When Tilism-e Hoshruba was first published in Lucknow, India in 1883, it was already a beloved oral history that had been performed for years in public and private. What Hoshruba’s fans did not know, however, was that professional storyteller Mir Ahmed Ali and his disciples had engineered a massive literary hoax, writing Hoshruba themselves and falsely attributing it to the epic poem cycle The Adventures of Amir Hamza. But less important than Hoshruba’s provenance was its impact: The story of the tilism (an inanimate object transformed into its own world) of Hoshruba, defended by Emperor Afrasiyab against rival tilism as well as the trickster Amar Ayyar, has become one of the foremost fantasy tales in Urdu. For a more in-depth look at the epic’s sorcerers, formidable women, and grimdark (long before the genre existed) battles, read Mahvesh Murad’s Under the Radar review.
Hoshruba (which translates to “ravishing the senses”) is part of the dastan tradition of oral storytelling and is being translated into English for the first time as Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism. In its original form, Hoshruba was published in Urdu, in eight volumes totaling over eight thousand pages. In translating the epic into English, Pakistani-Canadian writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi has split each volume into three, for a total of 24 volumes. Over the next few months, you will be able to read all 50 episodes—the entire first volume of Hoshruba—on Tor.com, with one new episode going up every day. You can also purchase the entire novel through Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
The Meeting of Princess Tasveer and Prince Badiuz Zaman and Their Falling in Love
At the end of his journey, when that Pinnacle of Trickery and the Star of the Skies of Dagger Fighting arrived at the place where Prince Badiuz Zaman had been captured by sorcery, he saw a meadow even more delightful than the garden of paradise.
Admiring the air, Amar carried onwards on his mission. Suddenly, a group of girls appeared on the horizon and Amar hid himself in a bush.
Coming his way was a party of coquettish girls as beautiful and lovely as the moon, and as stately as the sun in the heavens.
They were of ages between fifteen and sixteen years
Familiar to pangs of adolescence, and nights of desires
Between them was a princess whose beauty was the moon’s envy. She was the gazelle of the desert of beauty and a prancing peacock of the forest of splendor. She walked with her hand placed on the shoulder of one of her attendants,
Like the rose in a cluster of nightingales, the supreme lord
Like the moon among stars, the lantern of heavens
and was outfitted in a fine costume and jewelery enchased with gems. Absorbed in the sights of the wilderness, she stepped with a graceful and haughty air.
Amar was regarding the whole scene from his hiding place when one of the princess’s attendants felt the call of nature. She sat down to make water at some distance from Amar while her companions continued along their path. Amar reckoned that if he joined the princess’s party he might find some clue that would help him locate the prince. He came out of the bush and threw his snare rope at the girl answering the call of nature. When she raised the alarm, Amar stuffed her mouth with a trickster’s ball and drugged her unconscious. He tied her to a tree and, putting a mirror before his face, began putting on colored powder and trickster’s lotions, changing his face to the girl’s likeness. He took off her clothes and dressed himself in them. Leaving her tied there, Amar Ayyar rushed forward to join the party of attendants.
Taking Amar Ayyar for their companion, the girls said, “O Shagufa! You took your time. What else were you doing there besides answering the call of nature?” Amar realized that the girl whose disguise he had put on was called Shagufa. He answered, “Come now, I didn’t take all that long!”
Talking together, they all approached a garden. Amar saw that its gates were open like the yearning eyes of a lover, and the cold wind that wafted there was like the Messiah’s breath. The beauties entered that garden, whose splendor had no equal, and Amar beheld wondrous grounds that were the envy of the garden of paradise.
It was adorned with beautiful promenades and esplanades, paved with jewels instead of bricks. The trees were wrapped in gold cloth. The hedges of henna plants and grapevines decorated the silken grass bed. Like a drunken guest in a wine house, the breeze kept crashing into the ewers of trees. The goblets of flowers brimmed with the wine of freshness and beauty and exhaled a captivating redolence.
