself. Perhaps, he was frightened by the challenge Aqil Khan or his progeny could present to him for future kingship."

Khalid concludes that it is quite possible that Zaibun Nisa’s tomb was built in India, in a ‘garden of thirty thousand trees’ outside the Kabuli Gate in Delhi, as stated by Soma Mukherjee, Bhola Nath Waris, and Mirza Subuktageen in his book, Sehar Manzil.

Niccalao Manucci, the Italian historian who lived among the Mughal emperors and documented their stories, writes in his account, titled ‘Stories of the Moguls, Volume II’: "Princess Zaibun Nisa was betrothed to Prince Sulaiman Shikoh." The stories of imprisoning Sulaiman and Nisa in the Salimgarh Fort together are bouncy, since there has never been an account of their marriage. In 1659, when Dara Shikoh was beheaded by Aurangzeb’s men and his head was brought to the emperor on a silver platter, Nisa had developed resentment against her father.

Sulaiman, still 400 kilometres away from Agra, during the battle of Samugarh in which Dara and his younger son Siphir were taken by Aurangzeb’s men, learnt about his father’s arrest four days later, as Collier writes. He sought refuge with the kingdom of Garhwal (currently Uttarakhand) whose Rajah welcomed him and also married one of his daughters to him. Sulaiman stayed there for 18 months, until Aurangzeb threatened the Rajah to give up his guest and the Rajah had to comply. Sulaiman, Zaibun Nisa’s first love and fiancé was taken into custody, and "despite his desperate plea to give him a swift and honourable death, he was force-fed poust (strong opium) everyday, until he became a witless zombie. He died in May 1662, at the age of 27 (Dirk Collier, The Great Mughals and Their India).

One can only imagine Zaib’s pain. One of her poems describes her wistfulness, tragedy and agony:

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.

Her poetry speaks of being ‘imprisoned,’ ‘caged,’ ‘hidden from the world,’ and being a forlorn lover many times.

The adverse claim is, "She was imprisoned in Salimgarh Fort in Delhi where she is believed to have died in 1701 or 1702, and her tomb was razed to the ground when the Rajputana Railway Line was being laid in 1875."

There are other accounts, from Collier, Lal and Westbrook, and Judge Lateef (of The History of Lahore; 1890) which suggest that Princess Zaibun Nisa was imprisoned in the Salimgarh Fort not for her love affair(s) with either Sulaiman Shikoh or Aqil Khan but because she did not approve of the tyrannical rule of her father. And when his youngest son Muhammad Akbar rebelled against the Emperor, the favourite daughter sided with the rebel forces. The rebellion died and Zaib was encaged, later "freed when she lived a solitary life in Delhi, not responding to letters, even of those poets whom she had been a colleague and contemporary of." (Jessie WestBrook)

There is a story attached to her tomb -- one of a Tees Hazari Bagh -- the garden of 30,000 trees, which Princess Jehan Ara (Nisa’s paternal aunt, and Aurangzeb’s sister) had commissioned in Delhi. There is no name of the location, except that of the thirty thousand trees in a ten-acre wide garden which housed Nisa’s tomb since she had bequeathed it to be her last dwelling.

Interestingly, the distance from today’s Chauburji, the gateway to a lush garden full of fountains and trees, is within a ten acres’ radius from Zaibun Nisa’s tomb in Samanabad. In her "Author’s Bio" in the diwan, it is written that she "died in 1689 after seven days’ illness, and was buried in her garden at Nawakot, near Lahore, according to the instructions she left. The tomb is desolate now, although once it was made of fine marble, and had over its dome a pinnacle of gold; it was ruined in the troublous times of the dissolution of the Mughal Empire. The great gate still stands, large enough for an elephant with a howdah to enter. Within the enclosure is a tower with four minarets, roofed with turquoise and straw-yellow tiles. But the garden that was in its time very splendid, being held second only to that of the Shalimar of Shah Jahan, has disappeared."

She deserves applause now, like she did then, but unfortunately, Princess Zaibun Nisa has not only been hidden from the extensive chronicling she is worthy of, but has also been forgotten. Worse, she and her tomb, are disputed and people are generally not sure whether it is her inside the ruined tomb in Nawakot since the ‘razed’ tomb hardly provides evidence.

Also read: Princess Gulbadan, the royal biographer

This confusion and unsureness, especially with regards to women in history, is a tragedy in itself. However, her achievements are not disputed, nor are they hidden. Musicians at shrines sing her poems as spiritual lyrics -- kalaam -- but it can get an even better recognition. Zaibun Nisa hardly ever wrote in Urdu but the digitised platform showcases her rare Urdu couplets.

Nisa has been one of those Mughal women, who did not get married and had stories of undocumented and unauthentic scandals attached to them, which have travelled through time more popularly than the real stories about women such as Jehan Ara, Roshan Ara, and Anarkali, already discussed in this series.