The Nautch Atrophy: Decline of Medieval India’s most famed Performing Arts

Analysing broadly, what the British referred to as nautch was a dance form that was specifically prevalent only in the courts and zamindari estates of northern India.


Painting depicting nautch girls performing their dance.

The imperial grandeur of the Mughals, the regal opulence of the Rajahs and the Nawabs have all been, through the ages of history, associated with the tinkling of the anklets and tiny, metallic bells affixed to the ghungroos of the court accompanists and terpsichoreans.
‘Nautch’ is an Anglo-Indian term, supposedly derived due to an erroneous pronunciation, from the popular culture Bengali word ‘naach’ which relates itself to the Sanskritic ‘nritya’ or simply ‘dance’.
Although this term had, over the past few centuries (when India was under the hegemony of the British), narrowed itself down to considering court dance as the only viable form of ‘nautch’, ‘nritya’, another of its widely used synonyms, is a universal admixture of almost all the dance forms, types and traditions prevalent in the subcontinent.
Analysing broadly, what the British regarded to as ‘nautch’ was a dance form that was specifically prevalent only in the courts and zamindari estates of northern India. This had its origins in the medieval ages and, in the opinions of Talbot Mundy as detailed in ‘Yasmini in “King, of the Khyber Rifles”’, was aimed at enticing men to complete obedience.
On the other hand, the dance form practised to the south was not surprisingly one that was meant to entertain men. In other words, this dance had absolutely no sexual attributes or orientations affixed to it. Dancers of the Deccan, especially in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka were meant to devote themselves to the service of the almighty. They had to rigorously learn and train themselves to mastery in classical dances such as the Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi and Odissi, following which they underwent a Pottukattu or a nearly marriage ceremony, where they took a vow of celibacy throughout life.
In those days, Deccan being a region where gender equality wasn’t as much an issue as it was in the North, these dancers were regarded to be aristocratic individuals in the eyes of the societal hierarchy since they took care of the temple, the regional deity and practiced a form of performing arts that was one of the most talked and researched about.
With the introduction of the British rule in the Indian subcontinent, changes in customs and century old traditions were effectuated, being legally brought out both in northern and southern India.
In the 1857 edition of ‘The Athenæum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts’, it is stated that Nautch girls had to frequently perform at durbars for the pleasure of the host and his guests, who in those days were usually the English. F. M. Coleman, in his 1897 work entitled, ‘Typical Pictures of Indian Natives: With Descriptive Letterpress’ further details that the quantity of the nautch girls and musicians (instrumentalists and often, singers) depended on the societal status and wealth of the host, who was usually an Indian zamindar allied to the English or a drunk, ineffectual nawab.
The nautch performed in three stages: the first, mor nach (en: peacock dance), the second, patang nach (en: kite dance), on which Julia Corner, in her book ‘India : pictorial, descriptive, and historical : from the earliest times to the present with nearly one hundred illustrations’ emphasises and quotes, “An exceedingly graceful dance of the Natch girls is called the “Kite dance.” The air is slow and expressive, and the dancers imitate in their gestures the movements of a person flying the kite”, and the third, qahar ka nach (en: the palki bearer’s nautch with a taste of eroticism added to it).
With regards to the English impressions about the nautch girls, the work ‘The English in India, and other sketches, by a traveller’ (1835) states that, “Very few English admire this exhibition on the first representation, but by repetition it ceases to disgust, and at length, in many cases, comes to form the chief enjoyment of life. It is a fact, however, that whenever this fatal taste is acquired, the moral being of the man becomes more and more enervated, until its healthier European characteristics that are lost in the voluptuous indolence that enthrals the generality of the western Asiatics.”
The sexual attributes attached to a nautch girl and the elements of eroticism that were performed through the dances were the very earliest features that disenchanted the British interest from this century old form of performing arts. Although in a 1820 painting, now preserved at the British Library (Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections), descriptions that say, “Watercolour of a European, probably Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825), in Indian dress, smoking a hookah and watching a nautch in his house at Delhi, by an anonymous artist working in the Delhi style, c. 1820.
Although this painting is not inscribed, the central figure strikingly resembles other portraits of Ochterlony, a Major-General who was credited with ensuring British success in the Nepal War (1814-16) and who became infamous in Delhi, where he lived from 1803 to 1825. He had a house in Delhi as well as a garden-house on the road to Azalpur and he lived in Indian style. He was twice Resident at Delhi, 1803-06 and 1818-22. The lined face and white hair would suggest that this portrait was made in his later years and family portraits hang on the wall” might be suggestive of the opinion that some British officers were affirmative about the cultural glory and the traditional folk heritage attached to the dance forms, a certain incident in which several members of the British army died due to a fatal disorder called syphilis (one that is transmitted through sexual activity, especially in a brothel), broke all British faith in the female classical dancers.
In the Deccan, the Devdasis were forcefully registered as brothel prostitutes and in the north, some of the nautch girls, who had by then, lost their patronage to the English and the Indians educated in western standards, had to actually take up prostitution to prevent starvation, and by the early decades of the 20th century, anti-Nautch and anti-dedication movements swept throughout the country, thus giving birth to the stigmatised insinuation of ‘nautch’ being a derogatory walk of life.
The nonpareil glory and aberrant grandeur that the respectable art of a nautch brought to the regal durbars of the Mughals, the Nawabs, local Rajahs, and often the English, was no more!
Author is the Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London

