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.
[Now hear of Heyrat…]
Now hear of Heyrat. The real Zamarrud returned to court and told the empress that Bubran promised to visit her in the evening.When it was evening and Bubran did not come, Heyrat said to Afrasiyab, “O Emperor, look into the Book of Sameri and find out why my nephew hasn’t yet returned.” When Afrasiyab looked into the book, he beat his head in distress and said, “He is about to be killed by the trickster Burq! The two of them are sitting in a wilderness under a mountain.”
Heyrat turned to the real Zamarrud and said to her, “O Zamarrud, hurry and alert Bubran. I am sending magic spirits to accompany you and give you the clay of Jamshed’s grave to render Bubran unconscious and bring him here.” Zamarrud departed carrying the clay from Jamshed’s grave.
She arrived in the wilderness and called out, “O Bubran, desist! Do not invite your death upon your head. Make not the least delay and arrest the one sitting next to you for he is the trickster Burq the Frank.”
The false Zamarrud became troubled upon seeing the real Zamarrud and, hearing her words, said to Bubran, “O Bubran, the heavens could not see us cheerful even for a single moment and conspired against our happiness. See, a trickster now arrives in my disguise to deceive you.”
Blinded by his lust, Bubran was sorely annoyed to see a Zamarrud look-alike approaching. He became convinced that it was indeed a trickster. He told the false Zamarrud sitting beside him to hide herself so that he might apprehend the one approaching. While the false Zamarrud hid herself in the bushes, Bubran rose to his feet and waited.
The real Zamarrud came near Bubran and said, “What became of the trickster sitting next to you?” Bubran answered, “He ran away upon seeing you.” Saying this, Bubran caught Zamarrud’s arm, and said, “O evil man, I understand all your snares and deceptions!” At this, the false Zamarrud also came out of the bushes and shouted, “Do not let this wretch escape, O Bubran!”
Bubran recited a spell and hit Zamarrud with a magic slap. It would have sent the head of any ordinary sorceress flying off her shoulders but since Zamarrud was Empress Heyrat’s aide and an accomplished sorceress herself, she turned her face to stone by reciting a spell. Incensed, she sprinkled the clay of Jamshed’s grave on Bubran, who fell down unconsciousness. Burq was pondering his next move when Zamarrud recited a spell and called out, “Hold!” The ground caught Burq’s feet and he was unable to move.
Zamarrud cut the shape of palms out of paper and recited a spell that turned them into magic claws. She ordered, “O magic claws, carry away these two to the Dome of Light.” The magic claws flashed like lightning bolts and carried away Bubran and Burq.
Zamarrud also followed the magic claws to the Dome of Light.
Upon arrival, Zamarrud said to Heyrat, “My Lady! Your nephew cannot differentiate between his friends and his foes. He was so possessed by lust and such blindness had come over him that he hit me with a magic slap. Any other sorceress in my place would certainly have died. Here is your nephew now, and here’s the trickster who was sitting in his lap. I shall now quit your service as I am not used to being treated ill and rough.”
Heyrat offered words of consolation to Zamarrud and brought Bubran to consciousness. When he opened his eyes and saw Heyrat and Afrasiyab before him, he rose to his feet and saluted them. Heyrat said to him, “You sit with your arms around a trickster and when Zamarrud comes to your rescue, you slap her in complete disregard of the honor due me. You have not the sense to tell friends apart from foes.”
Bubran answered, “I indeed committed that error, for which I seek forgiveness.” Heyrat now looked at Burq and said, “And see what a perfect likeness this wretch has produced. It’s small wonder that Bubran was deceived. Tell me Zamarrud if you see the least difference between your face and the face of this devil deserving of beheading and nipping in the bud. No, Zamarrud, you must not take offense because in matters of desire even great ascetics and warriors lose self-restraint.”
Heyrat recited a spell that made Burq’s makeup disappear and revealed his real face.
