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.
As Amir was engrossed in his prayers, Muqbil Vafadar, commander of the archers and noble Amir Hamza’s slave, presented himself and said, “Amen!” When Amir inquired about his army’s readiness, Muqbil replied,
“The two armies descended in the arena
Together assembled are in vastness a Mount Qaf
“They await the august arrival of Your Lordship.” Amir said, “Bring my chest of weapons.” Muqbil produced the chest in which Amir Hamza’s arms and armor were kept. Amir Hamza decorated his august and distinguished self with the holy accoutrements, sporting the helm of Hud, the mail of Daud, the bow of Saleh, the spear of Sam, and foot-guards, thigh guards and cuirass, and stepped out.
He found his groom waiting for him, holding the reins of his steed, Ashqar Demon-Born, which was fully caparisoned and saddled. The groom saluted Amir and presented the horse. Ashqar neighed with pleasure at the sight of his master. Amir Hamza traced with his finger the letters ‘Help O Ali!’27 on his steed’s neck and put his distinction-bestowing foot in the stirrup that eagerly awaited it. He raised himself into the saddle holding the horse’s mane. The rein holder adjusted the folds of Amir Hamza’s robe and all the onlookers loudly exclaimed, “In the name of Allah!”
Holding his dragon-like, two-pronged spear in his right hand, and catching in his left the reins of his steed that was Zephyr’s envy, Amir recited the naad-e Ali28 and spurred Ashqar Demon-Born.
After sending their respective forces into the battlefield, Amir Hamza’s five hundred and fifty-five commanders and progeny presented themselves before him with great majesty. Among his commanders were:
Noman bin Munzir Shah Yemeni
Saif the Ambidextrous
Abul-Adan the Warrior
Tauq bin Heyran the Warrior
Faraz Aad Maghrebi
Among Amir Hamza’s progeny were:
Isfandiar Shah Gilani
Iraj bin Qasim
Khurshid bin Hashim
Karib the Courageous
Asad bin Karib
Besides them, Amir Hamza’s two deputies were also in attendance:
Landhoor bin Saadan
With his army commanders as his riding companions, Amir Hamza arrived at the august entrance of the private pavilion of the Shadow of God, the Master of Suleiman’s Throne, the Refuge of the World, Master of the Most Esteemed Seat, King Saad, and awaited his arrival in the place of audience.
Suddenly, the royal chamber’s panels parted with a loud whirring noise and the signs of the king’s approach manifested themselves.
Twelve thousand children, beautiful as the moon, marched out from the entrance wearing lavish golden costumes, sporting gold bracelets, carrying pots of aromatic unguents, and sprinkling powdered aloe-wood and ambergris. They were followed by thousands of candelabra holders in crimson uniforms holding gold and silver candelabra. Behind them walked others holding enchased crystalline goblets with lit candles. Thousands of palace guards and eunuchs followed them, overseeing the various arrangements. Surrounded by the royal servants, the king’s throne was brought forward on the shoulders of female palanquin bearers dressed in costly and precious skirts, wearing bracelets with crocodile-head finials, sporting fish-shaped earrings, medals and jewelery. Each and every one of them was uniquely charming, and their bodies were ripe with the bloom and vigour of youth.
The royal attendants shouted, “In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent and Merciful!” Amir Hamza, along with his commanders, stood at their designated stations to salute the king. The moment he appeared, all bowed their heads in submission. A macebearer shouted, “O Powerful King and Lord of the World, Amir Hamza, the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, stands before you!” As the king raised his eyes, Amir made a bow. The king placed his hand on his heart to express his love for him. Amir made a salute. All the other commanders presented themselves, offered salutes and kissed the foot of the throne. The king ordered everyone to mount their steeds. The commanders surrounded the royal throne and escorted it to the battlefield. The drums were struck and the criers shouted war chants.
The stars in the heaven flickered at the break of dawn and the wafting morning breeze was as fragrant as the ambergris. Fanned by a spring gale, the king headed with great pomp and circumstance toward the battlefield.
Suleiman Amber-Hair’s armies were positioned on the opposite side of the arena with Laqa and Faramurz’s forces. The heavy-set warriors and majestic and mighty champions sat astride rhinoceroses, regarding their enemy with fierce frowns. Broad-swords hung from their necks. They carried maces on their shoulders and spears in their hands.