Sorceress Sharara Flame-Spirit
In the middle of the garden was a marble platform a hundred yards long and as wide on which a royal carpet was spread. A bejewelled, caparisoned regal throne was placed on it with a canopy made of strung pearls. A finely clad woman in her fifties was sitting on the throne, resting against the pillows with great pomp and majesty. The perfume box, betel box, dry-fruit box, and flowerpots were placed around her on the throne. She rose when the princess, whom Amar had accompanied, approached, and stepped forward with a smile to welcome her. The princess saluted her respectfully. Her attendants also curtsied to the older woman reverently and retreated respectfully in silence afterwards.
The older woman was none other than sorceress Sharara Flame-Spirit, who had put a spell on Prince Badiuz Zaman and imprisoned him. The visiting princess was her niece, Princess Tasveer, the daughter of Empress Heyrat of Hoshruba.
Sharara blessed and kissed Tasveer and seated her on the throne. She ordered accomplished dancers to present themselves and display their talents. A spectacular recital was soon in progress and cups of wine were served.
In the middle of these revelries, Sharara asked Tasveer, “My child, what brought you to these parts? Why did you inconvenience yourself by travelling on foot in the wilderness?” Tasveer answered, “Venerable aunt, reverent to me as my mother! I have heard that you captured one of Hamza’s sons. I am most desirous of seeing a True Believer. Even though they are the creation of our Lord Laqa, they seem so powerful that even our Lord is completely helpless before them. They drive our Lord from land to land and pursue him relentlessly. I have also heard that these people laid hundreds of lands to ruin and destroyed and burned as many tilisms. I wish to see them to behold the might, power and majesty invested in them by Lord Laqa when he created them.”
Sharara laughed and ordered the prisoner to be brought out so that his plight may be presented to the princess.
A party of sorceresses went away to carry out her orders. In the garden was an enchanted summerhouse where buildings stretched for miles on end. Badiuz Zaman was imprisoned in a chamber inside one building under the vigil of sorceresses. When they received Sharara’s orders, the spell was taken off Badiuz Zaman. He was put in chains, fetters, handcuffs and leg-irons. Spiked iron balls were thrust in his armpits and his thighs were secured in steel clasps. Sorceresses led him out by a chain attached to his waist and presented him before Princess Tasveer.
The princess beheld the prince’s comely face and his world-adorning beauty. She regarded a handsome and beautiful youth who was a world-illuminating sun of the sky of beauty and a lustrous pearl of the oyster of refinement.
The moment their eyes met, the bow of the prince’s eyebrow released the arrow of love, which pierced through the princess’s heart, making life a burden for her.
The princess laid her head on the throne and fell unconscious. After much to-do, Sharara restored her to her senses by sprinkling her face with rose-water, essence of musk, and restoratives.
Prince Badiuz Zaman beheld the ravishing beauty regain consciousness and regard him with a longing gaze. The Painter of Creation5 had surpassed Himself in creating her dazzling beauty and the prince’s heart became all aflutter. He felt it nearly break free from the oppressive imprisonment of his body to imprison itself in her locks. That beauty, who was the envy of the House of Mani, was called Tasveer,6 but the sight of her unparalleled beauty was such that none could behold it without himself becoming transfixed with wonder like a mirror, and still like an image.
The inventive Transcriber of Nature had calligraphed with the pen of beauty the words “heart-ravishing” on the tablet of her face; one more beautiful did not exist in the whole gallery of Creation. The prince became enamoured of her with a thousand souls, and inconsolable in her love.
Ah desire! Ah desire! the heart cried
I depart! I depart! fortitude answered
The senses began to scatter and disperse
The heart held the standard of frenzy aloft
All sense of shame and dignity began to dissolve
And thus ensued a battle between the mind and heart
But he got hold of himself and became quiet, realizing that he was already a prisoner in the tilism and if his love were discovered, everyone there would become his enemy and his life worthless.
When Sharara saw Tasveer’s suffering, she said to her attendants, “Take away the prisoner! My niece’s virgin blood is unfamiliar with oppressive humours! She fainted because she has never seen anyone in such misery and distress before.”
