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.
Shola Rukhsar Flame-Cheek flew away by invoking her magic. She arrived at the banks of the River of Flowing Blood and called out, “O Emperor of Hoshruba! A messenger of Sharara seeks leave to be presented in your illuminated service!”
Afrasiyab was giving audience in the Apple Garden in the region of Batin when his magic alerted him to the call of Shola Rukhsar Flame-Cheek. He sent a magic claw, which picked up Shola Rukhsar Flame-Cheek from the riverbank and brought her before him.
Shola Rukhsar found herself in a summerhouse in the Apple Garden where Emperor Afrasiyab was giving audience with Empress Heyrat on a throne enchased with diamonds and gems and surrounded by thousands of nobles of Hoshruba and celebrated sorcerers. The sorcerers and sorceresses sat dressed in elegant costumes on ruby-sculpted seats whose feet were carved out in the shape of lion and elephant heads that spewed fire constantly. Among the many nobles present were:
Sorceress Princess Bahar of Spring-Quarter
Sorceress Princess Nafarman of the City of Purple Poppy
Sorceress Princess Zaafran
Sorceress Princess Taus
Sorceress Princess Mushkeen-Mu Wonder-Mane
Sorceress Princess Makhmur Crimson-Eye
The five trickster girls stood with deference before Empress Heyrat. They were:
Sarsar Swordfighter, Queen of the City of Portraits and the leader of trickster girls
Saba Raftar the Quick, Minister to Sarsar Swordfighter
Tez Nigah Dagger-Fighter
The empress was attended by two sorceress aides:
The emperor was attended by his four ministers:
The emperor’s ministers moved the fly-whisk of phoenix feathers above the emperor’s head. All those present sat in quiet reverence before the grandeur and majesty of the royal court.
Shola Rukhsar curtsied before Afrasiyab and presented Sharara’s letter. After reading it, Afrasiyab wrote in reply:
“Kill Amar without delay!”
Shola Rukhsar then took her leave. Afrasiyab sent for a magic claw, which carried her across the River of Flowing Blood. She started from there for Sharara’s garden, which lay at a day’s journey, and where Amar Ayyar the Nightingale of the Grove of Trickery was tied to a tree.
At some late hour in the night, Sharara retired to the summerhouse to sleep. Amar began cudgelling his brains to find some way of freeing himself and killing Sharara. He was occupied with these thoughts when one of Sharara’s attendants, Saman Azar, happened to pass by. Amar gestured to her to approach him and said to her, “O faithful subject of Lord Laqa, I entreat you to hear me out!” When Saman Azar approached, Amar started crying. He said, “You know that I will be beheaded in the morning, and the executioner will deprive me of all my possessions. You know too, that I am a trickster in the employ of Amir Hamza and possess a great horde of jewels, pearls and gems. I will bestow my possessions upon you if you do me the kindness of witnessing my last wishes and acting in accordance with them.”
Saman Azar was tempted by the talk of riches. She sat down by Amar’s side and said, “Tell me what your last wishes are and how much gold and jewels you possess!” Amar answered, “Have no worries. There are riches enough to last you many lifetimes. Hear out my last wishes first! Once I am killed, you must purchase my corpse from Sharara and bury it after covering it in a winding-sheet. Next, go to my camp and distribute one half of my possessions among my children and my wife, and keep the other half for yourself.” Saman Azar said, “Very well! Now tell me what those possessions are.” Amar said, “Unfasten my one hand so that I may hand over all those possessions to you!” When Saman Azar unfastened Amar’s hand, he took out his trickster’s livery and put it on the ground. He said to Saman Azar, “My other hand is also tied. Unfasten it too, and take all that I ask you to take.”
Once both his hands were free, Amar opened the trickster’s livery and began putting out all items used in trickery—women’s and men’s costumes, sweetmeats, oils, and facial paints. Amar told her how he used them to disguise himself as a woman. He told her how he turned into a beggar, what he did to disguise himself as a king, and to what purpose the drugged sweetmeats and fruits were used, et cetera. Among other things, there was also a bag full of jewels and gold. Amar said, “This is yours!” Saman Azar felt she was in seventh heaven and put it to one side. As Amar resumed searching the livery, a small, most elegantly cut box of ruby, whose glitter illuminated the whole place, fell out of it and Amar quickly picked it up.
Saman Azar said, “What’s in that?” Amar replied, “My very soul, that’s what’s in it! All that I have earned in my life I have kept in it!” Saman Azar said, “Give this to me as well now!” Amar answered, “It is my intention to be buried with it!” Saman Azar said, “At least tell me what is inside this box!” Amar replied, “Inside is a priceless jewel for which even the Empire of the Seven Climes9 is too meagre a ransom!”
Saman Azar pleaded, “O Amar! In the end you will be killed. Give me this box as well and I will act most kindly toward your family and children!” Amar replied, “You would never have come across someone as liberal and generous in your life as me! Take it, it’s yours, too! But do open the box for me and let me have one last look at its contents!”
Saman Azar took the box from Amar’s hand and tried to open it but was unsuccessful. Amar said, “Hold it close to your chest and pull it by applying pressure with both hands!” Saman Azar did as she was told. The box opened and the drug powder in it flew into her face. She sneezed and fell unconscious. Amar then freed himself of his fetters and carried away Saman Azar to a secluded corner in the garden. He disguised himself as Saman Azar and changed her face and appearance into his own with tricksters’ paints and oils. He applied an oil to her tongue that made it swell up and rendered her unable to speak. Then he carried Saman Azar to the tree where he had been tied and fastened her to it. Finally, putting all his tricksters’ apparatus back into his livery, he went to sleep in Saman Azar’s bed.
Amar slept on until the King of Stars10 dismissed his court and Heavens’ Prisoner11 was led into the field of the skies by the chain of rays. Sharara and her attendants rose from their slumber at the break of dawn. After the morning rituals, Sharara went and sat on the carpet spread on the platform in the summerhouse. All her female attendants, including the false Saman Azar, appeared in her service. In the meantime, Shola Rukhsar Flame-Cheeks also returned with Emperor Afrasiyab’s reply and presented it to Sharara. She ordered that Amar Ayyar be brought forth and deputed a Calmuck Tartar12 woman to cut off his head.
The attendants unfastened the real Saman Azar disguised as Amar Ayyar while the Calmuck Tartar readied her dagger. Saman Azar was unable to protest because of her swollen tongue. She cried many tears and made signs but no one understood her. At Sharara’s command, the Calmuck Tartar cut off Saman Azar’s head with just one blow.
Because Saman Azar was a sorceress, a commotion arose at her death; her magic spirits clamoured, “ALAS SAMAN AZAR WAS KILLED!” and darkness enveloped everything. Amar took advantage of the darkness to hide in a nook.
Sharara of dark fortune was unnerved when she heard the noise and witnessed the darkness. She realized immediately that Amar Ayyar had pulled the wool over her eyes and escaped, and that the garden of Saman Azar’s life was destroyed instead. She said to her attendants, “Go and check Saman Azar’s quarters to see if that rebel is hiding there!” Her attendants flew like the zephyr to search for Amar but saw no one there and informed Sharara of it. She said, “Very well! Last night I put a magic cordon around the garden that would not allow anyone to escape from here. Fetch me the magic box that lies in the summerhouse on the center shelf! I am certain that thief is hiding among you disguised as an attendant. I will discover who it is with the help of the magic box.”
The magic box was brought before Sharara. When she opened its lid everyone saw a bracelet-like device fixed to its center. Sharara told them it would clasp the wrist of the one who was in disguise, and ordered them to put their hands one by one into it. When no one’s hand was caught in the clasp, Sharara said to them, “Put away the magic box. Amar is not among you. In the night I will invoke my magic and discover his whereabouts.” The attendants took away the magic box.
