Zebunissa, the poetess-princess daughter of Aurangzeb     

“My son, my heart grieves to see you appear before me in this manner on this day of joy”

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Ruchira Gupta

Zebunissa was woken from a drunken stupor as dawn caressed the sky. Along with the other Princesses, she had been fetched to be bathed, dressed and bejewelled in preparation for the day’s events. With little control over what was happening, Zebunissa merely moved and bent whichever way the Tatars and eunuchs instructed; one applied makeup, another placed jewellery. No one asked her what she desired for it had all been planned by Raushanara, Empress of this new India.

As the harem women were readied, they went like lambs, one by one, to the lattice windows from which they would observe the new Emperor’s coronation. Zebunissa stood peering over her sisters’ shoulders, all equally bewildered by how quickly and efficiently they had been readied, with no say about which lengha or what jewellery would adorn their young bodies. “Move over Zubdat,” Zebunissa said, maneuvering to stand at the front.

Alamgir zindabad! Alamgir zindabad! The crowd in the Diwan-i-am (Hall of Public Audience), chanted loudly as they awaited the arrival of the new Emperor. Zebunissa too whispered the chant to herself; as a Princess it would be inappropriate for her to chant loudly. ‘Allah, grant my father a long life,’ she prayed with eyes closed. Zebunissa adored her father and followed his every command, even though she disagreed with most of them. In turn, she enjoyed his devoted love.

When, as a child, she had learned the Koran, her father had given a grand feast to celebrate her accomplishment; when she learned Persian, he rewarded her with jewels. It had been clear to Zebunissa from a young age that among his daughters, Aurengzeb loved her the most. And though those who wished him ill painted him as a ruthless fanatic, she knew her father also believed in the passages from the Holy Book that spoke of forgiveness, charity and goodness. ‘The Koran has many faces,’ she told herself. As Emperor he would show everyone in the kingdom the different sides of his piety. He would forgive the brothers he had defeated and protect the weak, even if they were not Muslims. He would rule with justice...

As Aurengzeb, or Alamgir as he now wished to be known, dismounted from his stallion and walked towards the throne, Zebunissa thought in admiration that her father seemed made for this day. A broad shouldered muscular man whose skin was even paler than her own, he was covered with emeralds, sapphire, rubies and diamonds, the largest of which was pinned to his turban like a third eye. Her gaze fell on the gold encrusted sword he wore, weighted down with the precious metals and stones that adorned it, yet her father wore it as if it were no more than a feather...

But her father was different. While knowing he had the physical strength of ten soldiers, he nevertheless feared Allah, kneeling before the Koran and its laws whenever he could.

As Alamgir mounted the Peacock Throne, it was a vision of pure greatness in Zebunissa’s eyes. The throne he sat on was six gaz in length, one-and-a-half in breadth, and five in height. The base of the throne was supported by six massive feet, made of solid gold, sprinkled with rubies, emeralds and diamonds. The outer canopy had enamel work with gems, while the inner was thickly set with rubies, garnets and other jewels. The canopy was supported by twelve emerald coloured, enamelled columns. Among the jewels on the throne was a ruby worth one lakh rupaiya; on it was inscribed the names of the great Timur. A single large peacock sat above the quadrangular-shaped, dome-like canopy, with its outspread tail embedded with blue sapphires and other coloured stones. The body of the peacock was made of gold, inlaid with precious stones. On its breast was a large ruby, from which hung a pear-shaped pearl of 60 carats. Four richly decorated steps led to the throne...

As the continuous stream of nobility bearing gifts finally came to an end, the sanka sounded once again. The Prime Minister stepped forward to say, “Your Majesty, on the day of your coronation, all your children have been summoned, but it grieves me to say that Prince Sultan is here as a prisoner of state.”

Zebunissa stared at her father, sitting motionless at the mention of her brother. She recalled how Sultan had been captured at the western border of the empire, trying to escape with Shuja and his daughter, but had been caught by Aurengzeb’s forces before he could flee the kingdom. Shuja and his daughter, however, had evaded capture and were still at large.

“I suggest that we not present Prince Sultan before you today since this day is of joy and pleasure. Why visit this unpleasant subject on such a day of celebration?” the Prime Minister said, bowing low.

Much to Zebunissa’s chagrin, Aurengzeb’s long-bearded face remained frozen as he listened to his counsellor. There was silence in the audience hall. When Alamgir spoke, it was to say, “Present Prince Sultan before me now; I wish to see the face of my traitor son.”

The crowd gave a collective gasp and muted chatter ran around the audience hall. The Emperor’s wishes had to be obeyed. Moments turned to minutes as the onlookers waited, sweating in their finery.

Finally, a heavily chained fair skinned young man with broad shoulders was brought before Aurengzeb. Still retaining the status of a Prince, the court barbers had trimmed his hair and beard so that he would not appear in abject condition when taken before the Emperor. Zebunissa saw the heavy chains, the heavy steps, and could scarcely believe the prisoner was her handsome brother. The harem women began to weep; Prince Sultan had always been a favourite with them – so tall, so handsome, so brave! But Zebunissa remained firm, filled with anger more than sorrow, convinced that Sultan had sealed his own fate with his actions.

Prince Sultan bowed before his father and stood at attention. Aurengzeb’s face showed no emotion, neither anger nor outrage; remaining calm and frozen, his eyes surveyed his favourite child.

Finally he said in a voice from which all emotion had fled, “My son, my heart grieves to see you appear before me in this manner on this day of joy.”

Prince Sultan looked unwaveringly up at his father, the hint of an ironic smile on his face. “I beg forgiveness, Majesty, that I do not have jewels and garments to present to you on this day of your coronation.

Oh?” growled Aurengzeb. “Your presents arrived some time ago, my son – the corpses of my two Generals, whom you slayed when you decided to betray me and defect to my evil brother, Shuja-the-Usurper.”

Sultan bowed politely, his eyes cast downwards.

“You could have had anything, Sultan. All this, all of this vast empire, could have been yours. You were my first, most beloved son. You would have been my heir!” Alamgir’s voice could no longer hide the torment in his soul as he looked at his firstborn.

“Forgive me, Majesty, but appointing one’s son as heir has no basis in the Mughal dominion. Your own father, Emperor Shah Jahan, declared your brother, Prince Dara, as his heir in this very hall. What good did it do? There was still war, and you, the son Shah Jahan favoured the least, now sit on the Peacock Throne.”

“My father was demented! Riches, wine and women corrupted his mind so he chose that infidel-loving Dara as his heir! I am not demented.”

“So say you, Majesty. But one day your sons may make the same claim about you.”

“Sultan!” Alamgir’s voice rang out like a whiplash...

“Princess Zebunissa!” Alamgir raised a hand towards the screens behind which the women stood.

Zebunissa was surprised, but felt honoured to hear her name called; the first among the harem women to be addressed by the newly declared Emperor. She felt a rush of power.

“You are a beloved sister to Sultan, and a dear daughter to me. You therefore carry no bias. What say you? What punishment befits a son who betrayed me in my hour of greatest need?”

Zebunissa did not hesitate. It was almost like she had expected the question. “Majesty, there is only one answer for such an act: Death!”

Immediately there was an outcry from the harem women. ‘No, Zebo!’ ‘What have you done?’ ‘He is your brother!’ ‘Not death!’ The women tugged at her clothes, pulling and pushing at her.

“Silence!” Alamgir was pleased with his daughter’s response; he had anticipated it. “Prince Sultan, I grant you one more chance,” he said to his son. “Bow before me, kiss the ground and beg forgiveness for what you have done. You have my word, I will forgive you.”

“Majesty,” replied Sultan, standing motionless, “I believe your rule is illegal; that the real Emperor is my grandfather, Shah Jahan, whom you have illegally imprisoned; the real Empress is Aunt Jahanara, whom you have also illegally imprisoned, and after them, my uncle, Prince Dara, should rule. As long as I live I will believe this and do all I can to remove you from the Peacock Throne, bringing charges against you for your illegal acts.”

Zebunissa felt enraged. She longed to lunge at Sultan. How dare he insult their father the Emperor on his coronation day? What kind of son did that? If she could she would have ordered his head severed right there in court.

“Fiend!” Alamgir’s voice trembled with rage. “Traitor! You are no longer my son. Prime Minister, send this man to Salimgarh and let him view the Red Fort from there! Let him see my empire grow and prosper while he spends his days wasting away in a cold, damp cell with nothing but memories of his treachery to keep him company.”

The damning words echoed in Zebunissa’s ears as the guards dragged Sultan away. He continued to resist, shouting, “It is you who are the usurper! Downfall of the Usurper-Emperor!”

The spectacle shocked all those present. All except Zebunissa, who felt anger rather than outrage. Till that day no one had ever spoken ill of the Emperor to his face. Sultan deserved his fate. Zebunissa smiled as the other women stood petrified, listening to the cries of the doomed Prince. Soon, there was only thick, suffocating silence.

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