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.
[Let us now give an account of the tricksters Amar, Zargham and Jansoz…]
Let us now give an account of the tricksters Amar, Zargham and Jansoz.They infiltrated Faulad Drug-Glutton’s camp in the disguise of sorcerers. Amar headed for the place of audience and said to the attendants, “Go and inform your master that sorcerer Maut the Death has come to see him.” When the message was conveyed to Faulad he ordered Maut to be presented.
False sorcerer Maut entered the court and saw Faulad Drug-Glutton sitting on a throne from which a thousand tongues of flame continuously darted out. Faulad wore a crown that glowed like the heart of fire and his waist was encircled by a chain of flames. Hundreds of sorcerers in hideous guises were seated around him while the twelve magic slaves of steel marched up and down wielding swords. Sparks fell from their mouths when they conversed. The criers and attendants stood at their stations.
The false sorcerer saluted Faulad. When the attendant called out, “Your Honor, before your eyes!” Faulad Drug-Glutton raised his eyes and accepted the greetings with a nod. He saw black snakes with darting tongues were tied around false sorcerer Maut’s head. He wore pearl necklaces, a gold chain around his waist, and carried a sorcerer’s gold cloth bag. Faulad Drug-Glutton thought him a mighty and patrician sorcerer. He asked Maut to approach and respectfully offered him a seat. After the false Maut sat down, Faulad asked his name and particulars and inquired about the reason for his visit.
The false sorcerer, Maut, replied, “I live in the City of Manycolors. Mahrukh Magic-Eye confiscated all my goods and chattels and for the longest time I prayed for her destruction. However, I was powerless to confront her on my own. The news of your arrival brought me untold joy and I thought of presenting myself to pay my respects.” Faulad Drug-Glutton said, “You did well in coming here. Consider this place your home. I will soon kill these ingrates and solicit the emperor to confer their belongings on you.” Faulad Drug-Glutton sent for a robe of honor and conferred it on the false Maut, who made an offering in return and became a close confidant of Faulad.
Zargham and Jansoz continued to make rounds of the enemy camp, trying to gain entry into Faulad’s pavilion. They saw two attendants come out of his pavilion and followed them. Seeing a deserted spot, they called out, “Please hear us, friends!” When the attendants stopped, the tricksters approached them and said, “We brought some perfume to sell to your master but were unable to gain admittance. Perhaps you could sell it on our behalf.”
The attendants replied, “Let us see what perfume you are selling.” The tricksters pulled two glass carafes from their belts and offered them to the attendants, who smelled them and fell unconscious. The tricksters took off their clothes and threw the attendants in a nearby ditch. Putting on their clothes, they disguised themselves as the attendants. After entering Faulad Drug-Glutton’s pavilion they took their positions behind the sorcerer.
In the meanwhile, Amar Ayyar offered Faulad a goblet of wine mixed with a large dose of a powerful drug. Faulad took the goblet from his hands and drank it up without the least caution. The drug had no effect on him. However, from tasting the wine, Faulad recognized the presence of a drug and realized that sorcerer Maut must be a trickster. He quietly recited a spell and blew it on Maut, who suddenly became stuck to his seat. Faulad Drug-Glutton said, “O trickster, I know you have come to kill me. Come now, give me all the drug you have.”
Hearing these words, Zargham and Jansoz, standing in disguise behind Faulad Drug-Glutton, said to each other, “Since he could not be drugged, let us kill him with daggers. The worst that can happen is that we will be arrested. God the Ultimate Master will protect us.”
They drew their daggers and attacked Faulad Drug-Glutton from both sides but the daggers broke into shards when they hit Faulad’s body. The tricksters tried to run but Faulad cast a spell and they fell down on their faces. Sorcerers overpowered them and presented them, along with Amar Ayyar, before Faulad Drug-Glutton. He put them under an incarceration spell and said to his sorcerers, “Set up a pavilion next to mine and imprison them inside.” The pavilion was set up and the tricksters imprisoned. Faulad Drug-Glutton recited a spell and put a fire cordon around the pavilion.
Faulad said, “As planned, I was able to catch the tricksters by the grace of the Emperor’s rising fortunes. Strike the drums of battle so that I may speedily kill Mahrukh as well.”
At Faulad’s orders, his soldiers blew the magic trumpet and tooted the bugle of war. The whole camp was alerted to the news of the impending battle. The magic birds returned to Queen Mahjabeen’s court. After visiting blessings and singing praises of the queen they narrated the capture of the tricksters and Faulad’s blowing the magic trumpet. Then they flew away to spy on the foe once again.
Frightened by the news, Mahrukh said to Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, “Did you hear that the tricksters have been captured? None of us is powerful enough to confront Faulad. If you agree, we will all run away under cover of night and hide ourselves in some refuge. I know the path out of the tilism. I will take all of you to Amir Hamza. He will be able to confront the Emperor of Hoshruba.”
