In Athwajan, on the Srinagar-Jammu highway is a simple grave which is largely ignored. Here rests Habba Khatoon, also popular as Zoon or Zoonie, one of the greatest poets of Kashmir.
Sadly the story of Kashmir’s greatest poet in not very well known outside Kashmir. But it is a testimony to Habba Khatoon's greatness that her ballads are sung in the valley even today, 400 years after her death!
Habba Khatoon’s life would make a great script for a romantic novel or a movie. She was born to a very poor Kashmiri farmer Abdi Rather and his wife Janam in 1554 CE. She is said to have had a talent for composing poetry and had a beautiful voice. According to local folklore, a Sufi mystic heard her voice and compositions and gave her the name Zoon (The Moon in Kashmiri). The popularity of her songs spread to neighbouring villages and soon her parents got her married to Aziz Jan, a carpenter. Sadly, her husband disapproved of her poems and songs. According to legend, Habba Khatoon’s husband was so abusive that he often thrashed her, forcing her to run away!
But Hubba Khatoon was destined for greatness. The crown prince of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah Chak was passing by her village, when he saw her and fell in love. She was barely 16 when she became the Queen of Kashmir.
Hubba Khatoon’s marriage was a happy one but sadly her husband Yusuf Shah Chak ruled only from 1579 to 1586 CE and he was the last ruler of the Chak dynasty. The Mughal Emperor Akbar who wanted to conquer Kashmir, invited Yusuf Khan Chak to Delhi for negotiations and then had him arrested by treachery. He never returned to Kashmir again, and was imprisoned. He died in Biswak, near Nalanda in Bihar.
For Habba Khatoon, the loss of her husband was a great shock. The story goes that she took her infant daughter with her and left the palace for good. She became a mendicant and built a small hut on banks of Jhelum where she lived for the next twenty years composing poems and songs about loss and separation. There is no mention of what happened to her daughter.
What makes Habba Khatoon’s poetry so powerful and eternal is the fact that she spoke in the language of the common people about the issues that mattered to them at a time when most available literature was in high-brow Persian.
No wonder then that the valleys and mountains of Kashmir still resonate with the verses of this amazing poet who continues to rule the hearts of her people even today!
Inputs from: The Literary Heritage of Kashmir by Kishan Lal Kalla
Did You Know
Interestingly, there were three attempts to make a film on Habba Khatoon with actors Saira Banu, Zeenat Aman and Dimple Kapadia in the lead, playing the role of the Poet-Queen. The films were never completed!