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.
Of Suleiman Amber-Hair Sending a Missive to Emperor of Hoshruba Afrasiyab to Come to Laqa’s Aid, and of Afrasiyab Dispatching Sorcerer Ijlal Against Amir Hamza with Forty Thousand Sorcerers, and of Amar Ayyar’s Trickeries
The wonder workers of the book of eloquence and the composers of rarities of speech describe the court of rhetoric with a sorcerer’s pen and paint it with these colorful words of the tale:
When Amir Hamza’s armies (in whose footsteps victory follows) entered Mount Agate in pursuit of Laqa, Suleiman Amber-Hair beheld Amir Hamza’s numerous forces, his equipage and retinue, and realized he would be unable to fight such a mighty army alone. He sent out missives with this message to the kings of the bordering lands:
“Lord Laqa has sought refuge with me after suffering reverses at the hands of Hamza. You must needs rush to his aid, not out of any consideration for me but because he is your God. You must kill his foes and restore him to his divine throne. If you make delay after reading these words, the wrath of His Lordship will wipe you out of existence. His Lordship Laqa indulges these creatures who persecute him only out of mercy. He desists from killing them and maintains that these creatures were made in the reveries of his drunken sleep. As he was oblivious of himself in the ecstasies of his inebriation, his pen of destiny wrote them down as rebellious and vain. Now that destiny cannot be altered. It is for this reason that our Lord is unable to efface their existence and is so wroth with them that when these creatures beseech him with their contrite pleas, he scorns them and flies away from them. Seeing no hope of their redemption in Lord Laqa, these creatures have vowed wholesale rebellion against him. It is therefore incumbent upon you to arrive here post-haste to assist our Lord.”
Having written this, Suleiman Amber-Hair sent it out to all the kings of the lands of Kohistan. He also wrote a letter to Afrasiyab, the Master of the Tilism, and dispatched it to the mountain situated between Mount Agate and Hoshruba. A wooden mallet and a magic drum were kept atop it for communication between the two lands. Whenever a message from Suleiman was received, the drum was struck and Afrasiyab sent a magic claw to fetch the message.
After Afrasiyab had sent for the letter and read it, he wrote the following reply and sent it to the mountaintop:
“It is a great honor for me to come to the aid of Lord Laqa. He must wish to bestow honor on his slaves by not destroying his rebellious creatures himself, instead seeking one of his minions to distinguish himself in the campaign. Lord Laqa’s will be done! Hamza and his armies are of absolutely no consequence. I hereby send a mighty sorcerer in Lord Laqa’s service at the head of a forty-thousand-strong army of sorcerers. He will destroy the entire army of Hamza upon arrival in just one day.”
Suleiman Amber-Hair’s messenger awaited the reply. He brought it at once before his master, whom it pleased immensely, and Suleiman Amber-Hair began preparation for battle.
Leaving him busy with these arrangements, we return to Afrasiyab, who, after sending his reply, recited an incantation and clapped, whereupon a wisp of cloud materialized in the skies and descended to the ground. The sorcerer Ijlal, who was a king of one of the sixty thousand lands of Hoshruba and commanded an army of forty thousand sorcerers, dismounted that cloud, bowed to Afrasiyab, and asked, “Why has my master sent for me?” Afrasiyab said, “Lord Laqa has arrived in Mount Agate. He is being pestered by some creatures who have earned divine wrath and condemnation. Go forth and destroy them and rid Lord Laqa of their evil.” Ijlal answered, “As you please!” He rode the cloud back to his abode and commanded his army to get ready to march. Then he prepared himself for the journey and warfare and mounted a magic dragon. All his sorcerers also sat on magic swans, demoiselle cranes, flamingos, peacocks and dragons made of paper and lentil flour. Wielding tridents and pentadents and carrying their apparatus of sorcery in sacks of gold cloth hanging from their necks, they departed toward Mount Agate with great pomp and ceremony, dripping wax over flaming, chaffing dishes and burning gugal17 to cast spells.
Suleiman Amber-Hair and Laqa were seated in the royal palace in Mount Agate when suddenly a dark cloud filled the sky, a whirlwind began to blow and hailstones started falling. Familiar with these signs, Suleiman Amber-Hair realized they heralded the arrival of a sorcerer and immediately departed with the nobles of his court to receive him. Upon reaching the fort’s gates, he beheld Ijlal arriving with his forty thousand sorcerers displaying their magic works. They were clad in saffron-colored waistcloths, and the leaves of sweet marjoram, thorn apples, and swallow wort were stuck in their belts.
Suleiman greeted them and conducted them into the fortress where Laqa sat on a throne. Ijlal and his companions prostrated themselves before him and made offerings. Ijlal sat to the right of Laqa’s throne.
Suleiman lodged Ijlal’s army in a scenic place and arranged a feast in his honor in the garden adjacent to the palace.
The garden was lavishly decorated for the occasion. Charming cupbearers, singers as musical as Venus, courtesans as beautiful as the moon, and jasmine-bosomed musicians presented themselves. Laqa adjourned the court and retired to that garden to indulge in pleasant diversions.
The spies carried all these tidings to Amir Hamza. He said, “Our protector is the One God who has no partners.” Amar Ayyar, who was present in the court, said, “O Amir, ever since I arrived here, I have not set foot inside the fortress of Mount Agate. Now I desire to see its sights and witness the feast given for Ijlal.” Hamza replied, “They are all sorcerers. Be warned! They might recognize and arrest you.” Amar Ayyar answered, “Let what is destined come to pass! I wish to do a little commerce inside the fort.” Hamza replied with a smile, “Then go in God’s name. I, for one, would never bar you from conducting your business.”
Sporting all his trickster’s apparatus, Amar Ayyar headed for Mount Agate. Upon seeing some officers of Suleiman Amber-Hair’s army deputed at the fortress gates, he disguised himself as a sorcerer. Then he went forth wearing clogs, a saffron waistcloth and a sack around his neck, and idols tied to his upper arm. Those who saw him did not accost him, taking him for one of the sorcerers from Ijlal’s army.
Amar entered the city and found himself in a bustling marketplace with grand-looking shops on both sides of the stone-paved street. Leafy maulsari18 trees lined the street on two sides and buyers, sellers, visitors, and all description of humanity thronged the place, which rang with the clinking of water-carriers’ bowls and brokers’ loud voices. Besides the crowds that thronged every quarter, Amar saw well-built buildings and a profusion of fine, stylish and captivating chambers. In the course of his perambulations, he arrived near the royal palace and observed the attendants heading to the garden where a feast had been arranged in Ijlal’s honor. Amar accompanied them there and beheld the lavish scale of the festivities and the sumptuous arrangements that had been made for the occasion. He regarded a breezy and most wondrously refreshing garden nurtured by the True Gardener’s bountiful hand. It rang with the carolling of birds and was redolent with myriad-colored blossoms.
The glow of lamps in the garden by the lake recalled to one’s mind the radiance of lovers’ hearts. A sumptuous carpet had been spread there, and Ijlal sat on a throne watching the dance. It was a carefree and happy picture with Suleiman Amber-Hair attending upon Ijlal, and wine being drunk.
Absorbed in these sights, Amar stationed himself behind Ijlal. He noticed a building in front of Ijlal’s throne from where every so often a beauty gazed at Ijlal after parting the curtains hanging at the entrance. Amar saw that Ijlal’s eyes were also fixed on her. With the assembly absorbed in the dance recital, nobody noticed that Ijlal’s attention was elsewhere. Amar thought that perhaps that garden was adjacent to Suleiman Amber-Hair’s harem and the women were watching the dance recital from its doors and rooftop. He reckoned that the one watching Ijlal’s was perhaps one of Suleiman Amber-Hair’s wives or daughters. Amar moved toward the house and stood by the curtain.
When one of the female attendants came out, Amar said to her, “My wife is in the queen’s service. I would be indebted to you if you could send her out.” The attendant replied, “It’s the king’s daughter, Princess Nasreen Amber-Hair, who is watching the dance from behind the curtain. The queen is in another room to which I don’t have access. You may inquire about your wife in the room to your right.” Amar answered, “Very well!” and moved away, having learned that it was the princess with whom Ijlal was exchanging glances.
