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.
[Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe]
Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe
Their mistress was none other than Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, Emperor Afrasiyab’s niece and a princess of the tilism. On the first day of every New Year, Afrasiyab enthroned Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe on the throne of the tilism and held festivities in her honor, in which eighteen thousand princesses and kings of the lands of Zahir the Manifest, Batin the Hidden, and Zulmat the Dark paid her their allegiance and made her offerings.
Because of Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s fondness for that meadow, Afrasiyab had constructed a house there for her. Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe lived in it with her aunt and Afrasiyab’s sister, sorceress Sandal the Crone.
Sandal was away at Afrasiyab’s court when the slave girls arrived before Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe crying. When the princess asked the reason for their distress, they replied that a new prisoner, who refused to make garlands and displayed the arrogance of might, had arrived in the tilism. He beat them as well as the other prisoners and snatched all the food.
The princess said to them, “Send the palace guard to take the food to the prisoners.” The palace guard headed to the garden and the palanquin bearers walked behind her carrying salvers of food. Upon arrival, the palace guard called out, “O accursed prisoner, you have invited severe chastisement by raising your hand against royal officials and stealing food. How you bolt it down as if it was ordered for you! Indeed, your death flutters above your head.”
Asad was incensed at these words and thought, I should make them suffer as much as I did in this horrible place. He rose and beat up the palace guard, took off her mantle and snatched her staff and bracelets. The palanquin bearers ran for safety, dropping the slavers of food. The prisoners of the Tilism of the Garden hid themselves in the first nook that offered a refuge.
The great pandemonium created as Asad chased the palanquin bearers brought Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe out from her house. She saw a beautiful youth chasing her servants.
His two eyes were like two fawns who hunt beloveds
His two eyebrows like two calamities were
Whenever he opened his lips to laugh
Salt on the hearts of lovers he sprinkled
His face was resplendent as the sun and was set with a pair of coal black eyes. He was a latter day Yusuf in beauty. Even the dead in their graves opened their eyes to admire his bursting youth and winsome gait. The moment Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe beheld him, she fell violently in love and called out, “There, there, O youth! What are you doing?”
When the prince looked up he saw afairy-like beloved who made his heart the prey of flying arrows of her gaze. He saw a luminous sun of the sky of excellence and an inestimable pearl of the oyster of love. Her jet black locks made light of the subterranean darkness. The luminous and neat parting of her hair was the envy of the Milky Way. Her forehead was bright and high like the aspirations of the lofty minded. Her brows were shaped like bows. Her breasts were swollen like pomegranates. Her perfect chin looked like a delicious apple. In her delicacy and charm she was like an elegantly cut ruby. Her gait was like the gait of the partridge dove, her speech sweet as a parrot’s, her height akin to a box tree, her cheeks as beautiful as the moon. Her shapeliness robbed the beauties of the world of all their conceit and they hid from her. She was the sun of the sky of elegance and beauty.
The moment Prince Asad saw the light-incarnate beauty of Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe he lost his heart and soul to her. The princess smiled and accosted Asad, saying, “O youth, the acts of stealing and thieving are most unbecoming. Tell me what you desire.” Regaled by her pearl-scattering speech, the prince replied, “O gracious friend! O essence of elegance! I was culpable of stealing food because I despaired for my life. I snatched food only after I had gone without several meals.” The princess said, “That you had been starving is obvious. But how can I help it? You must find yourself a shelter and a source of food.”
The prince replied, “O Princess, I am thirsty for your comely sight and beg you the alms of your beauty.” The princess said, “Shamelessness is alive and well, I see. I ask you one thing and you reply about something else. I say one thing and you hear another. Go away! Leave now!” Asad answered, “O Princess, how can I leave now? Before the dictates of love we are all helpless. I would not raise my head from your doorstep now.”
As they were having this conversation in the wilderness, the slave girls said to the princess, “It would be unwise to stay out in the open. Someone may accuse you of impropriety and cause you grief by pointing the finger of blame at you. It would be best to return home and bring him with you.” The princess said to Asad, “If you are really so starved, accompany me to my humble house. There you may have your meal and rest awhile.” Smiling and exultant, Prince Asad followed the princess to her house.
Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe left Asad behind and climbed the stairs to her room. She gave orders to her slave girls to set up a golden throne.
In his eagerness, Prince Asad tried to follow the princess. After he had climbed a few steps he was suddenly lifted up by invisible hands and thrown down. The prince made another attempt and the same thing happened. He was thrown down similarly each time he tried to climb after the princess.
In the meanwhile, the princess came out. She laughed at Prince Asad’s state, and said, “Did you think it would be child’s play to enter my chamber?” Then she said to her sorceress-aide, Dil Aaram, “Aunt Sandal put a magic cordon around my chamber so that no stranger could enter it. Work some spell so that a path is made through it, and I can take Asad inside.” Reciting an incantation, Dil Aaram struck her hands together and a path was immediately created through the magic cordon.
Princess Mahjabeen took Prince Asad upstairs and seated him on the throne. At her orders, the slave girls laid out all manner of fine foods and tasty and colorful dishes. The princess said to Asad, “Help yourself and once you have eaten you may leave.” Asad replied, “O my life and soul, ever since I saw the apple of your chin my hunger and thirst have been satisfied. Now I am destined to feed on the flesh of my heart and drink my life blood. All I want now is to have you before my eyes. If you wish us to share food, step into the garden of True Faith, renouncing both sorcery and infidelity’s thorn-filled darkness.”
The princess was stunned to hear these words. She thought awhile, then said, “I have not yet learned sorcery but I feel reservations about renouncing Lord Laqa and giving up the faith of Sameri. These names and persons are venerable and mighty.” Asad answered, “O Princess, if Laqa was indeed a true god, my grandfather Amir Hamza would not have been able to drive him from place to place.”
Princess Mahjabeen was delighted when she heard Amir Hamza’s name and realized Asad was the scion of a noble and distinguished house. Enlightened by Asad’s words, she renounced Laqa worship. The prince and the princess then shared a meal while making love talk.
Sorceress Sandal the Crone
Suddenly, a whirlwind began to blow, they were enveloped in darkness and flaming bolts of lightning danced around them. Alarmed, the prince sought God’s protection from evil as he saw the hideous sorceress Sandal the Crone, arrive riding a dragon. She was wrapped in a black mantle and wore a blue kerchief on her head. Her hair was tangled and matted, her face was covered with clay, and necklaces of bones and skulls hung around her neck.
Seeing Princess Mahjabeen cavorting with Asad, she called out, “O brazen girl! O destroyer of family honor! Who are you consorting with?” The princess hurriedly rose from Asad’s side and replied, “Aunt, this hungry and thirsty prisoner of the tilism has wandered here. I took pity on him, called him over and gave him food. Now I will send him away.”
Sandal the Crone kept her silence but decided to change the princess’s residence thinking that if she continued to live there, she might become corrupted. Sandal knew that Afrasiyab’s prisoner was destined to die but she was captivated by Prince Asad’s comely looks, and said to herself, I am old and no one ever gives me a second look. I should ask Afrasiyab to spare this prisoner’s life and give him to me. This prisoner would be only too happy to have his life spared. I will take him with me and ravish him to my heart’s content. Indeed I must ravish him even now, and take him to my bed.
Sandal the Crone made herself into a fifteen-year-old damsel by magic so that anyone who saw her was struck by her charm and beauty. She accosted Prince Asad and said, “O youth, it is improper to thieve and steal.” Then she said to Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, “I am going to my room. Send him inside after persuading him to lie with me. I will then forgive your trespasses; otherwise you will be punished for cavorting with him.”
After Sandal the Crone retired to her room, the princess said to Asad, “Congratulations! My aunt has fallen in love with you. What wonderful good luck that God bestowed on you a shapely and graceful beloved a mere seven-hundred-years old! Why indeed would you pay me any attention now! Go take your pleasure with her.”
Asad rose without responding to the princess and headed toward Sandal’s room. Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s eyes welled up with tears. She took Asad’s hand and said, “Have you already forgotten your professions of love? Or did you never mean what you said to me?” Prince Asad embraced the princess, wiped away her tears and consoled her, saying, “My love, I remain your slave. You will witness what I shall do when I am with this harridan Sandal.” The princess kept shedding tears but Asad tore himself away from her and entered Sandal’s room.
Prince Asad saw Sandal sitting undressed on a throne with great coquetry. A tray of wine lay next to her. A couch with jewelled legs lay close by. Asad went and sat next to her. At first Sandal pretended coyness and ignored him, then gave Asad a cup of wine. Asad took it from her hand and said, “O love of my life, give me a sip from your cup so that I may drink what has touched your lips and bring solace to my heart. I am thirsty for the pure cup of union with you.” Prince Asad then picked Sandal up in his arms. While she cried, “No! No!” coquettishly, he laid her on the couch, put one hand on her neck, and entwined his legs with hers. Sandal reckoned that Prince Asad’s desire was awake, and her own would be now fulfilled.
Instead, Asad started strangling her. She thrashed about violently but was caught in the talons of the lion and could not find release. As she choked to death, she could not even utter a spell. She did not draw another breath and the bird of her soul flew away from her body’s cage. At that moment, a terrifying sound was heard as if the sky had burst asunder, and Prince Asad jumped off to one side.
Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe had been watching the scene from the gap in the door. Earlier, she had burned with jealousy seeing Asad cavorting with Sandal, and said to herself, He told me one thing and now see him become enamoured of this crone and make love talk.
But in just a moment, the thunderous sound broke upon them, darkness enveloped the world, whirlwinds began to blow and stones and fire showered. A great clamour was heard and after a moment a voice proclaimed, “ALAS, I WAS KILLED BY DECEIT. SANDAL WAS MY NAME. I HAD YET TO PICK DESIRE’S FLOWER FROM THE GARDEN OF YOUTH WHEN THE WINDS OF DEATH WILTED THE FLOWER OF MY LIFE IN ITS SEVEN HUNDREDTH YEAR.”
Unnerved, Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe said to her aide Dil Aaram, “What a terrible calamity that he has killed my aunt.” Dil Aaram replied, “My princess, he killed her for love of you and showed no consideration for his own life. Go and see how he fares and what has happened to him.”
The princess stepped into the room with Dil Aaram. By that time the darkness had parted. They saw Sandal’s corpse lying naked and Prince Asad standing on one side, smiling. The princess came up to him crying, and said, “What did you do; you killed my aunt!” Asad replied, “And what say you about the skill with which I dispatched her to hell?” Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe replied, “Praise the Lord! What is to be said about courage such as yours, which shows no mercy even to someone who shows you love. After killing my aunt you expect me to praise your act?” Asad put his arms around the princess’s neck and kissed her, but she pushed him away, saying, “Do you now want to choke me to death, too?” Asad replied, “O my soul, I offer my life in sacrifice to protect yours. Do you think I would survive for a single moment if I harmed you in the least?”
While they were having this exchange, suddenly Sandal’s skull cracked open, a colorful bird came out of it and flew away crying, “ALAS! ALAS!”
Dil Aaram said, “Princess, it was not a bird you saw but the magic that has inhabited Sandal’s vile body all these years. Now it will fly directly to Afrasiyab and give him a complete account of what happened here. The two of you will be taken captive like Princess Tasveer and Prince Badiuz Zaman.”
Petrified with fear, Princess Mahjabeen said, “What must I do now?” Dil Aaram replied, “Take Asad along and escape from the tilism.” Asad interjected, “I have come to conquer the tilism and will not leave without killing Afrasiyab.”
Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe implored Dil Aaram, saying, “O Dil Aaram, I do not know sorcery. If you can, take us with you out of here.” Dil Aaram answered, “My magic is not powerful enough to confront any sorcerer sent by Afrasiyab or to help you escape from the tilism. But I shall step down now and transform myself into a hill by magic. You may come with Asad and hide in one of its caverns. In that manner I will help you get away.”
The princess acquiesced. Dil Aaram stepped down, rolled on the ground and became a hill. Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Asad hid themselves in it. The hill uprooted itself and headed out. All the slave girls and attendants of the princess began shedding tears at the sight. Dil Aaram paid them no heed and went away carrying the prince and the princess.
In the meanwhile, the bird that had emerged from Sandal’s skull reached Afrasiyab in the Apple Garden. The emperor was seated on the imperial throne, the nobles and ministers were gathered and dancers were entertaining the assembly when the bird fell before Afrasiyab’s throne and cried out, “O EMPEROR OF HOSHRUBA, SORCERESS SANDAL WAS KILLED BY ASAD’S HAND.” A flame darted from the bird’s mouth, its feathers caught fire, and it burned to cinder.
Afrasiyab wept when he heard the news and ordered the whole court to dress in mourning. He sent for Empress Heyrat from the City of Disregard and apprised her of the news. Empress Heyrat, too, broke into tears upon hearing of it. Accompanied by all the nobles of his court and grandees of the tilism, Afrasiyab arrived where Sandal’s body lay. Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s attendants fell down at Afrasiyab’s feet professing their innocence. When Afrasiyab inquired about Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, they gave him all the details of Asad’s meeting with the princess and what had come about.
Afrasiyab said, “It is impossible for them to escape the tilism. Let me first attend to Sandal’s last rites and burial. Then I shall punish that shameless wretch Mahjabeen.”
Afrasiyab ordered the imperial procession of the tilism to be assembled. The ringers of bells and gongs and the believers of gods Sameri and Jamshed presented themselves. Magic slaves of steel made by the founders of the tilism arrived on horseback to accompany the procession. All the nobles of the tilism gathered and carried the corpse of Sandal with great pomp and ceremony according to the letter of Jamshed’s faith.
After Afrasiyab had disposed of these matters, he retired with a heavy heart to the Apple Garden and penned an irrevocable order to the kings of the domains of Hoshruba, alerting them to Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Dil Aaram’s escape with Amir Hamza’s grandson Asad. He ordered that the criminals be captured on sight and sent to his court as prisoners.
Of Sorceress Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye Changing Her Loyalties
Afrasiyab addressed the first of these letters to Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye. She was the grandmother of Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, and related to Afrasiyab.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye was a wise and accomplished sorceress and astrologer, and an augur without match who ruled over twelve thousand sorcerers. She had moved her quarters from the region of Batin to the City of Manycolors in Zahir after an inauspicious event involving Emperor Afrasiyab and her son Shakeel, who was enamoured of Empress Heyrat’s daughter, Khubsurat. The prospect of their union displeased Afrasiyab. The emperor spared Shakeel because Mahrukh Magic-Eye was one of the nobles of Hoshruba and acquainted with its secrets, but Afrasiyab separated Khubsurat from Shakeel by imprisoning her in a magic Ferris-wheel in a garden in Batin.
Afrasiyab showed Mahrukh much favor for appearances’ sake but kept a wary and watchful eye on her always. He realized that if he were to arrest her granddaughter, Princess Mahjabeen, like he had Princess Tasveer, Mahrukh Magic-Eye might take offence, rebel, and join the Conqueror of the Tilism. In his letter to Mahrukh Magic-Eye, Afrasiyab wrote:
“O Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye! Your granddaughter has eloped with Prince Asad. Despite my elevating her to the status of a sovereign of the tilism and augmenting her rank, she showed scant regard for me and washed her hands of her honor and repute. Upon the receipt of this letter you must find Mahjabeen and produce her in my presence so that I may let her off with only a reprimand for your sake, and kill the Conqueror of the Tilism. If you show the least hesitation in carrying out these orders, however, your land and property will be confiscated and you will be beheaded for rebellion.”
