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.
Amar was leading Badiuz Zaman on his way when they saw five adolescent beauties coming toward them.The partings in their hair were lined with cinnabar and their bodies were covered with jewelery.
Comely, houri-faced and fairy-like, they cavorted together and stepped with fine comportment and lofty bearing.
They approached the prince’s mount and after curtsying before him, said with folded arms, “Our mistress Princess Tasveer sends you her fond greetings and requests the honor of your visit, provided you do not consider it too much of an imposition. You may visit her garden and regale yourself there before carrying on your way.”
Amar turned his face away with feigned anger and said, “We do not find sorceresses worthy of our notice and deem them unfit even to carry our chamber pot!” The girls turned a ferocious glance at him. They beheld a thin, wiry man making these remarks. Witty and full of humour as they were, one retorted, “Regard this midget jinn who came back from the dead!” The other said, “To me he seems like a peewee demon!” A third one said, “If you ask me, he is the great ape himself!” Amar replied, “I am a peewee demon who will teach you the lesson of your life!”
Badiuz Zaman said, “Surely, there can be no harm in a short visit and calling on the princess!” Amar said, “Whenever you hear a girl’s invitation you fall head-over-heels in love with her. When we return to our camp I will have Hamza put you right once and for all!”
In short order, they accompanied Tasveer’s attendants and approached the garden. One of the girls went forth and informed Tasveer of the prince’s arrival. She ordered the garden to be decorated and all devices of pleasure to be provided. The carpet keepers quickly laid out carpets of ermine and gold tissue in the building and provided all royal comforts and the apparatus of revelry.
The princess had hardly reached the garden gates to wait for the prince when the sapling of the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction’s garden came into view riding his mount. As he approached, Badiuz Zaman dismounted and the attendants led away his horse.
Amar also accompanied Badiuz Zaman and, approaching the garden gates, found Tasveer looking their way, gazing like the narcissus. Clad in her embroidered satin dress and draped in gold jewelery, she presented a picture of majestic beauty.
With her one hand placed on the shoulder of her attendants, she came forward and smilingly put her hand in that of Prince Badiuz Zaman. She modestly said, “O Prince of auspicious fortune, you have honored this unworthy slave by deigning to pay her a visit. It is my privilege and pride to receive you!
“Had I notice of your arrival
I would have grown the path with jasmine and roses
I would not have allowed you to set foot on the ground
With the broom of my eyelashes I would have cleaned your soles.”
The prince said, “I likewise suffer in your love, my princess,
“The dress I made from your alley’s dust
My tears rent into a thousand shreds.
“All praise to the Gatherer of the Separated who brought us together!”
The two of them entered the garden conversing together like the rose and the nightingale.13 The prince beheld the blossoming garden that was the envy of paradise. It was in full bloom and the foliage and the greenery of its trees mocked the Grove of the Virgin of the Heavens.14 Its verdure was the envy of the down that grows on the faces of beloveds.
Next to every tree grown by nature, consummate artists had planted one made of jewels, injecting its flowers with the aroma of the original that the zephyr’s movement dispersed to perfume the soul’s garden.
Regarding the scenery, the two lovers entered the summerhouse where all comforts were provided. A wine tray was laid next to a seat. A bed enchased with gold and jewels, and a bedstead with tester and curtains was spread in the other corner. The place was decorated with mirror lights and carpets patterned with foliage.
After showing the summerhouse to the prince, Tasveer brought Badiuz Zaman to a house by the lake that was decorated like a bride and fully equipped and provided with all the paraphernalia of revelry. A lavish throne was provided there. The two lovers sat down beside each other on the royal carpet spread by the lakeside. Trays of wine were brought. Musicians and dancers were sent for and Venus-faced singers were summoned to entertain them.
Amar sat opposite the couple and began poking fun at them, saying, “Where did you find this ugly woman, O Prince? She has a sty on her eyelid and bald spots all over her head!”
Tasveer was greatly embarrassed to hear these words. Badiuz Zaman said, “My princess, this man is guided in all things by greed. If you were to make him a gift, he would begin singing your praises in no time!” Tasveer made the offering of a chest full of gold and jewels to Amar, who said, “To confer such regal gifts becomes her dignity for she is, after all, royalty. You are a lucky dog indeed Badiuz Zaman that you find yourself beside her, even though you are of humble birth – being the son of a keeper of the House of Kaaba!”15 Badiuz Zaman said, “Regard O Princess, how he has turned against me!”
