Zebunnisa, Daughter of Emperor Alamgir
India, Mughal, 17th or 18th century
Opaque watercolors and gilt on paper
According to The Diwan of Zebunissa: The First Fifty Ghazals translated by Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook, Zebunissa was the eldest child of Aurangzeb and his wife Dilras Banu Begum. By age seven she was a Hafiz, a Muslim capable of reciting the entire Qur’an by heart - an occasion that Aurangzeb celebrated by throwing a grand feast, donating 30,000 mohurs (likely these) to the poor, and giving two days holiday to the public offices.
She also spoke Arabic, was proficient in mathematics and science, and began a commentary on the Qur’an though her father (known to history for being overzealous) forbade her from writing it. He did however indulge her in poetry, gathering renowned poets throughout the empire to tutor the princess, though he banned reading poetry in the harem and madrasas.
Surprisingly, she was granted a great deal of freedom in the court. She participated in some courtly affairs, always veiled.
Perhaps she took the name Makhfi, "the Hidden One", in tribute to this practice. Once, one of the the poets who came to converse with her asked, "O envy of the moon, lift up thy veil and let me enjoy the wonder of thy beauty," to which the Princess replied,
" I will not lift my veil,—
For, if I did, who knows?
The bulbul might forget the rose,
The Brahman worshipper
Adoring Lakshmi’s grace
Might turn, forsaking her,
To see my face;
My beauty might prevail.
Think how within the flower
Hidden as in a bower
Her fragrant soul must be,
And none can look on it;
So me the world can see
Only within the verses I have writ—
I will not lift the veil. “
After being found in a compromising situation with the son of one of her father’s viziers, and perhaps in addition to a possible hand she may have lent to her brother’s rebellion, she was banished to Salimgarh at Delhi for 20 years, and died there in 1702, at approximately 64.
If you’re interested from reading from the aforementioned title, you can find one here, and another here. If you’d like to see a copy of her poems in Persian from the Lahore Amrit Press, click here.