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.
[While Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp was thus occupied, Afrasiyab conferred with Heyrat…]
Sorcerer Bubran Lion-Rider
While Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp was thus occupied, Afrasiyab conferred with Heyrat, saying to her, “It was an evil hour when I was forced to kill my slaves and subjects by my own hand. An army of sixty thousand sorcerers and three renowned commanders died in the blink of an eye. The founders of the tilism spoke true when they wrote that a time would come when common slaves would confront the Emperor of the Tilism, and it would bode ill for him if he did not indulge them. Indeed, that time has come and we are living in that period. But certain it is, O Empress, that whether the tilism remains or is destroyed, and whether we live or die, I shall not allow this recalcitrant faction, these disloyal ingrates, to escape chastisement. Should one place on the head what must remain underfoot?”
Afrasiyab was making this speech when fire and water rained together from the sky. Realizing this signified the arrival of an eminent sorcerer, Afrasiyab ordered his high-ranking courtiers to go forth to welcome him. They departed and after some time the sound of drums and trumpets filled the expanse between the Earth and heavens.
A sorcerer riding a lion arrived at the gates of the Apple Garden leading an army of twelve thousand sorcerers. His face was cast in a horrible mien by magic and he wore a necklace of Sameri and Jamshed’s portraits. Leaving his army at the gate, he entered the garden and saluted Afrasiyab and Heyrat.
Heyrat recognized her nephew Bubran Lion-Rider. She embraced and blessed him and seated him next to her. Heyrat asked, “What has brought you to these parts, my dear?” Bubran Lion-Rider answered, “I have heard that some of my uncle’s servants have rebelled against him and are bent on sowing mischief. I have come to crush their heads. I ask you to send me on the campaign against them to deliver the punishment they deserve.” Heyrat answered, “My dear, your uncle has many commanders on hand to punish them. These rebels are wholly worthless; it is beneath your dignity to engage them in battle. They are still at large because of a few tricksters from Hamza’s camp who entered the tilism and killed sorcerers by deceit. Were it not for them, the rebels would have been destroyed a long time ago.”
Bubran insisted on marching against the rebels and vowed to kill the tricksters and the leaders of their camp. At long last he received permission from Afrasiyab and, with a large army of sorcerers to accompany him, he made ready to depart.
The region of Batin rang out with the news that Empress Heyrat’s nephew was marching against the rebels. Many an eminent sorcerer came to see Bubran Lion-Rider off on his campaign.
Heyrat said to Bubran, “You must camp near the River of Flowing Blood because Mahrukh Magic-Eye is camped a day’s journey from there and the City of Manycolors is also nearby.” Bubran submitted to these commands and ordered his army to march.
Heyrat said to Afrasiyab, “O Emperor, Your Lordship should take a seat in the Dome of Light from where you can see the entire tilism and witness the battle.”
Bubran Lion-Rider crossed the River of Flowing Blood with his army and arrived near the City of Manycolors. There he ordered his army to set up camp and they pitched their pavilions. Hearing the sounds and clatter, Mahrukh Magic-Eye dispatched magic birds to learn why the drums and timbals sounded. They flew toward Bubran Lion-Rider’s camp to gather news.
Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, Prince Asad and others were giving audience when the magic birds returned and announced, “THE ARMY OF THE CONCEITED ENEMY HAS CAMPED BY THE RIVERSIDE. IT SEEKS TO FORD THE RIVER OF LIFE AND REACH DEATH. ALL THE REST BODES WELL.”
Upon receiving this news, the tricksters left the court and disappeared into the wilderness.
Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye said, “Our army should also advance and move the camp forward.” The army marched, carrying the paraphernalia of war as ordered. Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s throne was brought forward with great ceremony by sorceresses who made a ring around it.
Before long, the two armies faced each other with only the battlefield separating them. Bubran avoided combat that day. He deputed a guard of twelve hundred sorcerers around his camp and put another hundred sorcerers around his own pavilion with orders that they must allow neither friend nor foe to enter because the tricksters struck and killed under disguise. After assuring him that his orders would be strictly adhered to, the guards took their positions at the entrance of his pavilion.
In the meanwhile, the day came to a close and the army of stars poured into the arena of the heavens. Armed with the dagger of its rays, the bright-faced moon began its vigil in the sky.
In the evening, the soldiers retired to take rest and sleep. Burq, who had retired into the wilderness with other tricksters, went into a mountain pass where he disguised himself as an ascetic. He tied on a knee-length waistcloth and smeared dust on his body. Adding extensions to his hair that reached down to his knees, he stuck false finger nails a hand span long to his fingers. He tied one arm as if it were withered and, holding a pitcher of drugged wine under the other, passed in front of Bubran Lion-Rider’s pavilion. Upon sighting the sorcerers on duty outside, he circumvented them. Considering him a venerable ascetic, the sorcerers made him a respectful bow but instead of answering, the false ascetic ran from them.