Everyone laughed at Amar’s jests and the princess filled up a goblet of wine and offered it to Badiuz Zaman, saying, “It is the drink of love, O Prince! Please accept it!”
The prince answered, “O nightingale of the garden of excellence, you are a sorceress and I am a True Believer.
“See how great a difference there is between us
“It would be difficult to establish friendship between us. If you renounce sorcery, however, I will join you in drinking and will spend my life in submission to your wishes.” She answered, “I am not at all versed in sorcery for I am only an adolescent and have not yet learned magic. My time has been spent only in seeking comfort and luxury. Now I will convert to your faith. Mine is the case of the one.”
I am the infidel of love; I need not a truer faith
My every vein binds me to my oath of love
With these words, Tasveer converted to the True Faith. They began drinking and quaffing cup after cup of roseate wine. Every moment they recited,
O cupbearer pass the wine in rounds
And dispel all life’s troubles from the mind
As the dancers started performing, Amar began his capers. He took out a pair of scissors from his zambil and hid them between his fingers. Sneaking up behind the dancer, he cut off her gown so dextrously that no one saw it. In the middle of the dance, when the girl twirled, she became completely exposed from behind. Everyone started laughing and she became unnerved. Amar next cut off her gown from the front, and when she turned around she was completely disrobed. The princess called out, “You are a shameless wretch to be dancing like this!” When she looked down and found her gown torn, the dancer sat down from shame and everyone roared with laughter. Badiuz Zaman said, “It is all the doing of Amar!”
The princess could not stop laughing and the dancer cursed Amar Ayyar.
Badiuz Zaman was thus occupied in carousing with the princess when fickle providence became envious of their joy. The lake’s waters, which had flowed quietly until now, became suddenly tumultuous. A great noise arose, which unnerved everyone. After a moment, everyone saw a fearsome demon come out of the water carrying a flint sheet. That abominable creature called out, “O Hamza’s son, come what may, today you will not escape with your life from my hands!” Badiuz Zaman put himself between the demon and the princess and shouted, “Come face me, O wretch, for you are my prey!”
The demon swung the flint sheet and brought it down on the prince. He ducked and foiled the blow, dealing the demon a sword blow which cut him in two. Those two pieces hit the ground, thrashed about and fell into the water. After a few moments, the same demon again emerged whole of body from the lake and again attacked Badiuz Zaman. The prince again cut him in two and, as before, those parts fell into the lake, the demon became whole of body, and attacked the prince.
One of Tasveer’s aides named Nairang, who was witnessing this, said to the princess, “This demon will emerge seven times from the lake in this manner and may be killed seven times. But when he emerges the eighth time, none will be able to kill him and he will overpower the prince.” Tasveer said, “Tell me Nairang, if you know some way of killing this demon.” She answered, “I only know that your aunt Sharara had deputed this demon to guard you. She had also made and put away a magic bow and three arrows in a chamber in this garden. If someone were to shoot one of those arrows at the demon from that bow he would be killed. But if none of those arrows reaches its mark, the demon will never be killed.” Tasveer asked, “Where is the chamber?” Nairang replied, “Sharara had made that chamber invisible to the eye with a spell but now that she is dead, her spell will also be broken and we will see the chamber. If Your Highness were to step with me into the summerhouse, I will try to locate it.”
Tasveer went into the summerhouse with Nairang and beheld a chamber she had never seen before. She opened it and saw lying there a bow and three arrows. She rushed with them to the prince, who had killed the demon a fifth time. She told him to shoot him with the arrow when he emerged next.
Badiuz Zaman waited by the lakeside with drawn bow. When the demon came out and rushed at him, Badiuz Zaman fired, aiming at his breast. By the Incomparable Creator’s grace, the very first arrow met its mark, pierced the demon, and came out his back. The demon spun and fell to the ground. A blazing flame came out from the hole made by the arrow and burned him to cinder. A great pandemonium arose and after awhile a voice exclaimed, “SORCERER MUHAFIZ THE GUARD WAS KILLED!”
Badiuz Zaman bowed his head in gratitude before the Judge of Mankind’s Needs and comforted and consoled the princess.
Amar had put on the cape of invisibility the moment the demon appeared. He thought, Now it is for Badiuz Zaman and the princess to decide on the course of action they wish to follow. The idiot has invited this calamity on himself. If it were for me he would have been comfortably home by now. I will now return to Hamza and tell him his son has been corrupted, and narrate his escapades.
