Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism

Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism: Book 1, Episode 11

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 Afrasiyab Sending the Sorcerers Zulmat Pitch-Face, Dukhan the Steam and Shola the Blaze to Arrest Prince Asad and Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe]


Of Afrasiyab Sending the Sorcerers Zulmat Pitch-Face, Dukhan the Steam and Shola the Blaze to Arrest Prince Asad and Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe

When Zunnar presented Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s reply to Afrasiyab, the emperor burnt in a blaze of rage. Realizing it would be undignified for him as the emperor to be seen marching against a mere female, he ordered three sorcerers, Zulmat Pitch-Face, Dukhan the Steam, and Shola the Blaze, to take Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe prisoner. He told the sorcerers that the three of them together would suffice for Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s whole army and ordered them to arrest the sorceress’s supporters as well. After receiving their orders, the sorcerers left.

Now hear of Prince Asad and Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, whose love and infatuation with each other increased every moment. Dil Aaram carried them as a hill for a thousand miles but could not get out of the tilism boundaries. She saw Mount Quartz, Mount Azure and many wonders and marvels of the tilism. She saw gardens grown with thorns and ones grown with flowers. She traversed the Kohistan wilderness and then passed by the River of Flowing Blood. When she realized she had come a long way, she stopped and asked Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Asad to come down from the hill. Once they descended, Dil Aaram returned to human form and led the two of them along deserted paths.

After travelling some distance, they came upon a green pasture where flowers blossomed in profusion and leafy trees stood at every few steps by flowing springs and streams. The princess said, “O Dil Aaram, while I find some comfort in this wilderness, I feel I am dying from hunger and thirst. Let us rest awhile so that we may recover from the fatigue of the journey. I would like it very much if I could find something to eat.”

Dil Aaram’s heart filled with sorrow at the princess’s plight. She said to herself, Alas! There was a time when seventy thousand princesses bowed their heads of obedience before her and held the foot of her throne while this noble princess went out to promenade. Today she struggles through the wilderness without help or aid. There are neither criers nor throne nor the shade of a royal parasol. It is indeed true that both kings and beggars are equal in the august court of the Emperor of Love. Whether or not we will even escape with our lives and find refuge remains in question. Both Earth and heavens have sworn enmity to us and a thousand sorrows and afflictions lie in wait with bared fangs. Afrasiyab will be searching for us now and must have dispatched any number of sorcerers to arrest us. Calamity may strike us at any moment. The face of the Bride of Death fills the mirror of thought. The princess is tired. Let us rest awhile and see what transpires and what fate holds.

Dil Aaram finally stopped by a hill in that pleasant expanse. As Princess Mahjabeen began lamenting her fate in love, Prince Asad consoled his sweet beloved. The princess said, “O faithless man, see what troubles have visited me after professing love for you. I do not protest because fate has decreed this, but do get me some food if possible so that my pangs of hunger may subside.” Asad replied, “Wait here for me O Princess, while I go to hunt a deer and roast it for you.”

Asad picked up his bow and quiver and set out, leaving the princess in Dil Aaram’s care. He found some quarry a long distance from the hill; and chasing it led him even farther away from the princess.

After waiting a long time for the prince, Dil Aaram said to the princess, “I should go and call the prince back lest he encounters a sorcerer and is taken captive.”

Dil Aaram also went away, leaving Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe by herself. She cried ceaselessly at her separation from the prince and the sorry state she was in and said to herself, I wonder how long the fickle heavens will drive me from place to place.

The sorcerer Zulmat Pitch-Face dispatched by Afrasiyab to arrest her arrived there as the princess was engrossed in these thoughts.

When he saw Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe sitting alone he thought, She is lovely and covered with gold and jewels. The emperor has ordered her to be put to death. I should use deception to take her to my house and ask her to satisfy my desire. If she agrees I will bide my life in great comfort and luxury as she is both rich and beautiful. At her disappearance everyone would think she escaped with Asad. Nobody would suspect me of keeping her.

With this in mind, Zulmat approached the princess and saluted her. Frightened by the rascal’s appearance, the princess guessed he had come to arrest her.

Zulmat said, “O Princess, I am your friend. Why did Prince Asad and Dil Aaram leave you?” She replied, “They have gone in search of food and water.” Zulmat who had asked that question just to apprise himself of her circumstances, now slyly said, “Prince Asad came to my garden and I have entered into his service. He sent me here to bring you along and awaits you in my garden.” The princess replied, “I will accompany you once Dil Aaram has returned.” He answered, “Once I take you to my garden I will return to fetch Dil Aaram as well.”

The princess accompanied him to the garden and saw a luxuriant expanse. Trees stood laden with flowers and a redolent breeze blew over the flowerbeds. The princess sat down in the summerhouse on a jewel-encrusted chair and asked, “Where is Asad? Please send for him.”

Zulmat answered, “O Mahjabeen, you must never utter Asad’s name again. Know now that I am besotted with you and have brought you here by deceit. If you agree now to lie with me, your life will be spared. You will find a safe haven with me and when Asad is killed and Emperor Afrasiyab’s anger has subsided, you may return to your home.”

Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe was terrified by these words and said, “O Zulmat, understand well that if you dishonor me I shall immediately swallow the ruby of my ring and kill myself.” Zulmat began importuning her and laid his head at the princess’s feet. When the princess did not soften, he reverted to intimidation and threats. The princess solicited the court of heavens, saying, “O Creator of Both Worlds and the Defender of the Oppressed, save my honor from this tyrant’s hands!”

God so willed that the second sorcerer, named Dukhan the Steam, sent by Afrasiyab with Zulmat to arrest Mahjabeen, arrived thereupon. The princess’s voice led him to the garden and when he saw Zulmat harassing her, he rebuked him, saying, “O shameless cur, what are you doing?”

Seeing Dukhan there, Zulmat realized that his secret had been exposed. He knew that Dukhan would make his report to Afrasiyab, who would punish him for his devious act. Deciding that he must kill the intruder and ravish the princess afterwards by force, Zulmat recited an incantation on a steel magic ball and hurled it at Dukhan. The ball exploded in smoke, which enveloped the whole garden in darkness.

Dukhan pulled a waterskin from his sack, poured out some water and recited a spell over it before throwing it upwards into the darkness. That darkness condensed into smoke and gathered in one corner of the garden. Dukhan splashed water on Zulmat and its drops turned into fire sparks, setting fire to Zulmat’s body. Engulfed in flames, he burned to a cinder. The garden boomed with horrible sounds and great pandemonium broke out. The calamity was dispelled after some time and a voice proclaimed, “I WAS KILLED. ZULMAT PITCH-FACE WAS MY NAME.”

After killing Zulmat, Dukhan approached the princess. He found her very presence lit up with the flame of her beauty. Infatuated with the princess’s charm, Dukhan, too, fell prey to evil temptation and humbly said to her, “O Princess of beauties, if you agree to lie with me, my head will forever remain bowed in obedience to your pleasure. I will intercede with the emperor and have your offence forgiven. I am, after all, one of the emperor’s confidants, not some ordinary sorcerer.”

When the princess heard the wretch speak these words she said, “O Dukhan, you remind me of the man who rescued a lamb from the wolf only to slaughter and eat it himself. Drive any idle thoughts from your mind. If you try to molest me I will kill myself.”

Dukhan realized that the princess was enamored of Prince Asad and would not grant his wish. He recited a spell that made Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe fall in love with him.

Immediately Princess Mahjabeen declared, “I have no objection to what you propose.”

The sorcerer realized that he must leave the house where he had entered and murdered the owner. If one of Zulmat’s heirs or Afrasiyab’s officials arrived, it would cause him endless trouble. He would lose the princess as well as his life. Dukhan walked out of the garden. The princess, caught in his spell, followed him. They left the garden and headed for Dukhan’s house in the wilderness.

In the meanwhile, Prince Asad returned after hunting the deer and did not find the princess where he had left her. He went in search of her and saw Dukhan with the princess, who followed the sorcerer at a quick pace, as if spellbound.

Prince Asad shot an arrow at Dukhan, which took him unawares. The arrow pierced the sorcerer’s chest and broke his back. Dukhan rolled down dead. A great din and clamour arose. Asad approached the princess, who had returned to her senses upon the sorcerer’s death. With tears coursing from her eyes, she embraced Asad and told him all that had happened.

Asad took the princess to a mountain pass, untied his mantle and spread it on the ground. He gathered wood from the wilderness floor and lit a bonfire by striking his sword against a stone. He roasted and ate the deer with the princess, fetched water from the nearby spring, which they drank, and offered thanks to God.

They had hardly settled down when a lightning bolt flashed, a blast of thunder sounded, and the third sorcerer whom Afrasiyab had dispatched, the pitch-faced and black-hearted Shola the Blaze arrived. He challenged Asad and Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe with the cry, “I am Shola the Blaze. Now you have no means of escape!” Prince Asad grabbed the hilt of his sword and rushed forward to answer the challenge.

Shola read an incantation and struck his hands together and Asad sank waist deep into the ground. In the meanwhile, Dil Aaram returned from her search for Prince Asad. Witnessing the sorcerer, she hurled a brass-plated magic coconut at the sorcerer. Shola the Blaze uttered an incantation that counteracted Dil Aaram’s magic. He turned into a flame that wrapped itself around Asad, Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Dil Aaram, and flew away with them.

But on the way to Afrasiyab’s court, it occurred to Shola the Blaze that an aider of Asad or Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe might intercept him and snatch away his prisoners. He decided it would be best to kill them instantly and take their heads to Afrasiyab to receive land and riches in reward. With that in mind, he descended and prepared to execute his plan.

Princess Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe cried out, “O shameless tyrant, first behead me so that I am saved the sight of my lover lying covered in blood and dust.”

As Shola stepped forward to behead the princess, Prince Asad called out to him, “O eunuch, kill me first. No man must see his woman killed before his eyes and be breathing still.”

As Shola now turned back toward the prince, Dil Aaram cried out, “O founder of tyranny, how is it possible that a slave should live while his masters are murdered? Put an end to my life before you kill either of them!”

Confused by their protestations, Shola wondered whom to kill first. In the meanwhile, Asad turned his heart to thoughts of God and, with great fervor, importuned the Aider of the Weak, praying, “O my Lord, save us from the evil of this despot and cause this infidel to be dispatched to hell.”

No sooner had the prince finished praying than the fathomless sea of God’s mercy began to swell and surge and the hand of fate sent a demon against that tyrant.

It so happened that Amir Hamza’s wife and the empress of Mount Qaf, Aasman Peri, had dispatched a demon to bring her the news of Amir Hamza’s welfare, as was her custom. The demon was headed toward Amir Hamza’s camp when his ear was attracted by grief-stricken voices rising from the ground. Looking down, he recognized Asad and regarded a sorcerer on the verge of killing the prince.

The demon immediately caught Shola the Blaze in his grasp. Twisting and breaking Shola’s body and limbs, he made a morsel of the sorcerer and swallowed him whole. But the moment he ate the sorcerer, the demon felt his breath being driven out of him. He began running around in panic and wondered what had he eaten that created such tumult in his belly. He found peace only when the clamour rising after Shola’s death had subsided.

Prince Asad was released from captivity. The demon saluted him and inquired about his welfare. When Asad asked who he was, the demon replied, “Your grandmother Aasman Peri dispatched me to inquire about Amir Hamza’s welfare. I am now headed to his camp.” Asad said to him, “Pay my respects to grandfather Hamza and also convey my regards to all the commanders of the camp.” Asad then gave the demon an account of all that had passed with him and asked him to report it to Amir Hamza as well.

Prince Asad then said, “You did wrong in killing that sorcerer. Had we desired, we could have set the demons of Qaf to eliminate the entire nation of sorcerers. But it is against the code of chivalry to set demons against men. What humans can achieve with their power must not be delegated to other creatures. It is cowardice to seek the help of jinns and demons in the battlefield. If God had willed me to live, he would have created some other cause to save my life. If the sorcerers have recourse to magic, we have recourse to tricksters who can kill by deceit. It is justified to pay out the wages of sorcery in the coin of deception since warfare is based on subterfuge, and neither God nor his prophet prohibited using artifice on the battlefield. You may depart now, but never again commit such an error.”

The demon saluted the prince and flew away. Asad led princess and Dil Aaram into a mountain pass where they hid.

In the meanwhile, both Afrasiyab and Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye continued their search and dispatched sorcerers in every direction to find some trace of them.


