Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism

Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism: Book 1, Episode 21

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.

[Afrasiyab comforted Heyrat on the news of Faulad Drug-Glutton’s death and the fall of the City of Purple Poppy…]


Sorcerer Arzhang of the Stone Figurine

Afrasiyab comforted Heyrat on the news of Faulad Drug-Glutton’s death and the fall of the City of Purple Poppy, saying, “O Heyrat, had I but wished I could have ordered a monster from the Grotto of the Seven Monsters to gobble up Mahrukh’s entire camp. But I indulge these rebels still because I have fostered and nurtured them for so many years. How can I kill them all of a sudden? I wish to chastise them in a manner that will convince them to give up their rebellion and bring me Asad and others as prisoners.”

Heyrat said, “Your Excellency, a person must act himself to guard his own interests. Pray give me leave to advance on them and accompany the army of the tilism with me. I will confront the foe and bring all of them prisoner before you.” Afrasiyab answered, “O Heyrat, did you not see how the tricksters killed Faulad by blowing up the tunnel? How can I send you with an easy mind against such bloodthirsty insurgents? Now, I too, shall remain hidden in the region of Zulmat and will not appear in Zahir.”

Heyrat asked, “Your Excellency, how would I receive orders from you?” Afrasiyab replied, “You may come to Zulmat yourself. I will appear to you but remain enclosed in the Magic Mirror. You will see and hear me but it will be my magic double. The sorcerer who is dispatched next against Mahrukh must take every precaution. He must turn his camp grounds to stone by magic so that the tricksters cannot tunnel underneath it.”

Sorcerer Arzhang was present in the court, fanning the emperor with a kerchief. He was Afrasiyab’s disciple in sorcery and a grand sorcerer himself. As Afrasiyab spoke these words, he came forward and humbly said, “Your Excellency, it was for such a day that you enlisted me in your service. Order me to go and put an end to their mischief and bring the rebels before you as prisoners. The tricksters would neither be able to approach me nor blow me up with a tunnel.”

Afrasiyab asked, “What magic would you employ?” Arzhang answered, “Whenever anyone approaches me I will recite a spell. If he is a trickster the spell will remove his disguise and I will arrest him. Nobody will be able to tunnel under my tent because I will turn the ground to stone.” Afrasiyab said, “Very well, then! Mahrukh must still be in the environs of the City of Purple Poppy. Arrest her, but be extra cautious when dealing with the tricksters.”

Arzhang immediately headed out of the Pleasure Garden and sounded the magic bugle. Renowned sorcerers gathered at his call and Arzhang said to them, “Ten thousand sorcerers must accompany me to destroy the enemy.” The sorcerers readied themselves and, mounting magic lions, tigers and dragons, set out with Arzhang.

After completing the journey, Arzhang and his armies arrived with great fanfare near the City of Purple Poppy. They saw the city lying in ruin and destruction with its buildings burned, its army absconded, and its citizens in panic as refugees in their own city. Arzhang camped there and wrote a letter to Mahrukh, which read:

“All praise is due lords Jamshed, Sameri and Laqa. O band of rebels, learn that I am Arzhang. There is no repelling my magic. None in the entire tilism has ever dared to challenge my might. None who has confronted me has prevailed. I will wipe out all traces of your existence in a trice. I will send all of you to your graves. O Mahrukh, you will come to a bad end if you do not present yourself immediately upon receiving this letter. End of Message. Compliments!”

After writing the letter, Arzhang took out a stone figurine from his sorcerer’s bag and said, “O magic slave girl, take this letter to Mahrukh.” That magic slave girl took the letter and dove into the ground.

Mahrukh was watching a dance performance in her court amidst all the paraphernalia of revelry when the magic slave girl emerged from the ground and jumped into her lap. She delivered the letter and demanded a reply. Mahrukh became anxious after reading the message.

Noticing the look of distress on her face, Amar asked, “Is anything the matter?” Mahrukh replied, “One of Afrasiyab’s disciples, Arzhang, has come to fight us. He was trained by the emperor himself and brought up as his own son. Now there’s nothing left for us but to die, since we do not have the wherewithal to fight him.” Amar said, “Put your trust in God as you answer his challenge. All those who came to fight us before were as vainglorious as the pharaoh. But you must remember that for every pharaoh there’s a Moses. You saw how the tricksters killed all of them. The eyes of bitter longing and pining shed tears at their sad and terrible fate; crows and kites dined on their corpses; even a grave was denied them.”

At Amar’s advice, Mahrukh wrote out a reply to Arzhang’s letter.

First she wrote the name of God

For with His name it is obligatory to begin

Then she wrote the praise of the Prophet

The one worthy of all devotion

Then she wrote the following reply:

“I wait for you like a sword.

The commander of my valiant army

Is the stalwart warrior, Prince Asad of happy fortune.

Do you not regard the telltale signs of your downfall,

Have you not paused to consider, O sinner,

How the mighty sorcerers were dispatched hellward

In just a trice, by the hand of Amar Ayyar

You too are marked for destruction by the heavens

Unless you repent and give up all thoughts of battle

We have every desire to spare your life. But if not,

No quarter would be asked or given, you must remember”

After writing this sharp reply, Mahrukh handed it to the magic slave girl, who dove into the ground, returned to Arzhang, and handed him the letter.

After reading it, Arzhang prepared to march to the battlefield. Mahrukh also ordered her army to be ready for battle.

Princess Nafarman said to her, “Your Excellency, I beg leave to return to my city and to write to Arzhang that I found it expedient to falsely swear allegiance to you and Amar because I had been captured by the tricksters and your armies had overrun my lands. I would invite him to my city for a feast and tell him that I will join forces with him to exact my long-planned revenge on your camp and avenge myself by killing the rebels. When he arrives I will kill or overpower him and take him prisoner.”

Mahrukh replied, “I will not let you face all these risks alone. What if he took you captive first?”

Burq interjected and said to Mahrukh, “Let Princess Nafarman depart with her army. In the process of receiving her message and replying to it, Arzhang will halt his march. I will find the opportunity to put him to death. Do not inconvenience yourself by leading your army into battle just yet.”

In the end, Mahrukh gave Princess Nafarman leave to return to her city. However, she secretly dispatched her son Shakeel with fifteen thousand sorcerers to lie in wait near Arzhang’s camp. Shakeel departed and the tricksters Burq, Zargham and Jansoz accompanied him. After arriving near their destination, they positioned themselves near the enemy and bided their time for an opportune moment.

After Princess Nafarman returned to her fortress, she penned a letter to Arzhang importuning him and offering excuses for her inaction. She wrote:

“O protégé of Emperor Afrasiyab, this slave girl was overtaken by calamities. I had no friend or aid in the evil hour that befell me. There were no options left for me and no way out but to submit my allegiance to Mahrukh Magic-Eye. It is my good fortune that you have arrived in these parts. Please increase my honor by visiting my humble abode. I will avenge myself on these recalcitrant rebels and join hands with you in making war on them.”

A high-ranking sorcerer brought Nafarman’s letter before Arzhang, who read it and decided to check the truth of its contents. He recited a spell and struck his hands together whereupon a magic slave emerged from the ground carrying a piece of paper and presented it to Arzhang. It read:


Arzhang returned the paper to the magic slave who sank into the ground. Then Arzhang wrote a reply to Princess Nafarman’s letter, which read:

“O ungrateful wretch, I am well aware of your devices. Do you think you can fool me with your words? I am the mighty Arzhang, not some ordinary sorcerer. I will capture you and your accomplices in a moment and put you to a painful death. Now you must count your days. After arresting Mahrukh Magic-Eye I will capture you, too. There is nowhere in this tilism you can run to or hide where my hand cannot reach. Before long, you will receive due punishment for your devious conduct.”

Arzhang gave the reply to a messenger who departed to deliver it.