The empress said, “Listen, O Burq, I am letting you go free. Go and tell Mahrukh Magic-Eye to help ward off the death from her head by presenting herself into my service along with Mahjabeen. I promise to have their offenses forgiven by the emperor.” Burq answered, “Make all these glib speeches like a whore and ignore the fact that your days are numbered. You would do well to enjoy the life that is left you for soon the crows and kites will feast on your corpse. Do you take Mahrukh for your father’s slave girl that she should come running to you at your bidding?”
Enraged at his insolence, Heyrat ordered a sorcerer to behead Burq. Seeing this, Burq turned his heart to God and solicited the court of heavens for aid. The arrow of his petition met the target of approval and Bubran said to Heyrat, “Dear aunt, this trickster has gravely diminished my standing. Give him into my power to kill him in full view of Mahrukh’s camp so that all of them may receive instruction from his terrible end.”
Heyrat said, “Nephew, I won’t let you return now.” Bubran replied, “I’ve been publicly humiliated. If you do not allow me to return I will slit my throat with my own hands.” With those words, Bubran drew his dagger and pressed it against his neck.
Heyrat took Bubran’s hand into her own. She gently censured Bubran and tried to persuade him against returning. Bubran did not listen and in the end Heyrat allowed him to depart with Burq. She said to Bubran, “Go, and kill this trickster without loss of time, then settle the score with the enemy and wipe them from the face of the world. I shall send renowned sorcerers to your aid.”
Bubran cut out the shape of a lion from paper and recited a spell that brought it to life. He put Burq on the lion’s back, sat down behind him, and rode back to his camp.
Now hear of the trickster Qiran the Ethiope, who had sought some news of Burq the Frank. He spent the whole day searching for him until the Beautifier of Life adorned the damsel of night with the jewelery of stars, implanted the spangle of the moon on the sky’s brow, and illuminated a world that lay enveloped in darkness.
Qiran happened by that wilderness where Burq was taken prisoner by Zamarrud. Hardly a few moments had passed before he saw Bubran coming with Burq on the lion’s back. Qiran realized that Burq had been taken prisoner. He filled drug powder in the folds of a paper and stuck the paper inside an envelope that he stamped with Heyrat’s forged seal.
Disguising himself as a sorcerer, he ran after Bubran calling his name. Bubran heard him and stopped. When Qiran approached, Bubran asked that he identify himself. Qiran replied, “I am Empress Heyrat’s messenger.” Bubran said, “I have just returned from her court. I did not see you there. Why would she dispatch a messenger so soon after I left?”
Qiran, who did not know the details of Bubran’s court visit, replied with knitted brow, “I don’t know all that. All you are required to do is to read this letter and give your reply to what is asked. And do tell me, O Bubran, since you maintain that you did not see me at the court, if servants must always cling to their masters? I was at my station when the empress sent for me and gave me this letter to deliver to you. Why do you split hairs with me over a trifle?”
Bubran took the letter from his hand and said, “It’s dark, come with me to my camp so that I may read it and give you my reply.” Qiran answered, “Then I must leave. You may send your reply by some other means. You are a sorcerer and can easily read it here by lighting up a magic torch. If you wish, I can light one for you.” Qiran’s words pricked Bubran’s pride. Bubran picked a twig up from the ground and recited a spell that immediately lit it up like a torch.
Bubran handed it to Qiran to hold up so that he could read the letter in its light. As Bubran tried to remove the letter stuck in the envelope, Qiran threw a drug on the torch flame and pushed it in Bubran’s face. Bubran turned his head away quickly but not fast enough to avoid inhaling the smoke. His face was burned by the torch and he inhaled the drug. As he swooned and fell, Qiran struck out with his cleaver and smashed his head. Bubran thrashed about and died. A calamity was immediately set loose. Terrifying sounds boomed.