Amar witnessed all of this from his hiding place. He looked around and saw a hut resembling the gardener’s quarters. Amar approached it under cover of the trees and saw an old woman lying there. When he asked who she was, she told him she was the gardener’s mother, Champa. Amar hit her in the face with an egg of oblivion, which exploded upon impact; the drug travelled down her nose and she fell unconscious. Amar put her in his zambil and, disguising himself as Champa, went before Sharara, walking with a cane.
The false Champa circled around Sharara’s throne, offering herself as her mistress’s sacrifice to protect her against calamities. Sharara said, “Tell me, Champa, why did you wish to see me?” The false Champa answered, “May I sacrifice my life to protect yours! I heard that a thief has escaped and you tested everyone in the garden. Your slave girl now submits herself for you to test her!” Sharara answered, “There is no need to test you! I will invoke my magic tonight. It will drive Amar out from wherever he is hiding and present him before me.” The false Champa answered, “Tomorrow will be another day. I wish you to put me to the same test that others submitted to earlier today!” Sharara answered, “Very well then! Go and bring me the magic box!” The false Champa said, “I will bring it in no time. Tell me where it is kept.” After receiving the directions, she hobbled off. Entering the summerhouse and finding it deserted, the false Champa opened the magic box and, taking care not to touch the clasp, filled up the box with drug mist. She put two cotton swabs steeped in an antidote in her nostrils so that the drug mist would not affect her. Closing the lid as before and walking slowly, she carried it before Sharara. The sorceress said to her attendants, “She is too old and frail to carry the magic box by herself. Take it from her hands.” The attendants took it from Champa’s hands and put it before Sharara while the false Champa positioned herself before her.
The moment Sharara opened the lid, a cloud of drug vapour rose like smoke and Sharara and all her attendants standing close to her sneezed and fell unconscious. The moment Sharara lost consciousness Amar cut off her head with one blow of his dagger. No sooner was Sharara killed than a great pandemonium broke loose. Stones and hail began to shower and her magic spirits began making deafening outcries.
Amar took advantage of the tumult to put on his cape of invisibility. He put the White Conch, whose call made even demons leap with fright, to his mouth. In the midst of that commotion everyone heard someone call out in a voice that struck terror in their hearts: “RUN OR ALL OF YOU WILL ALSO DIE!” The moment they heard it, Sharara’s servants and attendants stampeded out of the garden. Amar cut off the head of every single attendant who lay unconscious with Sharara. The racket continued and everything remained enveloped in darkness for some time. Finally, everything subsided and Amar saw dead sorceresses lying all around him. All enchanted buildings and trees had disappeared from the garden. Only the real trees and buildings remained standing.
Amar beheld Prince Badiuz Zaman standing unfettered under a tree. Badiuz Zaman greeted Amar when the latter took off his cape. Amar asked him, “How were you freed?” Badiuz Zaman answered, “The chains and fetters were created by Sharara’s spell. When she died they also disappeared. The door of the chamber where I was imprisoned fell open and I came out.”
While Amar was conversing with Badiuz Zaman, a strong wind suddenly picked up. Whirlwinds rose from the ground and began twirling Sharara’s corpse around and bore it away into the air. Amar said, “We must get out of here without an instant’s delay! It seems the corpse of Sharara will be carried before Emperor Afrasiyab and some calamity will visit us before long.”
Badiuz Zaman said, “If we had a conveyance, it would shorten our journey!” Amar answered, “I know a horse is on sale in these parts but it would cost you some little money!” Badiuz Zaman promised to pay Amar a hundred thousand rupees. Amar took out a pen and inkwell from the zambil and said, “Put it on paper! You are a young man. Later, if you refuse the payment, I will have some proof to take before a judge!” Badiuz Zaman laughed and wrote out a promissory note to the treasurer in Amar’s favor for the money.