The wall that speaks and a pavilion that declaims

A picture showing the Lahore Fort (Alamgiri Gate in background) and Hazuri Bagh Pavilion (foreground) in 1870.

Lahore Fort, the grandest of all the Mughal citadels ever built in Pakistan, isn’t just about another incredibly opulent fortification that was raised up to symbolise the erstwhile empire’s grandeur and wealth. Rather, the significance that Lahore Fort boasts of today is mostly about the architectural designs and patterns of structures followed in building it up.

Unlike the other super extravagant forts commissioned by the Mughals, back in Shahjahanabad (the Red Fort) and Agra (the Agra Fort), the fort complex at Lahore isn’t made up of red sandstone. It is primarily built up of burnt bricks with lime mortar, as has been observed by Muhammad Kamran, in his research paper ‘Masonry Walls Analysis from Shish Mahal Lahore-Pakistan’ for the Engineering Design Bureau, uploaded in digitalised version to Research-Gate.

In the opinions of the Directorate General of Archaeology, Pakistan, the “early history of the fort is shrouded in mystery and nothing definite is known about it…”

However, it is widely believed that the various structures present in the fort were commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar (way back in the 16th century) though Mughal historian and author Dede Fairchild Ruggles, in his book, “Islamic Gardens and Landscapes” states that most of this fort complex was rebuilt in the seventeenth century, which is, if we note the timeline of the Mughal succession of Kings, during the hegemonies of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

In “International Council of Monuments and Sites”, UNESCO notes that the fort is also regarded one of a kind because of the amalgamation of the various Hindu and Islamic motifs used to build its basic foundations, probably by Akbar himself.

Besides monumental structures that include the Shahi Hammam, the Badshahi Mosque, the iconic Alamgiri Gate, Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas, two typically unique structures make Lahore Fort a worthwhile visit.

The Naulakha Pavilion (called Naulakha [English for nine lacs] because of the gargantuan amount of nine lac Mughal rupaiyaas spent on building it to completion), located to the west of the Sheesh Mahal, in the northern Shah Burj Quadrangle section of the fort, was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, at a time when architecture of the empire was at its zenith. The pavilion, built to serve as the imperial personal chamber of the emperor, was originally constructed with features that correspond to the Bengali, the European and the Mughal style of Architecture.

A unique Bengali style of architecture, something that is mostly observed in the terracotta temples of Bishnupur, caught the emperor’s attention. Specifically, it was the sloping roof above the main premises of the Jor Bangla temple and the Raas Mancha that incited an interest in Shah Jahan to create a marvel with a sloping roof. Built in the seventeenth century, this partially completed structure was then inlaid with innumerable precious and semi precious stones (brought from far and wide) that were symbolic of the pavilion being used as an imperial Mughal residence. Further, as Asher states, a baldachin in the European standards, (baldaquin or in Italian: baldacchino) was placed above the seat of the Emperor, denoting the height of the cross cultural interactions between the Mughals and the early Europeans.

Shah Jahan was an emperor recognised for his taste of massive architectural glory and grandeur, and it is this desire of his that resulted in the construction of the many Mughal forts and palaces seen and hauled praises at, today.