Freed from captivity, Burq ran to his camp and Qiran the Ethiope retreated into the wilderness. Burq went and told Mahrukh and Shakeel to ready their army because Bubran had been killed. Shakeel immediately blew the magic trumpet. His army prepared for combat and the sorcerers mounted their magic dragons and peacocks. Mahrukh and Shakeel attacked the enemy camp with their forty thousand renowned sorcerers. Steel magic balls, garlands of red chillies, clusters of darts and magic needles rained on the foe. Bubran’s army was caught off guard. They paid for their slowness with the lives of thousands of their men. Whirlwinds rose, lightning bolts flashed, magic citrons, magic limes and coconuts were exchanged between the two camps and a river of blood issued forth.
Amar Ayyar was in the wilderness when he heard the sounds of “Catch!” and “Kill!” and ran toward them. When he saw Bubran’s army being slaughtered, he too drew his dagger and joined the fray, keeping the cape of invisibility ready in case sorcerers surrounded him. He rolled on the ground and with every sweeping blow severed up to three pairs of legs. He leaped and jumped from the shoulders of one sorcerer to another. When they tried to catch his legs he beheaded them. As the sorcerers died, Amar cut off and secured their money pouches. He entered Bubran’s pavilion and carried away its entire contents with the Net of Ilyas.
Prince Asad also rode out upon hearing the commotion. Dil Aaram brought Mahjabeen’s throne. The drums were struck and the royal throne advanced. Queen Mahjabeen deputed fifty magicians to guard Prince Asad clandestinely so that enemy sorcerers could not capture him by putting him under their spell. These magicians accompanied Asad, furtively reciting counterspells. Prince Asad drew his sword and fell upon the army of sorcerers. He made heaps of the slain and piles of the dead. With every charge, Prince Asad made his war cry,
“I am Asad the accomplished horseman who, on the day of battle
Rips out the heart of lions and tears apart the hide of tigers
I am the emperor who returns victorious
I am Asad the Lion-Hearted, progeny of Hamza.”
As swords flashed and clashed mightily, Dil Aaram advanced with Mahjabeen’s throne raining fire and water on the enemy forces. The enemy camp was gripped by confusion. Only the brave stood fearlessly and without the least trepidation, their chests thrust out. Prince Asad stirred the battlefield with his sword and killed thousands.
Finally, Bubran’s retreating army crossed over the Bridge of the Magic Fairies and arrived weeping and howling at the Dome of Light. Afrasiyab and Heyrat learned that Bubran’s army had returned in defeat.
Heyrat cried out, “Someone tell me quickly whether my nephew is alive and well.” Bubran’s men answered, “He was killed by the tricksters long ago and must now be in Lord Sameri’s company in the hereafter.” Heyrat beat her head in anguish and cried, “Alas for my dear boy! These tricksters deserving of beheading took his life in the end.”
The Dome of Light rang with lamentations and mourning.
Afrasiyab recited a spell and clapped. Whirlwinds and storms materialized and bore away the corpse of Bubran from where it lay and brought it to the Dome of Light. All the renowned sorcerers clad themselves in black and made arrangements for his last rites.
Mahrukh Magic-Eye and her armies pillaged the tents and pavilions of the enemy, the drums of victory were beaten, and clarions sounded in victory from her camp.
Their army advanced and set up camp where Bubran’s army had previously bivouacked, within sight of the River of Flowing Blood and a short distance from the City of Manycolors. Once the army had camped, the tricksters arrived, made offerings to Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, and received robes of honor. Singers and dancers presented themselves and a dance recital got underway.
Sorcerer Faulad Drug-Glutton
Before long it was morning and the Emperor of the Armies of Stars65 retreated from the arena of the sky. The golden standard of Emperor Sun fluttered in the zephyr on the morn of victory. The conveyance of the King of Planets66 entered the desert with great majesty.
After Bubran Lion-Rider’s last rites had been performed with royal fanfare, Heyrat said to Afrasiyab, “Pray give me leave to march against the traitors and kill them.” Afrasiyab replied, “This time I will send someone to take care of the tricksters first, a sorcerer who will not be incapacitated by weapons or drugs.”
