The invisible Princess Zebunnisa

A lesser known character from the Mughal Empire is princess Zebunnisa, the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb. Unlike her puritanical father, Zebunnisa was a Sufi poet and did not share her father’s orthodoxy. Here is a translated version of her beautiful verses:

`Things of Love’

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!
By Zebunnisa Makhfi (translated by Willis Barnstone).

She held a separate court, patronized arts and letters and was a major poet of her times. Her verses were later compiled and published as Diwan-i-Makhfi. Here 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.
Two poems I found here , illuminate what is “hidden” ..

The nightingale would forget his song to the rose,
If he saw me walking in the garden.
If the Brahmin saw My face,
He would forget his idol.
Whoever would find Me,
Must look in My words;
For I am hidden in My words,
As the perfume in the petals of the flowers.


If the beloved face thou canst not see
   Within thy heart still cherish thy desire;
And if her love she will not grant to thee,
   In thy love never tire.

Although her face be hidden from thy sight,
   Within the sanctuary of thy heart
Still keep her image for thine own delight,
   Hidden apart.

And if the Keeper of the Garden close
   Before your face the inexorable gate,
O linger yet! The perfume of the rose
   Will float to you, and find you as you wait
   Not all disconsolate.

Zebunnisa was later imprisoned by Aurangzeb and she died incarcerated in a Delhi fortress. A recently published book“Captive Princess: Zebunnisa, Daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb” attempts to examine the causes of her imprisonment, her worldview and reconstructs her life.

No moth am I that in impetuous fashion
Fly to the flame and perish. Rather say
I am a candle that with inward passion
Slowly and silently consume away.

Translations of her poetry by the Wisdom of the East series can be found here.


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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Is Zebunnisa the same princess whose lover died in a hot “deg”(large cooking utensil) in an atttempt to hide from Aurangzeb who appeared on the scene.

  2. Absolutely, its the same princess whose lover was allegedly burnt alive in the gardens near Chauburji. However, this is one of those anecdotes that has travelled with time. The evidence is sketchy. But then Aurangzeb was capable of doing so considering how he killed all his brothers and imprisoned his father, Princess Jahanara and later Zebunissa…

  3. Aurangzaibs treatment of his offspring was the downfall of the Mughals. Her children were not given adequate training in the field and in administration to make them capable rulers.

    Zebunissa was no more brilliant than Jahanara though. The poetry sounds very similar to the poetry of the Caliph Haroon Ar-Rashid’s sister.

  4. Thanks a lot for the comment. Jahan Ara as I stated here was the mentor of Princess Zeb. Yes Aurangzeb was cruel to his family, country and history. Little wonder he remains a dark figure despite the evidence that he was not as intolerant as he is portrayed to be..

    Such is the verdict of history!

  5. Zebunissa’s poetry is astounding in its maturity and worldly wisdom for a woman of the court at that time. It shows the cultivation and intellectual curiosity of all the Mughals, Aurangzeb included (after all, he was Zebunissa’s father and encouraged her intellectual pursuits).

    The period of Shah Jehan, Jahanara, Zebunissa, Dara Shikoh, Aurangzeb and all the other luminaries perhaps represents the peak of Mughal culture in India – it could have gone on to surpass even greater heights had Dara Shikoh won the succession.

    Unfortunately the book by Ann Krieger fails to do justice to this remarkable period and all the marvellous personages who peopled it – and it is marred not only by factual inaccuracies but also by a somewhat immature ideological hostility to Dara Shikoh’s syncreticism and mysticism.

  6. did aurenzeb grieved over death of his daughter zaibunissa????? why was he soo cold hearted towards his own children???

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