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 warriors of the battleground of rhetoric…]
Of Afrasiyab Sending Three Sorcerers with an Army of Sixty Thousand Against Mahrukh and Amar Ayyar; Of the Tricksters Going into Action Against Sorcerers; And of the Fierce Battle Between the Two Camps
The warriors of the battleground of rhetoric, valiant lords of the expanse of speech, the bearers of victorious standards of the chroniclers’ armies, and the ensign-bearers of the narrators’ triumphant forces, thus spur the fleet-footed steed of tongue in the arena of speech, and in this manner show the eloquent essence of their discourse in the domain of narrative.
When Afrasiyab and Heyrat realized that the beautiful heart of Mahrukh Magic-Eye of excellent speech, which once shone like the sun, was now clouded and misted with grief and vexation, they were left with no recourse but to declare war against her.
Sorcerers Jamosh, Shahbaz, and Kohan
Empress Heyrat decided to march against Mahrukh Magic-Eye herself but Afrasiyab intervened and said, “As long as a single slave remains, it is beneath the dignity of the empress and the wife of the Master of the Tilism to march against a worthless subject.”
Afrasiyab recited a spell and struck his hands together. Suddenly, clouds rose from every direction and covered the sky. Thousands of golden, colorful lightning bolts flashed. The clouds showered sparks and rained stones. Then the canopy of clouds parted and revealed three hideous, ungainly and evil sorcerers named Jamosh, Shahbaz and Kohan sitting upon three thrones, which descended from the sky.
They curtsied before Afrasiyab, kissed the leg of his throne and asked, “Why has the emperor summoned his slaves?” Afrasiyab informed them of Prince Asad and the feud with Mahrukh Magic-Eye and said, “You should march together against the rebels with a force of sixty thousand sorcerers and bring them to me as prisoners.”
The sorcerers departed for their camps and summoned their commanders. They informed them of Afrasiyab’s orders and the drums of departure were beaten and tents and pavilions loaded onto magic dragons. Sorcerers mounted magic beasts and flew away displaying magic works. They crossed the River of Flowing Blood and arrived near Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp.
Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Prince Asad were holding court when they heard a thunderous noise outdoors. Mahrukh Magic-Eye said to Amar Ayyar, “The enemy forces are approaching.”
The moment the tricksters heard these words, they left the court and scurried into the wilderness.
Presently, the conveyances of the sorcerers came into view. Mahrukh Magic-Eye and the sorcerers in her court recited counterspells to forestall any harm from the rain of fire and stones that heralded the approach of sorcerers. The armies of the foe arrived with great show and ceremony and bivouacked opposite Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp.
The tents were raised, the pavilions set up, and the bazaars opened up. Sorcerer Jamosh and his companions held court, made magic birds and sent them to gather intelligence. Other sorcerers made oblations of lard into fires to work their spells.
Jamosh ordered that the drums of war be struck. His slaves rushed to carry out his commands. The trumpets were blown, the magic drums were beaten, and their report deafened even the ears of heavens. In short, everyone witnessed a commotion like the Day of Judgment.
The magic birds deputed by Mahrukh Magic-Eye returned to the court bearing news. After singing praises of Mahrukh with their humble tongues and visiting blessings on their mistress, they announced, “THE WAR DRUMS HAVE BEEN STRUCK AND EVERYONE IN THE ENEMY CAMP IS READY FOR BATTLE.” The magic birds then flew away to gather further intelligence.
Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe glanced at Prince Asad. The prince said to Mahrukh Magic-Eye, “In the name of God the Avenger, the trumpet and the drums of war should answer from our camp as well.”
The attendants rushed to carry out the command and sounded the call to war. Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Shakeel blew the magic trumpet, whose blast shook the Earth and echoed in the vault of the heavens. Everyone was put on notice of the impending battle and the brisk trade in death that would ensue the following day.