Amar now thought of some trickery. He went to a deserted corner of the garden and disguised himself as a macebearer. He tied a turban and pinned it with a medal, put on a singlet of crinkled cloth and, sporting a flowing white beard and wielding a staff of vermiculated metalwork, he stationed himself near the door, resting his back against the wall with the curtain’s folds caught behind him. When Princess Nasreen tried to lift the curtain, she found it stuck and tried to pull it out. Amar called out, “If that happens once more I will report to the king that the women behind this curtain make overtures to Ijlal.”
The princess was stunned and mortified to hear that. She did not try to look out again, certain that if she did, the macebearer who witnessed her indiscretion would report her to her father.
When Ijlal noticed that the door from where the girl was gazing out at him was now blocked by an old macebearer, he became restless and wished to have him removed. However, he was unable to do anything about it because he realized that if King Suleiman found out, it would grieve him to learn that Ijlal showed designs on his harem by having the macebearer removed from his post of duty.
However, Ijlal grew more restless with every passing moment and he continued to look toward the door that Amar had blocked. Amar now made a sign to Ijlal indicating that he wished to speak to him privately. Reckoning that the macebearer must be the girl’s confidant and carried a message from her, Ijlal got up from his seat. King Suleiman thought he had retired to answer the call of nature. Ijlal did not take any attendants along. Gesturing to Amar to follow him, he went to a flower garden and asked Amar why he had signalled to him.
Amar blessed Ijlal and replied, “O noble king, this slave has been Princess Nasreen Amber-Hair’s attendant since her childhood and has raised her from an infant. She keeps no secrets from me. She has fallen in love with you and sends the message that if you truly love her you must ask her father to have a house reserved for you, to which only you and your most trusted and devoted sorcerers have access. You may order your sorcerers to fly her bed to your dwelling from the roof of her palace where she would be asleep at the appointed time. She will spend the night with you and in the morning the sorcerers may return her to her house. It was to convey this message that I sought a private moment with you. Now tell me when you will send for the princess so that I may tell her to sleep on the roof of her palace on that day.”
Ijlal was in seventh heaven. He conferred his pearl necklace upon Amar and replied, “I would shower you with riches. Tell the princess that I too languish in separation from her. I shall have the house reserved today and the princess may go to sleep on the roof tomorrow evening when I will send for her.”
After securing this promise Amar said to him, “Now you may go and make the preparations.” Ijlal returned ecstatic to the assembly and began watching the dance recital as before.
Amar went back to the curtained door and entered the harem wearing his cape of invisibility. There he beheld Princess Nasreen Amber-Hair sitting with her attendants and watching the dance recital. Amar uncovered his head and limbs and approached the princess, proclaiming: “I am the Martyr No Torso and shall devour you all!” Seeing the spectre, the princess and her attendants fell on their faces in terror. Amar rubbed a drug-potion on their faces to render them unconscious. After hurriedly locking the chamber from the inside, he sat down to disguise himself as the princess. After putting on the princess’s clothes he put her into the zambil. Once he was done with the disguise, he administered a restorative drug to the attendants, who came to their senses and found the princess beside them.
When the attendants were fully recovered, they said to the false princess, “O Princess of the World, in the name of Lord Laqa, let us leave this house; otherwise that monster will eat us up.” She answered, “I proved of a stronger constitution than you crazy girls. I kept my senses when all of you had fainted.” They said, “May our lives be sacrificed to protect yours. Come what may, we will not allow you to stay here a moment longer.”
Without any suspicion, they conducted the false princess to the royal palace where she saw a most lavishly decorated house with numerous rooms and balconies, and a summerhouse replenished with all delights. Colorful drapes hung from every portico. The place was appointed with royal comforts and had a profusion of lattices and tapestries.
On arrival, the false princess ordered her bed to be made and a golden throne provided for her. Her slave girls began decorating Princess Nasreen’s chamber. In this manner, the false princess learned the whereabouts of Princess Nasreen’s bedroom. She retired there and lay down in great comfort.
