How hard to read, O Soul,
The riddle of life here and life beyond !
As hard as in the pearl to pierce a hole
Without the needle-point of diamond.
– Princess Zaib-un-Nissa
She was a great patron of the arts, a gifted calligraphist, collector of manuscripts, and a lover. We often hear of her aunts the famous Princess Jahanara and Princess Roshanara, sometimes of her sister Princess Zeenat-un-Nissa because of the famous mosque in Delhi made by her but not much is known about Princess Zaib-un-Nissa who true to her penname, Makhfi, has been concealed from the public eye. Zaib-un-Nissa was in many ways unique. While most of the Mughal queens and princess receded into history, Zaib-un-Nissa is one of the few princesses who was able to preserve her name.
Early Life And Education
Zeb-un-Nissa (Ornament of Womankind),the eldest child of Prince Muhi-ud-Din (the future emperor Aurangzeb), was born on 15 February 1638 in Daulatabad, Deccan, exactly nine months after the marriage of her parents. Her mother, Dilras Banu Begum, was Aurangzeb’s first wife and chief consort, and was a princess of the prominent Safavid dynasty, the ruling dynasty of Iran (Persia). She was the most favoured of all his children. As was customary for the royal ladies, her education was given the utmost care. She had a mystical bent of mind and often wrote the most beautiful poetry in Persian. Her siblings from her mother’s side were Zeenat-un-Nisa, Zubdat-un-Nisa, Mohammed Azam, Mohammed Akbar. Zeb-un-Nissa was her father’s favourite daughter, which she would take advantage of and compel him to pardon people who had offended him.
Literary Work And Contributions
Zeb-un-Nissa selected ‘Makhfi’ (which means Hidden One in Persian) as her pen name to write her poetry. In addition to her poetic book or collection of poems, called Diwan, which contains approximately 5,000 verses, she also wrote books like Monis-ul-Roh, Zeb-ul Monsha’at, and Zeb-ul-Tafasir. In Makhzan-ul Ghaib, the author writes that the poetic book of Zeb-un-Nissa contained 15,000 verses. Zeb-un-Nissa also encouraged compilations and translations of various works.
She had a mystical bent of mind and often wrote the most beautiful poetry in Persian.
According to the editors of Deewan e Makhfi, from her early youth she wrote verses. At first in Arabic, but when an Arabian scholar saw her work he said, “Whoever has written this poem is Indian. The verses are clever and wise, but the idiom is Indian, although it is a miracle for a foreigner to know Arabian so well.” This piqued her desire for perfection, and thereafter she wrote in Persian, her mother tongue.
She was also fascinated by calligraphy. She employed skilled calligraphers to copy rare and valuable books for her and, as Kashmir paper and Kashmir scribes were famous for their excellence. She had a ‘scriptorium’ also in that province, where work went on constantly. She personally supervised the work and went over the copies that had been made on the previous day.
Not only in literature, she also contributed largely to the culture of clothing. Modification of the Turkish dress is attributed to her – the angiya kurti which suited the Indian conditions.
Her Love For Poetry
Her heart was always passionate for letters and poetry and the access of her mind was par-excellence and the flight of her imagination was metaphysical. She was warm hearted and quick-witted. In poetical battles, indeed this lady was unique among the men of her age. In poetry recitals, she would baffle the poets with her innovative disposition and cheerful imagination. She would spend her night in poetic fancy and her morning in composing verses. Once Aurangzeb happened to pass by, She instantly composed an verse:
O ignorant nightingale! hold tight your breath in your throat
The delicate disposition of kings cannot bear poetic composition
The Emperor smiled at this verse and allowed her to continue with the poetic recitation.
In poetry recitals, she would baffle the poets with her innovative disposition and cheerful imagination.
One day, with a thought was hidden in her heart, she repeatedly recited this telling line, “My lips also do not part due to the sweetness.” Then she presented this line to her contemporary poets and asked them to compose a second line complementing hers. No one could take up the challenge except Nasir Ali, who composed the following line: “As if my lip had reached the lip of Zebunnisa.”
Delighted in her heart by this matchless line, Zebunnisa pretended to have been offended by it. Showing extreme anger, she wrote this verse back to Nasir Ali, “Nasir Ali! You have sought refuge in the name of Ali, Otherwise, with Ali’s double-edged sword, I’d have cut your head.”
Her Love Life
Zebun-Nisa was betrothed as per the wish of Shah Jahan, to Suleiman Shikoh, son of Dara Shikoh. This might have been a very compatible match but Aurangzeb who had no time for the more popular Dara is said to have had the young prince poisoned.
In a very Indian tradition, she had her own variation of the swaymvara arranged to meet and test the attainments of the many suitors for her hands. One of them was Mirza Farukh, who was interested in marrying the princess. Unfortunately, this too was ended in bitterness. While Sulaiman Shikoh was poisoned, Zebun-Nisa found Mirza Farukh discourteous.
Her Relationship With Her Father And Her Tragic End
Initially she helped her father in affairs of the court too but was always veiled when not in the women’s quarters. But their ideological clashes, ways of life created rift between two of them. Distrust between father and daughter meant that the last 20 years of her life were spent imprisoned in the fortress of Salimgarh,. There are various reasons given for it, including her friendship with her brother, Prince Akbar, who had revolted against him. The Deewan e Makhfi even suggests it was because of her sympathy with the Mahratta chieftain Shivaji.
She died in 1702 and was buried in Delhi in the garden of ‘Thirty Thousand Trees’, outside the Kabuli gate. Her tomb was razed to the ground when the British laid the railway lines. It is said her mortal remains were shifted to Sikandra in Agra.
1. The Friday times
3. The Concealed princess
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