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.
After a watch of the night had passed, Ijlal said to his companions, sorcerers Intizam the Arranger and Munsarim the Organizer,“I wish to confide a secret to you. If you could keep it to yourselves and carry out my wishes, I will richly reward you and appoint you the commanders of my army.” They answered, “Just say the word; we will cut off our heads with our own hands and put them at your feet. Order what you will and your slaves will carry it out. As to secrecy, our own ears will not hear a word from our lips.”
Ijlal said, “Bravo! I could not have asked for more! Hear then that I am enamored of Princess Nasreen Amber-Hair and she too pines away for love of me. We have made a pact that I will send for her tonight. You will find her sleeping on the roof of her palace. You should cast a spell on the other women you find there so that they do not awaken while the princess is gone, and the alarm is not raised.”
Ijlal’s deputies replied, “This task is hardly beyond our power. Your slaves shall carry out your orders this very instant.”
Sorcerers Intizam the Arranger and Munsarim the Organizer recited an incantation, flew away, and presently arrived at Princess Nasreen’s house.
They found the false princess lost in sweet sleep. One leg of her pants had slid up to her thigh, the other leg hung over the edge of the bed. Her body was covered in gold and jewels. The skirt of her chemise had been raised, revealing a stomach that shone like a silver tablet. Her hair had come loose and tendrils were stuck to her neck. In her youthful sleep she was wholly oblivious of where her hands were placed, how revealing was the angle of her legs, or what was covered and what lay open. From a distance, the sorcerers recited a spell that made the attendants sleeping beside the false princess’s bed fall unconscious. A cold breeze began blowing and lulled to sleep all those who were still awake. The two sorcerers came down and lifted up the false princess’s bed.
She was wide awake and realized that Ijlal had sent for her. She gave her fate into the hands of the Beneficent One and kept silent while the sorcerers conducted her bed speedily to Ijlal and placed it before him.
Ijlal had been counting every moment with great eagerness and was delighted to see them arrive with the false princess’s bed. He said to them, “Now you may retire to take some rest and make sure nobody is allowed upstairs. You too must not come up without my first summoning you.”
The sorcerers stepped downstairs, conferred and decided that one of them should take a nap while the other kept watch in case Ijlal sends for them for any reason.
In the meanwhile, Ijlal approached the false princess and removed the veil from her luminous face. He beheld a beauty so dazzling that even the eyes of old man heavens20 never saw such in all his years, nor the ears of Creation ever heard. The brilliant bolt of her beauty blinded his eyes.
That moon-like beauty was the envy of Venus
She was the Beauty Fairy
Her luminous figure, beautifully cast
How to describe it? Call it a flame or the Light of Tur?21
The mole on her face was a garden of beauty
Her two cheeks two fields where moonbeams grew
Her lovely face surmounted with curls and locks
Was a sun that carried on its shoulders night
Her delicate ears, more fragile than petals
With their shapeliness made envious the oysters
Her neck was the door of the house of light
As luminous as if it were the house of sun
How to describe her bodice’s tight and true fit
And how to describe how her breasts it embraced
She sported a lovely gold thread chemise
With perfect stateliness and grace
Her tightly wrapped, fitting dress
Seemed the vision of light in moon’s garb
To describe her abdomen is to describe
The moon appearing from the constellation of Light
Finer than hair was her waist and delicate
To carry even the weight of hair she was averse
Let us now sing of her concealed beauty
To satisfy those whose pleasure such things are
The roundness of her hips as two crescents can’t be described
To call them peerless and without compare is more just
The vision of her swelling thighs full of vigor
A thousand souls as sacrifice from lovers would claim
Her soles softer than rose petals were
A rosebed felt to them harsher than thorns
More than life itself anyone who beheld her loved
That marvel of delicate beauty that she was
Ijlal was near to fainting at the sight when he came to his senses and began massaging the false princess’s legs. She turned over and got up and began calling out to her maids. Ijlal laid his head at the false princess’s feet and submitted, “Your attendants are not present but this slave is at hand to carry out your wishes.”
The false princess frowned at Ijlal and sat up, adjusting her dress. She tied up her loose hair in a bun with her face turned away from Ijlal, while swinging her dangling legs from the bed.
Seeing her coquettish ways, Ijlal became ever more enamoured of her. He began pacing around the false princess, who said, “What is this? Are you a jinn or a spectre? Who has brought me here? Whose house is this?” Ijlal answered, “O Life of the World and Comforter of Lovers’ Hearts, this slave carried out all that your personal macebearer suggested.”