Now hear of the tricksters. After Shakeel’s army camped they went out in disguises and started making rounds of Arzhang’s pavilion. Zargham made himself into an attendant and positioned himself inside the pavilion while Jansoz waited at the entrance in a sorcerer’s disguise. After a while, when Arzhang looked up and saw the false attendant, he felt uneasy. He immediately recited a spell that made all the paint and lotion evaporate and Zargham’s real face appeared. Arzhang gave him a paper and said, “Take this letter to Princess Nafarman!” Unaware of the loss of his disguise, Zargham came forward and extended his hand to take the paper. Arzhang caught his hand and said, “How dare you think you could trick me, O wretch?” Zargham tried to draw his dagger but Arzhang recited a spell that made him lose the use of his limbs.

Arzhang called out, “Is there anyone on duty?” The false sorcerer, who was Jansoz, rushed in answer to his call. Arzhang said to him, “The tricksters have begun to attack. I have arrested one. Take him to the prison.” The false sorcerer answered, “Release him from your spell so that I may imprison him in mine.” Arzhang did as he requested and the false attendant led Zargham away. Suddenly, Arzhang grew suspicious, and he recited a spell. The two tricksters had not yet reached the entrance of the tent when the real face of Jansoz was revealed. Realizing that he too, was a trickster, Arzhang captured him. Then he recited another spell, which sank both Zargham and Jansoz up to their waists in the ground.

The day ended in the meanwhile, and the Painter of Nature painted the shapes of planets and stars on the page of the sky and the Artist of Creation lifted the curtain on the beautiful and shapely moon.

In the evening, Burq secretly went to Princess Nafarman and said, “O Princess, whenever a trickster goes near Arzhang his disguise is revealed. I have decided not to go near him and I request that you provide me with a pavilion, a jewel-encrusted bed and a luxurious carpet.” Nafarman answered, “They are at your disposal. They will be provided for you when you want them.” Burq loaded all those things onto a cart and headed out of the city. He chose a flower-lined pasture near Arzhang’s pavilion that was abundant with springs and pools. Burq sent the cart back to the fortress and set up his pavilion in that scenic and pleasant spot. He encircled it with flowers to give it the appearance of a large bouquet. Then he covered it with garlands steeped in a perfume drug and, after proofing his own senses with an antidote, sprinkled the perfume drug in large quantities both inside and outside the pavilion.

Burq set the bed, covered it with a sheet, arranged cushions and pillows, and rubbed the perfume drug all over the furniture. He put a seat under the bed and pulled up the panels of the pavilion that opened onto a verdant grassland that refreshed the soul.

A carpet of moonbeams spread over the whole expanse. The grains of sand sparkled like the stars in the heavens. Springs burbled all around on their banks; deer, buffalo, hog deer and axis deer frolicked in the moonlight.

Burq disguised himself as a fakir by smearing his face with ash and plaiting and coating his hair with clay. He put hoops and earrings in his ears, wore bead necklaces and bracelets of crystal beads and placed a gold cloth-ring on his head. He spread a deerskin at the entrance of his pavilion and sat there playing a tambourine and singing a devotional song in Sameri’s praise.

Meanwhile, Arzhang secured the boundaries of his pavilion after imprisoning both tricksters inside so that neither friend nor foe could enter. He also sent away his attendants and cast a spell that turned the ground to adamantine so that no one could tunnel in from underneath.

Arzhang settled down after making all these preparations and heard the captivating notes of someone singing Sameri’s adulation. He discovered the music originated from the forest at the back of his pavilion. He headed out and arrived near Burq’s tent. Moonlight bathed the entire grassland. Seeing Arzhang approach, Burq got up and ran and hid himself in the bushes beside a spring. When Arzhang reached the pavilion, he noticed the deerskin spread there and beheld a fully appointed pavilion lying empty. The place was now all quiet.