Prince Asad replied, “O Princess, Amar Ayyar has been captured a thousand times and broken free as many times. Worry not the least in this regard and order your men to answer the call for battle. It would be very shameful for the servants of Amir Hamza to retreat. If we went before him as escapees, he would drive us away from his presence saying, ‘Why did you retreat? Did you hold your miserable lives too dear? I now have no business with you.’ Still, you may go if you desire. Since you are a woman, Amir Hamza will not deny you refuge. I, however, could never consent to this proposition.”
Mahrukh replied, “We are with you. If such is your resolve, pray order the call to war answered from our camp with full force.” Prince Asad told the sorcerers and commanders of his army to strike the drums of war with the grace of the Munificent God and the sanction of the Almighty Lord. The servants of the prince carried out his commands. The timbal was struck and the army prepared to fight to its last man.
In the meanwhile, the Luminescent Emperor lowered its standard of light rays from the heavens to retreat and the dark night prevailed. The braves readied their battle gear. Every single soul prepared itself to face doom and keep its tryst with mistress death. Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Shakeel sent for four hundred mighty sorcerers, who chanted spells and threw offerings of lard into flames. Clapper-drums were beaten around bonfires. The sorcerers threw waxen dragons into the blazing fires and bound them with oaths to present themselves when called. Magic spirits were summoned and sacrifices offered to them for their assistance. Every sorcerer of the army invoked his magic and made sacrifices of king crows and kites.67 Chillies and gum resin were burned and the cling-clang of metal rose from every corner of the camp.
Prince Asad also armed and readied his men for battle. Those who did not know magic polished their swords and daggers. For four watches of the night the two armies made preparations. The vigils made their rounds and the martial music played continuously until life’s dawn prayers washed away the darkness of night’s heart. The blessed tongue of morning recited the Chapter of Light68 and took an oath in the name of the illuminating sun, which ascended its throne to give brilliant audience.
Armed and clad in armor, Prince Asad presented himself at the doorstep of Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe. Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Shakeel presented themselves in the royal chamber of audience after sending their men to the arena in platoons and detachments under the leadership of army commanders. Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe arrived with great fanfare and received salutes from everyone gathered there.
Dil Aaram made the royal throne airborne and Prince Asad, along with all the nobles of the camp, accompanied it to the battlefield. At regular intervals, the criers and the attendants called out, “Clear the Path! Show deference! Keep your distance!” Amidst this hubbub, all of them entered the arena.
Faulad Drug-Glutton had spent the entire night preparing his magic. He strode out on his fiery rhinoceros in the morning and took command of his twelve thousand sorcerers. The twelve magic slaves accompanied him with drawn swords. Bugles tooted, gongs and bells sounded, and Faulad’s rhinoceros started galloping,
A rhinoceros whose hoof splits stones
And bores into the iron heart of Mount Qaf
The enemy descended into the battlefield with great preparations. Sorcerers rained thunderbolts and water to clear the arena for battle and settle the dust. Masters of columns and flanks arranged the army into fighting formations. Criers made their proclamations:
“Wipe out Rustam’s name from the register of the valiant with your example!
Today, smell the flower of the shield, partake of the fruit of the sword!”69
“O braves, struggle! Sit not like pansies all dressed!”
“Today is the day of battle. Skirmish!
Defend your name and repute. Clash!”
After the criers withdrew from the field, Faulad Drug-Glutton spurred his rhinoceros into the arena and called out, “O tribe of rebels, be ready to be dispatched to the plains of death. Come out and face the battle before you.”
Hearing his tall claims, Shakeel took permission from Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe to answer Faulad’s challenge and confronted him. Faulad said to him, “Deal me your best blow. Show me what weapon you possess.” Shakeel recited a spell and struck his hands, and darkness engulfed Faulad. Magic claws materialized in that darkness and attacked Faulad with lances, arrows and swords.
Faulad spurred his rhinoceros, picked up a fistful of clay and, after reciting a spell on it, hurled it toward the sky. Immediately, the darkness was cast away and the magic claws disappeared. Faulad recited a spell on a magic coconut and threw it at Shakeel. It exploded and surrounded him with its smoke. Shakeel fell to the ground in a faint. Faulad ordered a magic slave, “Fetch him!” The magic slave pinioned Shakeel and brought him to Faulad.
Seeing this sight, other sorcerers sought Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s permission to confront Faulad. One after another, Faulad overpowered each of them by making them unconscious with exploding magic coconuts. Then the magic slaves took them prisoner.
Finally, Princess Mahrukh herself entered the arena to confront Faulad Drug-Glutton. She invoked a spell that made dust storms rise from all four directions and disperse the smoke created by Faulad’s magic. Mahrukh Magic-Eye then hit the ground with a magic citron that broke and a magic dragon materialized. It spewed fire with its mouth and inhaled mightily, pulling Faulad Drug-Glutton into its open jaws.