Then Ijlal narrated to her his whole conversation with the old macebearer. The false princess smirked, got up smoothing her dress, and said, “O accursed sorcerer! O wily traitor! I shall return barefoot to my house now and suitably punish the old dotard who has accused me of such horrible lies and vilified me by branding me as your beloved. He will long rue his deed. Then I shall report this to my father and have him write Afrasiyab too, so that a cur like you may be expelled from Hoshruba. How dare you extend your hand to molest the honor of kings and corrupt daughters of good men?”
Ijlal was frightened out of his wits by her angry speech. He began importuning her, and said, “O Princess of the World! O my mistress! Do have a moment’s rest in this place so that I may prove myself in your service and then have you conducted to your palace.” The false princess replied, “You should go and prove yourself in the service of your mother or sisters. If you ever utter such words before me again you will live to regret them.” Ijlal again entreated, “O Princess, do take a seat on the throne for a moment so that I may regale myself with your beauty’s garden, and like a gardener feast my eyes on your unearthly charms. I have no other desire but to behold your splendor. O bliss of lovers’ souls, O Empress of Beauties, I am your humble slave!”
Ijlal fell down at the false princess’s feet. Noticing his entreaties and prostrations, she got up and jauntily walked up to the seat and sat down.
Ijlal meekly stood before her.
If the house is empty and you are with your beloved alone
You are pious indeed if you then restrain your desire
Every now and then Ijlal tried to extend a lustful hand toward her, but each time she either frowned at him or made an angry face. At other times she sighed to herself. Sometimes she beamed at him and hurled thunderbolts of calamity on the garden of Ijlal’s soul, wounding him with the daggers of her smiles. In this manner they made overtures to each other, and lust on one hand and sham modesty on the other contended with each other.
When Ijlal’s protestations increased, the false princess said to him, “You are nothing but a fatheaded fool given to empty talk. Where is the salt that would give savour to this love feast? You serve neither wine nor meat, and yet make all these love vows! Is this how you do your duty as a host by selfishly craving only your desires? Indeed, it is true that the essence of men is kneaded with selfishness. You specially have not the least trace of friendliness. Your only care is to achieve your purpose and show scant regard for me.”
Embarrassed, Ijlal realized that she spoke truly because wine would dispel her inhibitions. After a few cups, she would cast off her modesty and he would then attain his desire. He sensed that his slumbering fortunes had now awoken and it was only a matter of time before he would find the beautiful princess in his arms. Ijlal immediately brought wine and platters of roast meat. He picked up an ewer and poured out the rose-colored wine in a crystalline goblet. Carrying the cup on his palm, he presented it to the false princess, saying, “Here is the elixir of love. Drink it and be merry and blissful!”
The false princess held the cup in her delicate hand and, turning her head sideways and sighing, put it to her lips. Immediately, she made a face and threw the wine on Ijlal’s face. She said, “For shame! You call yourself a king but drink cheap wines. Indeed, the cheapest brew would be a hundred times better than what you served me. This wine is not fit for me.” Ijlal answered, “O Princess, I am away from my homeland and do not have access to my possessions. What I offered you came from the wine service of your own father.” The false Nasreen answered, “Royalty has recourse to all manner of comforts always. It wouldn’t have caused you any great trouble to send for fine wine on the occasion of my visit. But why would you, with only your own selfish concerns at heart, ever consider such a thing? Now I have fallen into your clutches and shall serve out my fate’s decree.”
The false princess produced a flask of wine from her bosom. She filled a goblet with Ijlal’s wine and put a few drops in it from her flask, which made the wine’s color turn pink. Placing the goblet on her painted hand resplendent like the sun, she offered it to Ijlal, saying, “O uncaring man, I shall now be the cupbearer and you may drink this goblet of favour from my hands.”
Seeing this munificence on the part of his beautiful cupbearer, Ijlal became ecstatic. He took the goblet from the hands of that beauty and emptied it.
Heaven’s mercy! Those drops that the false princess had added from her wine flask were a most potent drug. Ijlal’s head suddenly spun. He said, “O Princess, indeed you drink a heady wine. Just one sip made me lose my head.” She answered, “Get up and walk around. It will refresh you. You will experience a new marvel with this wine.”
Ijlal got up but he had hardly taken a few steps before he was taken unconscious and fell to the floor. The false princess drew a dagger from her bag and bore down upon Ijlal to behead him.
Amar’s son Chalak had witnessed all these proceedings from under the bed and wondered about the true identity of the princess. When he saw that she had drugged Ijlal and meant to kill him, he realized it must be his father in disguise. While he marvelled at Amar’s spectacular trickery, he realized that it would not do to kill Ijlal. He came out from under the bed and Amar, who was about to behead Ijlal, now sprang at him. Chalak foiled his blow and said, “I am your son, Chalak!”
