In 1636, Aurangzeb was a prince and the Governor of Deccan. En route to Aurangabad, he stopped at Burhanpur to pay his respects to his maternal aunt, who was married to Saif Khan, the Governor of Burhanpur. What followed varies in detail in different tellings. But all of them agree that the austere prince fell in love at first sight with one of the women in his uncle’s harem. Her name was Hirabai.
Ma’asir al-Umara, written by Nawab Shams ud Daula Shah Nawaz Khan and his son Abdul Hai Khan, in the 18th century provides a detailed description of the episode:
“One day the prince went with the ladies of his harem to the garden of Zainabad Burhanpur, named Ahu-khanah [Deer Park], and began to stroll with his chosen beloved ones. Zainabadi, whose musical skill ravished the senses, and who was unique in blandishments, having come in the train of Khan-i-Zaman’s wife (the prince’s maternal aunt), on seeing a fruit-laden mango tree, in mirth and amorous play advanced, leaped up and plucked a fruit, without paying due respect to the prince’s presence. This move of hers robbed the prince of his senses and self-control.”
Despite his extremely religious bent, Aurangzeb was a connoisseur of music and a proficient Veena player. Hirabai’s looks, combined with her musical accomplishments, proved irresistible for the prince. He is said to have been so infatuated with her that he gave in to her demand that he taste wine. But before he could, Hirabai revealed that she was just testing his love for her.
A religious prince ready to taste wine, that shows the extent of his feelings for her.
Akbar, in his bid to regulate the harem, had ordered that all concubines should be named after the place they belonged to. So once Hirabai entered Aurangzeb’s harem she was called Zainabadi.
Grieving in solitude
In Ahkam e Aurangzeb, written in 1640, Aurangzeb’s biographer Hamiduddin Khan Nimchah recounts the Burhanpur encounter differently. According to him, the meeting took place when the prince entered the harem unannounced. He fell into a swoon and, on being asked by his aunt, described the reason for the malady and asked for a remedy. He was given Hirabai in exchange for one of his concubines.
The ensuing passion and infatuation is described the same way in Nimchah’s account.
It is said in Ma’asir al-Umara that Aurangzeb’s love affair proceeded to such lengths as to reach Shah Jahan’s ears. Dara Shikoh, who had no love lost for his brother Aurangzeb, is said to have remarked to their father Shah Jahan, “See the piety and abstinence of this hypocritical knave! He has gone to the dogs for the sake of a wench of his aunt’s household.”
But as destiny would have it, Hirabai did not live for long. Her death affected the prince greatly. She is buried in Aurangabad.
Ma’asir al-Umara records that Aurangzeb was so upset by the death of his beloved that he left the palace to go on a hunt. When reproved by the poet Mir Askari (Aqil Khan) for risking his life in that agitated state, the prince replied:
“‘Lamentation in the house cannot relieve the heart,
In solitude alone you can cry to your heart’s content.”
Aqil Khan then recited this couplet of his own composition:
“How easy did love appear, but alas how hard it is!
How hard was separation, but what repose it gave to the beloved!”
The prince could not check his tears. He committed the verses to memory after vainly trying to learn the modest poet’s name.
Niccolao Manucci, the Italian traveller and writer (1639–1717), too describes this period in Aurangzeb’s life:
“Aurangzib grew very fond of one of the dancing-women in his harem, and through the great love he bore to her he neglected for some time his prayers and his austerities, filling up his days with music and dances; and going even farther, he enlivened himself with wine, which he drank at the instance of the said dancing-girl. The dancer died, and Aurangzib made a vow never to drink wine again nor to listen to music. In after-days he was accustomed to say that God had been very gracious to him by putting an end to that dancing-girl’s life, by reason of whom he had committed so many iniquities, and had run the risk of never reigning through being occupied in vicious practices.”
On this Valentine’s Day, remember that Aurangzeb’s portraits may depict an austere man reading the Quran, but there once lurked in him a passionate young man who had considered the “world well lost” for the love of his life.