However, this taste of his did not evolve all out of nowhere. Shah Jahan’s father, the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir had a taste of his own. He is widely known to have promulgated the use of pietra dura in place of an all calligraphy Mughal mausoleum.

Amongst the very little but significant contributions of this emperor to the field of art and culture is the one-of-a-kind Picture Wall at the Lahore Fort.

Considered to be the greatest and the most magnificent mural of its kind in the world, the Picture Wall, commissioned by Jahangir in 1624 and completed by his son, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632, extends over 1,450 feet (440 m) by 50 feet (15 m) with almost 116 paintings that detail various tales and narratives associated with the Mughal Empire. Precisely, it is a wall in faraway Lahore that depicts scenes of the history of the then Hindustan and still smells Indian.

A congregation of 116 isolated panels, the wall built in the nearly extinct Kashi Kari style of mosaic art (Tribune calls it a form of decorative art that involves ceramic assortment on tiles, faience and fabric), depicts everything, ranging from “elephant fights, angels, and polo games that do not form a cohesive narrative” to “azdahas or winged dragons from ancient Persian mythology, cup-bearing angel figures herons, cranes and other flying birds.”

Nevertheless, the wall doesn’t falter to highlight the life and customs followed by the court sovereign, his nobles and his courtesans. One panel that highlights four men at a game of chaughan (now referred to as polo) is considered a masterpiece in itself. There are also panels, as aforementioned, that depict elephant fights and taming wild beasts, which were usually part of the hugely popular recreations for the daredevil Mughal royals. In ‘Civilisations: The Triumph of Art’, a show for the BBC, historian Simon Schama quotes, “There are angels from Europe. Chinese dragons even make an appearance. There are royal hunts and epic battles. History, mythology, birds and beasts – the whole world as Jahangir understood it is on display.”

With time however, Mughal grandeur faded away into uncertainty and what was once theirs, now became a property of the Afghan Durranis. After changing hands for a couple of times since the Durrani claim, the fort was identified as the official residence of the Sikh King Ranjit Singh. With his death and Maharani Jindan being taken away by the British with interior conflicts crumbling the Khalsa Empire, the fort fell into the hands of the English East India company Sahibs in 1849.

Centuries of neglect towards the marvellous Wall of Pictures rendered it dilapidated, its paintings in an almost faded out state, until the present day Agha Khan Trust for Culture, through a detailed investigation, revealed a bewitching wall mural that once was!

Author is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London

PUBLISHED: The Sunday Guardian, 13th December, 2020

Nagara: An ancient Indo-Dionysiac Metropolis

The earliest details of Nagara are to be found in Ptolemy’s ‘Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis’, locating it to be in ‘India intra Gangem’ or ‘India within the Ganges’ and calls it ‘Dionysopolis’.

Ruins of the Library of Nyasa

The invincible Macedonian ruler Alexander III, when in 326 BCE he invaded the northwestern boundaries of India (beyond the Indus), became one of the earliest Hellenic kings to have travelled this far into the East.

After having subjugated the mighty Achaemenid Empire of Persia, Alexander is said to have led his force to annex the territories that came under the Persian rule. This motivated him to launch a couple of campaigns into the northwestern territories of the peninsular subcontinent, which formed the easternmost kingdoms that owed allegiance to the then vanquished Achaemenids.

Even though the Macedonian king seemed to sport youthful brevity and an enticement for war, a kingdom that could escape the wrath of the impenetrable Macedonian phalanx was one Nyssa (also known as Nysa or Nagara). There exists two central causes attributed to this.
Alexander, on his own part, possessed a massive deal of veneration towards the Greek Gods of Olympus. He had spent half of his life learning about the Olympians and their prowess, the legendary heroes of the Greek mythology and found an urge within himself to rise up to Olympus after his death (similar to the Greek hero Heracles). Initially after ascending the Macedonian throne, he proclaimed himself to be a descendant of Achilles, the Greek hero in the Trojan war, and after his victory over King Darius, he began identifying himself as the son of the omnipotent ruler of the Skies, Zeus.

The earliest details of Nagara are to be found in Ptolemy’s ‘Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis’, who locates it to be in ‘India intra Gangem’ or ‘India within the Ganges’ and calls it ‘Dionysopolis’. Furthermore, Greek military commander and historian, Arrian of Nicomedia, in his work  entitled, ‘Anabasis of Alexander’ details us on why this city had been spared like none other.

