An unusual Valentine’s Day card caught my attention in a book shop. It had a dried peepal leaf stuck on the outside, with the face of a beautiful woman painted on it. Two beauty spots were seen on her left cheek. Inside the card were these words:-
“I am an expert in things of love. Even the moth is my disciple.”
The author of these lines was ‘Makhfi.’
“Who is this poet?” I wondered, “Is it man or a woman?”
So began my search for Makhfi – the ‘Invisible One.’
Though the women of the Moghul Empire were mostly ignored, Zebunissa the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb was an exception. She was renowned in the Literary World as a sensitive Sufi poet.
Born in 1638 to Aurangzeb and Debias Banoo, a descendant of the Persian Safavid dynasty, Zebunissa was the Emperor’s favourite child for the first half of her life. He ensured that she received a good education in science, maths, astrology, philosophy, literature and languages like Persian, Arabic and Urdu. She memorized the entire Quran within three years, and by the age of seven, was declared a Hafiz. Her father was so thrilled by her performance that he turned it into a big celebration, and gifted her with 30,000 gold pieces.
Zebunissa started writing poetry from the age of fourteen. But as her father hated poetry, she was secretive about it and wrote under the pseudonym Makhfi meaning the ‘invisible one.’
Zebunissa was exposed to the affairs of the Moghul Court. The Emperor discussed his political problems with her and even sought her opinion on various issues. But she soon became conscious of his unbridled ambition and cruelty, which led to the dethronement of his father Shah Jehan. She also disliked his orthodox views on religion and society.
At the age of 21, her relationship with her father underwent a drastic change. He became more conservative and strict. He resented her love of poetry and her desire to become a Sufi poet. But Zebunissa proved to be a rebel. She secretly participated in literary and cultural events, her face covered with a veil. Her poems were steeped in mystic thought – of love, freedom, inner experiences of the soul and love of God. The Persian poet Hafiz Shiraz had an influence on her poetry. She became one of the members of the Indian School of Poetry in Persian.
Aurangzeb was jealous of her talents and rising fame in literary circles. She was moved to Tees Hazari, a house with an imposing garden, which was once the home of her talented aunt Jahan Ara. Zebunissa became a patron of poets. Her poems were appreciated by her contemporaries. She established an excellent library, employing scholars to translate famous literary works.
Zebunissa was a tall, slim woman with a glowing complexion. She dressed soberly without adornments except for a string of pearls. She remained a spinster all her life though she had a train of lovers and many indiscreet liaisons. Her fondness for her slave girl Mian Bai was also the subject of gossip. She gifted her with the Charbuji Gardens in Lahore. The inscription on the gate read “This garden has been bestowed on Mian Bai by the beauty Zebinda Begum, the lady of her age.”
Zebunissa’s fame infuriated her father. He decided to humiliate her publicly. He invited a famous Iranian poet Nazir Ali to his court, to challenge Zebunissa to a contest. Nazir would begin a couplet which Zebunissa had to complete in three days. If she failed to do so, she would have to renounce poetry forever. Zebunissa decided that she would rather commit suicide instead.
But she won the contest, and this was the beginning of a love affair between Nazir and her. It was short lived. Aurangzeb had the man put to death for daring to love a princess.
Later, Aurangzeb accused her of conspiring with her brother Akbar, who led a revolt against him. She was imprisoned in Salimgarh Fort for the next twenty years, till the end of her life. She continued to immerse herself in literature and poetry for as long as she lived.
Zebunissa died in 1702, when the Emperor was away in Deccan. She was buried in “The Garden of Thirty Thousand Trees,” near the Kabul Gate in Old Delhi. But when a railway line was laid, her coffin and tombstone was shifted to Akbar’s mausoleum in Sikandra at Agra.
Zebunissa was a rare woman. Her poems (5000 verses) were compiled posthumously into a volume titled Diwan-i-Makhfi. It was later translated from Persian to English by Willis Barnstone. Copies of it are preserved in the British Museum and the National Libraries of Paris and Tehran, Library of University of Tubingen, and Mota Library in Delhi.
As Shelley said, “Poetry makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world.”