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The Diwan of Zeb-un-Nissa
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Pages (PDF): 60
Publication Date: This translation by Magan Lal and Jessie Duncan Westbrook, 1913
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The Princess Zeb-un-Nissa was the eldest daughter of the Mogul Emperor Aurungzebe of India, and was born in 1639. A Sufi, she was well educated in both the Quran and the sciences, and was fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. She started to write Persian poetry secretly at the age of 14. Her works included the Diwan, a collection of her poetry, excerpts from which are included in this Wisdom of the East volume.
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The Princess Zeb-un-Nissa was the eldest daughter of the Mogul Emperor Aurungzebe of India, and was born in 1639. She came of a distinguished line, in direct descent from Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane. Her Emperor-ancestors were famous not only for their valour and statesmanship, but as patrons and inspirers of art and learning, and, moreover, they themselves possessed distinguished literary gifts. Baber's reminiscences are written in so fresh and delightful a style that their charm holds us to-day, and he wrote poetry both in Turki and Persian, even inventing a new style of verse. One of his sons, Mirza Kamran, was also a writer of Persian verse. Although Akbar has given the world no writings of his own—tradition even says that he never found time to learn to write—yet he surrounded himself with a most cultured circle; and Abul Fazl, his talented minister, constantly records in his letters Akbar's wise sayings and noble sentiments. Jehangir, like Baber, wrote his own memoirs, and they are ranked high in Persian literature. Shah Jehan wrote some account of his court and of his travels, and a record called the Dastur-ul-Amal, or Laws of Shah Jehan. Aurungzebe wrote books on Musulman law, and the collection of his letters, called the Ruqat Alamgiri, is famous. Nor was this literary talent confined to the men's side of the house. Baber's daughter, Gulbadan, wrote some history of her own times, and has left us an interesting picture of Baber himself; and Zeb-un-Nissa's verses still testify to her skill as a poet.
It is difficult to learn precisely the details of her life; they were not written in any connected biography, for in her later days she incurred the wrath of her stern father, and no court chronicler dared to speak of her. Her mother was Dilrus Banu Begum, daughter of Shah Nawaz Khan. From her childhood she showed great intelligence, and she was instructed from an early age. At seven years old she was a Hafiz—she knew the Koran by heart; and her father gave a great feast to celebrate the occasion. We read that the whole army was feasted in the great Maidan at Delhi, thirty thousand gold mohurs were given to the poor, and the public offices were closed for two days. She was given as teacher a lady named Miyabai, and learned Arabic in four years; she then studied mathematics and astronomy, in which sciences she gained rapid proficiency. She began to write a commentary on the Koran, but this was stopped by her father. From her early youth she wrote verses, at first in Arabic; but when an Arabian scholar saw her work he said: "Whoever has written this poem is Indian. The verses are clever and wise, but the idiom is Indian, although it is a miracle for a foreigner to know Arabian so well." This piqued her desire for perfection, and thereafter she wrote in Persian, her mother-tongue. She had as tutor a scholar called Shah Rustum Ghazi, who encouraged and directed her literary tastes. She wrote at first in secret, but he found copies of her verses among her exercise-books. He prophesied her future greatness, and persuaded her father to send all over India and Persia and Kashmir to find poets and to invite them to come to Delhi to form a fitting circle for the princess. This was the more wonderful as Aurungzebe himself cared little for poetry and used to speak against the poet's calling. He had forbidden the works of Hafiz to be read in school by boys, or in the palace by the Begums, but he made an exception in favour of Zeb-un-Nissa.
Among the poets of her circle were Nasir Ali, Sayab, Shamsh Wali Ullah, Brahmin, and Behraaz. Nasir Ali came from Sirhind, and was famous for his pride and his poverty, for he despised the protection of the great. Zeb-un-Nissa admired his verses, and in a way he came to be regarded almost as her rival poet. Her coterie used to engage in a poetical tournament—a kind of war of wits. One would propose a line—sometimes it would be a question; another would answer it or contradict it or qualify it or expand it, by a line or lines in the same metre, rhyming with the original line. This is called mushaira—a poetical concourse; and in this quick repartee Zeb-un-Nissa excelled.
She had been betrothed by the wish of Shah Jehan, her grandfather, to Suleiman Shikoh, who was her cousin and son of Dara Shikoh; but Aurungzebe, who hated and feared Dara, was unwilling that the marriage should take place, and caused the young prince to be poisoned. She had many other suitors for her hand, but she demanded that she should see the princes and test their attainments before a match was arranged. One of those who wished to marry her was Mirza Farukh, son of Shah Abbas II of Iran; she wrote to him to come to Delhi so that she might see what he was like. The record remains of how he came with a splendid retinue, and was feasted by Zeb-un-Nissa in a pleasure-house in her garden, while she waited on him with her veil upon her face. He asked for a certain sweetmeat in words which, by a play of language, also meant a kiss, and Zeb-un-Nissa, affronted, 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, and she refused the marriage. Mirza Farukh, however, sent her this verse: "I am determined never to leave this temple; here will I bow my head, here will I prostrate myself, here will I serve, and here alone is happiness." Zeb-un-Nissa answered: "How light dost thou esteem this game of love, O child. Nothing dost thou know of the fever of longing, and the fire of separation, and the burning flame of love." And so he returned to Persia without her.
She enjoyed a great deal of liberty in the palace: she wrote to many learned men of her time, and held discussions with them. She was a great favourite with her uncle Dara Shikoh, who was a scholar and wide-minded and enlightened. To him she modestly attributed her verses when first she began to write, and many of the ghazals in the Diwan of Dara Shikoh are by her. She came out in the court, and helped in her father's councils, but always with the veil upon her face.
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