When he entered the pavilion, Arzhang found it a most lavish abode, redolent with a fragrance that perfumed the very core of his soul. As he sat down on the bed, he suddenly wondered if it might be a trickster’s dwelling. He recited a spell whereupon a magic slave girl of stone emerged from the ground carrying a piece of paper. Arzhang took the paper from her hands and read the following written on it:


Even as Arzhang was reading it, the perfume drug had worked on his senses and overpowered him. He sneezed and fell unconscious. Burq, who had stealthily come out of the bushes where he was hiding and closed on Arzhang, entered the pavilion and instantly beheaded him.

A thunderous commotion and a din like doomsday broke out and stone slabs rained from the sky. A cry rent the night, “I WAS KILLED! ARZHANG WAS MY NAME.” Burq hurried to where Shakeel was lying in wait with his army and told him it was time for them to attack.

Hearing Arzhang’s death cry, the sorcerers of his camp ran to investigate. Zargham and Jansoz were released because Arzhang’s spell was broken and they ran to inform Princess Nafarman in the City of Purple Poppy that the sorcerer had been killed and that she must charge without delay and conduct a night raid on Arzhang’s camp.

Nafarman quickly mustered her army and attacked Arzhang’s camp while Shakeel charged it from another side. The foe faced a night raid on two fronts. Swords flashed and sorcerers deployed their magic. The battle raged the whole night and the mettle of the swordsmen was tested. In the morning, when the golden standard of Emperor Sun rose between the mountains and the Fair-faced Turk of Morn dispatched the Milky Way into the land of dreams, Arzhang’s army retreated in defeat toward the Pleasure Garden.

Princess Nafarman pillaged the tents, equipage and goods of the retreating enemy. Burq also ransacked the fields to collect an offering for Amar Ayyar. He said to Nafarman, “You must not stay here but return and join Mahrukh.” As Nafarman’s army was ready at her call, they started cheerfully toward Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp playing festive music. Before long they arrived at their destination and joined Mahrukh’s triumph incarnate camp.

Mahrukh embraced all of them and the sound of congratulations and felicitations filled the air. Queen Mahjabeen conferred a precious robe of honor on Burq and rewarded the other tricksters as well.

In the meanwhile, Arzhang’s defeated army arrived near the Pleasure Garden beating their chests in lamentations and tearing their collars into shreds.

Emperor Afrasiyab was busy carousing. A dancer was performing, wine was being drunk, and seventeen thousand renowned sorcerers were sitting around him respectfully. Suddenly, the noise of wailing and lamentations reached his ears. When Afrasiyab inquired, he learned that Arzhang had been killed and the army that had accompanied him had fled in defeat.

Afrasiyab sent for the commanders of the army and sought details of Arzhang’s death. After he learned all the facts and particulars, Afrasiyab bit the back of his hand with teeth of distress.

Heyrat said to him, “Your Excellency, I can no longer remain a silent witness. I ask for leave to punish the mutineers myself.” Afrasiyab replied, “Your departure would still be unsuitable. You should, instead, go to the Apple Garden with the nobles. I am headed for the region of Zulmat. We will decide on a suitable course of action upon my return.”

Then Afrasiyab mounted his throne and sixty-four thousand drums from the skies announced his departure. Magic fairies played musical instruments and danced on boreal thrones. They carried vermiculated pitchers filled with rose water, keora water, and essence of orange blossoms on their hips. They squirted each other with loaded sprays of these fragrances and juggled balls of light. Afrasiyab’s four ministers took their positions on the four corners of his throne and fanned him with fly-whisks of phoenix feathers. A crimson cloud materialized to shadow the emperor’s throne and rained pearl droplets. Afrasiyab’s throne floated away like the wind. As it whizzed past, magic trees, birds and humans cried out in veneration, “ALL GLORY TO AFRASIYAB! ALL PRAISE TO AFRASIYAB!”

Soon Afrasiyab was lost from sight as he disappeared into Zulmat the Dark. No one saw how or from where the Emperor of Hoshruba entered that mysterious region.


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