The day passed in these preparations and vigil squads from both camps started making their rounds. The braves checked and readied their arms and armor in anticipation of the slaughter and carnage of the battle. Sorcerers from both camps prepared their magic. Jamosh smeared the ground with swine blood and started beating a clapper-drum. He made steel magic balls, magic slaves of lentil flour, and recited spells on magic arrows made of twigs. He burned fragrant gum resin and offered blood sacrifices to invoke the magic spirits in his possession.
On her part, Mahrukh Magic-Eye lit lamps before idols, lighted a bonfire, made oblations of incense and seeds, and emptied wine bottles into the fire. She made a waxen magic effigy of a beautiful woman and adorned her with ornaments made of twigs. She threw her into the bonfire, recited a spell, and struck her hands together, saying, “Go now O magic effigy and return when it’s time.” The effigy melted in the fire and Mahrukh retired to her pavilion for rest.
Tricksters Burq and Zargham, who had left the court, now set out to work their trickeries.
Burq whitened his hair, eyebrows and eyelashes and made himself into an old woman. Dressed in wide-bottomed pants, wrapped in a mantle and carrying a box under one arm, he headed for Kohan’s pavilion. He progressed slowly with the help of a cane and kept shaking his head like a frail old woman.
Zargham tied a turban on his head, a cummerbund around his waist, and threw a folded woollen kerchief over his shoulder to disguise himself as an attendant. He started doing rounds of the encampment. By chance, one of Kohan’s servants arrived in the bazaar on an errand. The false attendant approached and greeted Kohan’s servant, who asked, “How are you my brother?” The false attendant replied, “I am well but I must have a word with you urgently or else a terrible misfortune will strike you.” Kohan’s servant felt frightened at these words. He thought the false attendant must be a noble’s servant who had heard some inauspicious news concerning him.
He asked, “Tell me, what is the matter my brother.” Insisting on the need for privacy, the false attendant led him by the hand to a deserted corner, then said, “There’s someone behind you.” As the man turned to look, the false attendant threw his snare rope, which tightened around the neck of Kohan’s servant so that he could not make a sound. Zargham drugged him and, making himself into his likeness and putting on his dress, entered the tent where Kohan’s servants were lodged. He waited for his orders to learn the duties of the person he pretended to be. As he sat engrossed in these thoughts, someone said to him, “O cupbearer, make the wine service ready. His lordship may send for the wine now.” Zargham realized that he was supposed to be Kohan’s cupbearer and immediately got busy arranging the wine bottles.
In the meanwhile, Burq arrived outside Kohan’s pavilion in the old woman’s disguise and started crying loudly for help and redress. Kohan came out of his pavilion and asked, “Who are you and why do you cry?” She replied, “My son, I don’t know where to begin the tale of my misfortunes. I live in a nearby town but since their arrival Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s armies have robbed me of my possessions. I have come to seek redress since the hand of fate struck me so unjustly.” Kohan said to her, “Come and rest in my pavilion. In the morning I will slay all the rebels and you will receive twofold all your lost goods.”
Blessing Kohan with every breath, she accompanied him to his pavilion. Seeing a box under her arm, Kohan asked, “What is in that box?” She replied, “I have nothing to hide from you, but it would be best if you opened it in private.” Kohan dismissed all his attendants and servants from the pavilion. She handed him the box, saying, “Here, look for yourself. You’ll soon learn what’s inside.” As Kohan lifted the lid, a puff of drug powder hit his face. He sneezed and fell unconscious. Burq threw off his disguise, drew his dagger and bore down to slit his throat.
But Kohan had deputed a magic slave girl of clay in a corner of the pavilion to guard him in times of peril. The moment Burq sat on Kohan’s chest, the magic slave girl ran and caught the trickster, threw him on the floor and tied him up. Then she sprinkled water on Kohan’s face to bring him to consciousness and said, “IT WAS NOT AN OLD WOMAN BUT A TRICKSTER WHO NEARLY KILLED YOU.” Kohan said to Burq, “O wretch, I almost died at your hands. Let me capture your aiders and abettors in the morning. Then I will behead the whole lot of you together.”