Amar put the note in his zambil and went outside the garden. He took out a horse and all its trappings from his zambil and brought him saddled before the prince. He said to the prince, “I have just bought it from a merchant outside the garden!” Badiuz Zaman answered, “And singularly fortunate it was, too, that he was standing right outside the garden door waiting for you in this upheaval!” Amar replied, “Have you learned anything in your life other than making speeches? Start moving before some other trouble claims us!” Badiuz Zaman mounted the horse and Amar accompanied him as they headed out of the garden.
On the way, Badiuz Zaman said to Amar, “It would be a disgrace for me to return straight to the camp without seeing Princess Tasveer. I have fallen in love with her. When she hears of my leaving, she will say that Hamza’s son, who desired her, found it a better bargain to escape with his life and return to his camp.”
Amar glared at Badiuz Zaman and said, “O worthless creature, what is this new song you have started singing before even returning to your camp! Keep moving or I swear by your father’s honor that I will lash you until your skin has fallen off your back!” Badiuz Zaman said, “I would offer you my precious bracelet, which is worth hundreds of thousands of rupees, if you could find some way of uniting me with my beloved! I am in such a state that,
Either I reach my beloved’s side or my soul leaves my body
Between these choices I wager my life
When Amar heard of the bracelet, he said in a gruff voice, “What do you take me for, a dealer in women? I wouldn’t know how to procure girls for you! Tasveer, however, is a princess, and I will see what I can do! Come, hand me the bracelet now!” Badiuz Zaman gave the bracelet to Amar, who led him in the direction from which he had seen Tasveer come.
On the way, Amar showed him the spot where he had found Shagufa and narrated the whole story of his adventures. Badiuz Zaman laughed at Amar’s account and they headed onwards.
Ever since Princess Tasveer had returned from sorceress Sharara’s garden she was in a state that,
The day passed in lamentations, the night in tears
My life passed in such a manner, with such agony and pain
Prince Badiuz Zaman’s face had remained imprinted in her heart. It constantly called out his name.
When the princess’s companions and confidants saw her state, they insisted on knowing what passed inside her heart. They said, “Tell us who he is to whom you have lost your heart. Give us the particulars of the despotic tyrant who has reduced you to such a condition that your eyes are constantly tearful, your senses are in disarray and your condition worsens from day to day. Confide in us so that we may find some way of bringing him to you.” The princess said, “My malady has no cure. Even the Messiah cannot offer a remedy to my state!”
Her companions said, “May our lives be sacrificed to protect you! Whether it makes you happy or sad, there is no denying that Your Excellency has been in this state ever since she laid eyes on that prisoner.” One of them interjected, “And so attractive and fine looking he was, too. I swear by my eyes that my own heart became all aflutter at his sight! It has remained imprisoned in his locks ever since I caught sight of him. The core of my heart has become all bloodied; my eyes have been robbed of all sleep; night and day I long to see his face.”
When Tasveer heard these affectionate words from her friends and companions, she finally confessed her love for Prince Badiuz Zaman to them. She ordered her attendants to change into pigeons and ringdoves by magic and fly to Sharara’s garden to keep watch and report whatever passed there.
Her attendants first returned with the news that Amar, who was disguised as Shagufa, had been caught. Tasveer became terribly despondent and was in the depths of the doldrums when they brought her the news of Sharara’s death. That tulip-cheeked beauty blossomed, and said to her attendants, “Now the prince will be released and he will return to his camp. Go and bring him here and unite the seeker with the sought!” Her attendants departed immediately upon her orders.
9 Seven Climes: an approach used by the classical Islamic geographers to divide the Earth into the Greek system of seven zones or climes.
10 King of Stars: an allusion to the moon.
11 Heavens’ Prisoner: an allusion to the sun.
12 Calmuck Tartar: Turkic and Mongol peoples of the Mongol Empire were generically referred to as “Tartars,” i.e. Tatars.