The sorcerers conferred and decided that he must be a holy man. They resolved to follow him and accost him if possible in order to query him about their future prospects. A large number of them got up and pursued the man. When the false ascetic noticed them following, he sat down and drew lines on the ground. As they approached, he again ran away and stopped only after he had put a long distance between them. Then he tossed a handful of dust toward the sky and started mumbling. When the sorcerers approached, the false ascetic escaped again. Once out of their reach, he started to whirl in a spot. The sorcerers stood watching him while he spun. The false ascetic then sprinted away and the sorcerers resumed the chase. The false ascetic brought them far away from their camp and, placing a pitcher of drugged wine on the ground, ran and hid in the bushes.
The sorcerers were convinced that the ascetic was an intimate friend of God and did not associate with worldly folks, and left the pitcher behind for them when they followed him. They said to each other, “Let us see what’s in it.” They saw the mouth of the pitcher covered by a bowl and, upon lifting it, found it full of wine. One sorcerer said, “Drinking the wine of an ascetic – who is surely an intimate friend of God – will bring benefits both in this world and the next.” Another said, “Surely if we imbibe it no disease would ever touch us.” Another added, “Not only would it ward off disease, it would even introduce longevity!” In short, all of them sat down and each drank a cup of wine.
Then they got up and headed to Bubran Lion-Rider’s pavilion, expressing regret at losing the holy man from sight. They had gone a little distance and breathed the cold forest air when the drug showed its effects. Their heads went down and legs went up. They fell on their faces and lost consciousness. Burq, who was hiding in the bushes in the ascetic’s disguise, came out with drawn dagger and began beheading them. He quickly relieved some fifty sorcerers of their heads.
A great pandemonium broke lose. Hail fell, lightning bolts flashed, stone slabs rained, and magic spirits screamed. The decapitated corpses of the sorcerers flew away toward Bubran Lion-Rider’s pavilion.
Bubran was drinking wine in his pavilion when the corpses arrived and he rushed out in panic. The sorcerers ran to the scene of carnage and saw whirlwinds rising and a great commotion afoot. They saw a man wielding a dagger beheading sorcerers lying unconscious.
In the meanwhile, Bubran also arrived on the scene. He recited a spell and clapped whereupon Burq’s feet stuck to the ground. After a moment, when the noise and din died out and the darkness parted, Bubran brought Burq as a prisoner into his pavilion and said to him, “O wretch, tell me truly who you are?”
Burq answered, “I am the Angel of Death of sorcerers and have come to kill you. Had I known that beheading these sorcerers would make such a racket and the corpses would fly away to your pavilion, I would have dug a hole and thrown them into it, burying them alive. Still, nothing is lost. I shall soon dispatch you to hell. Things do not remain the same forever. I was free a moment ago, am captive now, and shall be free again shortly. I will then kill you and return in safety to Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp.”
Bubran’s heart sank when he heard Burq’s speech. He praised the trickster’s courage and daring in his heart and realized that Heyrat had spoken the truth when she told him that the tricksters were the devil’s own mothers.
Bubran steeled his heart and replied, “Make all the threats you like, O Burq, but I will kill you in the morning all the same. I will not kill you right now in the hope that I might capture another trickster who attempts to secure your release.” Burq answered, “This is most excellent. The next trickster to arrive here will surely send you to hell.”
With Burq tied up and his feet stuck to the ground, Bubran put a magic cordon around the pavilion so that anyone entering it could not leave. He then went to bed.
Earlier, the commotion of Burq’s killing the sorcerers had attracted the ear of the trickster Qiran the Ethiope. He regarded the scene from far away. After Burq was arrested, Qiran disguised himself as a sorcerer and entered Bubran’s camp. He thought of entering Bubran’s pavilion but decided against it, thinking he would be unable to escape if there was a magic cordon around it. Qiran made his rounds around the camp in search of some way to attain his end but was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the dawn rent her collar in grief at Burq’s imprisonment and the Shining Executioner of the Heavens63 entered the execution chamber of the sky wielding the sharp sword of its rays. After rising from his sleep, Bubran drank a few cups of red wine and came out of his pavilion. He ordered the sorcerers to bring his conveyance and told them that upon his return from the morning excursion he would kill the insolent trickster captured the previous night. The sorcerers brought Bubran’s lion. He mounted it and rode out into the wilderness.
Seeing Bubran leave, Qiran also headed for the forest. He searched inside a lion’s den and found a beast. Since Qiran was the favored one of Caliph Ali, the Lion of God, he fearlessly went forth and challenged the lion. The lion struck but Qiran foiled his attack and, catching the beast’s paws with one hand, landed a powerful blow with the other. Overwhelmed, the lion sank to the ground.
From his trickster’s bag, Qiran took out a saddle and trappings similar to the ones he had seen on Bubran Lion-Rider’s mount and fitted the lion with them. Then he disguised himself as Bubran and rode the lion to the sorcerer’s pavilion. As Qiran approached, Bubran’s attendants presented themselves, taking him for their master. The false Bubran said to them, “Go into my pavilion, remove my magic and bring out the trickster so that I may kill him in full view of Mahrukh’s army. I will dismount only after settling this affair.”
The sorcerers removed the spell from Burq and brought him out. The false Bubran led him out of view of the attendants. Once they had come a safe distance, Qiran revealed his identity to Burq and said, “Go now and be cautious in performing your trickeries.” Burq marvelled at seeing Qiran on the lion’s back and said, “You alone were endowed by God with the strength to overpower a wild lion.”
Both of them retired into the wilderness where Qiran removed the saddle and all trappings from the lion and set him free, saying, “Go now! Your work is done here.” The lion ran away into the wilderness the moment it was released. Burq returned to Bubran’s camp in disguise and remained in search of an opportunity to kill the sorcerer.
When the real Bubran returned from his excursion and his sorcerer attendants saw him they believed he had returned after killing Burq. When Bubran dismounted and entered his pavilion he found his captive gone. He asked his attendants, “Where did that trickster go?” They replied, “Your Honor himself took him away a moment ago.” Bubran said, “I have only just returned from my excursion. How could I have taken him away in the interim? Have you lost your senses?” All of them swore to the veracity of their account and narrated it to him in its entirety. Stunned, Bubran thought, Indeed these tricksters are very resourceful to have carried out their mission in such a short time, disguised as me. How they fetched the lion is the devil’s own business. It now looks difficult to escape from their hands.
Bubran sent for his sorcerer attendants and said to them, “Now, even if you see Afrasiyab or Heyrat arrive do not let them into my pavilion without my express permission; arrest them immediately.” After issuing these orders to his sorcerers, Bubran sent for wine and started drinking. He decided that he would strike the drums of war that evening to combat Mahrukh and her army the next day and return triumphant after killing the rebels.
Leaving him busy in these calculations, we return to Afrasiyab and Heyrat.
In the Dome of Light, while making love prattle, Heyrat said to Afrasiyab, “Emperor, it has been two days since my nephew left on the campaign against the rebels. We haven’t learned what passed with him. My heart is restive. Look into the Book of Sameri and inform me of his welfare.”
Afrasiyab looked into the book and told her of the trickeries performed by Burq and Qiran. Heyrat was unnerved and said, “I fear those tricksters will kill him. When those sons of strumpets can catch a wild lion from the forest, they are capable of anything.” Deciding that she must call her nephew back and send someone else to replace him, Heyrat wrote a note to Bubran:
“Return to the court as I have something of an urgent nature to discuss with you. You must come alone, leaving the army behind.”
Heyrat gave the note to her sorceress-aide, Zamarrud, and said, “Take my message to Bubran and tell him that I send for him.”
Sorceress Zamarrud was a beauty whose face was bright like a luminous moon. Her dark locks were long as lovers’ nights of separation, her swelling bosom presented a pair of magnificent breasts, her whole body seemed cast of light, her carmine lips tinged with missi64 recalled to mind a glowing sunset, her teeth rolled the honor of pearl strings into dust, and thousands of hearts of lovers floundered in the dimple of her chin. This moon-like beauty invoked her magic and flew away with Heyrat’s note, arriving in Bubran’s camp with demure and coy airs.
As she tried to enter Bubran’s pavilion, the sorcerers surrounded Zamarrud and took her captive. They went and told Bubran, “Sorceress Zamarrud has arrived but we took her prisoner and did not allow her to enter.” Bubran replied, “I am now on the alert. Send her inside. She might not be a trickster after all.” The sorcerers allowed Zamarrud to enter Bubran’s pavilion.
Bubran took off his ring and after reciting a spell over it threw it on the ground. He said, “O Zamarrud, pick up this ring and be seated. If you are the real Zamarrud, you will be able to pick it up, otherwise it will burn your hand and you won’t be able to touch it.” Zamarrud answered, “Upon my arrival I was first dishonored by being imprisoned; now you make me perform stunts!”
She recited a spell, picked up the ring and, with knitted brow, sat down on a chair.
When Bubran offered her a drink she said, “Get away from me. I have nothing to do with cowardly and feeble men like you. If you were so frightened of the tricksters, why did you come here to fight them in the first place?”
Witnessing Zamarrud’s beauty and hearing her angry words, Bubran was smitten with love and thought of seeking congress with her. He put his hand on her cheek and said, “O my princess, don’t be so cross. Since you say so, I readily admit to being cowardly and feeble. Have some wine with me now.” Zamarrud lowered her head with modesty as she recognized Bubran’s intentions and said, “I wish you wouldn’t say such things to me. If you are not careful, I will report you to your aunt, the empress!”
Bubran did not say more when he heard those words, and Zamarrud gave him the note from Heyrat. After reading it, Bubran said, “I will depart from here in the afternoon and arrive at the Dome of Light by evening.”
Zamarrud flew away with the reply but kept looking back to gaze at Bubran. The malady of love had claimed Bubran as its own, and he rolled on the bed of anguish in desire.
Burq, who was present in Bubran’s camp looking for an opportunity to work his trickery, sighted Zamarrud. He accompanied her to the end of the camp but felt helpless when she flew away by magic.
Before long, however, Burq thought of a trick. He went to a mountain pass and disguised himself as Zamarrud. This false Zamarrud put on a light green dress that made her look ravishing, and adorned herself with emerald jewelery so elegantly that her verdant beauty rankled like a thorn in the eyes of the garden of the world. Her kohl-lined, gazelle-like eyes became the wine service for those intoxicated with love and led them to the land of self forgetfulness. Her glowing cheeks were the envy of the sun; her mouth, the perfection of narrowness, ridiculed the claims of flower buds and made them die of envy. Her fragile neck was cast as gracefully as a wine ewer’s, and it seemed her delicate lips were made for granting bliss.
Carrying a decanter of drugged red wine, the false Zamarrud sat down in a meadow and recited love couplets with great coquetry and dalliance. She thought, Now any sorcerer who comes this way will fall my prey and I will kill him.
Because it was noon, Bubran postponed the battle till the next day. He ordered his sorcerers to guard the camp, flew off toward Heyrat’s court, and passed over that pleasant garden where the false Zamarrud was seated. Seeing Bubran Lion-Rider flying by, she loudly recited,
“I once died for your least notice
Say a prayer at my grave now, O beloved.”
When Bubran looked down he saw the false Zamarrud sitting in the meadow. He called out to her, “O Zamarrud, I see you haven’t yet returned to my aunt. Tell me if anything is the matter?” The false Zamarrud heaved a cold sigh and said, “What is it to you? There’s no accounting for those lost in the desert of love. They sit where they fancy to bring the day of separation to a close.”
Bubran reckoned that Zamarrud had not agreed to a tryst with him earlier and repulsed his advances because his whole camp was observing them. But because she had fallen in love, she waited in his path, looking his way because he had mentioned he would return to court in the evening. Bubran descended and approached her. Seeing Bubran come near, the false Zamarrud recited the couplet,
“I would snare the bird of auspicious omen
If you were to pass by my abode.”
Bubran smiled in reply and, reciting,
“God made my plaints reach their mark
I saw my beloved’s disregard turn to longing,”
he tried to pull the false Zamarrud next to him and kiss her sweet lips.
She said, “No! Never! Do not touch me. Faithlessness such as yours remains unsurpassed in the world. I spent my whole day pining away in your love and striking my head in anguish against mountains and deserts. You come only now to make protestations of your love? O Bubran, since the day I saw you in the court my heart has been smitten with the curse of love. I know not what has possessed it.”
Bubran replied, “O my life and soul, I too find life a burden without you. How may I explain that I felt utterly helpless and powerless before you? I was struck dumb by the grandeur of your beauty and my lips could not open to reveal what was in my heart. I suffered great anguish and became intoxicated on sorrow. But now the two of us can derive pleasure from each other’s company and forget the past days of our suffering.”
The false Zamarrud recited,
“I have given you myself with my word
You are become mine and I am now yours.”
Pressing her cheek against Bubran’s, the false Zamarrud put her arms around his neck. Seeing this display of her love, Bubran was near to dying from ecstasies of joy. Overwhelmed by passion, his unrequited desires stirred within him and Bubran could no longer hold himself back. He pressed the false Zamarrud to his breast and sought union with her. She said, “Let us first drink some wine, then we will enjoy ourselves.”
She poured the wine into the cup and offered it to Bubran, saying, “Here, drink this nectar of love.” He extended his hand to receive it.
63. Shining Executioner of the Heavens: an allusion to the sun.
64. missi: a powder, chiefly composed of yellow myrobalan, gall nut, iron filings, vitriol, and other ingredients, used by women for coloring their teeth.