Kohan tied Burq to a column and said to his attendant, “Ask the cupbearer to bring the wine service. I’ll have a cup or two of wine before going to bed. Tomorrow I have to face combat.” The attendant alerted the false cupbearer, trickster Zargham, to produce the wine service. He brought the bottles of drugged wine and cups and offered them to Kohan, who drank and immediately fell unconscious. When Zargham attempted to kill Kohan, the same magic slave girl again ran out from the corner and caught him too, and took him captive. Then she sprinkled water on Kohan and said, “HE IS ANOTHER TRICKSTER WHO ATTEMPTED TO KILL YOU.” Kohan tied Zargham as well to a column.
Meanwhile, signs of dawn manifested themselves and the arrival of Emperor Sun was proclaimed in the golden court of the heavens.
Kohan rode out with his army of sorcerers at dawn. Sorcerers Jamosh and Shahbaz also prepared for battle and their armies entered the battlefield with great splendor and fanfare. Counting on the aid of the Majestic Lord, Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Shakeel led out their army of forty thousand sorcerers and new recruits.
Prince Asad rose from his sleep, made ablutions, and prostrated himself in prayers to God. Then he presented himself fully dressed and armed at the door of Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe. The drums and trumpets announced her arrival and the female throne bearers brought out Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s throne. The macebearers and attendants led the way calling out, “Show deference! Clear the path!” All the commanders offered her salutes. The palms imprinted on the banners fluttered in the wind as if offering salutes to the sovereign. Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s army encircled her throne. Dil Aaram rode beside her on a magic peacock and, with great ceremony and magnificence, they entered the arena.
Sorcerers from both camps readied the battlefield. One recited a spell that invoked thunderbolts to strike and burn the bushes and trees littering the arena. Another brought about rain clouds and showers to rid the arena of all dust and dirt. Finally, the battlefield was all clean and clear and arrays were formed. Sorcerers tossed magic citrons and magic limes in the air and flashed brass salvers. The slogans, “Long Live Sameri!” and “Long Live Jamshed!”and the terrible drone of the magic spirits filled the air.
The left and right flanks of the armies were organized and ranks were established. Criers from both camps marched out and shouted, “Today, neither Sameri nor Jamshed nor Zardhasht remain. After performing their magical miracles they have hidden themselves and now drink at the Inn of the Hereafter. O illustrious sorcerers, today is the day of battle. It is now your chance to wager your lives for everlasting renown.”
As the criers made their proclamations and retired, the valiant warriors became intoxicated on the heady wine of courage and the surge of valor. Sorcerer Shahbaz flew into the arena on his magic dragon, showed a display of his magic, and called out, “O ingrate Mahrukh Magic-Eye, come forward and face me!”
As Mahrukh Magic-Eye flew her throne forward, every soldier in her army solicited victory from the heavens. When Mahrukh faced Shahbaz, he fired a magic arrow at her. She recited a counterspell and struck her hands together, turning the arrow in mid flight toward Shahbaz. Next he recited a spell over a steel magic ball and threw it at her. Seeing it approach, Mahrukh Magic-Eye read an incantation and flew away from her throne.
Even as Shahbaz’s magic ball hit the throne and shattered it to pieces, Mahrukh Magic-Eye fell from the heavens in the shape of a sword and cleft Shahbaz in two, along with his dragon.
Stones and fire rained from the skies and a horrible boom was heard announcing the death of sorcerer Shahbaz. His slaves charged upon Mahrukh. The enemy sorcerers threw cotton seeds and white and black mustard seeds into burning braziers, tore off their chilli necklaces and flung them at Mahrukh. The necklaces turned into dragons and advanced upon Mahrukh Magic-Eye.
Mahrukh’s son Shakeel signalled to his magicians, who recited incantations and clapped their hands. A quake shook the Earth and the sky became overcast. Thunderbolts and rain fell. The soldiers in the enemy camp fell unconscious whenever a drop fell on their heads.
Witnessing this, sorcerer Jamosh entered the arena. He cut out the shape of the sun from paper and, placing it on his palm, recited a spell. The paper sun flew shining to the skies and spread its light. The magic clouds that had filled the sky parted and soldiers in Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s army turned to stone when the light of the magic sun fell on them.
Wielding their tridents, Kohan and Jamosh now attacked Mahrukh’s army and killed thousands of sorcerers. Both sides hurled magic citrons, magic limes and coconuts at each other.
Prince Asad could not hold himself back any longer. He said to Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, “I must also draw my sword now.” She feigned to encourage him, saying, “Very well!” But as soon as Prince Asad took the reins of his steed and charged, Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe said to Dil Aaram, “The prince does not know sorcery. He will fight uselessly and be taken prisoner.”
The prince’s steed had not yet reached the enemy ranks when Dil Aaram struck her hands together. Prince Asad’s horse grew wings and took flight. He tried to control it and used the whip but the horse only stopped once it was high in the air, suspended between the Earth and the sky. Prince Asad bit the back of his hand in frustration as he helplessly watched the battle underway on the ground. Dil Aaram kept watch to make sure the prince remained safe from calamities and that no sorcerer took him captive.
While Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp was in this state of commotion, the sorcerer Jamosh fought his way toward Mahrukh Magic-Eye and threw a cluster of needles at her after reciting a spell. Mahrukh Magic-Eye dove into the ground and, breaking the surface of the earth, emerged at Jamosh’s back. She shouted her war cry and shot an arrow, which flew through Jamosh’s back and he fell dead to the ground.
Thousands of frightful noises rose. The sun made by his magic turned to paper and floated down to the ground. Its light dimmed and extinguished and the sorcerers of Mahrukh Magic-Eye, who had turned to stone, returned to life and started fighting.
When Kohan saw events take this turn, he immediately slashed his thigh open. He drew his own blood and sprinkled it on a fistful of gravel. Then he recited a spell and threw it in four directions. Suddenly a dark whirlwind engulfed them and everyone closed their eyes. When they opened them a moment later, they saw huge mountains ready to fall on Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s army. Seeing this sight, Shakeel’s army hastily retreated.
At that moment, Mahrukh Magic-Eye recited an incantation, struck her hands together, and called out to the waxen magic effigy she had made and cast into the fire, “O magic effigy, it is time!”
Immediately upon her call, a lightning bolt flashed and the jingling of ankle bells was heard. A beautiful woman covered with ornaments, sporting a fine costume and riding a flying throne came into view. To compare her exceeding beauty even to a houri’s would have been an insult to reason. The spring of her youthfulness and her swelling bosom were a sight to behold.
She took up position on the battlefield and when Kohan came fighting toward her, that moon-like beauty called out to him, “O KOHAN, I CAME HERE FOR YOUR SAKE BUT YOU NEITHER ADDRESS ME NOR SHOW ME THE LEAST ATTENTION. NOW I WILL LEAVE.” When Kohan heard these words and beheld the glowing aspect of that fairy-like creature, he was wounded by the dagger of her charm. As he approached her, she asked, “TELL ME WHAT ARE YOUR INTENTIONS?” He answered, “I am in love and besotted with you. Both my heart and soul are smitten to their very cores and possessed with thoughts of you.” The fairy-like creature answered, “IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO HAVE ME.” As she spoke these words she fanned Jamosh with her jewel-enchased hand fan. Feeling its wafts of air, Jamosh started reciting love couplets. As the beauty moved away on her flying throne Kohan called out to her, “Don’t leave me in this state between life and death.”
When she returned at Kohan’s importuning and solicitations, he put his head at her feet. In her presence he became completely unmindful of himself and forgot he was on a battlefield. The magic effigy said, “WHAT KIND OF LOVE DO YOU PROFESS TOWARD ME WHEN YOU FIGHT PRINCESS MAHRUKH MAGIC-EYE, FOR WHOM I AM A HUMBLE SLAVE? CALL BACK YOUR SOLDIERS AND DISPEL YOUR MAGIC.” Kohan recited a spell and the very mountains he had raised with his magic became gravel and fell down. Kohan also ordered his army to stop combat. When they stopped, they too became engrossed in the beautiful vision of the magic effigy and lost power over their senses and reason.
Kohan solicited the magic effigy to grant him the nectar of her love.
She replied, “I HAVE HEARD THAT YOU HAVE CAPTURED THE TRICKSTERS. SEND FOR THEM.”
Kohan immediately produced the tricksters before her.
Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye conferred robes of honor and gold upon them. Zargham and Burq were set free and returned to their camp. After giving the news of their well-being to their commanders, they again disappeared into the wilderness.
After the tricksters were freed the magic effigy said, “O KOHAN, IF YOU ARE INDEED A TRUE LOVER, SEVER YOUR HEAD WITH YOUR OWN HANDS.”
Kohan drew his dagger and placed it on his neck, reciting,
“It is a great honor for me that my head
Should fall at my beloved’s feet.”
As he prepared to sever his neck, the magic effigy stayed his hand and said, “IF YOU WERE TO KILL YOURSELF, WHO WOULD ENJOY THE SPLENDOROUS SPRING OF MY BEAUTY? I SHALL FULFILL YOUR DESIRES ON CONDITION THAT YOU MAKE PRINCESS MAHRUKH THE OFFERING OF HEYRAT’S HEAD. ONLY THEN MAY YOU DRINK THE SHERBET OF OUR UNION.”
After Kohan made the pledge, the magic effigy said to his army, “O MY STEELY RESOLVED LOVERS, DRAG THAT STRUMPET HEYRAT BY HER HAIR BEFORE ME, OR ELSE BRING ME HER HEAD.” At these words, Kohan and his entire army tore off their collars in their amorous passion. Leaving their tents and equipage behind, they headed toward the region of Batin making cries of, “Catch that strumpet Heyrat! Don’t let her escape!”
They crossed over the River of Flowing Blood and arrived near the Apple Garden where thousand of sorcerers in Afrasiyab’s service were deputed. When they challenged Kohan and his army, Kohan’s men attacked and started slaughter and carnage. Bodies fell down in piles and a great commotion arose.
Hearing the noise, Afrasiyab and Heyrat stepped outside the Apple Garden and beheld Kohan heading toward them, fighting like a man possessed. When Afrasiyab consulted the Book of Sameri it revealed that Mahrukh Magic-Eye had made a waxen magic effigy and the army of sorcerers were under a spell that could not be broken.
Reckoning the situation, Afrasiyab recited a spell on a steel magic ball and hurled it at Kohan’s breast. It shattered his spinal column and shot out of his back. Afrasiyab rained thousands upon thousands of thunderbolts on Kohan’s army and all of them burned to death as well.
As the sorcerers died, the magic effigy that had enchanted them also burned away. Witnessing that, Mahrukh Magic-Eye said to her companions, “It seems that Afrasiyab killed Kohan and his companions. Since I created the magic effigy to enchant them, when they died, she too burned up.”
The drums of victory were beaten and the camp of the enemy was plundered. Mahrukh’s army moved forward and bivouacked where Kohan’s pavilion once stood. The camp of Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe was set up many miles ahead of its previous site.
Prince Asad was brought down from the sky and joined the court. All the commanders adorned their stations and thrones and a dance recital began. The cupbearers circulated goblets of wine. Prince Asad asked Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye, “Why did my horse fly away with me?” She answered, “O venerable prince, you do not know magic. Out of consideration for your safety, Dil Aaram recited a spell and made your horse fly away lest some sorcerer should harm you.” Prince Asad retorted, “Do you take me for a coward? I swear upon my honor that if anyone attempts such a thing in the future he will answer with his life. Know O Princess, that regardless of the circumstances, we are always in the forefront in combat. To run to save our lives on the day of battle is a thing of great shame for us.” Mahrukh Magic-Eye replied, “Very well. Your wishes will be respected.” All of them then occupied themselves with carousing and pleasure-seeking.
Of the tricksters who had retired into the wilderness, four returned to the encampment, but Qiran the Ethiope did not join them.