Aurangzeb in love

He is remembered for piety, but as a prince fell passionately in love with Hira Bai. Parvez Mahmood tells the tale

Aurangzeb in love
The last great Mughal Emperor, Muhi-ud-Din Aurangzeb, who took the regnal name Alamgir, is remembered as much for piety as he is for craftiness. Some like to remember him as an austere, religious and God-fearing monarch, who wanted nothing more in life than to spread the teachings of Islam throughout his vast realm. His detractors, however, remember him as a treacherous and insatiable tyrant, who was ruthlessly Machiavellian in his conduct. The incident I narrate here relates to a time when a young eighteen-year-old Prince Muhi-ud-Din fell head over heels for a Hindu slave girl and gave in entirely to the pleasure of love and pursuit of feminine charms.

The Mughal harem was a secret world behind strictly closed doors. There are very few, if any, recorded stories related to that part of the royal palace. The Mughals ruled for over two centuries as absolute masters, and for a century more as titular heads. Hundreds of girls must have passed through the royal gates destined for the harem –gifted by compliant Rajas, presented by sycophant courtiers, captured in grim battles and gifted by friendly world monarchs. Yet not much is known about how these concubines lived. Precisely how were they were treated? How did they spend their leisure time? How much space was allotted to each? What rights did they enjoy? What privileges were they granted or, indeed, what was their eventual fate? The harem remained a truly forbidden city, if there was one.

Depiction of a youthful Aurangzeb

Therefore, it is remarkable that the details of this passionate relationship, between a conservative prince and a slave girl, have entered the history books through multiple reliable sources. The incident has been mentioned by Niccolao Manucci in his contemporaneous detailed autobiography titled “Storia do Mogor” or Mogul India 1653-1708, vol. I and by Nawab Samsam-ud-Daula Shah Nawaz Khan in his oft-quoted Ma’asir al-Umara. The incident has also been mentioned in detail by Aurangzeb’s biographer Hamiduddin Khan Nimchah in Ahkam e Aurangzeb, written in 1640. In my narrative for this article, I have relied on these sources.

The incident has lately been drawn upon by Sharad Pagare for his 1996 Hindi novel titled Begum Zainabadi and by Aditi Mukherjee for her 2015 English novel titled The Last Mughal Warrior in Love. The former has been enacted as a stage play as well. During my reading of Mughal history, it has become a melancholy pattern that it is the Indian writers who are writing well sold books about this period on incidents that we Pakistanis largely remain ignorant of.

A prince climbs to meet his beloved - late 18th century, Mughal India

There in the garden, Aurangzeb's eyes locked on to one girl who was holding a branch of a tree and humming a tune

Emperor Shah Jahan had personally led his forces to Deccan in 1631. During the campaign, his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during childbirth at Burhanpur. She was temporarily buried in the city before her mortal remains were moved to the Taj Mahal in Agra during the year 1648. On her death, the Emperor is famously said to have gone into deep mourning, abandoning imperial duties and withdrawing to the confines of his palace.

While retreating from the area in grief, he appointed Aurangzeb, then Prince Muhi-ud-Din and only fourteen years of age, as governor of Deccan. The Prince set up court at Kirki – he subsequently renamed it Aurangabad – that is 220 km south east of Burhanpur. His maternal aunt Salah Bano, sister of Mumtaz Mahal, was at the time residing at Burhapur. She was married to Khan-i-Zaman Saif Khan, who had served the Mughals well and is variously described as either the Subedar of Burhanpur or Commander of Artillery.

Fanciful modern image of Hira Bai

Burhanpur is located on the outer bend on the right bank of the River Tapi. In the inner side of the bend was located the village of Zainabad and a garden named Ahu Khana (deer park), the remnants of which still stand in fairly good condition. At this point, the river flows from north-east to south-west towards Surat, Gujarat, where it falls into the Arabian Sea. The area was thickly wooded and a favoured hunting ground for the imperial court.

In 1636, Aurangzeb was travelling to Aurangabad from Delhi and decided to make a stop at Burhanpur to pay respects to his aunt. One day, she arranged a feast in his honour in the Ahu Khana, which was the royal garden. Since Aurangzeb was a member of the family, the ladies of the harem of the Subedar were not in total seclusion. There in the garden, Aurangzeb’s eyes locked on to one girl who was holding a branch of a tree and humming a tune. He was mesmerised and dazzled by the sweet melody and striking beauty of the girl. He sank to the ground and then, visibly disoriented, lay down, unable to stand on his feet.
Certainly, Aurangzeb had started enjoying music and dance during that time

When her aunt was informed about his condition, she was perturbed and came running bare footed. She sat down beside her nephew trying to revive him. After a little while, he regained his bearings. Despite her urging, he didn’t disclose the reason for his discomfiture. A despondent and grief-stricken feeling prevailed in the house and the feast was disrupted.