Amongst the inestimable Olympians that rule the various natural forces, planets and emotions in the entire ethereal universe, one is Dionysus (Roman: Bacchus), the Greek god of wine, fertility and ecstasy. His cult (the cult of Dionysus) is widely associated with the Orphic cult, the latter having been found by Orpheus, a famed musician and former Argonaut.

Revered as the son of Zeus and Semele (Princess of Thebes), Dionysus is generally considered to be an alienated Olympian. In her book, ‘The God Who Comes: Dionysian Mysteries Revisited’, Rosemarie Taylor-Perry considers Dionysus’ foreignness as an essential characteristic of the Dionysian cult.

During his infancy (owing to the fact that he was a son of Zeus and a mortal), Dionysus is said to have acquired the jealousy of Hera, the Queen of the Greek Pantheon. She struck the god with madness and made him travel to various parts of the world, seemingly as a consequence of Zeus’ innumerable illegitimate affairs with goddesses, women and nymphs.

Legends say that it was in Phrygia where he was cured of this craziness by Rhea, one who taught him various rituals before leaving him on a trip to Asia.

A significant part of Dionysus’ growth is concentrated in Asia, where he wandered from one country to the other, teaching its people the cultivation and culture of vine.

Most crucial among these trips of his, is one to Nyssa, a spectacular city that once stood between the Kabul River and the Indus. Dionysus is said to have resided many a year there and is also credited with having organised the entire city to the form Alexander saw later. Having been informed of the city’s classical glory and its sacredness, the Macedonians decided not to invade it, lest Dionysus be enraged.

As for the Greek God himself, Diodorus Siculus opinionated that, Dionysus’ travels soon took the form of a military expedition as he forged himself to conquer the entire world, except for Ethiopia and Britain.

The first of Dionysus’ attachment to Nyssa (Nysa?) is not however his ultimate. The god’s infancy is shred in mysteries. Various accounts have given discrete descriptions regarding the period Dionysus was being brought up. In his work, ‘Histories’, Herodotus says that Dionysus was raised hidden in Zeus’ thigh until he was brought to one Mount Nysa in Ethiopa, to be trained by the Hyades (rain nymphs who were made a cluster of stars as a reward from Zeus) and it was much later (after his return to the West), that the Greeks recognised him to be a God. Nagara, having actually been a city of the maenads, had possibilities of having had a wide cross cultural discourse and mercantile interaction, since the residents were as much Asians as they revered a Greek God and lived the Olympian way.

Presently however, nothing much is known about this Graeco-Indian city except for a few literary sources as noted down by Arrian and Ptolemy and some archaeological remains dating back to the Kushan-Hephthalite period, 1st-6th century AD. Today, the location of Nyssa (renamed Nagara Ghundi), as identified by the Cultural Property Training Resource of Afghanistan is ‘approximately four kilometres west of Jalalabad near Tepe Khwaja Lahori, south of the junction of the Surkhäb and Kabul rivers.’

Warwick Ball, in his ‘Archaeological Gazetteer of  Afghanistan’ has penned down a bit about the archaeological findings from the excavations that had been carried out. He mentions about ‘a very large stupa’, almost a ‘100 meters in circumference.’ ‘Excavations revealed an unusual radial construction of the dome, and a decorated, plastered exterior. Possibly identifiable with the Nagarahara stupa described by the 7th century Chinese pilgrim and chronicler Xuanzang.’

Howbeit, to the maenads, Nagara was not simply a city. It resembled the dynamic interaction of the sophisticated western philosophy and culture with the unrestrained eastern spirit of liberty and ecstasy, something that combined to give birth to the philosophy of Dionysus, the first Graeco-Indian Olympian.

Writer is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London

Nangeli and the first documented ‘Pati Sahagamanam’

The tale of Nangeli is symbolic of a woman’s lone resistance against an authority, bringing about an entire change in the system of governance. To the people of her village, she became the epitome of protest against the outward humiliation by the authority; and to the outer world, she symbolised the aversion of a lower caste woman to the might of a kingdom.
An 18th-century painting depicting the practice of Sati.

Analysing literally, Sati had always been a popular practice in the eyes of the orthodox Indian customs and rituals. Whether it be the valiant Rajputs or the mighty Bundelas, the womenfolk, in an endeavour to escape from the ravishing enemies, threw themselves (were often in fact thrown) into the funeral pyre to be burnt alive.