As Faulad was being pulled into the dragon’s mouth, he called out, “O magic slaves, come to my rescue. The whore Mahrukh has employed powerful magic against me.”
The magic slaves attacked the dragon as a body and tore and destroyed it to shreds in no time. Then they attacked Mahrukh herself. She tried many spells and struck them with magic slaps but nothing repulsed the magic slaves.
Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe now ordered her army to save Mahrukh Magic-Eye. It charged from all directions with cries of “Stop them! Capture them!” The sorcerers cast spells, lightning bolts fell, and infernal sounds rose.
Seeing this turn of events, Faulad Drug-Glutton threw four magic coconuts toward the four corners of the arena. They sank into the ground and immediately afterward flames rose from the ground and a wall of fire surrounded Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s army on four sides. The smoke produced by this fire rose and settled down like a lid above the walls of fire. Whenever anyone from Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s army tried to escape the fiery confines, the fire burnt them, and if they tried to fly out, the smoke made them unconscious.
While Mahrukh’s army was thus imprisoned, the magic slaves who had attacked Mahrukh finally overpowered and bound her and led her before Faulad. He put magic handcuffs and fiery shackles on both Mahrukh and Shakeel and put them on a cart. Then he ordered his army to march. The tents and pavilions were dismantled and packed on the conveyances. The drum beat announced the start of the return journey and the army headed on its way. Amar Ayyar, Jansoz and Zargham were also led away as prisoners.
Faulad Drug-Glutton now recited a spell and clapped and the fiery wall imprisoning Mahrukh’s army moved by itself behind him. With the wall of flames advancing on them, the prisoners had no choice but to move with it. In this manner, Mahrukh’s whole army marched inside a fiery ring behind Faulad, weeping and wailing and calling out to Almighty God for succor.
Laughing uproariously at the plight of his prisoners, Faulad ambitiously led his men forward. Qiran the Ethiope and Burq the Frank regarded this terrible sight from afar. Except for them, the whole army, including its tricksters and commanders – even the dogs who followed the camp – were now prisoners of that fiery cordon. Burq started crying at the sight and said to Qiran, “Master, I shall now attack this whore’s son Faulad and either cut him to bits with my dagger or give my life in the attempt.”
Qiran answered, “No purpose will be served by your trying to kill him as neither weapons nor drugs have any effect on him. All your trickeries will fail. We must put our trust in God and follow them. When they halt to rest we will try to come up with some useful strategy.”
After making this decision, both Qiran and Burq, from separate paths, clandestinely followed Faulad Drug-Glutton’s army.
Meanwhile, in the Dome of Light, Afrasiyab looked into the Book of Sameri to see what had transpired with Faulad. The book revealed that Faulad had taken prisoner the entire army of the rebels and was bringing it, captive in a cordon of fire.
Afrasiyab vainly set his crown on his head at an angle and said, “O Heyrat, regard the terrible fruits of rebellion. All the rebels have been miserably incarcerated.” Heyrat replied, “Your Excellency must ensure that every single one of them is strung up.”
Afrasiyab sent an inestimable robe of honor for Faulad with a message, which read:
“O my illustrious commander! Bravo! Well done! A thousand accolades on your securing a quick victory in battle. I send you a robe of honor. Rest assured that greater honors and distinctions will be bestowed upon you. You will only rise in rank and distinction with every passing day. Bring all these rebels to the Pleasure Garden located in the region of Zahir near the City of Purple Poppy. There is no need to inconvenience yourself by crossing over the bridge. I will come to Zahir myself to mete out punishment to the rebels.”
After dispatching the sorcerers, Afrasiyab, along with Empress Heyrat and renowned sorcerers, headed for the Pleasure Garden and arrived there with great majesty.
Overlooking the garden was a field where Afrasiyab ordered scaffolds to be raised, and sent for the executioners.
Thousands of executioners clad in waistcloths and wearing garlands of human ears and noses presented themselves. Broad swords were stuck in their belts. The rags on their shoulders for wiping the blades stank of fresh blood. They called out, “Whose cup of life has filled to its brim? Who is the culprit whose thread of life the emperor wants severed?” Afrasiyab ordered them to be ready when his commander brought the sinners the following morning or the morning after. The executioners made their beds under the scaffolds and were soon engrossed in dreams of the rewards they would receive from the emperor for their labors.
Afrasiyab gave audience inside the Pleasure Garden. The trees in the garden were wrapped in gold cloth, water was released in the watercourses and the fountains spouted. A dance recital began. The dulcimer, flute, lute and rebeck played, and the revels were soon underway.