After penning this furious message, Afrasiyab gave it to his respected servant, sorcerer Zunnar, to take to Mahrukh Magic-Eye and bring back an affirmative response.
Zunnar set off on his journey and arrived in the City of Manycolors. Mahrukh Magic-Eye was informed of his arrival and received Zunnar with great respect. He was brought into the royal palace where a feast was arranged and song and dance recitals and revels were held in his honor. After fulfilling her duties as a hostess, Mahrukh Magic-Eye asked Zunnar, “What is the occasion for which you have honored this slave’s humble abode?” Zunnar handed her the letter sent by Emperor Afrasiyab.
After she studied its contents, the prudent Mahrukh Magic-Eye said in a gentle voice, “O Zunnar, please wait a few moments. I will write my answer after I have reflected on the contents of this letter and sought my councillors’ advice.” Zunnar waited there and Mahrukh Magic-Eye retired to a separate house.
Well-versed in the art of augury, she made a horoscope to determine the fortunes of Afrasiyab and Asad. Her calculations confirmed that Afrasiyab would die at the hands of Prince Asad, who would be the Conqueror of Hoshruba. Those who would stand with him would save their lives, win honor, and rise in esteem while those who stood against him would be killed, have their houses ravaged, and be denied refuge.
When all this was revealed to Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe by celestial knowledge, she thought, I should join Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, who is the light of my eyes. Afrasiyab is a faithless traitor and it would be best to shun him for he imprisoned Lachin, who was the real Emperor of Hoshruba. He also holds a grudge against my son because of Shakeel’s love for Khubsurat and tortures his beloved in a thousand ways. It would be little wonder if my son gave up his life in grief for his beloved and passed away from this world. I should save the lives of my son and granddaughter. I must fight Afrasiyab and quench the fire of anger in my heart. There will be no better time than this. The moment is auspicious and the Conqueror of the Tilism has also appeared.
With this in mind, Mahrukh Magic-Eye wrote the following reply to Afrasiyab’s letter:
“O Emperor of Hoshruba and King of Wizards, the royal order obeyed by all the world arrived before this feeble creature. Your humble servant’s honor was redoubled and rose to the pinnacle of heavens. The reproaches expressed against my granddaughter have caused great astonishment and wonder among your devoted servants. Your humble subject has ever remained the target of censure and reproof in your court. Some blame or other has always found a way to attach itself to her name. You have not turned your gaze of kindness and glance of compassion toward her for ages, and she resides far away from the abode of your felicity and luxury. In this particular case, however, she must not at all be held to blame. Before the dictates of love we are all helpless. No one should be expected to surrender the light of his life to the executioner’s blade. One would save the other even at the cost of his own life. In short, this lowly servant finds herself unable to search for Mahjabeen, arrest her, and submit her neck to the relentless blade. You are my lord and master and may reward or punish me as you see fit. You must do what you must and exercise your power and judgment to the fullest. I shall have nothing more to do with you now and shall not agree to Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s humiliation. I dare not write more lest it be considered insolence.”
When the reply was ready, she handed it to Zunnar, who set out for Afrasiyab’s court.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye ordered her twelve thousand sorcerers to prepare to march. After getting dressed and armed, they presented themselves before her. The army folded up its camp and loaded the tents and pavilions. Mahrukh Magic-Eye also took her mother, sorceress Mah, along and sent a note to her son Shakeel, who had renounced household comforts in his love for Khubsurat and passed his days and nights in the mountainous wilderness of Kohistan. After the feud with Afrasiyab, Mahrukh Magic-Eye had deputed twelve thousand sorcerers to live with Shakeel in the wilderness and guard him. In her message Mahrukh wrote:
“My son, I have had a falling out with Afrasiyab. You must return to me and bring your army along.”
Shakeel was only too pleased to receive the note from his mother and decided that he would now either die fighting Afrasiyab or become united with his beloved. He immediately returned with his twelve thousand warriors. Thus Mahrukh Magic-Eye set out with a force of twenty-four thousand men in search of Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe.