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.
[The magic slave reported Mahtab Moon-Maker’s death to Afrasiyab…]
Sorcerer Azar of the Portrait Tablet
The magic slave reported Mahtab Moon-Maker’s death to Afrasiyab and the news of Amar Ayyar catching him in the net. The emperor was seized with rage and fury.
As he prepared to capture Amar himself, his courtiers humbly said, “O Emperor of Hoshruba, it does not become your dignity to go to capture one of Hamza’s tricksters. Among your slaves are many who are capable of bringing even Hamza captive. A common trickster like Amar Ayyar is of absolutely no consequence. You are the Master of the Tilism. To arrest Amar you should dispatch one of your servants after teaching him magic that helps him recognize the tricksters no matter what disguise they put on.”
Afrasiyab realized they offered wise counsel.
The Emperor of Hoshruba now cast a fiery look toward a flowerbed in the garden that started to burn from the heat of his gaze. Afrasiyab himself became a flame and disappeared inside that blazing flowerbed. A moment later he emerged carrying a gemstone tablet in his hands, painted with the portrait of a beautiful maiden.
Afrasiyab struck his hands together and the earth cleft asunder to disgorge a sorcerer of hideous aspect and form, who was named Azar.
Afrasiyab handed the tablet to him and said, “O Azar, go and bring me Amar Ayyar prisoner. He lurks in the Flashing Wilderness after killing Mahtab Moon-Maker. I give you this tablet to help you recognize him. You must look at it whenever you come upon anyone along the way. Although it currently displays the portrait of a woman, if a trickster appears before you the picture will change to the true face of that trickster. You will be able to recognize him in any disguise. If the person is not a trickster, the portrait will remain unchanged.”
Azar left and began searching for Amar in the Flashing Wilderness.
In the wilderness, Amar Ayyar was saying to himself, O Amar, who knows what fate holds in store in this adventure. It is an enchanted land, hundreds of thousands of sorcerers abound in this tilism,and it is impossible to kill all of them. Who knows where the tablet of tilism is hidden, or what passed with Prince Asad. God alone knows whether he is still alive or dead!
Amar sat engrossed in these thoughts when he sighted a sorcerer searching for someone in all directions. Amar said to himself, I must kill this wretch so that the number of sorcerers is reduced at least by one. Amar put on a sorcerer’s disguise himself and approached the sorcerer who was none other than Azar.
Azar saw a sorcerer of terrifying aspect coming toward him spewing flames from his mouth, nose and ears.
Azar accosted him and said, “Who are you?” The false sorcerer answered, “You must give me your name first.” Azar introduced himself and described his search for Amar Ayyar. The false sorcerer said to him, “I am on the same mission. I have been searching for Amar since I heard of my relative Mahtab Moon-Maker’s death.” Azar said, “Let us then search for Amar together.”
The false sorcerer readily accompanied Azar and remained on the lookout for an opportunity to overpower and kill him.
Azar suddenly remembered that the emperor had instructed him to look at the tablet with the portrait whenever he met someone on the way. When Azar looked at the portrait, it had changed into Amar’s real face – someone with a head like a dried gourd, eyes the size of cumin seeds, ears like apricots, cheeks resembling bread cake, a neck that was thread-like, and limbs akin to rope. His lower body measured six yards and upper body three. Azar’s senses took flight when this marvellous vision unfolded before his eyes. He realized that in the sorcerer’s disguise was a trickster whose real shape and form were depicted in the portrait.
Azar recited a spell by which Amar lost the use of his limbs. Azar produced a chain from his sorcerer’s bag and tied Amar with it. When Amar protested, saying, “Why do you torment me in this manner, brother?” Azar replied, “O wily man, don’t try your tricks on me. You are the one known as Amar Ayyar, and I know that for a fact.”
Enraged, Amar said, “I would not bet on your living too long. You’ll be dispatched hellward in no time. One hundred and eighty-four thousand tricksters have entered the tilism and soon one of them will put an end to your life.” Azar replied, “I will kill all of them and not be frightened by your words.” Then Azar led Amar away.
Zargham saw from far away that a sorcerer had taken Amar prisoner. He tried to find some way of securing his release. He overtook Azar by two miles, where he saw a cowherd grazing his animals. Zargham went before the cowherd in the disguise of a local man and said to him, “A wolf is creeping up on one of your cows in the bushes.” As the cowherd turned and ran toward the bushes, Zargham threw his snare rope and tightened it around the cowherd’s neck so that he could not make the slightest noise. Zargham then pulled him down to the ground and drugged him unconscious.
Zargham disguised himself as the cowherd by putting on his garb, tying the kerchief on his head and wearing a waistcloth and doublet. After hiding the real cowherd in the bushes, he began grazing the herd.
Presently, Azar arrived, leading Amar. Because it was sunny and he had travelled a long distance, he said to the false cowherd, “If you have a rope and a bowl, fetch me some drinking water from a well.” The false cowherd answered, “You have come from far it seems. If you wish I can bring you some fresh milk. You may drink that instead of water.” Azar replied, “Very well, bring it!” The false cowherd whistled to a cow and milked her in a brass pot, drugged the milk and handed it to the sorcerer.
Azar was about to drink the milk when he recalled that Mahtab Moon-Maker was killed by two tricksters. Suspecting that the cowherd might be one, Azar looked at the portrait. It depicted Zargham’s face.
After reciting a spell, Azar captured him, too. Zargham cried and protested, saying, “I am a cowherd, why do you torture me? Is this how you return a good deed?” Azar answered, “O crafty wretch, I recognize you all too well.” He chained Zargham to Amar and went forth.
Amar said to Azar, “Didn’t I tell you that thousands of tricksters have arrived in the tilism. Arresting the two of us will not save you. You will die soon. It would be best for you to submit your allegiance to us.” Azar thought, Indeed he speaks the truth. The tricksters are scattered all over the tilism. I wonder how I will reach the emperor’s court in the region of Batin. I must not speak to anyone on the way without first consulting the portrait.
After making this resolve, Azar continued on his way.
While the tricksters were dispersed in the tilism, they remained abreast of each other’s affairs by climbing up high points along the way and following each other’s movements. Burq had seen Azar leading away two tricksters as prisoners. He sat down in a mountain pass and, using tricksters’ paints and lotions, made himself into a beauty as radiant as the moon. He painted his hands and feet with lac dye53 and put rings on every digit of his hands. He dressed himself in a lahgam54 skirt and mantle, combed the hair over his temples and filled the parting with cinnabar. Lining his eyes with collyrium and sporting a tika55 on his forehead, Burq put on hoops and earrings, bangles and anklets, and wore toe-rings on every toe. The heart-ravishing false damsel then headed toward Azar in a wine seller’s disguise, stepping with a coy and flirtatious air, carrying a bottle of drugged wine in her hands.
Azar saw a woman striding alluringly toward him whose beauty was the envy of houris and fairies and whose very essence was fermented with playfulness and coquetry. She caused the hearts of the lovers to throb in step with her. Azar fell in love with her at first sight, and called out, “O wine seller, come here and pour me a little wine.” That false beauty lifted a corner of her veil, smiled and answered, “This wine is not for sale.”
Azar lost his senses and reason upon seeing her beautiful face. He approached her and said, “Where are you headed?” Her mouth opened like a flower bud in answer, and she said, “I go where I please. Who are you to ask me questions? Do you imagine yourself the city magistrate?” Azar caught her hand when he saw her answer with a coy smile, for he reckoned that she could be easily persuaded to satisfy his desire.
The false wine seller protested half-heartedly and then said, “Someone might surprise us here. While you have nothing to lose, I have to be mindful of my name and reputation.” Azar said to her, “Let us go and sit under a leafy tree and drink a cup or two of wine. Let us converse a little; afterwards you may go where you please. What is the hurry? It would give us the chance to make each other’s acquaintance. If you would accept my love, I will always remain obedient to you. Whatever I earn I will bring home to you.”
The false beauty broke into a peal of laughter. She said, “Go and make your acquaintance with your sisters! Do you think I have no husband? I don’t stop to make small talk with strangers met along the way.” Azar began imploring. He prostrated himself before her, declaring, “I am no stranger! I am a citizen of Hoshruba and the emperor’s servant.”
That false beauty replied, “No matter who you are, I am not one to be taken in by men’s words.” Azar realized now that she spoke like a coquette. He tied the chain with which he had imprisoned Amar and Zargham around his waist and carried the wine seller away in his arms despite her protests, and put her down under a tree.
Azar tied Amar and Zargham to the tree trunk, spread a sheet and, seating the false wine seller, said to her, “My soul violently longs for your love. Come sit beside me and bring cheer to my heavy heart.” That moon-like beauty heaved a cold sigh in answer, and recited,
“I have long imbibed of love’s pains and pleasures
You can only deceive the one new to this game.”
Azar took her in his arms and attempted to kiss her but she pushed his face away with her hand saying, “Enough of these lies and deceptions. Yours is a momentary infatuation, I know well. Unfaithfulness lies in the essence of men. Still, if you wish to be my lover, swear to me in the name of Lord Sameri that you will never speak to another woman.”
Azar immediately swore an oath. Then the false wine seller poured him a cup of wine. As he took the cup in his hands, Azar realized that he had not yet consulted the tablet given him by Afrasiyab. Before indulging in pleasure-seeking with the wine seller he decided to look at the tablet for the sake of caution. When he looked, the portrait revealed Burq’s face. Azar recited a spell and blew it on the wine seller, which made her makeup evaporate and Burq appear before him without disguise. Azar tied him up with the chain as well and said to himself, I have to contend with a string of tricksters who lay traps for me at every step!
Amar Ayyar said to him, “O son of a whore, think not that you will escape alive. You’ll be killed in the blink of an eye.”
Azar felt greatly frightened by Amar’s words but kept moving onward with his prisoners.
The trickster Jansoz sighted Azar from afar and followed him furtively. Azar arrived at a beautiful garden full of flowers that was lavishly constructed by some sorcerer in the middle of the wilderness. Azar entered the garden and, tired from his journey, rested by a flowerbed. Noticing that, Jansoz disguised himself as a gardener, stuck shears in his belt, filled the skirts of his robe with flowers and, carrying a mattock on his shoulder, entered the garden dragging a tree he had dug up in the forest.
Azar thought the gardener had returned with a tree he had gone to fetch from the forest. He approached the false gardener and asked, “Whose garden is this?” The false gardener replied, “It belongs to Princess Banafsha.” Azar thought she must be one of the thousands of sorceresses who inhabited Hoshruba and did not ask him any further questions.
The false gardener made a few bouquets and sprays of flowers and arranged them in a basket with fruits in the middle. He put it before Azar, who gave him some money and picked up a fruit. Before tasting it Azar remembered he must take a look at the portrait. When he did, it had turned into a portrait of Jansoz. Azar cried out, “O wretch, you thought you could trick me! I know you are a trickster.” Jansoz tried to escape but Azar arrested him by reciting a spell, and tied him up with the same chain.
Azar was now terrified of the tricksters and hurriedly left the garden. As he led his captives onwards, it occurred to him that he should lie in hiding and send a note to the emperor informing him that he had caught some tricksters but many more were still at large and on his track. He decided to ask the emperor to send some sorcerers who could produce the captive tricksters before him, since he himself could not fly with the prisoners tied to him. Thus decided, Azar headed onwards looking for some hiding place.
This time, Azar was sighted by Qiran the Ethiope, who saw a sorcerer leading away his master Amar Ayyar and three other tricksters as prisoners.
Qiran wondered why four tricksters, who had successively attempted to kill the sorcerer, had failed in their mission. His mind dove into the sea of trickery and presently emerged with a pearl of thought. He realized the sorcerer must possess a magic that revealed the identity of the person before him. Qiran tried to think of some ruse by which to kill Azar without going near him or letting him hear his voice.
The trickster’s mind now went to promenade in the garden of trickery and presently returned with the flower of ingenuity. He calculated the path through which Azar must pass, overtook him, and quickly cut wood from the wilderness to make four poles. He laid a roof of leaves on top and covered it with a creeper from the forest to give it the appearance of a fakir’s hut. Then, disguised as an Azad fakir56 wearing cord necklaces, Qiran put cotton plugs soaked in faint-repellent drugs into his nostrils. He placed a burning clay-brazier before him and burning logs around him. He tossed handfuls of drugs onto the fire. The smoke that rose filled the hut and its surroundings.
After some time, Azar arrived leading the prisoners and saw a hut beside which a holy basil plant grew. A fakir sat inside swaying in deep meditation, oblivious to the world. A deerskin lay spread beside him and a bowl for smoking hemp was placed in a corner. A fire burned in front of the fakir, with fire tongs stuck in a clay-brazier. To all appearances, he looked the perfect image of an ascetic.
Azar stepped forward and touched the false fakir’s feet with veneration. He humbly stood before him and requested, “Sir, bless me that I may reach Afrasiyab’s court safely for the tricksters are on my scent and are baying for my blood.” The false fakir turned a fiery look at Azar, who collapsed, frightened by his gaze.
After Azar had inhaled a sufficient quantity of smoke from the drug, the false fakir said to him, “O fool, know that I am also a trickster and lie in wait here to murder you.” Terrified, Azar tried to rise to his feet and apprehend the false fakir but the drug had worked its effect. No sooner did he rise than he fell down.
Qiran stood up and struck with his cleaver, shattering Azar’s head into a thousand pieces.
Hail and stones began falling, and terrifying cries filled the wilderness. After a pause, a voice proclaimed, “I WAS KILLED! AZAR WAS MY NAME.” A bird of brilliant plumage came out of his skull and flew away toward Afrasiyab’s court crying “ALAS! ALAS!”
Azar’s death brought release to Amar Ayyar and the three tricksters. Qiran saluted Amar Ayyar, who praised him. Amar and the other tricksters again returned to the wilderness and proceeded in different directions.
Amar headed onwards furtively. The shades of night had fallen. The Traveller of Heavens57 had retired to dwell in its Western Lodge. The Trekker of the Desert of Space58 joined the company of astral companions. The beasts of the wilderness retired to their dens and lairs, and the birds of the air returned to their tree perches.
Each trickster found shelter in the mountain passes; they took out bread from their bags and ate. They drank from the springs and offered thanks to the Nourisher of the World before going to sleep. Amar, however, remained hungry. He said to himself, I will not take out bread from my zambil. This is the great disadvantage of being in Hamza’s service! One has to eat from one’s own pocket. Now it is night and I cannot even go anywhere to find food. That accursed sorcerer Azar also kept me tied up the whole day. There’s nothing to do now but to exercise patience and sleep on an empty stomach. Amar Ayyar lay down to sleep on a rock but when he felt unbearably hungry, he picked fruit from the tree and ate. Then he reluctantly took some dry bread from his zambil, quelled his hunger, and finally went to sleep.
The bird that had come out of Azar’s skull arrived in the Apple Garden before Afrasiyab and cried out loudly, “O EMPEROR OF THE TILISM, AZAR HAS BEEN KILLED!” Afrasiyab shook with rage and bit his lips in anger. He ordered a sorcerer to go to the wilderness where Azar’s corpse lay and bury his body and bring back the tablet he had given Azar to recognize the tricksters. Afrasiyab instructed the sorcerer not to spend the night in the wilderness. His orders were to obtain the tablet, bury the corpse, and return as soon as he was finished.
Afterwards, Afrasiyab retired for leisure and pursuit of pleasure. The sorcerer carried out his mission in the wilderness, returned, and handed the tablet to Afrasiyab.
The night ended and the Sorcerer of the East,59 sporting the sack woven with golden rays, appeared on the doorstep of the miracle-working heavens. At the crack of dawn the notorious tricksters each bowed their heads before God and then carried on their way, alert and with lofty ambitions.
Sorcerers Rahdar and Faulad
Emperor Afrasiyab also awoke from his sweet dreams. He headed for the Apple Garden to give audience where the courtiers presented themselves. Dancers began entertaining the assembly and wine was drunk. When Afrasiyab’s mind had been warmed by the wine, he turned to two sorcerers, Rahdar and Faulad, and said to them, “Amar and four tricksters have entered the tilism and arrived at the River of Flowing Blood after killing sorcerers. Meanwhile, Mahrukh Magic-Eye is headed for Forest of Narcissi in search of Prince Asad and Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, who are hiding in a mountain pass. Do not concern yourself with the tricksters at present; proceed to where Asad is hiding as both Mahrukh Magic-Eye and the tricksters will arrive there in due time; you could capture all of them together.”
Afrasiyab gave them some soil and said, “This is from the graves of Sameri and Jamshed. Any sorcerer, no matter how powerful, will fall unconscious if you hurled some on him.” Rahdar and Faulad left on their mission after receiving the soil from Afrasiyab.
Now hear of what passed with the tricksters. Alert, quick of step, and racing with their shadows in the mountains and deserts of the tilism, each of them continued on their separate paths in search of Prince Asad.
Amar Ayyar, still hungry from the previous night, looked for some town or village where he could ply his tricks and have a meal at others’ expense. He had gone some distance when he saw a city’s precincts. Amar quickly bridged the distance and arrived near its walls. He saw the city walls were made of marble decorated with colorful patterns. The steel door of the entrance stayed open like the eyes of the lover seeking his beloved. But Amar saw no human being there, let alone a guard.
Amar found the shops in the city well stocked and piles of a variety of fine and select goods at every step. But no shopkeepers minded those goods. The shops of mercers and jewellers were open but devoid of any human presence. Tall buildings, pleasant squares and fine houses all lay empty with no one to inhabit them. Amar explored every corner of the city and arrived in a field where he saw a strong and secure castle whose walls reached to the vault of the heavens.
Amar found the door of the castle open with nobody to bar his way. He stepped inside and saw a royal court with seats and chairs laid around a jewel-encrusted throne. Four paper magic slave girls sat on four chairs beside the throne.
As Amar stepped forward, the magic slave girls said, “O WRETCH, YOU FOUND YOUR WAY HERE AS WELL!” Surprised to hear them speak, Amar reminded himself that he was in a tilism. He decided not to pay too much attention to these marvels and quickly left the place. After leaving the castle, Amar returned to the city market and picked up some goods from the empty shops. He was about to put them in his zambil when suddenly the earth cleft asunder and one of the four magic slave girls Amar had encountered in the castle emerged from the ground and caught hold of his hand. She cried, “O THIEF DESERVING OF BEHEADING, PUT BACK WHATEVER YOU HAVE STOLEN FROM THE SHOPS OR YOU WILL PAY DEARLY FOR IT.” Amar Ayyar quickly replaced everything. The magic slave girl released his hand and returned into the earth. Amar headed onwards but, with all these goods lying there free for the taking, he could not resist the temptation and again picked up some goods. Immediately, the ground opened up again and, realizing that the magic slave girl was about to emerge, Amar ran with his loot. He ran long and hard but when he finally stopped in an alley to rest, the ground cleft again and the magic slave girl emerged. She caught Amar’s hand and dragged him back to the scene of the crime.
Amar again had to put back all that he had taken. The magic slave girl disappeared and Amar headed onward, helplessly saying to himself, O miserable me! Between yesterday and today I have not earned even two cowries. What a wretched fate is mine!
Finding no other recourse left to him, Amar made his way back into the wilderness.
53. lac dye: a dye obtained from the lac insect.
54. lahgam: a kind of cloth.
55. tika: an ornament worn by women along the parting of their hair.
56. Azad fakir: a caste of fakirs distinguished by a mark from the top of the nose to the forehead.
57. Traveller of Heavens: an allusion to the sun.
58. Trekker of the Desert of Space: an allusion to the moon.
59. Sorcerer of the East: an allusion to the sun.