The sorceresses led Badiuz Zaman away, locked him up in his chamber, and left him. The prince forgot all the misery of his imprisonment in his new-found love and the memory of the princess began tormenting his grief-stricken heart.
He constantly recited couplets and said to himself, O Badiuz Zaman! It is impossible that she would ever find you worthy of her attentions; her beauty has intoxicated her with vanity. If you ever found release from this prison, you would surely die a most wretched death in the prison of her love.
While the prince was undergoing these pangs, Tasveer’s longing eyes, too, searched for her flower of excellence. Unable to find what she most ardently desired, she drew an icy sigh from the depths of her pining heart. However, she became quiet as well upon reflection on the disastrous consequences of her passion.
Sharara asked her, “How are you feeling my dear child?” She answered, “Dear aunt, I don’t know how to describe to you the sinking feeling in my heart and the dread that seized it at the thought of the prisoner’s hardships and harsh imprisonment.” Sharara answered, “My child! You are a princess and must not succumb to such anxieties. Felons and estimable folks appear daily before the royalty. Some are hanged or beheaded, while others conferred purses of gold and robes of honor from the royal bounty. Hamza’s son is an enemy of sorcerers. He has been imprisoned at the orders of Emperor Afrasiyab, and it’s a near impossibility that he will ever be freed. Had it been someone else, I would have gladly released him for your sake and conferred gold and riches on him besides. Now you have my leave to return to your garden. I see that your condition is not improving. Perspiration is covering your forehead still, and idle visions and horrors continue to torment you. If you stay here longer you will remain engrossed in such thoughts. It would suit you better to return to your house, distract your thoughts by conversing with your confidants, and occupy yourself no more with thoughts of the prisoner! Once you go away your spirits will revive like rosebuds breaking into bloom.”
Tasveer rose from there and thought, It was well that my aunt sent me away. Had I stayed here longer, a word of pining or a sigh of longing might have escaped my lips and disclosed my love. Once I am back in my garden, I will cry to my heart’s content and unburden it of its sorrow.
As she bowed from her waist to pay her respects to her aunt before leaving, the beauty, who was the envy of the full moon, became a picture of the crescent. Sharara blessed her and bid her adieu.
Tasveer’s attendants, who were promenading in the garden, presented themselves when told of the princess’s departure. Amar Ayyar, who was also among them in Shagufa’s disguise, thought, God knows where the princess will go from here. Prince Badiuz Zaman is imprisoned in this place. I must kill this strumpet Sharara and secure the release of my prince!
The false Shagufa presented herself before Sharara and said humbly, “Your slave girl has become greatly enamoured of this place and this garden. I wish to remain at your feet awhile and not depart today. Besides, I have attained a degree of excellence in music, and now that I have found a connoisseur in you, I desire that you witness my accomplishments. You might find me worthy of your beneficence.” Sharara answered, “O Shagufa! Tasveer’s house and my house are as one. There is no separation between our households. You may stay here for as long as you wish.”
Sharara turned toward Tasveer and said, “Tasveer, my child, leave Shagufa here with me!” Tasveer answered, “Very well, aunt!” She left shortly afterwards and the false Shagufa stayed behind.
Princess Tasveer went staggering and stumbling on her way, inconsolable with the pangs of love-induced grief. She kept saying to herself, Ah, what a misfortune that I fell in love with the one who has sworn enmity to my life and my faith, as he is a slayer of sorcerers! His release from the prison is near impossible. Alas, alas, alas! He will lose his life for nothing! She was occupied with these reflections when suddenly the real Shagufa arrived before her, all naked and in tears. Princess Tasveer wondered what had happened to her in the time that she had been left with Sharara, and who had stripped her of her clothes.
Shagufa threw herself at the princess’s feet, and said, “My princess, I was accompanying you when I stopped along the way to answer the call of nature. A man appeared from the bushes all of a sudden and God knows what he did to me that I lost consciousness. He stripped me and left me tied to a tree. When I came to, I implored a passer-by to help me, and after freeing myself, I rushed before you. I consider myself fortunate that I again behold the face of Your Honor.”
The princess marvelled at the story, and thought, I should not breathe even a word of this to anyone. Perhaps one of Prince Badiuz Zaman’s friends put on Shagufa’s disguise and stayed behind to find some way for securing his release. If I talk about it, Sharara will hear of it and that poor soul will also be captured.
In her love for the prince, Tasveer did not show any consideration even for her own aunt. She sent for her attendants, had a change of clothes brought for Shagufa, and said to everyone, “Look at this wanton girl! She did not want me to learn what she had in mind, so she took leave to stay behind at my aunt’s house. Then she stole away God knows where so that even her clothes were stripped away.” Shagufa protested and said, “Pray believe me, I speak the truth!” The princess replied, “Quiet, you liar! I will never believe a word you say! I swear by Lord Sameri that if you speak again I will have you punished most severely!” After threatening Shagufa against opening her mouth about the incident or spreading the news of what had passed with her, the princess diverted herself with the sights of her garden. She put her hopes in the Omnipotent Causer of Causes7 to create a way for the prince’s release.
When Tasveer stepped into her garden, she found it a veritable thorn in the absence of her nightingale-like beloved. She could find neither peace nor rest. Her heart was marked by the prince’s love like the tulip; her gaze awaited the prince’s sight like the narcissus; and, with longing in her heart, she waited for the noble prince, all delicate and fragile like the spikenard.8
Now we return to the account of Amar Ayyar, the Bearder of Infidels, the Beheader of Sorcerers, and the Dagger Fighter Par Excellence, who had stayed behind in Sharara’s garden in Shagufa’s disguise.
Until evening, the false Shagufa occupied herself with making pleasantries and repartees with other female attendants. Now she would pinch someone; now press her cheek against a girl; now slip the attendants’ belongings into the zambil—a betel box here, a vanity box there. She carried on like this until evening and great excitement was caused by all her doings because nobody was able to find the thief.
Sharara had ordered food, wine and all manner of delicacies for dinner. After the meal, a carpet was spread on the crystal platform and the garden was lit up. The tent-pitchers decorated the summerhouse most beautifully by illuminating it with lamps, chandeliers, lotus-lights and other glass lights. Globes of light hung from every tree, making every branch drip with beads of light.
Gold and silver threads were cut into shreds, put in the fountainheads, and water released in the watercourses. When all the decorations were complete, singers, dancers and musicians were sent for and Sharara asked Shagufa to present herself.
The false Shagufa made her appearance dressed in a dancing girl’s gown, wearing eighty-four ankle bells. She asked Sharara’s female musicians and singers to sound their notes, then filled her mouth with pearls, produced a pair of reed pipes and put them to her lips.
Be it known that Angel Jibrail had taught Amar along with Amir Hamza. He had fed Amar three grapes. The first grape made Amar harmonious, with the harmony of Prophet Daud. The second grape allowed him to change into seventy-two different guises and, by the grace of God, assume the face that he turned his thought to. And the third grape gave Amar the power to fully understand and speak all languages of the world.
Tying one end of a brass wire to her big toe and pressing the other between her lips, the false Shagufa picked up a wine ewer and goblet in her hands and began dancing. She could make only a single ankle bell sound when she wished, or all together, or none. She strung pearls from her mouth onto the wire at every beat, and filled the goblet every so often to serve the assembly. Sounds of “Brava! Well done!” rose from all corners of the garden at her performance, which was full of dalliance and coquettish airs.
Sharara sat there, struck with wonder and marvelled whether what she saw before her was a human phenomenon, a spark, or a moving flame. It was an enchanting performance with the reed constantly playing the accompaniment, the pearls being strung continuously, and the wine circulating without end. Sharara showered the false Shagufa with praise and took off her necklace to give her as a reward. The false Shagufa made a salutation, went dancing to the sorceress and stuck out her head for Sharara to put the necklace around her neck. She then ended the tune and started singing with such fervor that everyone began to swoon from the song and the enchanting power of her melodious strains.
Sharara was enraptured and as she broke into tears from ecstasy, the false Shagufa stopped. The sorceress called out, “Do not stop the song now! You have brought me this far! Take me now to the end.” The false Shagufa answered: “Allow me to tell you my situation in verse:
“The free spirits must drink wine
And my eyes are like the goblets
My clay was kneaded with the juice of grape
In the first sip of my life was a drop of wine
In the wine house of the world I am the wise head on whom
The clergyman passed the decree to remain continuously drunk.”
When Sharara heard these verses, she realized the girl desired a drink but was too modest and well behaved to ask for it directly. She was pleased by her refined manners and the fact that she served wine to everyone without taking a sip herself. Sharara immediately ordered the wine service to be presented. The attendants rushed to obey her orders and brought everything, including trays of wine, goblets, decanters and ewers. Sharara said, “O Shagufa, I was most pleased with your performance today! I hereby appoint you my confidant and enroll you among my companions. Be the cupbearer in this company and give me some wine, too!”
The false Shagufa approached and made an offering of five gold pieces. Sharara conferred a robe of honor on her, which the false Shagufa put on, and began organizing the wine service. The false Shagufa arranged the decanters and ewers of wine like a bouquet under the chandelier, placing the green glasses next to the red, setting them in such a way that light would fall directly on them and it would seem as if flower bouquets were placed on the floor. She kept busy sorting the cups and ewers so that she could drug all the wine. She managed to do so without inviting notice then resumed dancing. Holding a wine ewer under her arm and filling up a goblet, she danced up to Sharara and offered the goblet to her, saying:
“Drink, for the days of sorrow will soon pass
They did not last before, and they shall now pass.”
As Sharara extended her hand to take the cup, the false Shagufa tossed it into the air and caught it on her head without spilling a single drop. Then she extended her head before Sharara and submitted, “Nobles and royalty must be served wine on the platter of their servants’ head, my lady!”
Sharara could not cease marvelling at the many refinements she witnessed in the attendant. She raised the cup to her lips and her breath came in contact with the wine. Immediately, the wine leapt to the sky in flame. Left holding the empty cup, Sharara came to her senses speedily. After imprisoning Badiuz Zaman, she had deputed magic spirits to alert her if some trickster arrived to seek the prince’s release. It was a magic spirit that caused the wine to leap up in flame. Realizing that it was a trickster disguised as Shagufa, Sharara immediately recited an incantation and blew it on the attendant. Her face paint and makeup disappeared and Amar Ayyar appeared in his real form. Sharara ordered the sorceresses to arrest him and Amar was taken into custody without delay.
Sharara said, “You very nearly killed me, O rascal!” Amar answered, “O harridan! Do not think even for a moment that you are saved. Yours truly never returns unsuccessful from his mission. Rest assured that I will dispatch you to hell shortly!” Enraged by Amar’s words, Sharara had him tied to a tree and put a magic cordon around the garden so that he could not escape from it.
Sharara wrote a letter to Emperor Afrasiyab, containing the particulars of Amar’s capture. She informed him that she had arrested him and awaited the emperor’s orders whether she should dispatch Amar’s head to the court or send him there a prisoner. Sharara handed the letter to her attendant, Shola Rukhsar Flame-Cheek, with orders to take it to the court of the Emperor of Hoshruba.
5 Painter of Creation: an allusion to God.
6 Tasveer: the literal translation of the word tasveer is “picture”, “portrait” or “image.”
7 Omnipotent Causer of Causes: an allusion to God. Note that while the princess herself believes in Laqa, the narrator is a True Believer, and for him only the One God is Omnipotent. He describes the ultimate authority in the universe as such in his narrative. This characteristic sometimes also enters first person speech.
8Her heart was marked by the prince’s love like the tulip;…all delicate and fragile like the spikenard: in the Urdu poetic tradition the tulip symbolizes a lover’s heart which is marked by love, the narcissus a lover’s eye that looks his beloved’s way, and the spikenard the locks and ringlets of the beloved.