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 Prince Asad Entering the Tilism and Arriving in the City of Disregard]
Of Prince Asad Entering the Tilism and Arriving in the City of Disregard
The prince of auspicious fortune crossed the borders of Mount Agate with his grand equipage and retinue and arrived at the mountain between the fortress kingdom of Mount Agate and Hoshruba. He saw the high mountain rise for leagues into the skies and disappear into the heavens. Neither the lasso of imagination could snare its summit, nor the bird of thought fly above its peak.
The noble prince stopped by the mountain and his truth-discerning eyes regarded that wonder of God’s creation. From the top of the mountain to its foot, koriyala 42 flowers grew in abundance. Their black petals were the envy of black tulips, and their white spots the dreams in the eyes of stars. The scene recalled to his mind a bouquet of spring blossoms. Waterfalls cascaded down the mountain. The cock pheasants laughed and the pining nightingale trilled its notes.
Atop the mountain stood the magic gong used by Suleiman Amber-Hair and Afrasiyab for communication. Beside it sat a hundred-year-old man.
As Prince Asad was about to enter the mountain pass, the old man cried out, “O youth, desist from your disastrous ambition. Do not step into a dragon’s mouth with open eyes. The tilism lies beyond this mountain. It is a land full of perils. Those who enter never leave. They find no exit but the door of doom. Take pity on your young years. Turn back or you will part with your sweet life!”
The prince retorted, “Hear O foolish dotard that braves don’t fear death. They do not retreat once they have stepped forward with courage. I am Prince Asad, Conqueror of the Tilisms of this planet of marvels, and the grandson of Amir Hamza. I have wagered my life on this campaign. Your words of warning will not make me turn back.”
When the old man heard the name of the noble prince, he called out, “If it is your intention and resolve to destroy the tilism, go forward in the name of Allah! Who will dare stop you! Sally forth and fulfil your purpose!”
The prince rode on. As he entered the mountain pass with his army, magic birds rose, flying from the mountain, and the gong sounded. The birds took news to Afrasiyab that the Conqueror of the Tilism, Prince Asad, had entered Hoshruba with a large army.
Afrasiyab immediately dispatched messages to the border guards to arrest Prince Asad on sight. Every sorcerer learned of Prince Asad’s entry into the tilism and resolved to stop him and take him prisoner.
After Prince Asad came out of the mountain pass, he arrived in a lush field of captivating air where green pastures stretched for miles on end, redolent with the perfume of wild flowers. The dense and lush bushes were the envy of the locks of mistresses. A river ran through the pasture. The undulation of the waves smote the heart as it recalled to mind the gait of beloveds. The greenery was like the Virgin of the Ethereal Sphere.43
Accompanied by his virtuous companions, the prince of lofty attributes went onward admiring the landscape. They came upon a garden and Prince Asad’s companions said to him, “Your Honor should enter this garden and admire its flowers and fragrant herbs.” Asad headed toward it and saw that the entrance of the garden was carved out of porphyry, black stone and minerals and shone like a mirror. The portals of the entrance hung open like the longing arms of a lover. The garden had neither guard nor warden; spring was its only keeper. The prince and his entourage entered and beheld all manner of flowers in bloom, lakes criss-crossing its expanse, and burbling fountains. They saw bejewelled columns, balustrades made of inlaid gold and sacks of gold tissue covering the clusters of fruit that hung from grapevines. Trees swayed in the breeze like creatures overtaken by frenzy. The fruits exchanged kisses as they brushed together. The branches of the trees were neatly balanced and trimmed into wondrous shapes. Crystal walkways surrounded the lake, and next to them, dazzling grassy patches put the brightness of emeralds to shame. The melodious gurgling of fountains in the lakes would have made even a nightingale’s heart cry with envy. The clarity of the water was enticing. The garden was a paradise where every flower and bud lived contented and fulfilled by the bounty of the gentle breeze laden with the fragrance of ambergris.
And yet the prince and his companions found the garden completely deserted. Neither man nor beast could be seen there. From the center of the garden rose a canopied platform a hundred yards long, surrounded on all sides by tulip gardens. The prince settled down on the platform while his army bivouacked around him.
Hardly a few moments had passed when a loud cackle was heard. The tulips in the flowerbeds suddenly blossomed and dragon heads darted out from each flower. Before anyone could take stock of the marvel, the dragons spewed fire and inhaled. The entire camp of Prince Asad, along with the men, tents and equipage went flying into the dragons’ mouths. Prince Asad alone remained on the platform. As he stepped down and rushed after his companions, he heard a thunderous crack behind him. He turned and saw his horse grow wings and fly away.
As the prince stood confounded by these marvels, the garden and the tulip beds returned to their original form.
Prince Asad shed tears in the memory of his companions and cried out, “O fickle heavens! O capricious universe! You could not bear to see me in the company of friends! You marked me to endure the hardships of this wilderness alone!” He grabbed his sword’s hilt in anger many times, and rose to smite someone to vent his rage. But there was no one there.
The sight of that garden now appeared to him like that of a thorn. There was not a single friendly face to be seen. Feeling powerless, he sat down on that platform and thought, O Asad, this is a tilism. Many such adventures and trials lie before you still. The sorcerers of the tilism will test you in many encounters. One must not become flustered at the very first ordeal. Go forward with courage and seek the way to your destination by yourself.
The prince looked around the garden and found another gate from which he exited and headed onwards. He walked for three days and three nights but saw not a single place to rest or lodge. Even the flowers growing in that tilism’s wilderness presented him with unkindly faces. His feet broke into blisters and his tongue into lamentations. The prince carried on his way reciting this couplet:
Help O Khizr, this wilderness is a calamity
I find it impossible to ford this catastrophe
Finally, on the third day, Prince Asad saw the precincts of a city and with great difficulty arrived there. The glowing city walls were made of crystal and adorned with intricate patterns and portraits of kings and sovereigns. The artistic depiction of hunting grounds, forests, mountains and rivers seemed all but real.
The gate of the city stood open and the portal swayed on its hinges like a rutting elephant. Thousands of fearsome sorcerers stood wielding steel magic balls. Their foreheads were marked with tilaks44 and their bodies were adorned with skulls carved of sandalwood. They had changed form by magic into animals with human heads, and humans with elephant, dragon and lion heads. They busied themselves making oblations of lard in the crackling bonfires to prepare spells.
The citadel stood close to the city gate. It had thousands of towers guarded by brazen-bodied and elephant-bodied sorcerers. Bells and gongs rang loudly and salutations to sorcerer gods Sameri and Jamshed were chanted.
Nobody stopped Prince Asad as he entered the gate witnessing these marvels. He found the city bustling with life. The alleys and quarters shone like the hearts of lovers. The spotless shops and markets sparkled. The nobility and the laity both occupied themselves in commerce. People milled about and money and goods exchanged hands. Every shop in the market was decorated and well organized. The goldsmiths were established in one quarter with cowries, coins, dirhams and dinars45 lying in piles on cloth sheets spread before them. The drapers and mercers had their own area where they sat displaying open rolls of silk and satin. The sweetmeat vendors sold all kinds of choice and delicious sweets on salvers of gold and silver. Bakers, greengrocers, butchers and peddlers each had a section marked for them where they were congregated. The florists’ shops presented a picture of spring, and the coquettish wine-sellers and elegant courtesans delighted the onlookers with their flirtations and airs.
Young women wore gold brocade skirts wrapped in the manner of waistcloths, some were clad in saris of which they used one half as mantles, yet others were covered in mantles decorated with gold-brocade borders which dazzled brighter than the sun. They sported tight and true fitting tops adorned with gold-lace which framed the knobs of their breasts, wore jewel-encrusted bracelets, three-tiered anklets, and showed their coquettish ways that enchanted the hearts of lovers. As greengrocers they weighed out the fruits in scales made of vermiculated gold and silver, and refreshed the eyes of those of an amorous bent with the pomegranates of their breasts and the apples of their chins.
The prince walked around the city seeing these sights. Because he was hungry he stopped at a sweetmeat vendor and gave him a fistful of gold pieces for a salver of sweets. The vendor threw back the gold pieces he was given by Asad, saying, “Save your gold, O stranger! I do not accept it.” Asad took it back and asked, “What fault do you find with it?” He replied, “I have heaps and heaps of these gold pieces. Children play with them like pebbles.”
The vendor addressed one of his employees, who brought out a mass of gold and jewels in the skirts of his robe to show Asad.
When Asad inquired who exercised writ over the land, the vendor answered, “Emperor Afrasiyab.” Asad next asked the name of the city and money used for trade. The vendor replied, “This is the City of Disregard. We use paper money for trade.”
He took out a rupee from his money box to show Asad, and said, “This is our currency.” The piece of paper was impressed with the portrait of a king on one side and florid patterns on the other.
The sweetmeat vendor said to him, “If you pay me in this money you may have what you like. If not, you can try your luck elsewhere.”
Asad walked away and stopped at another shop where he tried to buy some food but received the same answer. Asad became angry and said to himself, After all, this place is called the City of Disregard. I, too, should plunder the whole marketplace and revolt against them.
Asad grabbed a salver of sweets from a vendor who raised cries of “Thief! Thief!” People quickly gathered from all corners. When they approached, Asad caught them by their necks and bashed their heads together, dispatching a few men to hell. A hue and cry arose and the magistrate rushed to the scene. Asad drew his sword and wounded a few men. Then he took a sweetmeat vendor’s bench, placed it in the middle of the thoroughfare and, placing the salver of sweets in his lap, sat down to eat. He soundly thrashed anyone who dared approach.
The shopkeepers went as a body to complain before the ruler of the city, sorceress Empress Heyrat.
Emperor Afrasiyab had populated the City of Disregard in the region of Zahir for his empress so that she could have access to all amenities and services when she visited Zahir. A three-tiered, domed tower called the Dome of Light stood in the region of Zahir and gave one a view of the tilism. The first tier was inhabited by twelve thousand sorcerers. Several thousand bells and gongs were installed in the second tier. If struck by the gong-ringers the denizens of the tilism fell unconscious. The third tier was reserved for Empress Heyrat, who was at that moment seated there viewing the sights of the tilism. A dance recital was underway at the Dome of Light and seventeen hundred slave girls adorned with jewels stood humbly before her.
Suddenly, cries of “Help! Redress!” broke out in the assembly. Heyrat asked her sorceress-aide, Zamarrud, to inquire who had been wronged and to bring her the details of the matter. Zamarrud spoke to the plaintiffs and led them under the Dome of Light for an audience with the empress. At the inquiring of the empress, the citizens complained of Asad’s high handedness. Empress Heyrat dispatched her female attendant, Gulshan, to arrest the thief so that he could be suitably chastised.
Gulshan left with the plaintiffs and upon reaching the bazaar beheld a comely youth sitting on a bench in the middle of the thoroughfare. His beauty was the envy of the Moon of Canaan.46 He wielded a sword in one hand and ate sweets with the other. The whole marketplace dazzled with the resplendence of his luminous beauty. From its light every nook and corner of the place had become the envy of the Valley of Ayman.47 No one had ever seen or heard of such beauty.
The moment Gulshan set eyes on Prince Asad she fell head-over-heels in love with him. She called out, “Who are you, O stranger, who inflicts tyranny on the subjects of our empress and steals from them to feed yourself?” Prince Asad looked up and saw a sorceress dressed in a sari coming toward him. She carried a sorcerer’s sack around her neck and her forehead was marked with a cinnabar tilak. The prince thought, It is certain that she would take me captive by using a magic spell. Then all my show and might will come to nought. It would be best to use deception to chastise this strumpet.
Prince Asad called out to her, “Come closer so that I can give you my particulars and accompany you to your empress.” As Gulshan approached, Asad made sheep’s eyes at her. Gulshan believed he had become enamored of her. She decided she would ask the empress to confer him upon her as a reward, then bring him home and ravish him. She immediately put her hand in Asad’s hand, saying, “Come, let me take you to the empress.” Asad gave her a violent tug and as Gulshan fell, he caught her by the neck. He tore off a strip of cloth from his clothing and stuffed it into her mouth so that she could not cast a spell on him. He pinioned Gulshan and tied her to a column of the shop with her mantle. Asad gave her a few strokes of the lash for good measure which made Gulshan wince with pain. He then returned to eating sweets.
The vendors protested and threatened but no one dared approach Asad. They returned to report to Empress Heyrat, who laughed when she heard of Asad’s cunning, and said to her sorceress-aide Zamarrud, “Go and take him prisoner and secure Gulshan’s release.” Zamarrud recited incantations and flew away.
Immediately upon arrival, Zamarrud cast a spell on Prince Asad that made him lose power over his limbs. She released Gulshan and put a magic claw around Asad’s neck. Accompanied by Gulshan, she flew away with the prince, arrived in the Dome of Light and threw Prince Asad before Empress Heyrat.
The prince saw a beautiful woman clad in gold finery sitting on a throne and seventeen hundred slave girls standing before her with bowed heads. Asad turned his face away. Stunned by Asad’s beauty, Empress Heyrat said to him, “O captive of grief and sorrow, of which garden are you a blossom? What chance brought you to these parts?” Prince Asad answered, “I am the grandson of Amir Hamza, the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction. I have come here to conquer the tilism.”
Heyrat was confounded to hear Amir Hamza’s name. Bewildered, she ordered her attendants to bring her a box. When they returned with it, Heyrat opened it and took out a portrait. Comparing it with the face of the prince, she found not the least difference between the two. She asked the prince, “Is your name Asad?” He answered, “Yes, this lowly slave of the Sublime Lord is indeed called Asad.”
Heyrat said to her attendants, “Doubtless he is the Conqueror of the Tilism, since his name and particulars match the description given in the portrait. Throw him in the wilderness of the tilism. If he is indeed the Conqueror of the Tilismhe will find his way out of it. Otherwise he will become lost and perish there.” The sorceresses recited incantations that made the prince lose consciousness. They carried him into the wilderness of the tilism and left him there.
After a moment, the prince opened his eyes. Finding himself in a pasture, he rose and headed onwards. He witnessed a delightful garden, like the image of paradise. The ringdove sang of its love for the cypress, the dove of its love of the box tree, and the nightingale made plaints for its beloved rose.48 There were wells of sweet water at every few steps whose depth sang of the dance of the buckets. The beautifully marbled promenades made the grapevine envious. The place was fragrant with the smell of the jasmine, eglantine, night-flowering jasmine, double-flowered jasmine, tuberose and narcissus. In one place the red poppy flowered like bowls carved of rubies. The periwinkle bloomed in another corner. The sweet redolence of the orange, citron and lime trees inundated the senses. The spikenard sat enchantingly with its wind-swept curls and the lily sang the praises of the Gardener of Nature with a hundred tongues. The spring gale floated drunkenly above every flowerbed, full of conceit at their bloom.
Streams and rivulets bounded by flowerbeds criss-crossed the garden. Trees enveloped in redolence and laden with flowers and fruits dotted the expanse. The surface of the lake undulated like a beloved’s gait. Lush, green and refreshing grasslands stretched for miles on end, abounding in deer, spotted antelopes and axis deer. The black cuckoo, the Indian bee-eater, parrots and maynahs sang on their perches and swung from tree branches. In the lake, the birds broke the surface of the water with their beaks. They wet and cleaned their feathers, flapped, and juddered.
Regarding these sights, Asad arrived at a flower garden where a number of men were busy tending the grounds. Asad inquired about the name of the place and asked why they tended the garden. They replied, “This is the Tilism of the Garden. All of us are princes of different lands. We set out on hunting expeditions and ended up in this place. Despite many attempts we could not find a way out of here and had no choice but to make it our abode. A princess lives here who is fond of flowers. We pick flowers and thread garlands for her. Her attendants come in the evening to take them to their mistress and bring us food in exchange. We forever keep our eyes on the bounty of God and live on that food. You, too, should now make garlands with us and eat and live here, since you will be unable to escape this garden. You will pass your life and receive food in the manner we describe.”
Asad answered, “I seek God’s protection from this idea! May you prosper with your work; I will have nothing to do with gardening.” They answered, “You have freshly arrived, your stomach is full and you are all fat and plump. Once you have stayed here a few days and starved, and your fat has begun to dissolve, you will readily join us.”
Asad moved away without responding to those comments. He decided to pick some fruit from the trees and drink from the stream. But when he reached for fruit hanging from the branches, it suddenly rose beyond his grasp. The fruit that had fallen on the ground also disappeared when he tried to pick it up. He attempted to climb the trees but found it impossible. He tried to drink from the stream but couldn’t. When he put his hand in the stream, water became sand at his touch. Helpless, he sat down in one corner. Toward the end of the day, slave girls beautiful as the full moon arrived in the garden leading female laborers carrying salvers of food. They called out, “O prisoners of the tilism, bring the garlands and get your food.” All the gardeners ran and exchanged the garlands they had made for food. The slave girls departed and the gardeners sat down to eat. Poor Asad could only watch them from a distance as they finished every last bit without offering him a morsel. That night Asad slept on an empty stomach.
The moment the heavens’ Gold-Feathered Bird49 arrived in the sky’s pasture from its eastern nest, the prince rose and said his morning prayers. The prisoners occupied themselves as usual with the task of picking and threading flowers. After some time, they approached the prince and said to him, “O freshly bloomed flower of the orchard of youth! O pride and adornment of the garden of felicity! Why are you bent on eclipsing the spring of your life with the autumn of anguish? You have a face like a flower, but it is beginning to wilt. Come with us, make garlands, and have your fill of food in the evening. Or else you will die from hunger and thirst in the wilderness of the tilism and neither a morsel of food nor a drop of water will you find.” The prince answered, “Return to your work and stop trying to persuade me.” The gardeners went back to picking flowers.
Finally that day also ended, and the slave girls arrived with salvers of food.
The prince got up menacingly and ordered the slave girls to put all the food on the ground and leave. At his threats they called out to the prisoners, “Come quick! This fellow is stealing your food.” All the prisoners gathered there and accosted him. Asad broke the heads of a few of them with the hilt of his sword, slapped the slave girls and kicked the female laborers. He snatched all the food and stripped the slave girls of their clothes. He sat down within sight of the prisoners and started eating with great relish for their benefit. The slave girls returned naked to their mistress, crying and wailing loudly.
42. koriyala: a black flower with white spots.
43. Virgin of the Ethereal Sphere: an allusion to the Virgo.
44. tilak: the ornamental or ceremonial mark Hindus make on the forehead with colored eye-earths, sandalwood or unguents.
45. cowries, coins, dirhams and dinars: cowry shells were used as the smallest unit of currency in the Indian subcontinent until the early twentieth century. Dinar and dirham were coins.
46. Moon of Canaan: an allusion to Yusuf (Joseph).
47. Valley of Ayman: the name of the valley of Mount Tur. According to Islamic folk belief Mount Tur was burned from God’s dazzling glimpse when he revealed it to Musa (Moses).
48. The ringdove sang…plaints for its beloved rose: in the Urdu poetic tradition, the ringdove is considered a lover of the cypress tree and the nightingale of the rose. The connection between the dove and the box tree is uncertain.
49. heavens’ Gold-Feathered Bird: an allusion to the sun.