The sorcerers dispatched by Afrasiyab arrived in Faulad’s camp. They dressed him in the robe of honor and presented the emperor’s missive to him. Faulad was in seventh heaven after reading the letter. He changed his course to head for the Pleasure Garden as Afrasiyab had ordered. He marched continuously with the prisoners until he arrived at the City of Purple Poppy.
Faulad saw the golden walls of the City of Purple Poppy. Thousands of sorcerers in magical guises were assembled before the fortress at the gates of the city. Bonfires were lit and smoke rose from all corners from lard offerings made to prepare spells. Beds of tulips and poppies stretched for miles from the foot of the fortified city.
Princess Nafarman, a noble and accomplished sorceress, was the governor of the City of Purple Poppy. She was wealthy and affluent, and a great beauty besides. When her magic birds brought news that Faulad Drug-Glutton had entered the precincts of her city on his way to the Pleasure Garden, she mounted a magic peacock and headed out to greet him bearing gifts and offerings.
As she rode out of the city, she beheld a ring of fire that stretched for miles and heard the weeping and wailing of prisoners from within. She beheld Faulad Drug-Glutton marching with his twelve magic slaves and the army of sorcerers. Princess Nafarman brought her magic peacock forward and called out, “Bravo, O warrior! A most excellent accomplishment! Pray stop a moment to have a word with me!”
At her greeting, Faulad stopped. His army halted and he cast a spell to halt the ring of fire as well. Princess Nafarman approached Faulad and said, “I would like to invite you to my fortress. Sup with me before you continue on your journey.”
Faulad decided that he could take a break as he had marched continuously without rest and the fortress offered a luxurious and safe stop. He answered, “I have rebels in my custody and must continue onwards. But as I cannot disregard your wishes, I will present myself before you shortly.” After securing his promise, Princess Nafarman returned to her city and gave orders that the city be decorated in Faulad’s honor.
The whole city was bedecked like a bride. The shops were adorned and the shopkeepers put on fine golden dresses for the occasion. Princess Nafarman made preparations for Faulad’s stay in a spring-blooming garden and allocated a heart-charming chamber and joy-bestowing hall for his entourage. A luxurious carpet was spread out in Faulad’s honor. Arrangements for a feast were made and after all the preparations were complete, Princess Nafarman came out of the city with her nobles and courtiers to welcome her guest.
Faulad left his army to guard the ring of fire and headed for the metropolis with his commanders and the twelve magic slaves. Princess Nafarman and Faulad met on the way and entered the city together.
Upon entering the City of Purple Poppy, Faulad witnessed a prosperous city populated with happy people. Taking in the sights, he finally arrived at the spring blooming garden that had been allocated for him. Praise the Lord! The loveliness of that garden surpassed any sight Faulad had ever seen. Golden spires rose from the gates surrounding the garden. They were surmounted with sunflowers carved from garnets that outshone the sun, and jewel-carved, emerald-feathered peacocks that carried pearl ornaments in their beaks. He entered through a pair of doors carved out of ivory. Inside, the walls of the garden were made of brass, decorated with red gold and exquisitely studded with jewels.
Faulad found the garden in full bloom. He saw the tastefully laid flowerbeds, the fine pathways, and the beautiful watercourses. The promenades were inlaid with rubies. The trees were laden with flowers. Vines heavy with fruit clusters and hedges of henna plants decorated the expanse. Water gurgled through the tiled watercourses, each spring shone as clear as the heart of the pure, and the courtyards were clean and spotless. Flocks of birds perched in every tree and the songs of the nightingales and the ringdoves proclaimed the arrival of spring with great fervour. Full of manycolored flowers, the sight of the garden put the House of Mani to shame.
There was a luxurious summerhouse in the heart of the garden lavishly appointed with a richly woven carpet, seats and thrones. All the accoutrements of luxury and comfort were provided and the place was brightly lit up with glass lights. Faulad entered and sat down as the twelve magic slaves and his commanders took their positions around him deferentially. At Princess Nafarman’s orders, the dance recital began. Beautiful cupbearers poured roseate Portuguese wine in bejewelled goblets. The wine worshippers importuned the cupbearers to fill desire’s cup.
Princess Nafarman presided over the arrangements and made sure all necessities for the revelry were provided. It was soon dark. The moonlit night, the breezy garden, and the noise of the singers together produced a most auspicious ambience for the evening. The revels were at their height and the garden was filled with an audience engrossed in singing and dancing. At every melodious strain of the singers, they felt shivers of ecstasy.
67. king crows and kites: the blood sacrifices of carrion eaters are employed in Indian magic to power spells.
68. Chapter of Light: this refers to the twenty-fourth chapter of The Quran.
69. Smell the flower of the shield and partake of the fruit of the sword: the embossed designs made on the Mughal era shield were called flowers. The word phal means both “fruit” and “sword blade” allowing the use of the double entendre.