Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ghazal of Zeb-un-Nisa

You with the dark burly hair and the breathtaking eyes,
your inquiring glance that leaves me undone.

Eyes that pierce and then withdraw like a blood-stained sword,
eyes with dagger lashes!
Zealots, you are mistaken - this is heaven.

Never mind those making promises of the afterlife:
join us now, righteous friends, in this intoxication.

Never mind the path to the Kaabah: sanctity resides in the heart.
Squander your life, suffer! God is right here.

Oh excruciating face! Continual light!
This is where I am thrilled, here, right here.

There is no book anywhere on the matter.
Only as soon as I see you do I understand.

If you wish to offer your beauty to God, give Zebunissa
a taste. Awaiting the tiniest morsel, she is right here.

- Sufi Poetress, Zeb-un-Nisa (1639-1706)

Zeb-un-Nisa was the eldest daughter of the last of the major Mughal rulers of India, Aurangzeb. She was a sufi, an influential personality in the palace and remained unmarried. She was bestowed with a very good education by her father and was said to have memorized the Quran at an early age. She mastered both the Arabic and Persian languages and demonstrated exceptional skill in calligraphic writing. Additionally, she served as a benevolent patron to various men of letters. She had her own courts at Delhi and at Lahore, to which scholars and poets came; at least some of her own poetry - in Persian and in Arabic - is from this period of her life. She established a library and had classical Arabic texts translated into Persian under her personal supervision. Some of her poetry, written under the pen-name "Makhfi" ("the hidden one") circulated among her contemporaries; 50 years after her death over 400 poems were collected and published in Persian as the Diwan-i-Makhfi. Most of the poems are ghazals, originally an Arabic form used to declare human love. Many of Zeb-un-Nissa's poems are clearly expressions of her Sufi belief, expressing a personal devotion to Allah.

In All Things Pakistan, Raza Rumi shares in his post on Zeb-un-Nissa:

Mughal history ignores women of the empire, including Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un-Nissa: patron of the arts and poetry .. The eldest daughter, she was Aurangzeb’s close companion for several years. Loved by Aurangzeb, she was named carefully to reflect his station. Zeb-un-Nisa means 'the most beautiful of all women'.

Being a favourite, she was exposed to the affairs of the Mughal court. With a sound education in the arts, languages, astronomy and sciences of the day, Zeb-un-Nissa turned into an aware and sensitive princess. She never married and kept herself occupied by poetry and a spiritual Sufi quest. This is the irony - Aurangzeb’s daughter was an antithesis of her father’s persona and politics. Zeb-un-Nissa was both a Sufi and a gifted poet. The Divan-i-Makhfi - a major divan - is credited to her name. Given her father’s dislike for poetry, she could only be makhfi - the invisible. There was subversion too - like all rebels she attended and participated in the literary and cultural events of her age, dressed in her veil.

Unlike her puritanical father, Zeb-un-Nissa did not share her father’s orthodox views on religion and society. Steeped in mystic thought, her ghazals sang of love, freedom and inner experience:

“Though I am Laila of Persian romance
my heart loves like ferocious Majnun
I want to go to the desert
but modesty is chains on my feet.
A nightingale came to the flower garden
because she was my pupil
I am an expert in things of love.
Even the moth is my disciple!”

(translated by Willis Barnstone)

Her verses, comprising 400 ghazals, and published as Divan-i-Makhfi would have bothered Aurangzeb. Her inclusive poetic vision ran against the puritanical state and society that Aurangzeb cherished.

    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


In her poetry Makhfi - the hidden or invisible one - is a metaphor for her invisibility at the main Court and at the cosmic level the invisibility of God. Its believed that Zeb-un-Nissa died in Delhi and was buried in the ‘Garden of Thirty Thousand Trees’ outside the Kabuli gate.

+ Persian Literature in Translation website has The Tears of Zebunnisa, experts from the Divan-i-Makhfi
also, The Diwan of Zen-Un-Nisa: The First 50 Ghazals Pin It Now!