Over the years many people have asked me about my name. People are curious to know about its origin, its meaning and the culture with which it is best associated. I avoid answering their questions as I have always been reluctant to talk about my name. The reason for this is after learning the meaning of my name from my parents, I was too embarrassed to tell it to anyone else. However, I have now decided to share with you some details about my name in this post. It has taken so many years for me to realize that there is nothing to be shy about talking about my name. After all, it is a beautiful name and it has so much history surrounding it.

My Mother’s Choice

When my mother was pregnant with me, she read a biography about a Mughal Princess, named Zebunnissa. She was much taken by the story of this Princess and she immediately decided that if the baby she was carrying was a girl, she would name her Zebunnissa. What indeed was it about the Princess that so fascinated my mother?

Princess Zebunnissa

Zebunnissa was the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb and his Empress consort Dilras Banu Begum. She lived from 1638 to 1702. She was born during the reign of her grandfather, Emperor Shah Jahan. Her mother was Dilras Banu Begum, a princess of the royal family of Persia, the Safavids. Zebunnissa was her father’s favourite child and it is said that he chose her name with care. She had a round face and some writers have described her as slim and tall. Zebunnissa had beautiful skin, lustrous hair and large shapely eyes. She wore black clothes as this indicated that she was searching for knowledge, black being the colour of scholars.

Education and Poetry

According to historians, Zebunnissa was very well educated. She loved to read and write and had received a good education in the arts, philosophy, astronomy and sciences. The languages which she mastered were Persian, Arabic and Urdu. She was interested in intellectual pursuits and, as a patron of poetry and the arts, organised many poetry recitals for the nobles and intellectuals. The princess also had a beautiful voice and would often sing her own verses. Later, she took on the pen-name of Makhfi, meaning that which is concealed.

Zebunnissa never married. She was a Sufi, a free spirit and she did not share her father’s views on religion and society. She is credited with writing 421 Ghazals and several quatrains. Her works were published in 1752 and were much appreciated for their depth and scope. Unfortunately, not many have been translated into English. She also established many libraries.


Her father, the Emperor was very fond of Zebunnissa and he thought highly of her talent and abilities. He took to discussing the political affairs of his Empire with her and he listened to her opinions. But this was not to last. He did not trust her and imprisoned her at the Salimgarh Fort, Delhi, at the edge of Shajahanabad, which, at present, is Old Delhi. This took place after the unsuccessful rebellion led by her brother Akbar in 1681. Her father was upset with Zebunnissa because she continued to communicate with her brother after the rebellion. He imprisoned her because he believed that she was sympathetic to her brother.

One other theory as to why the Emperor imprisoned his daughter is that he was not happy with her for having had an affair with a senior government officer. One other writer has suggested that her imprisonment was brought about because of the political differences that she developed with her father. She was not supportive of his style of governance.

Her Death and Tomb

When she was in prison she wore only white and wrote poetry which was passionate and tragic. After twenty years of imprisonment, Zebunnissa died in 1702. Zebunnissa was buried in the Garden of Thirty Thousand Trees, outside of the Kabuli Gate, the West Gate of the city. In 1903 when a railway line was laid, her tomb was demolished. Her coffin and inscribed tombstone were moved to Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandra, Agra. It is located in the outer area of the mausoleum and I have had the privilege of visiting it. This happened when His Highness (the spouse) and I were on a trip to India and we were fortunate to visit Zebunissa’s tomb. I can remember feeling honoured and sad as I reflected on the life of this woman whose name I share and whom I was named after!

The Meaning of Zebunnissa

Over time I have come across different meanings of the name, Zebunnissa. One meaning is, “Ornament of Womankind”. Another is “Beautiful Woman”. A third meaning is “Model of Womanhood” and a fourth meaning is “Most Beautiful of All Women”. Yes, I agree with you….I can’t live up to the four meanings. But I am Woman and Woman will I be.

Zebunnissa’s Poetry

Let me leave you with some of Zebunnissa ‘s poetry:

No moth am I that in impetuous fashion
Fly to the flame and perish. Rather say
I am a candle that with inward passion
Slowly and silently consume away

Things of Love (as translated by Willis Barnstone)

Though I am Laila of Persian romance,
my heart loves like ferocious Majnun.
I want to go to the desert
But modesty is chains on my feet.
A nightingale came to the flower garden
Because she was my pupil.
I am an expert in things of love.
Even the moth is my disciple!

3 thoughts on “THE STORY BEHIND MY NAME”

  1. Hi Zaibun,
    What a remarkable interpretation of your name and how very cleverly chosen by Mum! I don’ t think she ever got anything wrong. Enjoyed reading every bit of it and still cannot understand why you ever needed to be reticent about discussing it. We are truly proud and thankful to have an ‘ ornament of womankind’ as a friend.

  2. Amazing story with a very sad ending for poor feisty Zebunissa.
    Very hard to believe that her father would do such a terrible thing to his own daughter just because she has her own mind- Tragic.
    Thank goodness we, women, are now liberated and have a choice to what we want to do and say freely.!!!
    Thank you for sharing your incredible and beautiful name.
    You are our ZAIBUNESSA.
    Love, Anna.

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