He then recited a spell and called out, “O Faulad Drug-Glutton, present yourself!” No sooner had he issued the command than a towering and hideous sorcerer on a fiery rhinoceros descended from the sky and saluted Afrasiyab.
The emperor said, “Depart hastily with twelve thousand sorcerers as Hamza’s tricksters have entered and caused mayhem in the tilism. Bubran Lion-Rider has been killed. Until now I showed indulgence toward the rebels, thinking they might see the light and return to the path of obedience and deference. But it seems that death has marked them for its own. I am sending twelve steel magic slaves to accompany you. They can be neither drugged nor killed. They will help you capture the enemies.”
Afrasiyab clapped again and twelve steel magic slaves wielding swords sprang out of the ground and he said to them, “Accompany Faulad and obey his commands.”
Faulad said, “Your Highness, there is no need for them. I alone can overpower the rebels. I would have to drink many doses of drug in my wine before feeling even the slightest intoxication. Weapons have no effect on me. Neither can the tricksters prevail against me, nor sorcerers or mighty warriors fight me.” Afrasiyab said, “There is no harm in taking the magic slaves along as a precaution. Go and fulfill your mission.”
Faulad saluted Afrasiyab and departed. A twelve-thousand-strong army of sorcerers with their tents and equipage accompanied him. The twelve magic slaves rode beside Faulad. The criers of the camp called out, “Clear the way! Show deference! Keep your distance!”
They sped on their path and, after crossing the River of Flowing Blood, arrived near Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp.
The sound of their drums reached the ears of the righteous warriors and Mahrukh dispatched magic birds to gather intelligence.
The magic birds flew away and returned after gathering particulars about the arriving army. With their gracious tongues they sang the praise of Queen Mahjabeen. “MAY THE QUEEN HAVE A LONG LIFE. MAY HER ENEMIES ALWAYS REMAIN INDISPOSED AND ILL. A WRETCHED SORCERER NAMED FAULAD DRUG-GLUTTON HAS ARRIVED WITH HIS ARMY AND THE INTENTION OF WAGING WAR AGAINST THE SERVANTS OF YOUR ILLUMINATED HIGHNESS.”
After making their speeches, the magic birds flew off to gather more intelligence about the foe.
Mahrukh said to Amar Ayyar, “We come from God and to God we must return! Faulad Drug-Glutton is a bloody scourge against whom all weapons are useless. He can drink up great loads of drugs without batting an eye, and his body is proof against warriors’ weapons and sorcerers’ spells.”
Amar replied, “O Princess, the assistance of the Creator of the Universe alone suffices against all challenges. Shaddad the Vile, the great infidel of the past had similarly safeguarded himself against his death. He had set all manner of conditions to God: that the moment of his death should be neither morning nor night; that he should not die either standing, lying or seated. All of these conditions the All-Powerful God accepted just to show him His supremacy and omnipotence. When Shaddad satisfied himself that he would escape death, he went to inspect the paradise he had constructed to rival God’s own. It was the break of dawn. He arrived at the threshold of his paradise and was about to enter it. His one foot was in the stirrup and the other not yet on the ground when the Angel of Death arrived to extract his soul. He was carried away by death and dispatched hellward, full of unrequited hopes and unfulfilled desires. Faulad Drug-Glutton is nothing more than a clown and neither Afrasiyab nor that despicable Laqa are of any consequence at all. O Princess, whoever shuns the True God and tries to assume His divine seat remains a loser in this world and the next. Do you not see how Hamza constantly drives Laqa from place to place, with the false god’s head covered with the dust of ignominy? Put your trust in God’s beneficence. Even if you fall into dire trouble, do not let your faith waver in the least. I will now depart to kill the ignoble Faulad.”
With these words, Amar headed out of the court. Other tricksters had already left after receiving news of the enemy’s arrival and were busy planning their strategies.
65. Emperor of the Armies of Stars: an allusion to the moon.
66. King of Planets: an allusion to the sun.