Of the Entrance of Amar Ayyar into Hoshruba Along with his Four Notorious Tricksters, Of their Killing Sorcerers and Finding Prince Asad and Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, And of their Meeting with Mahrukh Magic-Eye

Those who are steeped in speech untainted by deception and ruse and create enticing discourses and conquer the secret tilisms with their magical narration and miraculous solutions, wager their heads without forethought in this manner in its treacherous paths. The matchless Amar Ayyar of brilliant tricks and marvellous devices and his four tricksters headed for Hoshruba from different directions. They entered it at different points and took separate paths through the wilderness to cross the tilism’s frontiers. But they kept abreast of each other’s situation. Disguised as sorcerers, they travelled its lands and saw lush forests, the River of Flowing Blood, mountaintops, and many other marvels of the tilism. They saw magicians’ houses everywhere. The sorcerers manning check posts played with their magic and caused showers of fire and stones to fall around. The tricksters witnessed these wonders and spectacles and kept moving onwards.


Sorcerer Muqarnas Silver-Body

Amar Ayyar arrived in a forest made of silver where, for miles on end, silver grew instead of grass. Amar said to himself, I wish I could stuff this whole forest into my zambil. Alas, I cannot. There is nothing I can do about it, and no way for me to uproot this whole jungle. Then it occurred to Amar to cut all the grass he could and carry it away in his zambil. He took out a scythe from the zambil and started cutting grass hurriedly. He kept looking around lest someone should catch him in the act.

After he had gathered a little grass, someone called out, “Here, O cunning thief! I was lying in wait for you and now I have caught you!” Saying to himself, What an accursed fate is mine! Amar looked up to see who addressed him. Coming toward him shouting curses, he saw Muqarnas Silver-Body, a sorcerer whose body and hair were made of silver. Black snakes coiled around his head and he carried a sorcerer’s contraptions.

Amar Ayyar ran at the sight of the sorcerer but Muqarnas recited a spell and struck his hands together. Amar’s feet suddenly became stuck to the ground and he was unable to move a single step. Muqarnas approached with a drawn sword and asked Amar, “Are you the trickster Amar whom Emperor Afrasiyab seeks? I had created this silver forest by magic to entrap you. Now that I have found you I will present your head at Afrasiyab’s court and receive my reward.” Amar answered, “I am only a poor, unfortunate grass-cutter, not the Amar you seek.” Muqarnas answered, “It’s futile to use your cunning on me. I know the truth about you. Emperor Afrasiyab forewarned me.”

While they were having this conversation, Qiran the Ethiope witnessed the whole scene from a lookout point and thought of a trick. Muqarnas was about to behead Amar when he heard someone call out, “Wait a moment, my brother!” Muqarnas turned and saw a sorcerer coming toward him wearing hoops in his ears, snakes around his neck, and wielding a trident. Muqarnas waited for him to approach. When the sorcerer came near, he said to Muqarnas, “Do not kill this thief until he has revealed where he hid my property. He took all my possessions and stole one of my two inestimable pearls.”

Qiran, who was disguised as the sorcerer, showed Muqarnas a pearl the size of an egg. Muqarnas immediately took a fancy to it and said, “O brother, you have a unique treasure here. Let me have a good look at it. And do tell me where you found it.” The false sorcerer answered, “I live on Mount Pearl where these pearls grow from the ground by the miracle of Lord Sameri. I selected two pearls from among them. I carry this with me now and the other this thief took.” The sorcerer then handed the pearl to Muqarnas, who inspected it well from all angles and praised it a great deal. The false sorcerer said, “My brother, you must blow on it in order to witness its true radiance and see how it glows and shines.”

Muqarnas Silver-Body brought that egg close to his mouth and blew a warm breath onto it. Immediately the pearl opened and smoke shot out in puffs. It travelled into Muqarnas’s head by way of his open mouth and nose. Muqarnas swooned and fell to the ground. The false sorcerer, who had given him the pearl, shouted the war cry,

“I am swift as the gale of spring

The consummate master of dagger-throwing

A fire-breathing dragon in the battlefield

A ferocious lion, Qiran the Ethiope of name,”

and struck Muqarnas with his cleaver, smashing his skull.

A great commotion took place. The whole forest was wiped out of existence and a landscape of horrible desolation materialized in its place. Amar Ayyar found himself released from captivity. He embraced Qiran and praised his trickery. Qiran said, “What you saw is only the result of your training. Now tell me what you propose to do and where you plan to head.” Amar answered, “We will be well-advised to travel separately. Go your way while I go mine. May God protect you.”

Qiran saluted Amar Ayyar and left.


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