"I am the daughter of a King, but I have taken the path of renunciation, and this is my glory, as my name Zeb-un-Nissa, being interpreted, means that I am the glory of womankind"
"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"
"Whether it be in Mecca’s holiest shrine, Or in the Temple pilgrim feet have trod, Still Thou art mine, Wherever God is worshiped is my God"
(Verses from the Diwan of Zeb-Un-Nissa)
Zeb-un-nisa Begum (Ornament of Womankind), the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb, was born at Daulatabad in the Deccan on 15th Feb, 1638. Her mother was Dilras Banu Begum. From her childhood she showed great intelligence. At seven years of age, she learnt the Quran by heart under the guidance of her tutor Hafiza Mariam; for which she received a reward of 30,000 gold coins from her father. The occasion was celebrated with a great feast and all public offices were closed for two days. Zeb-un-nisa completely mastered the Arabic and Persian languages. and different kind of calligraphy. She then studied mathematics and astronomy. She was kind-hearted and always helped the poor; much of her personal allowance she used in encouraging men of letters, in providing for widows and orphans, and in sending every year pilgrims to Mecca and Medina. She collected a fine library and employed skilled calligraphers to copy rare and valuable books for her. By her order Mulla Safi-ud-din Ardbli translated Tafsir-i-Kabir from Arabic to Persian and named it Zeb-ut-Tafsir after her name.
From her early youth she wrote verses, adopting the pseudonym of Makhfi, meaning hidden. She had always a veil upon her face. She remained invisible since her father disliked poetry. The Diwan of Zeb-Un-Nissa (a Diwan consists of a series of groups of ghazals), is a collection of poems in Persian by Zeb-un-nisa. She was a great favourite with her uncle Dara Shukoh. Many of the ghazals in the Diwan of Dara Shukoh are by her.
She had been betrothed by the wish of her grandfather Shah Jahan to Sulaiman Shukoh, son of Dara Shukoh, but Aurangzeb was unwilling of this. May be it was due to this reason that Aurangzeb poisoned Sulaiman. We are not sure whether she loved Sulaiman; but, she demanded her father that she should see the princes and test their attainments before arranging her marriage. She had many admirers who wished to marry her and one of them was Mirza Farukh, son of Shah Abbas II of Iran. At Delhi, Mirza Farukh was feasted by Zeb-un-nisa in a pleasure-house at her garden, while she waited on him with a veil upon her face. He asked for a certain sweetmeat in words which by a play of language also meant a kiss. Zeb-un-nisa affronted and said, "Ask for what you want from our kitchen". She told her father that, in spite of the prince's beauty and rank, his bearing did not please her.
Unlike her father, she was a Sufi and inherited the Akbar tradition of unification of religions. One day she composed a beautiful verse while walking in the garden; inspired by its beauty, "Four things are necessary to make me happy: wine and flowers, a running stream and the face of the Beloved". Suddenly she came upon her father, under a tree close by wrap in meditation. Thinking that he might have heard her profane words; she went on chanting as before, but with the second line changed, "Four things are necessary for happiness: prayers and fasting, tears and repentance!"
In personal appearance she was fair, tall and slim; Her face was round with two moles on the left cheek. She did not use missia for blackening between the teeth, nor antimony for darkening her eye-lashes, though this was the fashion of her time. Her voice was so beautiful that when she read the Quran she moved her hearers to tears. In dress she was simple and austere; in later life she always wore white, and her only ornament was a string of pearls round the neck. She was skilled in the use of arms, and several times took part in war.
Her brother Prince Akbar was her favorite. Akbar had rebelled against Aurangzeb and fled to Persia. In one of the letters to his sister Akbar said, "The dismissal or appointment of the sons-in-law of Daulat and Sagar Mai is at your discretion. I have dismissed them at your bidding. I consider your orders in all affairs as sacred like the Quran and Tradition of the Prophet, and obedience to them as proper". When Aurangzeb discovered her affectionate letters to Prince Akbar, she was deprived of her annual pension of four lakhs of rupees, her property was confiscated, and she was imprisoned in the fortress of Salimgarh at Delhi (Jan 1681), where she spent the rest of her life. At this time she wrote these bitter lines:
"So long these fetters cling to my feet! My friends have become enemies, my relations are strangers to me. What more have I to do with being anxious to keep my name undishonoured when friends seek to disgrace me? Seek not relief from the prison of grief, O Makhfi; thy release is not politic. O Makhfi, no hope of release hast thou until the Day of Judgment come"
Zeb-un-Nissa died on 26th May, 1702 in prison. There is some controversy regarding the location of her tomb but Maasir-i-Alamgiri clarifies this, "News came to the Emperor from Delhi that Zeb-un-nisa Begum had died. The Emperor was so saddened by the news as to shed tears, but had to resign himself to God's will. Order was sent to Sayyid Amjad Khan, Shaikh Ataullah, and Hafiz Khan to give alms (for the benefit of her soul) and build her tomb in the appointed place, namely the Garden of Thirty-thousand" trees outside the Kabuli Gate of Delhi. In 1885, Zeb-un-Nissa's tomb was shifted to Akbar's mausoleum at Sikandra when the railway lines was laid out in Delhi.
The Diwan of Zeb-Un-Nissa, by Princess Zeb-Un-Nissa, the First Fifty Ghazals Rendered from the Persian By Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook