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A Legend of Love in Lahore

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

A tale of forbidden love between the Mughal Princess Zeb-un-Nissa and then-Governor of Lahore, Akil Khan

If you talk of Lahore, how can you forget its lovers?

Three centuries ago, this city of magic witnessed two Sufi poets writing, dreaming & living for each other, only to be called heretics & punished for their obvious crime: love. And one of them was a princess.

Princess Zaib-Un-Nisa was born to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled over each brick and leaf of the entire region. Her mother was a Persian princess, and she herself was Aurangzeb’s most beloved child. Wherever he’d go, he’d bring the best ornaments for her.

But more than the jewels, he gifted her with the best teachers. She was taught literature, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, Arabic, Persian & Urdu by the masters of her time. It’s said that she memorised the entire Quran at the age of 7 & was gifted 30,000 pieces of gold for it!

When she turned 21, Aurangzeb learnt of her talent and started discussing the political affairs of the Empire with her. It has been mentioned in some books that Aurangzeb sent all the royal princes for the reception of Zeb-un-Nisa each time she entered the court.

It was in years of her youth when one day, during her stroll over the walls of the palace in Lahore, she caught the eyes of the young governor of the city, Akil Khan. Mesmerised by the princess he had always heard of, he wrote her a couplet “A vision in red appears on the roof…."

When it reached her, she replied, “Supplications nor force nor gold can win her” through her poetry. And thus began the story where metaphors communicated more than the conversation. Soon, their literary exchanges brought them closer. As always, the city didn’t keep it a secret.

So, afraid for his life but consumed by love, Akil Khan, the handsome poet ruler of Lahore, went to her father to ask for her hand. Enraged by this possibility, as he had already matched her with her cousin, Aurangzeb refused. He stripped Khan of his titles, rule & wealth.

But like a moth ready to die for the flame, khan gladly gave it all up and started living in poverty. The princess, too, left her royal accommodation and built her own prison, Nawa Kot Garden in Lahore & the famous Chauburji. With her books & pain, she settled in a corner.

In the garden complex, she started running a public kitchen, where beggars, dervish, malang, monks and jogis were fed every day. It is where Khan, now living in poverty, reached the garden at Nawa Kot to his beloved and revealed his identity to her through another couplet.

Together again, away from the emperor’s gaze, the lovers spent days in each other’s arms in this garden. But they could not escape Aurangzeb for too long, and through a network of spies, news reached Delhi that Khan and Zeb-un-Nisa had been reunited in Lahore.

A narration says that after learning of it, Aurangzeb had Khan boiled in a cauldron in front of the eyes of his beloved, and he then imprisoned the princess in her own garden, where she eventually died in 1702 & was buried. Some say that she was sent to SalimGarh Fort in Delhi.

But even if Aurangzeb did burn her lover, he couldn’t put off the flame in her. She never married in his memory. Then, she wrote,

“Oh Makhfi, (the hidden one), it is the path of love, and alone you must go. No one suits your friendship even if God be, though.”

Though historical accounts differ at so many points during the story, with some citing that the reason for her imprisonment was her political influence and not her affair, it’s true that the two lovers did live in the other’s hearts, and at the time, it could’ve meant death.

Her place of burial is still contested, with some believing that her remains were shifted from Delhi to Agra by the British & some claiming that her tomb is in the Garden she built in Lahore. But as far as one can tell, she’d have loved to be one with the mud of Khan’s city, Lahore.

And while we can only guess what she could’ve gotten as the most powerful woman of her time, to realise that she gave it all for the two things she loved the most; poetry and beloved - makes us fall in awe of the girl who laid the seeds of heart in this city.

She’d often go by the pen name, Makhfi. Her poetry is still preserved as “Dewan-e-Makhfi”. Some regard her as the first woman ever to write a Tafseer of the Quran too. A raw talent & beauty of her time, she was barred by the customs too difficult for her only language; that of Ishq.

Resting peacefully in her forgotten tomb in Lahore today, the Princess of Mughal India still says:

O ignorant nightingale! Hold tight your breath in your throat The delicate disposition of kings cannot bear poetic composition!

And she couldn’t have been more right!


 

This tale has been penned by Miss Hamd Nawaz.

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