Amar asked, “What are you doing here, O idiot? Why did you stop me from killing this sorcerer who is Amir Hamza’s enemy?” Chalak replied, “My worthy father, when a sorcerer dies his magic spirits make heaven and Earth one with their cries. If you had beheaded him the commotion would have attracted the attention of his deputies, who are on duty downstairs and you would have been captured.”
Amar replied, “What you say is true. What must I do now?” Chalak answered, “Change your disguise to Ijlal’s while I disguise myself as Princess Nasreen and lie in her bed. Put Ijlal into your zambil and send for his deputies to return the princess to her palace. In this way we will depart without hazard and think of some new trickery for what may transpire next.”
Amar found Chalak’s plan to his liking. They both changed into their new disguises and the sorcerers Intizam the Arranger and Munsarim the Organizer were sent for, who conveyed the false princess’s bed to her palace. Then they recited another spell to awaken the attendants who had fainted. Afterwards, they returned to the false Ijlal.
Princess Nasreen’s attendants woke up to find it was close to daybreak. They busied themselves with their duties and after a while Chalak disguised as Nasreen also rose yawning and stretching. Amar had already told Chalak the location of the princess’s chamber and the names of her attendants. The false Nasreen came down with them from the roof. She retired to her bedchamber and occupied herself with pleasant diversions.
In the morning the false Ijlal presented himself with his companions in Suleiman Amber-Hair’s court where everyone received him with great honor. He took his seat and said, “O My Lord, lead your armies out of the fortress so that I may destroy Hamza’s forces and return triumphant to Emperor Afrasiyab.”
Laqa told Suleiman Amber-Hair to send the officers of the camp and the army commanders to prepare to march out of the fortress to fight Hamza. The tents, pavilions and tabernacles were packed and carted out and preparations for the battle with Hamza began.
Amir Hamza was giving audience in his court when the spies deputed in Suleiman’s court presented themselves and, after visiting blessings on him, reported that Suleiman Amber-Hair was resolved on war and his forces were marching out of the fort. Accompanied by his commanders, Amir Hamza stood at the entrance of his pavilion to witness the foe’s arrival.
Presently, the gates of the fortress of Mount Agate were thrown open and elephants carrying the banners of war poured out. Behind them marched a force of sixty thousand troopers wearing cuirasses and coats of mail. As they advanced shoulder to shoulder and row after row on tall steeds, the rattling of their arms and armor deafened even the ears of the heavens. Seventy thousand foot-soldiers walked behind them carrying fiery projectiles, swords and bows. Filled with arrows, their quivers looked like preening peacocks. The army of sorcerers wearing hoops and earrings followed, riding magic dragons and lions.
The false Ijlal led the army astride a magic dragon. He was dressed in a resplendent robe with a sorcerer’s satchel hung around his neck and wore a nau-ratan bracelet22 and a king’s crown on his head. Using the ruse that he was saving up his magic for the battlefield, he had ordered sorcerers Intizam the Arranger and Munsarim the Organizer to make a magic dragon for him. They walked beside the magic dragon holding its saddle straps and showered flames and stones around them with their spells. Shouting the praises of gods Sameri and Jamshed and displaying the marvels of their magic, the sorcerers soon passed into the battlefield.
Behind their procession, forty elephants chained together brought forward Laqa’s encrusted throne surmounted by its pearl canopy. Beside Laqa sat Naushervan’s son, Faramurz. The bird of ill omen, the Lord Swine of Faith and the Prince of Infidels, to wit Bakhtiarak the Faithless, sat fanning Laqa with his kerchief. Laqa’s throne was surrounded by many sanguinary commanders from different warrior tribes, who marched astride fairy-faced steeds.
They were followed by a several-hundred-thousand-strong force led by the commanders of Faramurz’s army. Suleiman Amber-Hair’s forces brought up the rear, led into the battlefield by his army commanders.
Amir Hamza beheld the foe’s vast armies and, turning his heart to thoughts of God, said, “O Lord! The foe’s army is like an army of ants and locusts, but You are Mighty and Unsurpassable still.” Amir ordered his army to bivouac bordering the arena.
The war drums and timbals were sounded as he took command of his forces.
A very large, numerous army came out
The Earth started shaking, the sky filled with fear
The dust from Earth rose to the pinnacle of heavens
Column after column rolled out, warrior after warrior marched
Luxurious pavilions were set up. The pegs, poles and stakes were organized and screens were erected. Row after row of tents, canopies and enclosures filled the camp. The commanders were provided pavilions while the troopers were housed in tents. As the army was lodged, shopkeepers, traders, greengrocers, butchers and bakers spread out and set up shops. A magistrate was deputed for every section of the bazaar. The busy shops presented the picture of the bazaar of a metropolis.
Before long it was evening. Glass lights were lit in the camp along the passageways and lamps were kindled in shops. Everyone in the camp returned to their allotted stations and four commanders were deputed to keep vigil with several thousand troopers under their command. The magistrates began their rounds and culprits were taken to task. The horns trilled and cries of “Keep awake! Keep alert!” rang out.
Both armies remained on alert, camped by the battlefield for one day and one night. The next day in the evening, the false Ijlal ordered his sorcerers to beat the drums of war. Suleiman Amber-Hair, Laqa and all the kings present there ordered their armies to follow suit. Champions of the day of skirmishing and lions of the forest of carnage struck the kettledrums for battle. The field of carnage boomed and the vault of heaven reverberated with the sound.
The spies brought the news to Amir Hamza. After bowing to him, they proclaimed, “May you enjoy the wealth of longevity longer than Khizr and your treasury be richer than Kaikhusrau’s. May the foe of dark fortune waver and be routed before your might. Today the drums of war have been struck in the impure camp of the infidels, and their whole army of eunuchs is bent on waging war. It is certain that tomorrow they will descend in the arena to fan the fires of strife and mischief. As to the rest, all is in a good way.”
Amir Hamza looked toward King Saad who said, “O Amir, order by the Almighty’s consent, grace and succor that drums of war should answer from our camp, too, and the Timbal of Sikander be struck. May what the Scribe of Fortune and the Writer of Destiny has engraved on our brows come to pass.”23
The tricksters headed where the Timbal of Sikander and the Music Band of Suleiman were kept. The cover of the Timbal of Sikander had been removed and the masters of the kettledrums stood ready. They had awaited the king’s orders ever since the enemy’s kettledrums had been heard. When the tricksters delivered the word, they struck the timbal. The Earth and the heavens trembled at its sound, the Eagle of the Heavens24 fluttered its wings in terror at the blast, the Bull of the Earth25 felt its heart sink. The whole world was shaken from mountains to the deserts.
Amir Hamza’s camp heard the call to battle. Young and old, the brave and renowned alike were alerted that come the dawn, the Angel of Death would ply his trade in men’s lives: that heads would fly off necks and garlands of wounds would be distributed. The king adjourned his court early and every commander returned to his designated pavilion. The final preparations for skirmishing and battle were made. The swords were polished and furbished and the bows heated and straightened over the fire.
While the courageous occupied their minds with maneuvers for the battlefield, the cowardly scratched their faces with despair. The valiant observed enemy positions with joyous interest and lily-livered ones racked their minds to find some avenue of escape. While the faces of the gallant were ruddy with valor as they surveyed their coats of mail, helm and armor, the craven stared blankly with blanched faces.
In the enemy camp, the clapper-drums were beaten; chillies and fragrant gum-resin smouldered in fires. Sorcerers wrought their magic and outlined magic circles with blood on the ground. The pitch-faced magic spirit Kalva was being summoned in every corner. Two watches into the night, criers circulated in both camps to raise the warriors’ spirits. The camps rang with these sounds throughout the night. Finally it was time for the Emperor of the Russet Throne of the East26 to make his appearance with all its magnificence and grandeur. The darkness of the night fled in disarray before the advance guard of dawn.
At sunrise, fully armed troopers and warriors from both camps began pouring into the battlefield in strings, arrays and groups. Amir Hamza said his morning prayers in his Roving Prayer Tent and solicited the Lord Almighty’s help. Raising his hands in prayer, he asked for victory in the court of God and entreated that the Unsurpassable and Mighty One return him triumphant against the army of villains.
You who are eternal in Your kingdom
You who represent the morn in night’s darkness
Humble me, I have before me a huge task
Solve it for You are the only aid of mine
20. old man heavens: an allusion to the sky.
21. Light of Tur: according to Islamic folk belief Mount Tur was burned from God’s dazzling glimpse when he revealed it to Musa (Moses). This verse alludes to that divine light.
22. nau-ratan bracelet: a bracelet consisting of nine jewels: pearl, ruby, topaz, diamond, emerald, lapis lazuli, coral, sapphire, and go-meda. These nine pearls are supposed to represent the nine planets known to ancient astronomers.
23. “May what the Scribe of Fortune…Writer of Destiny has engraved on our brows come to pass.”: Scribe of Fortune and Writer of Destiny are both allusions to God; the following phrase is an allusion to a folk belief according to which a person’s destiny is written or engraved on his forehead.
24. Eagle of the Heavens: a northern constellation named Eagle.
25. Bull of the Earth: according to legend the celestial bull on whose horns the Earth is balanced. According to another tradition it is the allegorical name of the energy implanted in the heart of the Earth by its creator.
26. Emperor of the Russet Throne of the East: an allusion to the sun.