The battlefield seemed ready to explode into hostilities when the sky became overcast with lowering, pitch-black clouds, lightning began dancing above the arena and the sorcerers’ army poured into the arena led by the false Ijlal atop his magic dragon. Hurling lightning bolts, showering stones, blowing buglesand horns, and ringing bells and gongs the sorcerers took their positions.
The thunderous approach of both armies cleft the heart of the Bull of the Earth, made the birds forget the direction to their nests, and sent shivers down the spines of combatants. The billowing dust changed the sphere of air into a sphere of dust. The mirror of sky was clouded and the fountain of sun was blocked.
The billowing dust from the hooves of the steeds
Made the layers of Earth six, and eight the skies29
Finally, the groundsmen came forward and began dextrously levelling the battlefield with mattocks and tidying the trenches and ambuscades. They carried away the pebbles, stones, twigs and thorns in piles, and cleaned the ground of the shrubbery and bushes until it shone like a mirror. Then it was the water-carriers’ turn to sprinkle the ground, every one of them a veritable Khizr. Wearing their uniforms of gold tissue and red cotton waistcloths, with water bowls belted to their waists and waterskins mounted with sprinklers slung over their shoulders, they went about their business and, with their labours, put to shame the showers of August.
Soon all the dirt and dust was settled and the warriors were able to see their adversaries’ faces. They beheld the warriors dressed in mail and armor, and every soldier covered in metal from the spire of their helmets to the toe of their foot guards. Everywhere one looked one saw warriors clad in iron.
The armies arranged themselves in combat formations, including the vanguard and the rearguard, the center and the flanks, the ambuscade and the exit guards; all fourteen positions were drawn and reinforced like the Rampart of Sikander.30 The pugnacious foot-soldiers of the vanguard stood like the bulwark. Troopers surged like waves in a sea of warriors. Horses stood muzzle to muzzle, flank to flank, tail to tail, and hoof to hoof. They pushed back any criers from the enemy camp that advanced and pushed forward criers from their camp. The music of war filled the air and the horses neighed and reared.
Suddenly, the musical voices of minstrel boys floated on the air. Wearing colorful dresses and sporting turbans tied on their heads at an angle, they melodiously sang the transient world’s denunciation to the accompaniment of sarod,31 and proclaimed: “O warriors, neither the mighty Sam nor Nariman remain. The sanguinary champions have left no mark on the face of Earth and sleep in death. The iron-bodied warriors no longer remain among the high and the low of the land. In the flash of an eye, old man heavens has interred many rank-destroying warriors and formidable youths as renowned as Rustam. Only their valour is spoken of still; the account of their courage alone keeps them alive. Battles are a wonderful test.
“Everyone is allotted a five-day life
Majnun is gone, it is now my time
“In the darkness of the battle, sword is the only flame that guides. The head and the neck long for separation. Indeed, a terrible conflict consuming warriors is the true life. Earn renown O warriors! Skirmish and win laurels! The one whose foot retreats today will never again walk with his head held high.”
The criers then left the arena but their speech acted like heady Portuguese wine on the valiant warriors – the lions of the forest of courage. They became intoxicated with valor and their eyes became bloodshot. They kissed the hilts of their swords and stirred restlessly in their saddles.
The false Ijlal ordered sorcerers Intizam the Arranger and Munsarim the Organizer to fly his dragon by magic into the arena. They clapped their hands after reciting a spell and the magic dragon flew to the center of the arena. The false Ijlal exclaimed, “O Hamza, you are in the presence of Lord Laqa. Prostrate yourself before him without delay or else I shall pulp your head. Come into the arena now and fulfill all your heart’s desires.” Amir Hamza turned Ashqar Demon-Born’s head toward the royal throne and his standard-bearer unfurled the dragon-shaped standard.
It was announced that no one but Amir Hamza may answer the sorcerer’s challenge. All the commanders and captains of the army dismounted. The army’s colors were displayed. Amir Hamza arrived before King Saad’s throne, dismounted and requested permission for combat. The king offered Amir a decoction of sugar and herbs in the goblet of demon Ifrit’s skull.32 Amir drank it and handed the empty cup to the king’s royal guard. After imbibing the cup of royal favor, receiving a robe of honor and permission for combat, Amir again climbed into the saddle like the bright sun climbs up into the sky.
The commanders bid goodbye to Hamza, who spurred his horse toward the field. Ashqar Demon-Born charged like a lion into the arena.
The horse that was like lightning and wind
A demon of a fairy born
More delicate than the flow of water its stride
Faster than speed itself its gait
The softness of his ears and mane recalled
The spikenard, the musk willow, a spikenard bouquet
Ashqar Demon-Born reached the false Ijlal in just a few strides.
After exchanging challenges with Amir Hamza for some time, the false Ijlal produced a crested coconut from his sack and began reciting incantations. But what others took for his invocation was, in fact, a message to Amir Hamza in the Jinni language. He said, “I am not a sorcerer but your trusted servant, Amar Ayyar. You may now recite the Most Great Name and capture me, but do so in a way that I receive neither injury nor break any limbs. You are a portly fellow whereas I am bony and thin.” Amir Hamza looked closely at him. Seeing the telltale mole on the white of Amar’s left eye, he was astonished at Amar’s trickery.
The false Ijlal now blew on the coconut and hurled it at Amir Hamza, who recited the Most Great Name to counteract it and everyone saw the coconut fall to the ground without inflicting any harm on him. Giving rein to his horse, Amir Hamza recited the Most Great Name again and blew it on the false Ijlal, which caused the magic dragon to return to its essence and become a lump of lentil flour. The false Ijlal dismounted and the onlookers saw him attack Amir Hamza with his trident. Amir Hamza dismounted too and, foiling the false sorcerer’s blow, lifted him up by his waistband. Amir Hamza exclaimed, “O horde of sorcerers, regard that I have captured your commander!”
At these words, the army of sorcerers attacked Amir Hamza from all sides.
He gave the false Ijlal into the custody of a trickster who had accompanied Hamza into the arena. While the trickster retired to his encampment with his captive, Amir Hamza recited the Most Great Name and attacked the enemy. At that moment, Prince Faramurz and Suleiman Amber-Hair also ordered their commanders to go to the aid of the sorcerers.
The King of True Believers also sounded his war cry. The two armies collided and dark clouds inundated the arena from all sides in which swords danced like lightning.
The two armies merged and one army became
The world the floor of the Judgment Day became
In the heat of the battle, Ijlal’s deputies summoned the commanders of their army and advised them that it would be improper for them to continue fighting since their leader had been taken prisoner, and it remained to be seen whether or not he would submit allegiance to Hamza. They advised them to pull out and submit to their leader’s choice once the conflict was decided. All the sorcerers pulled out from the conflict while Laqa and Suleiman Amber-Hair’s forces gave fight. Many vain heads rolled down off their necks. The camp of the True Believers rang with their champions’ war cries.
Amir Hamza cried,
The Commander of the Arabs, the lion-hearted Hamza
Whose mighty hand puts Sohrab and Rustam to shame
From another corner Landhoor shouted,
O fugitives, I am Hamza’s deputy, the supreme master of lance,
Emperor of India, the Champion of the Times, Landhoor
Malik Azhdar, the master of the two-pronged spear, the slave of the holy prophet and Ali, proclaimed from another corner,
I am Malik Azhdar the wrathful
Commander of the armies of the faithful
The blades of the warriors on both sides clashed mightily, and for some time nothing could be heard except their cling-clang. The injured found neither quarter nor water. Swords flashed like lightning bolts and arrows fell like rain. Heads came down like hailstones, separated from their torsos they littered the ground, and a river of blood surged in waves on the battlefield. Garlands of wounds were distributed. Manly warriors sought congress with the pansies as a bridegroom seeks congress with the bride. As the poet has described,
Blood flowed from every armor chink
The warriors washed their hands of life’s hopes
They shot their bows with mighty effort
And hearts broke into bloodied smiles, pierced with arrows
The curved sword blades bartered with life’s blood
And a rainbow of gore spread into the sky
As a strong wind scatters about dry leaves
The horde of infidels in the field were strewn
The braves now reached for and drew their daggers
And vigorously pursued the evil-hearted foe
Of blood a brave tiger can never have enough
A lion on his hunt none can dare stop
How to describe the fate of the enemy horde
Written on the swords of the rank-destroying braves
They made screams aplenty, the evil foe
And their hearts and senses speedily lost
The armies of the True Believers fought bravely and Laqa and Suleiman Amber-Hair’s forces were routed. Unable to bear the intensity of the battle, the enemy retreated. Bakhtiarak realized that once again they had been denied hope of victory and might be forced to find another refuge. Taking that into consideration, he ordered that the drums of retreat be beaten. The trumpet’s blast declared cessation of hostilities and the combatants separated.
While Amir Hamza’s champions returned to their camp flying on the wings of victory, the ill-fated enemy crawled back to its camp in ignominy and shame. Amir ordered the dead to be carried away. Three thousand men from Amir Hamza’s camp had tasted martyrdom while three hundred thousand foes had been dispatched to hell. The martyred received burials while the infidels were interred like dogs. The wounds of the injured were sutured and their cuts and lesions bandaged.
Amir Hamza did not hold court that day. The next day he sent for the false Ijlal and asked him, “Tell me whether or not you recognize the True Master of Both Worlds!”33 The false Ijlal answered, “For as long as I live I shall be His slave!” Amir Hamza then rewarded him with a robe of honor. The false Ijlal rode back to his army and sent for his commanders and announced, “I have yielded to Hamza and you too must follow suit and not defy my wishes.” Some sorcerers, whose evil hearts were cast with darkness, returned to Afrasiyab after hearing their commander’s resolve, but most of them offered their continued allegiance. They returned with the false Ijlal to be inducted into Amir Hamza’s service and receive robes of honor.
Then Amar Ayyar produced the real Ijlal from his zambil and tied him to a column of the Pavilion of Hashsham in the court. He pulled out his tongue and stuck a needle in it so that he could not cast spells, and gave him restorative salts to smell. When Ijlal opened his eyes he found himself a captive and was terrified to see before him another man who looked like his exact copy. Amar said, “O Ijlal, open your eyes and regard your circumstances. I am the chief of the commanders, the lord of the kings of Arabs and non-Arabs, a fearless runner who gives pause to manly sprinters and leaves the unmanly limping behind in a cloud of dust. I am the Sun of the Sky of Trickery, the Moon of the Sky of Dagger Fighting, the Prince of Tricksters, and the accomplished disguiser, Amar Ayyar the worthy. Did you witness how easily I caught you by the Almighty’s grace? It was not Suleiman Amber-Hair’s daughter but this abject slave of God whom you sent for from the palace roof and who took you captive. Your entire army has submitted and joined Amir Hamza’s ranks. I also hold your beloved princess prisoner. If you were to submit allegiance, you would be united with her and find reprieve. And if you are concerned about the loss of your kingdom, Amir Hamza would give you one which is four time vaster than your own.”
Witnessing the circumstances and hearing Amar Ayyar’s speech, Ijlal became convinced that Laqa was indeed a false God. He reasoned that, had it been otherwise, Laqa would not have fared so ill, and his well wishers would not have come to harm at Amar’s hands. Ijlal signalled that he was willing to submit. Amar removed the needle from his tongue and untied him. Ijlal came forward and threw himself at the feet of Amir Hamza who blessed him and conferred a robe of honor on him.
Amir Hamza said to Ijlal, “Take a seat where you wish. In this court the commanders are free to choose their station.” Ijlal felt a desire to sit with the warriors of the left flank and made his request. The commander of the left flank warriors, Malik Azhdar, welcomed him with honor and affection.
Amir Hamza said to Ijlal, “You must renounce sorcery because it is not our custom to indulge in magic. All of us here are men of the sword.” In deference to Amir Hamza’s wishes, Ijlal renounced sorcery and Laqa worship and converted to the True Faith.
27. Help O Ali!:the traditional call for help in the name of Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam, who was known for his strength and valor.
28. naad-e Ali: a prayer beginning with the wordsnaad-e Ali, which is in the praise of Ali, Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the fourth Caliph of Islam. It is recited for luck and good fortune.
29. Made the layers of Earth six, and eight the skies: according to folk belief there are seven layers of the Earth and seven layers of the heavens. This couplet describes how one layer of the Earth rose to the skies with the billowing dust and became the sky’s eighth layer, leaving the Earth with six layers.
30. Rampart of Sikander: according to legend, this was the great wall built by the prince Sikander the Bicornous to keep Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog) from raiding population centers.
31. sarod: a stringed musical instrument similar to the lute.
32. Goblet of demon Ifrit’s skull: Ifrit was the leader of the demons who rebelled against Emperor Shahpal of Mount Qaf. He was killed and beheaded by Amir Hamza. A goblet made from his skull was kept by Amir Hamza as a souvenir.
33. True Master of Both Worlds: an allusion to God.