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Well, Habba Khatoon or Zooni or she was popularly known as, was a 16th queen of Kashmir who had married King Yusuf Shah Chak. ‘Zooni’ was going to be Ali’s masterpiece which had to capture all the four moods of Kashmir -from the snow to spring to summer and the autumn. Dimple Kapadia was to play the lead role of Habba Khatoon while Vinod Khanna was to play the Sultan. American designer Mary McFadden was hired for the costume designs and art historian Stuart Cary Welch was consulted for getting the feel of the era right. Ali also got well known lyricist Shahryar write the lyrics and Khayyam put those words to music. A heritage house was created in a 16th-century village cluster at Barji, Harwan near Dachigam for Zooni’s home.
Habba Khatoon was one of the most beautiful women of the Kashmir valley .Also called Zooni, she was an exuberant poetess whose songs are still sung in the valley. She inspired many Kashmiri women to express their feelings in the form of verse. Habba Khatoon was born to a poor peasant Abdi Rather and his wife Janam, in Chandhaur village in the valley on the bank of the Jhelum in 16th century. It is said that a wandering Sufi mystic baptised her on a moonlit night and gave her the name Zoon (moon in Kashmiri language). There is no mention as to when she became Habba Khatoon. Zooni grew up to be a beautiful girl and under the guidance of her Sufi mentor began to compose lyrics. She also had a beautiful voice in which she sang her own compositions . Her songs soon became popular in the surrounding villages.
According to the legend, one day the elder son and heir apparent of King of Kashmir Sultan Ali Shah Chak, Prince Yusuf Shah Chak, happened to pass by the village when he saw Zooni. Chaks belonged to Shia faith and were Dards – some groups of mountain tribesmen who inhabit a region between Badakhshan, Northern Pakistan and Kashmir (in J&K Dards live in and around Gurez and Kargil areas and speak Shina.
The crown prince heard her sing and fell madly in love with her. Without knowing who he was, she also fell in love with him. Yusuf Shah stayed in Chandhaur longer than he should have and soon the village was abuzz with rumours of a dalliance between Zooni and the stranger from Srinagar. Her parents forced her to marry a carpenter, Aziz Jan, of a neighbouring village. Though married, Zooni refused to allow her husband to consummate the marriage. She was thrashed and thrown out of her home and made to live in the sheep pen in the courtyard. After a while, she ran away during a snow-storm to her parent’s home. Aziz refused to divorce her and accused her of committing adultery with Yusuf. Zooni appealed to the sultan. In his court, Yusuf Chak made a dramatic entry, revealed his identity and denied having physical relations with her. She disproved her husband’s charge of adultery by proving that she was still a virgin. The Sultan decreed the divorce but refused his son the permission to marry Zooni. Ignoring his father’s order, Yusuf eloped with Zooni to Gulmarg and married her.
Meanwhile, Mughal armies ordered by Emperor Akbar to annex the valley proceeded to march against the Sultan. One of the Sultan’s officers who had been bribed, killed him in a polo match. Prince Yusuf Shah Chak rushed back to Srinagar to take over the reins of administration. He proved to be a weak ruler who spent more time in his harem with Zooni than in organising the defence of his kingdom. When the Mughals were at his doorstep, he led his army against them but was captured. The story brought to Srinagar was that he had fallen in battle. However, the fact is that when Chak presented himself before the emperor for ratification of the treaty a year later, he was not allowed to return to Kashmir. Akbar first imprisoned and then exiled him to Bihar. And it is here that he died in 1592 and was buried at Biswak in Nalanda district. Before partition, the village was locally known as Kashmiri Chak. In the 1970s, the then J&K chief minister Sheikh Abdullah also visited the grave and built a tomb there. He is said to have funded the construction of a road to the grave which is called the Sheikh Abdullah road.
Though Kashmir was ruled for some time by Chak’s son Yaqub Shah, Mughals invaded again and annexed the kingdom to their empire.
Meanwhile, Zooni who was left alone, heard of the calamity on a cold winter night. She picked up her infant girl and went out into the snow. She is said to have abandoned the royal palace and spent the rest of her life singing songs of separation from her beloved. Nobody knows what became of her except that there is a tomb of Habba Khatoon and her child near Chandhaur.
Habba Khatoon lies ignored in her tomb near Athwajan on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway. The entire structure is in a dilapidated condition and there are hardly any visitors who come to pay a tribute to this legendary poetess. Even if somebody halts at the national highway and proceeds to tread the stairs leading to her tomb, he is regarded with suspicion by the army jawans who are using one side of the tomb structure as a base for their UMGs and LMGs.
Today, Zooni’s tomb, situated some 20 km from Srinagar city, wears a deserted look. The elevated structure, which is in fact three graves made of stone, is being used by security forces as a vantage point to keep a vigil on the national highway. Though the locals know that the tomb is of Habba Khatoon, little care is being taken by them to maintain it.
If one believes the legend, according to which Zooni and her infant daughter lie buried here, mystery still shrouds the presence of third grave. No one has been able to give information about the third grave.
The successive state governments have also not taken any care to maintain the tomb of Kashmir’s famous poetess. In fact just below these three graves, lies the grave of Kashmir’s famous poet Mehjoor who had expressed a desire to be buried near poetess Habba Khatoon’s tomb.
If the Government does not initiate efforts to maintain these tombs, there is every chance that even local people will forget about the legendary beings who had contributed significantly towards Kashmiri literature.
Even after 400 years, Habba Khatoon’s songs still resound in the Valley, hummed by peasant women in the fields and at home too. They are also a staple at weddings, and played regularly on Radio Kashmir. One such song, which is believed to have been written after Chak’s exile, goes: ‘Naad ha laaye, Miyaan Yusufo walo (I am calling out for you, O my Yusuf, come home). A city bridge Habba Kadal on river Jhelum is also named on her.
Muzaffer Ali believes that Habba Khatoon is alive in every Kashmiri home with `stifled hopes, anguish and pain.’
(The author is Director and Head, Department of Lifelong Learning University of Jammu)