We were quite certain that the monument before us was not the mausoleum of Zeb-un-Nisa – the rebel Sufi poetess, daughter of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb – even though there was a board put up here, seemingly by the Archaeology Department, stating otherwise.

There is much historical evidence to suggest that Zeb-un-Nisa died in the Salimgarh Fort in Delhi, part of the Red Fort complex in India’s capital city, where it is said she had been imprisoned for more than two decades. According to various accounts, her mausoleum was constructed outside the Kabuli Gate in Delhi, in what was known as the Garden of Thirty Thousand Trees. But in 1885, when the British were laying the railway tracks in Delhi, the mausoleum complex was razed while her remains were shifted to Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, Agra.

Though history suggests otherwise, the mausoleum in Nawa Kot on the Multan Road in Lahore is widely regarded as the tomb of the Mughal princess. To further strengthen this argument, there are several stories narrating the presence of the princess at this place.

Just behind the mausoleum are the remnants of a grand gateway that led into this vast enclosure of which the mausoleum is a part. Not only is it believed that Zeb-un-Nisa constructed the garden, along with the neighbouring Chuhburji garden, she is also said to have spent a large part of her life here, using it as her self-imposed prison. In the garden complex, she ran a public kitchen, where beggars, dervish, malang, monks and jogis were fed everyday.

So keen was Zeb-un-Nisa to fulfil the needs of these people that she would ask them to write what they wanted to eat on a piece of paper and then have that food prepared for them. This is how she is believed to have reconnected with her alleged lover Akil Khan, the former governor of Lahore, who, consumed by love for the Mughal princess, had abandoned his position, wealth and property and had started living as a mendicant.

The purported tomb of Zeb-un-Nisa in Lahore.

Poetic affair

Like Zeb-un-Nisa, Khan too was a poet and it said that their love for poetry is what brought them together. Once, when Khan was riding around the walls of the palace in Lahore, he caught a glimpse of the princess and exclaimed, “A vision in red appears on the roof of the palace.” When the words reached the ears of the princess, dressed in red, she responded, “Supplications nor force nor gold can win her.” Thus began their love story, through an exchange of poetry.

There are several stories that recount the rendezvous of the purported lovers. For instance, they are often said to have met at the garden where today her supposed tomb exists.

Zeb-un-Nisa was in many ways unique. While most of the Mughal queens and princess receded into history, Zeb-un-Nisa is one of the few princesses who was able to preserve her name. Her poetry is still in publication and read widely. Differing from her puritanical father, she was also inclined towards Sufism, much like her uncle and Emperor Shah Jahan’s oldest son, Crown Prince Dara Shikoh.

Zeb-un-Nisa is said to have been rather close to her uncle, who was executed by her father, Aurangzeb, so that he could ascend to the throne after Shah Jahan. She had been betrothed to Suleiman Shikoh, the eldest son of Dara Shikoh, at Emperor Shah Jahan’s directions. Aurangzeb is believed to have also killed Suleiman Shikoh in Gwalior, after taking charge of the Mughal Empire.

A theory goes that Emperor Aurangzeb could never forgive his daughter for her sympathies towards her uncle and fiancé, both of whom were eventually executed. Others assert that he was intolerant of her Sufistic interpretation of religion, which contrasted with his Puritanism. Perhaps it is out of spite for this that Aurangzeb did not allow Khan to marry his daughter, or perhaps he did not want a subsequent rival to the Mughal throne. Other versions of the story that suggest that it was in fact Khan who turned down the marriage after Aurangzeb summoned him to Delhi, ostensibly to discuss the proposal, afraid that it was a hoax to kill him.

Lahore’s princess

Dejected that she could not marry Akil Khan, the Mughal princess is believed to have given up her royal accommodation and turned to this secluded garden, where her only goal was to fulfill the culinary desires of the needy who would show up at her threshold. Khan, who had by then given up his position and wealth and was living in poverty. It is in this condition that he reached the garden at Nawa Kot to his beloved and revealed his identity to her through another couplet.

Together again, away from emperor’s gaze the lovers spent days in each other’s arms at 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. According to one version of the story, 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 and was buried.

These are of course all apocryphal stories and there is no proof of their historical legitimacy. But they do contain an essence of reality. It is no surprise that the tale of Princess Zeb-un-Nisa’s distraught relationship started doing rounds in the city of Lahore. Lahore was the beloved city of Dara Shikoh, where he was serving as governor before he engaged in a civil war with Aurangzeb to claim the throne. With Dara Shikoh came imperial funds for the beautification of the city, which had stopped after Emperor Shah Jahan had shifted the Mughal capital from Lahore to Shahajahanabad.

Dara Shikoh’s association with the Sufi saint Mian Mir, whom he regarded as a spiritual guide, also earned the Mughal prince a special place in the city of Lahore. Mian Mir was from Lahore and through him, Dara Shikoh too had become one of their own. Just before he went to war with Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh had planned to construct a long pathway from the fort to shrine of Mian Mir, several kilometres away. The Mughal prince, with his emphasis on religious syncretism, had captured the heart of the residents of the city and there is no doubt that the people of Lahore would have liked to see him ascend the Mughal throne.

But that was to not be and nothing could be said or done about it. There was no concept of political dissent at the time and in such an environment, rumours became the only way to hint at disagreement. Lahore needed a symbol to express political dissent and got it in the form of Zeb-un-Nisa – a Mughal princess, daughter of the Emperor himself, who was closer to her uncle than her father, a princess who, like Dara Shikoh was inclined towards Sufism and poetry, a princess whose first fiancé was assassinated by the emperor and subsequent lover burned in a cauldron.

And so, for many, Lahore is indeed home to the mausoleum of the city’s tragic princess, no matter what history suggests.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books: Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail