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.
[Amir Hamza ordered celebrations and an assembly of revelry was organized.]
Amir Hamza ordered celebrations and an assembly of revelry was organized. Coquettish cupbearers carrying goblets of sense-ravishing wine arrived. The roseate wine was drunk and the cheerful cries of ‘Drink and be merry!’ rose from all corners.
Amir Hamza drank alongside his men. A dance recital had begun, and everyone occupied themselves with merrymaking. Suddenly, the pavilion’s screens rose and a comely maiden, whose beauty recalled the moon’s allure and whose charming airs could be likened to Venus, arrived in the assembly dressed in a lavish costume and curtsied before Amir Hamza. Ijlal recognized his beloved, Princess Nasreen Amber-Hair, and was embarrassed by her immodesty at entering a congregation of men. Amir Hamza, too, was surprised to see the princess before him.
The princess said, “O Amir, I am Amar Ayyar’s son, Chalak!” Ijlal marvelled at how thetrickster had deceived everyone in the princess’s guise. Chalak narrated how he learned that the false Ijlal had been taken captive by Amir Hamza’s camp, and Suleiman Amber-Hair had returned to the camp after the cessation of hostilities. He rode out of the city in a palanquin on the excuse of visiting Suleiman Amber-Hair. Once his conveyance came out of the fort, however, the false princess tore out of the palanquin and scurried toward Amir Hamza’s camp. The princess’s attendants, servants and palanquin bearers were caught by surprise. They gave chase but the false Nasreen ran at great speed and soon disappeared from sight.
Amir Hamza asked Amar to produce the real Princess Nasreen from the zambil and take her into the women’s quarters. Amar replied, “I will produce her from the zambil only if my palm is greased. As you know well, the zambil’s function is to gorge, not disgorge. What goes inside the zambil becomes part of it; just like whatever falls inside a salt mine becomes salt.” Amir Hamza laughed at Amar’s speech and awarded him several hundred thousand rupees.
Amar first collected the amount from the treasurer then took Princess Nasreen out of his zambil. He provided her with a pavilion and Amir Hamza sent a royal dress for her.
The bewildered princess wondered how she had got there and sat puzzling when Amir Hamza presented himself. He told her about Amar Ayyar and the circumstances of her arrival, and said, “Your lover, Ijlal, is present in my court. Now you are free to decide whether to marry him and reside in this camp or not. If you decide against it, I shall have you conducted back to your father in safety.” Witnessing such munificence on Amir Hamza’s part, the princess replied, “I wish to convert to your faith.”
Amir Hamza presided over the wedding of Ijlal and his willing princess and conferred riches and estates on them.
When Suleiman Amber-Hair’s servants brought news that his daughter had eloped, he drew his sword and vowed to follow her to Hamza’s camp to kill her. But Bakhtiarak held him back, saying, “You are not alone in this misfortune. Two of Lord Laqa’s own daughters have eloped with Hamza’s sons.”34
Suleiman Amber-Hair finally relented, but Laqa said to Bakhtiarak, “O bastard and devil, why did you have to mention what passed with my daughters?” Bakhtiarak answered, “My Lord, there is no cause for you to become vexed. I mentioned them only to illustrate the wondrous ways of your providence.” Amidst such banter the subject was dismissed.
Before long, the king’s spies returned and gave an account of what had passed in Amir Hamza’s court. Everybody learned the true identities of Princess Nasreen and Ijlal. Bakhtiarak roared with laughter and said to Suleiman Amber-Hair, “His Excellency Ijlal had arrived from Hoshruba with great fanfare. All praise to my lord and master Amar Ayyar, who carried him away before he even had a chance to do battle. Bravo! You, O Suleiman, have no control over events in your own household. How can you be trusted with the command of an army and the administration of a kingdom? How could you fight a courageous and alert man like Hamza?” Suleiman answered, “I shall write another note to Afrasiyab and ask for assistance again. This time I will conduct myself with greater caution.”
Suleiman wrote another note to Afrasiyab giving a complete account of Ijlal and requesting him to send some mighty sorcerer to Laqa’s aid. He sent the message to the mountaintop according to custom.
Sorceress Hasina Magic-Beauty
When Afrasiyab heard the gong he sent the magic claw to fetch the letter. Afrasiyab became livid upon reading it and said to his courtiers, “You have now learned that Ijlal has turned traitor. He has renounced Lord Laqa’s religion and joined the True Believers. I would that a sorcerer or sorceress among you should go to Lord Laqa’s aid and bring that ingrate Ijlal captive to me.”
As Afrasiyab ended his speech, sorceress Princess Hasina Magic-Beauty rose and said, “Your slave girl shall undertake this mission.” Afrasiyab bestowed a robe of honor on her and said, “I place you in the protection of lords Sameri and Jamshed. Go forth and be wary of the tricksters!”
Princess Hasina retired to her land and ordered the twenty thousand sorceresses under her command to get ready for war and prepare to depart for Mount Agate. While the sorceresses began their preparations, Afrasiyab dispatched a reply to Suleiman’s letter. Suleiman Amber-Hair was greatly pleased by the favorable reply and the news of Princess Hasina’s impending arrival.
The Conqueror of the Tilism
Amir Hamza’s spies brought news that Afrasiyab had responded to Suleiman’s request and a sorceress was on her way to aid Laqa.
Amir Hamza said, “Until the tilism is conquered, there will be no end to sorcerers. My son, Badiuz Zaman, will also remain incarcerated.” Amir then sent for the diviners. He received them with honor and said, “I would that you determine the name of the Conqueror of Hoshruba35 by your calculations, and find out whose hand will strike down Afrasiyab.”
In obedience to Amir Hamza’s wishes, the diviners made their calculations, drew the horoscope and considered the auspicious and inauspicious points on the table of geomancy. After much reflection and pause, they said, “O Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction! Nobody except God knows what lies in the future. We can only determine according to the calculations of geomancy that your maternal grandson, Prince Asad, should depart to conquer the tilism. He should be accompanied by five tricksters: Qiran the Ethiope, Burq the Frank, Jansoz, Zargham the Lion-Hearted, and a fifth one whose name we cannot reveal, but it starts with the letter A. Amar Ayyar immediately understood that they aluded to him. He called out, “The tricksters alone would not suffice. A diviner must also make the entourage.”
The diviners protested to Amir Hamza that they had not wished to identify Amar because they knew he would make objections. They told Amir Hamza that it was their duty to tell him the result of their calculations, and now he may deal with the matter as he saw fit. Amir Hamza said to Amar, “You must go since your name is revealed by the calculations of geomancy.” Amar answered, “I will do no such thing!”
Amir Hamza rewarded the diviners and dismissed them after presenting them with robes of honor. He then said to Prince Asad, “My dear child, prepare for the campaign and depart to conquer Hoshruba!” Prince Asad rose from his seat, saluted Amir Hamza, and returned to his pavilion to prepare for the journey.
Amir Hamza sent for a million rupees and, dividing it into two halves, distributed one half for travelling expenses among the four tricksters named by the diviners, and offered the other half to Amar Ayyar for the campaign’s expenses. When Amar saw such largesse, he said, “O Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, I have no appetite for money and riches. I would never have consented to step foot into the tilism, but I find I have no choice since your son is being held prisoner and I must secure his release. However, you did wrong in corrupting my disciples with money.”
Amar said to the four tricksters, “O worthless creatures, you will foolishly squander this half million rupees in no time. It will be safer with me and would be available to you in time of need. Indeed, how can you claim to be a trickster if you need to spend your own money to journey to the tilism? Instead of taking money to the tilism you ought to bring money from Hoshruba. If I accept money it is because I have numerous other expenses besides.” The tricksters realized that Amar had caught sight of the money and would not rest without grabbing all of it. In the end, they could do little else but present their own share to Amar, who stuffed it into his zambil and returned to his pavilion to make arrangements for the journey.
Once Amar’s back was turned, however, Amir Hamza gave more money to the four tricksters who busied themselves with preparations for departure.
Of the Departure of the Lion of the Forest of Valor Prince Asad to Conquer Hoshruba Along With Amar Ayyar and His Disciples, and of Their Taking Separate Routes into the Tilism
The travellers to the path of meaning, the conquerors of the tilism of eloquence, the explorers of marvellous lands and scribes of singular discourse, conquer the wonders of the tilism of inventions with the tablet and pen and set foot into the realm of imagination with wondering minds thus:
After arriving in his pavilion, Prince Asad ordered forty thousand intrepid troopers to prepare to depart for the campaign to conquer Hoshruba. At the command of the prince, who was equal to the heavens in dignity, the tents and pavilions were loaded onto carts and the brave commanders armed and readied themselves for departure. Prince Asad visited his kind mother and Hamza’s daughter, Zubaida Sher, in the women’s quarters. He placed his head at her esteemed feet and kissed them with reverence. He said, “My venerable mother, your slave is ready to depart for the tilism to secure the release of his uncle, Prince Badiuz Zaman. Grant me leave with a happy heart and forgive all my voluntary and involuntary misdemeanors.”
Princess Zubaida Sher was already suffering pangs of grief over the loss of her brother Badiuz Zaman. When she heard of her son’s departure, her eyes welled up with tears. She embraced Asad and kissed his forehead.
The news spread in the women’s quarters that Prince Asad was going away to secure Prince Badiuz Zaman’s release. Princess Gardiya Bano, his maternal grandmother, broke into tears upon hearing the news of his planned departure. All the wives of Amir Hamza blessed Prince Asad by tying gold pieces pledged to Imam Zamin36 to his arm. They sent him away with their good wishes, reciting the prayer to ward off the evil eye.
From there, Asad went to the armory and decorated himself with arms and armor. Forty thousand turquoise-encrusted suits of armor and sharp and shining swords were handed out to the warriors from the armory. Several thousand pairs of gold and silver kettledrums were loaded on elephants and camels. Cartloads of gold and silver pieces were procured for the journey. The prince spent a day in the camp taking his leave of the commanders. All the nobles and chiefs of Amir Hamza’s court visited his pavilion to embrace him and wish him Godspeed. He remained busy with these engagements for one day and one night.
When the Westbound Traveler37 appeared from the mansion of the east, resolved to trek the stages of the heavens, the clarion of departure was sounded in Prince Asad’s camp. The drums were struck, the trumpets and the kettledrums sounded and Prince Asad set out after saying his morning prayers.
When Amir Hamza finished praying in the Roving Prayer Tent, he inquired, “Why are the trumpets sounding?” His companions answered, “They announce the departure of Prince Asad.” Amir Hamza said, “I wish to witness his departure and behold his dear face once again.” He came out and stood with all his nobles at a vantage point along the way.
Presently, elephants fitted with steel mirrors and draped with sheets of gold-brocade came into view. Atop them sat the standard-bearers with unfurled banners inscribed with the praises of the Eternal God. Every flag was the augur of the line, “Verily, we have conferred clear victory upon you.”38 Behind them came the cannons mounted on camels and elephants, and the gold and silver kettledrums. Clad in shining gold cloth, brocade short-coats, red turbans and gold-embroidered belts, the kettledrummers marched past, striking and thunderously beating the drums mounted on elephants and camels. They were followed by rocket bearers on camelback, sitting on jewel-encrusted seats. The gold-draped, spirited camels wearing woven necklaces of gold and silver thread advanced with lofty air and elegant gait. Thousands of foot-soldiers walked alongside, ready for battle. Wearing dark red turbans, attired in long tunics and khurdnok shoes,39 holding lion-headed muskets on their shoulders sheathed in gold cloth, they marched in groups and clusters and, although only five thousand in number, appeared a force twenty times as many.
Four thousand display horses strutted past next, bobbing their heads, caparisoned in gold cloth, wearing chains and sporting double aigrettes on their heads. Each horse was covered with steel armor and rump-guards. Their grooms walked beside them moving fly-whisks. Several thousand water-carriers wearing waistcloths of coarse red cotton and dressed in uniforms of gold brocade walked past behind them, sprinkling rosewater, keora-water,40 and essence of orange blossoms to settle the dust. The weeders accompanied them, cleaning the ground and picking up the stones and pebbles.
Then followed a group of children, whose cheeks had the radiance of flame, and whose foreheads were bright as the moon. Bearing gold and silver chaffing dishes over which they sprinkled powdered aloe-wood41 by the fistful, they made the wilderness the envy of the beauties of Tartary and the perfumer’s perfumery. They passed by with great elegance, showing their razzle-dazzle, clad in colorful costumes and wearing jewel-encrusted bracelets. The macebearers walked behind them, carrying their gold and silver vermiculated staffs and making proclamations before the prince’s conveyance.
Riding under a lion-headed standard, Prince Asad the mighty, rank-destroying, Valiant Lord of the Battlefield, finally appeared in the din of a thousand kettledrums adorned with enchanted armor and a turquoise coat of mail. Gold and silver pieces were showered over his head by the onlookers as sacrifice to ward off the evil eye from him. Forty thousand intrepid troopers brought up the rear of this magnificent retinue clad in body armor fitted with cuirasses, with swords stuck in their sword belts and heavy maces resting on their shoulders. Drunk on the wine of courage, they rode in twos, holding the reins high, with the short spears balanced between the horse’s ears.
Catching sight of Amir Hamza, Prince Asad saluted him, dismounted and presented himself before his grandfather. Amir Hamza embraced him. As he prayed for his grandson’s triumph and victory, Amir Hamza found himself overwhelmed by emotion. Prince Asad said to him, “Grandfather, I leave you in the care and protection of God Almighty.” All the commanders in Amir Hamza’s entourage warmly embraced the young prince. Before leaving, he asked his grandfather,
“O my venerable lord and master,
What are your injunctions for the journey?”
Amir Hamza answered,
“May you have an auspicious trek
And return in safety from your travels.
“May the Almighty God soon restore you to us. May you triumph over your foe in the tilism. Go forth now. I invoke the protection of the Almighty and Insuperable Lord of Both Worlds.”
Prince Asad kissed Amir Hamza’s feet. He mounted his steed and the army marched forth with great pomp and show and the ease and facility of a spring gale. As Amir Hamza turned back, his commanders wiped tears from the corners of their eyes. The women’s quarters already rang with cries. The prince’s attendants loaded and carted away tents, pavilions, luggage, furniture of the court, and the apparatus of hunt and chase. The musicians packed their lutes and rebecks.
Amir Hamza had not yet reached his pavilion when he heard the jingling of bells. As he looked up he saw the Prince of Tricksters, the worthy Amar Ayyar coming forward, wearing his commander’s cap, in the company of his four trickster disciples. Dressed in tricksters’ livery, short-coats of gold brocade and broadcloth shoes, they cut smart and alert figures. With snare ropes tied around their heads, slings wrapped around their arms, and a sack of sling stones hanging from their necks, the tricksters prostrated themselves and kissed Amir Hamza’s feet. As he embraced them, they shed copious tears at the prospect of separation from him.
Amar Ayyar said, “O renowned lord and just appreciator, do not forget this childhood companion of yours. Remember me in your prayers in consideration of my long service to you. The outcome of this campaign is unknown. We are headed to encounter the Emperor of Hoshruba, Afrasiyab. As I head for the tilism and put my life in the hands of destiny, I appoint my son Chalak as the head of the tricksters. You may assign him any service that you would have assigned me. I hope he will not fail you.”
Amir Hamza consented and gave the news to Chalak and other tricksters who had come to see Amar Ayyar off on his campaign. All of them sincerely and readily accepted the arrangement and Chalak was deputed as their commander. Then Amar Ayyar, too, left with Prince Asad’s army.
After travelling some distance, Amar said to his four disciples, “My brothers, we must all act on our individual impulses and follow our own counsel. We must separately cross the distance and enter the tilism from different points. This has the advantage that if one of us runs into the hazardous or is captured, the others can help and rescue him. If we were to travel together, we might all be captured together and left helpless.”
The tricksters separated at Amar’s orders. Qiran the Ethiope took one direction, Burq the Frank another, Zargham headed along one path and Jansoz took a different one. Amar Ayyar did not follow the route taken by the prince’s procession but proceeded forward, leaping and bounding on a separate track.
34. “Two of Lord Laqa’s own daughters had eloped with Hamza’s sons”: a reference to earlier encounters between Laqa and Amir Hamza.
35. See Of the Tilism called Hoshruba and the Master of the Tilism, Emperor Afrasiyab.
36. Imam Zamin: a coin pledged in the name of Ali Raza bin Musa al-Kazim (148–203 A.H.) whose alias was “Imam Zamin.” The coin is tied to a traveller’s arm by his relatives for safe journey. It is given away to a person of the Syed caste upon the traveller safely reaching the destination.
37. Westbound Traveller: an allusion to the sun.
38. Verily We have conferred clear victory upon you: a verse from The Quran (48:1)
39. khurdnok shoes: a shoe with a slightly upturned toe from Lucknow, India, made with velvet, red kid-leather, and leather obtained from the back of the wildass or the belly of a horse or ass.
40. keora-water: the essence of the keora flower.
41. Aloe-wood: Aloe is a tree that yields a rich perfume. It has been used in various religious rituals since ancient times.