Around midnight, when Aurangzeb was composed enough, he went over to his aunt and told her the reason for his affliction. On hearing about the girl, she became tormented and distraught. She told him that the girl is a dancer and signer by the name of Hira Bai and was called Zainabadi for belonging to a local village of that name. She lamented that her husband was very harsh, who didn’t care much even for the Emperor. She feared that on hearing that Aurangzeb was interested in his concubine, he might respond violently.

Royal lovers under a tree - Mughal style miniature

Aurangzeb came away saying that he would find another way of getting the girl.

On this trip, Aurangzeb was accompanied by his close friend and confidante Murshid Quli Khan, the Dewan (Chief Minister) of Deccan. He confided in Murshid and asked him for a way of getting the girl. Murshid volunteered to kill Saif Khan, even if it meant a subsequent death sentence for him, to free the girl. But Aurangzeb didn’t want to render his aunt a widow and asked him to directly approach Saif with a request to release the girl to him.

Murshid went over to Saif and put forward the request of Aurangzeb. As reported, Saif didn’t object. Possibly he knew the reputation of Aurangzeb as a headstrong and vengeful youth. He asked Murshid to pay his respects to the Prince and that he would convey his reply through his wife.

Saif came back to his wife and told her about the desire of Aurangzeb and conceded that he was ready to send Hira Bai to the Prince. However, he didn’t agree to give the girl as a gift but asked for an exchange.

Saif was knowledgeable about Aurangzeb’s harem. Perhaps to keep him off, he told his wife that in Aurangzeb’s harem, he was not particularly interested in the daughter of Shahnawaz – meaning Dilras Begum, the senior consort of the Prince – but would exchange Hira Bai for Chattar Bai, a concubine of Aurangzeb. Caught between two hotheaded persons, the aunt demurred in taking this rather humiliating exchange offer but Saif forced her to go on pain of death.

Aurangzeb became known in later life for his austere and overtly pious bearing
Aurangzeb became known in later life for his austere and overtly pious bearing

The aunt called for her palanquin forthwith and proceeded to visit Aurangzeb with the news. Aurangzeb was elated. He said that he would send not one but both these girls, one of them being his lawfully wedded wife. He conveyed to his staff to send the girls immediately with his aunt so that he could get Zainabadi without any delay. In the end, only Chattar Bai was dispatched. When the aunt conveyed Aurangzeb’s reply, Saif said that now no excuse remained to deny Aurangzeb’s desire and sent Hira Bai to him.

I know many readers will question the authenticity of these details but a sustained internet search will bring forth the incident to light. The references in the Urdu translation of the authentic contemporaneous account titled “Ahkam-i-Alamgiri’ can be read at on pages 25-30 of that work.

There is no painting of the girl found in historical records. There is an image to be found on the internet, whose origin remains obscure, showing a girl of immense beauty a sultry enchantress, a femme fatale, enough to melt a heart. There are no reliable images of her. We do know for a fact that Aurangzeb, who had a reputation for being religious, lost himself to this girl – the only time it was to happen in his long life.

It is recorded in contemporary resources that Aurangzeb was extremely pleased and merry in the company of his love. He even lost some of his extremist or puritanical leanings. Once Hira Bai offered him wine and asked him to drink to prove his love for her. He took the cup and was about to sip it but the temptress took it away and said that she never intended for him to drink. Another account mentions that he had started drinking in her company. Certainly, he had started enjoying music and dance during that time.

It is well documented that Aurangzeb and his siblings were extremely resentful against each other.  Dara Shikoh in particular was bitter about his brother’s haughty and self-righteous attitude. When his spies reported about Aurangzeb’s new found love, his exchange of girls with his uncle and, indeed, his interest in music, he went to his father and described the reports in a demeaning manner saying that, “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.”

Alas, this love was not to last. Hira Bai soon fell sick and died. She is buried in Aurangabad.

During the days she died, Aurangzeb, in extreme grief, went out for hunting. Aqil Khan (poet and a trusted noble of the Prince) went to meet him and inquired the reason for hunting when he was so disturbed. The Prince replied,

“Lamentation in the house cannot relieve the heart,

In solitude alone you can cry to your heart’s content.”

Hearing this, Aqil Khan recited another couplet,

“How easy did love appear, but alas how hard it is!

How hard was separation, but what repose it gave to the beloved!”

Aurangzeb made a vow never to drink wine, nor to listen to music again. In later 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 which he had committed so many iniquities, and had run the risk of never reigning by being lost to mundane pleasures.

While the incident is the only instance where Aurangzeb displays such a tender side, it also points to the low status accorded to the harem women in those times, to the extent that they were traded and exchanged like goods. To be fair, such an attitude towards women was true of not only the Mughals of India but also of the Ottomans, the Tsars of Russia, the Abbasids of Baghdad earlier on, and the Ming and Yuan of China – to name a few.

In the years to come, history saw a different kind of Aurangzeb. The one, who imprisoned his father, killed and blinded his brothers in a war of succession, strangled his nephews, imprisoned his own sons, massacred non-Muslims and destroyed temples; and this is only a small part of the ‘charge-sheet’ against him.

Perhaps his heart died with the passing away of his one true love – Hira Bai Zainabadi.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: