Amidst the many Mughal women who have remained lost in years of obscurity, is the story of “the concealed one”, Zebunissa (also, Zeb-un-Nissa)! A child prodigy in the court of Shah Jahan, she was the eldest child of Emperor Aurangzeb and Dilras Banu Begum.
Witty, sharp, opinionated, caring, courageous : Zebunissa’s story is unlike the Princesses in any fables we’ve grown up on. In her story, she yearns – but not for a Prince Charming; she writes, she learns, she advises on politics, – and she aces poetry slams! Through her experiences, we learn about the importance of self-worth, consent, and making your own identity.
Zebunissa was way ahead in terms of her accomplishments than most princesses of her time. The poetess Hafiza Maryam, one of the women of the court, was charged with the education of Zeb-un-Nissa and her sisters. She taught them how to recite the Quran.
Zebunissa & the Spirit of Learning
Imagine getting a 2-day public holiday in your honour at the age of 7! It wasn’t just a sharp memory, Zebunissa was gifted with. She was a learner at heart – curious about everything around. Her quest for learning only deepened under scholars of the court such as Mohammad Saeed Ashraf Mazandarani. She took to learning astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and literature; excelled in languages (Persian, Arabic, Urdu), and had a great hand at calligraphy too! Believe it or not, owing to her her expert understanding of ‘Law’, she was often consulted on Administrative matters too!
And if that weren’t enough, her fashion sense was spot on! She modified a garment worn by Turki women to suit the needs of the Indian (the subcontinent) women!
Secret Poet Societies!
When she started to narrate Persian poetry at the age of 14, her teacher Ustad Bayaz encouraged her to pursue poetry. It is reported that in the court of Aurangzeb, there used to be hidden literary and poetic parties among “great” poets like Ghani Kashmiri, Nai’matullah Khan and Aqil Khan (aka Razi); Zebunissa participated secretly in these parties. [Doesn’t this remind you of Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ ?]
Other reports also state how Shah Rustum Ghazi (another scholar in the court) encouraged and directed Zebunissa’s literary tastes; on his request, Aurangzeb (known to have little love for the arts) made an exception in favour of Zebunissa and invited poets to his court.
Historian & Writer Rana Safvi mentions: Some of the poets whom she interacted with were Nasir Ali, Sayab, Shams Waliullah, Brahmin, and Behraaz.
This group of poets would match each other in skill and often have a ‘tarahi’ competition where each poet completed a given line within the same metre in his/her own way.
Zebunissa excelled in tarahi muqabala.
A Woman of her own Opinion
Even though Zebunissa memorized the Qur’an, she didn’t quite share her father’s enthusiasm or views around religion. Where religion was concerned, the Sufi-influence of her aunt Jahanara and uncle Dara Shikoh was evident in her writings.
I bow before the image of my Love
No Muslim I,
But an idolater,
I bow before the image of my Love,
And worship her:
No Brahman I,
My sacred thread
I cast away, for round my neck I wear
Her plaited hair instead.
Zebunnissa’s sense of Self-Worth and the Courage to say ‘No’.
Nasir Ali a poet from Sirhind, famous for his pride came to be known as Zebunissa’s rival poet. On one occasion, requesting her to lift her famous ‘veil’ he said:
“O envy of the moon, lift up thy veil
and let me enjoy the wonder of thy beauty.”
Zebunissa was never really the quintessential coy, blushing Princess. She was quick to retort:
“I will not lift my veil,
For, if I did, who knows ?
The bulbul might forget the rose,
The Brahman worshipper
Adoring Lakshmi’s grave
Might turn, forsaking her,
To see my face”
Zebunissa’s poetry often speaks of ‘longing’ and ‘love’. But if you’re thinking she was waiting to be married, you couldn’t be further from reality!
While she had many suitors, she was careful about who she chose. She insisted on seeing the Princes and ‘testing’ their skills to understand how ‘accomplished’ they were. One such suitor was Mirza Farukh, son of Shah Abbas II of Iran; she wrote to him to come to Delhi so that she might see what he was like.
At a feast she organized for him, he asked for a certain sweetmeat in words which, by a play of language, also meant a kiss, and Zeb-un-Nissa, affronted, said: “Ask for what you want from our kitchen.”
Refusing to understand her “no”, he still pursued her with this couplet:
"I am determined never to leave this temple;
here will I bow my head, here will I prostrate myself,
here will I serve, and here alone is happiness."
To which again, Zebunissa firmly declined, chiding him :
How light dost thou esteem this game of love, O child. Nothing dost thou know of the fever of longing, and the fire of separation, and the burning flame of love.
Zebunissa would rather be single than be with someone she didn’t think highly of. Big lesson there, girls.
Sharing her privilege: Zebunissa’s patronage of the Arts
Zebunissa used most of her allowances in the pursuit of poetry and the arts – but not just for herself. She enabled other creative minds to prosper too, and spent her allowances in giving out ‘grants’, aiding the publishing and production of many interesting works.
She created an entire department of writers, calligraphers and other learned people, to work on translations of classics and original writings. Reports suggest that she sponsored Mullah Safluddin Ardbeli for a trip to Kashmir where he translated the ‘Tafsir-i-Kabir‘, a commentary on the Quran (from Arabic to Persian); though rumour has it that she herself was the author of the commentry!
The Pen Name, Makhfi
Zebunissa wrote under the nom de plume ‘Makhfi’ or ‘the hidden one’ – adopted from her great-grandmother, Salima Sultan Begum (who was an accomplished writer herself)!
The name perfectly resonated with her Sufi-belief that ‘only after death and in union with the true Beloved – God’ – would she disclose her face.
In addition to her poetic book or collection of poems, called Diwan-i-Makhfi, which contains approximately 5,000 verses, she also wrote the following books:
- Zeb-ul Monsha’at [a collection of letters]
Her library was also known for being one of a kind!
Zebunissa in her own words:
I am the daughter of an Emperor, yet I have set my face towards poverty
This is what adorns my beauty, and my name is Zebunissa, the adorned of (amongst) women!
It is unfortunate that the story of an accomplished princess like Zebunissa has been veiled in gossip about her love-life! Told with the sincerity of a historian, these stories have never failed to stir public imagination. But it’s time we change that. 💪🏽
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