Leaving the false Princess Nasreen reposing there, let us return to Ijlal. He requested King Suleiman to provide him a secluded house outside the city where he could prepare magic to deploy against Hamza. Suleiman gave orders that a house be provided for Ijlal and all furnishings and other comforts be arranged for him. The royal servants immediately furnished one in a royal garden outside the city.
Now Amar Ayyar’s son, Chalak, had also entered Mount Agate, secretly following Amar in disguise so that in the event of his father’s capture, he might secure his release. When Chalak witnessed the royal retainers hiring labourers to carry Ijlal’s effects to the garden, he disguised himself as a laborer and offered his services. Pearl-strung canopies, tents, ceiling cloths and other such paraphernalia were being sent to the garden on laborers’ shoulders and carts. Chalak was also given a carpet to carry there. He brought it to the garden and handed it to the servants. Afterwards, he asked, “Tell me if there’s something else to do here so that I may consider my work done.” They asked him to stay awhile and went and told Ijlal that the house had been furnished and they awaited his pleasure to set up the bed where he desired. Ijlal told them to send it to the roof.
The retainers accordingly ordered Chalak and other servants, who began moving the furniture to the roof. A lavish carpet was spread on the floor, the canopies were set up, the jewel-encrusted bedstead was placed and a gilded throne was arranged next to it on the carpet. The wine service was arranged opposite the water repository. When all these arrangements were complete, the laborers came down from the roof. Chalak however, hid himself under the bed and covered himself with a corner of the carpet.
When paying off the laborers, the retainers noticed that one laborer had not come to receive his wages. Confident that he would come to collect them by himself, they went and told Ijlal that everything was ready for him.
In the meanwhile, dawn had broken and the feast given by Suleiman Amber-Hair was at an end. After taking leave of his host, Ijlal retired to his house in the garden. He sent for the commanders of his army and told them he would be busy in creating new magic, and until sent for they must not disturb him. Ijlal took along his two companions, Intizam the Arranger and Munsarim the Organizer, and arrived in the garden. He saw it was the envy of paradise and blossomed as if it had been visited by a thousand springs. Every tree there was lushly blessed by the Gardener of Nature and every flower was rich with golden pollen.
Ijlal retired to the roof and, because he had remained up all night long, went to sleep on the bed while his companions occupied themselves in the garden. The day passed in this manner.
The false Princess Nasreen, on the other hand, remained busy all day dressing and beautifying herself with the princess’s clothes and jewels. After four watches remained to nightfall, she ordered the attendants to take her bed to the roof as she desired to lie in the moonlight. The bed was set up on the roof. Screens of flowers were erected, carafes of rose-water and perfumes were unsealed, and bouquets were placed all around her. When every trapping of luxury was provided, the attendants said to the false princess, “May our lives be sacrificed to protect yours! Your bed is ready.”
The false Nasreen headed for the roof in the company of beauties as lovely as the moon. She sat down on her throne and sent for some fruit.
As she sat offering the largesse of her beauty
Even the moon stood begging in the blue sky
The splendor of the false princess’s beauty in the silver glow of the moonlight, her henna-tinged hands and feet, and the parting of her hair lined with strung pearls, which made even the Milky Way burn in envy, was a sight to behold. The false princess was like the resplendent moon of the sky of excellence around whom her attendants fluttered gracefully like Greek partridges.19
For one watch of the night they busied themselves in merriment and pleasantries. After some more time had passed, the false Nasreen lay down on the bed and, covering her face with a veil, feigned sleep. Her attendants lay down on the carpet around her but Amar, disguised as the false princess, was wide awake, wondering what would next transpire, and awaited God’s marvels.
17. gugal: a fragrant gum-resin obtained from the saal tree or the Balsamodendron mukul.
18. maulsari: the tree Mimusops elengi.
19. …moon of the sky of excellence…like Greek-partridges: in the Urdu poetic tradition, the Greek-partridge or chakor is alluded to as the lover of the moon.