When the demon was killed, Amar showed himself again and said, “Beware O worthless boy! Leave this instant and hurry away, otherwise another misfortune will soon befall us!”
Badiuz Zaman said to Tasveer, “I will now take your leave!” She replied, “I will also come with you as I have nothing left to keep me here. When these tidings reach Afrasiyab, I will surely be put to death.” Badiuz Zaman asked the attendants to bring his horse and, seating the princess by his side, said to the attendants, “You are merely the attendants. No one will take you to task for what happened here. Once we leave you may also depart to where you wish, or join us at our camp.” Then Prince Badiuz Zaman headed for his camp with Amar.
Emperor Afrasiyab was waiting expectantly in the Apple Garden for Sharara to send him Amar’s head when the whirlwinds brought Sharara’s corpse there instead, and her magic spirits called out, “O EMPEROR OF SORCERORS, SHARARA WAS KILLED!” Afrasiyab became crimson with rage. He looked into the Book of Sameri to discover the whereabouts of Sharara’s killer and of Badiuz Zaman, who had been in her prison. He discovered how Amar had killed Sharara, how both he and Badiuz Zaman had arrived in Tasveer’s garden, how Badiuz Zaman had killed the sorcerer Muhafiz, and how Amar and Badiuz Zaman were now headed for their camp with Princess Tasveer.
Sorcerer Azhdar Dragon-Mouth
Emperor Afrasiyab immediately recited an incantation and clapped. The sorcerer Azhdar Dragon-Mouth emerged from the ground spewing fire from his mouth, nose and ears, and made a salutation to Afrasiyab. Silver crescents covered his entire body and from elbow to shoulder idols were tied to his arms. Afrasiyab said, “Hasten O Azhdar, and detain Badiuz Zaman and Tasveer, who are headed with Amar toward the camp of the True Believers. Imprison them in the prison chamber of Hoshruba! But do not take Amar prisoner, instead allow him to return to Hamza and give him the news. That will terrify Hamza and he will desist from stepping into this land.”
Azhdar Dragon-Mouth left immediately.
Badiuz Zaman had come many miles from Tasveer’s garden when suddenly Azhdar Dragon-Mouth emerged from a bush in the shape of a dragon and blocked their path. Amar immediately put on the cape of invisibility but the prince rode ahead to confront the beast, and shot an arrow at him. The dragon spewed out a ball of fire and burned the arrow in flight. Badiuz Zaman shot many arrows, which the dragon burned likewise. Then the dragon opened his mouth and, drawing in air, swallowed Badiuz Zaman and Tasveer whole.
Amar Ayyar hurled many stones at Azhdar Dragon-Mouth with his sling, but none of them touched him. The dragon called out, “Go and narrate this event to Hamza, O Amar, and warn him that this is the wilderness of the tilism and he is forewarned against trespassing within its bounds. It is impossible for Badiuz Zaman to be released now. Hamza should reconcile himself to never again seeing his son, for anyone who comes here to rescue him will suffer a similar fate and be killed. I did not have orders to capture you, otherwise you would not have escaped me either!”
Azhdar Dragon-Mouth then disappeared and Amar headed for Hamza’s camp, weeping and wailing, rending his tunic and throwing ashes on his head.
After traversing his journey, Amar arrived in the court where Amir Hamza was giving attendance. Amar made a salutation and sat on his Hoopoe Throne.16 Amir Hamza and the king and all the chieftains asked him about his exploits. After offering the ritual salutations and blessings, Amar narrated the whole story of Badiuz Zaman and Princess Tasveer. Amir Hamza replied, “All praise to the Lord of Creation that my son still lives. We must find a way to conquer the tilism. For the present we have a battle on hand with Suleiman Amber-Hair. Once I have taken care of this matter, I will nominate someone to conquer Hoshruba.” Amir Hamza then busied himself with preparations for the battle.
13. …conversing together like the rose and the nightingale: in the Urdu poetic tradition the nightingale is portrayed as the lover of the rose.
14. Virgin of the Heavens: an allusion to the Virgo.
15. Kaaba: the holy shrine in Mecca toward which all Muslims turn when saying their prayers.
16. Hoopoe Throne: the name of Amar Ayyar’s official seat in Amir Hamza’s camp.