Although such an incident is more talked about for being the protection of the upright honour of the women, it has also had an extensively drastic effect on the not so influential young brides in the medieval aeon of the Indian history.

Coincidentally, child marriage was another widely prevalent system back then. Brides were often married off to rich, old men that belonged to the upper classes of the societal hierarchy at a very young age, without even an affirmative consent of theirs.

Sati came into play when the groom passed away. Villagers, taking Sati to be a ritualistic custom, forced the bride on fire and set her alight, alongside the dead corpse of her husband.

Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, the greatest of the imperial Mughal Emperors in India had been one of the earliest to manoeuvre the century old system or at-least attempt to do so. In decree, the Shahenshah legalised sati only for women who desired it and not a mandatory procedure for those who weren’t willing to.

This decree was one of the earliest progenitors that ultimately led the later British into legally abolishing this cruel ritualistic tradition.

Talking about the opposite gender however, the tradition of a male setting himself (or being forcefully set) on fire alive, alongside the corpse of his dead wife has taken place on only one single instance of the whole Indian history, if that too be history and not a folklore!

In a patriarchal society, forcing men to domination wasn’t a very natural sight, except that be for slaves. Men were usually free about their wills and even about whom they would wed.

To contradict, while a woman had to burn herself alive after her husband’s demise, a man would be free to choose another bride for himself, after he would have turned into a widower!

References have often been directed to one Nangeli, believed to have been a lower caste woman (Ezhava) who lived during the times of the Brahmin kings of Travancore.

Although historical sources for this particular feminine character are inadequate and much about her has been passed on through folklore, she has always been portrayed as an intrepid character in the annals of the Deccan.

During the days talked about, the Brahmins considered uncovering a woman’s breasts before an upper class elite, to be an honorific symbol and a way of paying their homage to the aristocracy.

The victims were usually the fiefs and the lower class cultivators who were forced into obeying the illogical regulations imposed upon them by the suzerain.

In a 2016 interview with the BBC News, Dr Sheeba KM, an associate Professor of gender ecology and Dalit studies at the Shri Shankaracharya Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in Kerala straightaway quoted, “The purpose of the breast-tax was to maintain the caste structure”.

Nangeli was one such woman who faced this humiliating  abuse. She had decided to keep her breasts covered, whatever be the consequences of the violation.

To discourage other women from joining Nangeli, the aristocracy of Travancore specified an unusually high tax on women who willed to keep their breasts covered in public. This tax, sometimes known by the name ‘Mulakkaram’, was assessed on the basis of the size of their breasts.

Howbeit, considering the authenticity of the patriarchal term used, Kerala had a difference. It was a comparatively matriarchal and liberal state, as per views documented by author and historian, Manu S. Pillai.

But, Nangeli was someone who had made up her mind to stand up and raise her voice against this unlawful doctrine of the suzerain that prevailed. She decided neither to uncover her breasts, nor to pay taxes for the same and this served a direct blow to the authority of the aristocracy.

A determined pravathiyar (synonymous to a tax collector for the Travancore state), reached Nangeli’s residence and demanded the tax to be paid.

Legends say, when Nangeli refused the tax collector and turned him down, the proud aristocrat sexually abused her and threatened to rape Nangeli.

However, Nangeli, as brave and determined she could ever be, rushed into the inner courtyard of her house, and brought with herself, a sharp knife, with which, as a demand for taxes, she cut off her exposed breasts, leading to excessive blood loss and ultimately her demise.

Now, Nangeli was married to an equivalent lower caste man called Chirukandan, someone who loved her deeply.

On his return, finding the mutilated body of his beloved and the chopped breasts lying on the plantain leaf, he was so overcome with grief, that inspite of leading a rebellion, which people had expected him to do, he is said to have jumped into the altar of his wife and burnt himself alive, the first and the ultimate instance of a male sati, also referred to as ‘Pati Sahagamanam’!

Following Nangeli and her husband’s demise, various movements and rebellions broke out against the authority.

People, especially those belonging to the lower classes, refused to expose their breasts or to pay taxes to the princely state

As a consequence of this violent upsurge, the breast tax system was annulled in Travancore, soon afterwards and the place Nangeli lived, had come to be known as Mulachiparambu (meaning ‘land of the breasted woman’).

The tale of Nangeli is symbolic of a woman’s lone resistance against an authority, bringing about an entire change in the system of governance. On the other hand, it also signified an upsurge of the lower caste people against the orthodox group of Brahmins and acquiring a favourable satisfaction with the ball in their court!

Decades later, the Victorian standards of rectitude impregnated into the societal customs through the British invasions and this resulted in subsequent class-struggles for the right to wear upper cloth for the women.

Also, as has been observed in various works including in ‘The encyclopaedia of Dravidian tribes’ by the International School of Dravidian Linguistics (1996), there were lots of discriminations and opposition to temple entries across Travancore soon after, but the incident that took place with Nangeli and the outrage it caused, helped result in the Maharaja acting against his aristocrat nobles, thus restoring what were the virtous ideals of the state.

Manu Pillai, although disregarding the origins of the tax (often said to be collected as decided by the authority, after an inspection of the woman’s breasts) does consider Nangeli to have risen up against a particular woman specific tax, that had been prevalent in the state to humiliate the women belonging to the lower strata of the society.

Despite this narrative not being officially recognised in any of India’s historical accounts and its historical authenticity being still speculative, Nangeli had to become a legend, her place forever reserved in folklores and cultural prattles.

To the people of her village, she became the epitome of protest against the outward humiliation by the authority and to the outer world, she symbolised the aversion of a  lower caste woman to the might of an empire, the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore.

It would be conclusively apt to document Manu’s lines from a column for The Hindu, that quote, “Her name was Nangeli and she lived in Cherthala, a watery alcove on the Kerala coast. We do not know when she was born or who sired her. But we know she died in 1803, her spirit cast in a hundred moulds in the two hundred summers that followed.”

Author and Fellow at The Royal Asiatic Society of London

Rebel princess: Zeb-un-Nissa of the Mughal ménage

Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter, Zeb-un-Nissa, had mastered subjects like philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, history, theology and literature. Also, she was identified to have been an excellent calligrapher.

It was all between a father and a daughter. A father, whose love and veneration for the orthodox Islamic ideals led him to despise poetry and music as an anathema and a daughter, who inspite of being her father’s eldest and his most favourite, expressed her desire to worship the almighty the Sufistic way and eventually chose to be a poetess and a musician, a way of life that was earlier preferred by her father’s arch rival: the late Dara Shukoh, Padshahzada-i-Buzurg Martaba.
It was all between the poignant Mughal Emperor Muhiuddin Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir and his eldest daughter (born of Dilras Banu Begum, Aurangzeb’s first wife and a Safavid princess), Zeb-un-Nissa.

Mughal Princess Zeb-un-Nissa


‘Hafiza’ is an Arabic term given to women members of the royal Mughal household who have an exemplary command over the Quran and have succeeded in memorising its verses thoroughly. Zeb-un-Nissa’s story begins from her being distinguished from the other women of her time as a Hafiza, at the young age of seven.
Aurangzeb (then Shahzada Muhiuddin) was so impressed with this feat of hers that, in his capacity as the viceroy of the Deccan, (Daulatabad is where they lived and Zeb-un-Nissa was born) he presented his daughter with 30,000 precious gold pieces, as told in ‘History of Aurangzib: Mainly based on Persian sources, Volume 1’ by Sir Jadunath Sarkar.
In ‘Women in India: A Social and Cultural History’ by Sista Anantha Raman, it is also stated that an additional reward of 30,000 gold tankas were paid as a princely gratification to Hafiza Mariam, the princess’ teacher, for having taught the princess (who apparently possessed her father’s intellect and literary passion), so well.
Furthermore, Rekha Mirsa in her work entitled, ‘Women in Mughal India’ carefully attempts to detail us on Zeb-un-Nissa’s educational accomplishments. She states that once the princess had been recognised as a Hafiza, she was entrusted to one Mohammad Saeed Ashraf Mazandarani, a Persian poet, for her study of arts and sciences.
In a few years from then, Zeb-un-Nissa’s mastery had extended over subjects like philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, history, theology and literature (that further was extant to Arabic, Persian and Urdu).
Additionally, she was also identified to have been an excellent calligrapher or so is penned down by Nabi Hadi in his ‘Dictionary of Indo-Persian Literature’ (for Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, 1995).
Thereafter broke out a vociferous war of succession between the four sons of Shah Jahan: Padshahzada Dara Shukoh, Shahzada Murad, Shahzada Shuja and the emperor’s least favourite, Shahzada Aurangzeb. This war virtually changed every course of Zeb-un-Nissa’s life.
She had earlier been betrothed to her cousin Mirza Sulaiman Shukoh, son of the heir apparent Dara Shukoh, by her grandfather Shah Jahan. But, soon after in 1659, Dara was brutally executed by the new emperor Alamgir and his son Sulaiman, Alamgir’s only remaining threat was captured and interred in the darkest realms of the Gwalior dungeon (until his assassination on his uncle’s orders in 1662).
When every hostility had been crushed and every revolt won over, Aurangzeb (now a stable emperor) recognised the administrative and economic capabilities of his daughter, as a result of which she was appointed as the Emperor’s advisor at 21.
In an introduction to the Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa, as translated by Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook in 1913, her appearance at the eloquent court is shown to be magisterial and power possessive. “… 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”, it quotes.
It is believed that the Emperor sent for the Royal princes to receive her in an entourage, each time she entered the Mughal durbar.
But these good and imperious times are for all, bound to end one day. And, so they did, even for the daughter of the mightiest of all Mughal Kings of Hindustan.
Her love for poetry gradually rendered itself into a passion and eventually, into her self chosen profession. She soon developed for herself, in the likeness of the other great poets of her age (Kalim Kashani, Saa’eb Tabrizi, Ghani Kashmiri and others), a pseudonym that was called ‘Makhfi’, literally meaning ‘the Hidden One’ in Persian.
“Zebunnisa was trained in the serious study of religious doctrine and in matters in faith, and she was known as an excellent scholar in several academic areas and as a literary figure and parton of some renown. She sang well and composed songs and planted many of the gardens of her day”, pens Zeenut Ziad, in her book ‘The Magnificent Mughals’.
A poet who followed the Indo-Persian school of poetry, Zeb-un-Nissa’s attachment to the fictional world distanced her from Aurangzeb, the Badshah who dearly loved her like anything. But, Zeb-un-Nissa gradually became a being of the abstract world.
Around this time (in 1562), the Emperor’s ailing health took him and his family to Lahore whose governor Akil Kahn (also a poet) is said to have a brief romantic relationship with the princess. This was again resented by Aurangzeb.
Later, on their return to Delhi and while the Maratha wars broke out in the Deccan, Prince Muhammed Akbar, another of Aurangzeb’s favourite children, broke ties with his father and revolted. Zeb-un-Nissa, who was fond of her younger brother, wrote letters to him around 1681, as a consequence of which Aurangzeb developed distrust for her and had her imprisoned at the Salimgarh Fort, a punishment to be revoked only on her death. Aurangzeb had always considered the princess to be his favourite. Yet, such was his rage for her connections with Akbar that he not only had her imprisoned for life, but also nullified all grants and salaries given in her name, besides confiscating her property and wealth. Coincidentally, Salimgarh is a fort famous for having housed the emperor’s brothers, the imprisoned Murad Baksh and Dara Shukoh in his initial days.
Zeb-un-Nissa was barred from the outside world and the emperor always hoped that her story would fade away soon.
But Zeb-un-Nissa’s prison days were more of a pilgrimage to her. A virgin for life, she devoted these days to worship the Allah in her Sufistic manner at her pleasure and dedicated around 15,000 couplets to him, some of which would later, after the death of the princess and her father, along with a few Rubāʿīas come to be compiled as Diwan-i-Makhfi (en: the Book of the Hidden One).
Zeb-un-Nissa passed away in 1702, in silence, unattended by her family or people whom she adored. Her father, the great emperor Aurangzeb, on a visit to Deccan then, had a tombstone erected at Tees Hazari Bag near the Kashmiri Gate of Shahjahanabad, the capital of the erstwhile gargantuan Mughal Empire.
Her legacy gradually faded away behind the high rise walls of Salimgarh. People pretermitted her name. Poets lost touch with her couplets. The gardens she laid were soon wiped out and so was her tombstone.
And yet she remained, in all her grandeur, in the pages of history that forgive none, serving the Lord, as she always did, her verses ever vibrant, declaiming to herself:
“Oh Makhfi, it is the path of love and alone you must go.
No one suits your friendship even if God be though.”
Author is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London

PUBLISHED: The Sunday Guardian, 28th November, 2020