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.
[After Afrasiyab’s departure Empress Heyrat mounted her magic peacock…]
Sorceress Bahar of Spring-Quarter
After Afrasiyab’s departure Empress Heyrat mounted her magic peacock and went to the Apple Garden with her nobles and ministers in train. She ascended the throne and all her courtiers and sorcerers took their allocated stations. A dance recital started and cupbearers as beautiful as the moon began passing around cups of red wine.
They were thus occupied when, suddenly, a cool and pleasant breeze picked up. The sky became overcast. The trees swayed, intoxicated with the fervor of spring, and every flower bud in the Apple Garden broke into full bloom. The magic birds flew into the garden and chirped before Heyrat, “O EMPRESS OF THE WORLD, YOUR YOUNGER SISTER, PRINCESS BAHAR, IS APPROACHING.” Heyrat said, “Now I know why it suddenly seemed as if the spring quarter was upon us. A welcoming party should go out and conduct her here with great honor.”
High-ranking sorcerers went in a procession to greet Princess Bahar.
The garden of Princess Bahar’s beauty was nurtured by the munificent showers of Nature’s Gardener. She was a virgin and her figure was like a beautiful cypress in the pasture of life. She resided in the City of Mount Solace and seldom attended the court. Emperor Afrasiyab, who was smitten and besotted with her, had sought union with her on several occasions. However, Bahar always resisted the emperor’s advances out of respect for her sister. Many renowned sorcerers pined equally for Bahar’s love but their knowing of Afrasiyab’s fondness for her kept them from asking for her hand in marriage. Heyrat also knew of Afrasiyab’s feelings and she ardently wished to drive Bahar from Hoshruba. However, to her sister’s face and in public, Heyrat kept up the pretence of great fondness for Bahar.
When Princess Bahar entered the Apple Garden everyone rose in her honor. Heyrat embraced her, asked about her welfare, and seated Bahar beside her on the throne. At a sign from Heyrat the cupbearer offered goblets of wine and they started drinking.
Bahar had come to discuss the deaths of the sorcerers and the recent turmoil in the tilism. After the wine warmed and relaxed her, she asked Heyrat, “Tell me sister, what is this commotion that has broken the peace of our tilism?” Heyrat replied, “I don’t know where to begin! All I know is that whore Mahrukh Magic-Eye has invited a great calamity on her head. She has joined the rebels, is stirring a revolt, and has killed many of the emperor’s servants. Now I will march against Mahrukh, arrest her, and visit her with retribution worse than anyone has suffered in the history of the tilism.”
Princess Bahar took offense at these words because Princess Mahrukh was related to them. She said, “Sister, what you say is most unjust. We have blood ties to Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe that cannot be disregarded. You cannot strike a body of water with a stick and divide it! How dare you claim that you will publicly humiliate and kill her! Mahrukh is no less powerful than you or I. Of course, she is no match for the emperor, the immortal sorcerers, the Seven Monsters of the Grotto, or the dwellers of the River of Seven Colors and the Blue River. However, in all respects she is on a par with each of the emperor’s four ministers and with the two of us. I have heard that Mahrukh’s magic dragon very nearly swallowed Faulad Drug-Glutton. If the magic slaves had not rescued him, it would have been impossible for Faulad to return alive from the arena. How could you speak about a grand sorceress of the tilism like Mahrukh in such terms?”
Heyrat turned crimson with rage at Bahar’s speech and said, “O strumpet, you sing adulations of Mahrukh before my courtiers and attempt to frighten them? You must also be in cahoots with the rebels. That is why you take their side.”
Heyrat now addressed her courtiers, saying, “When my own sister is colluding against me how can I expect others to remain loyal! Does water flow thicker than blood? Hear her praising Mahrukh Magic-Eye to my face! Regardless of any blood ties between us, Mahrukh Magic-Eye is now my enemy. Should I seat her above my head when justice demands that she should be humiliated and crushed underfoot?”
Hearing these harsh words, Princess Bahar said, “I’ve had enough of this! You will hold your tongue! Loyalty and disloyalty will be proven in good time. I don’t wish to hear your drivel. I swear by my honor that if I hear your poisonous tongue wag against me ever again, I will teach you a lesson you will never forget. It will put an end to all your royal and imperious airs.”
While they were having this altercation, Afrasiyab’s conveyance arrived from the region of Zulmat. His magnificent entourage and conveyance came to a stop and Afrasiyab dismounted, playing with a perfumed golden ball and making pleasantries with the courtiers who rose in his honor, bowed their heads, and offered salutations.
When the emperor ascended the throne he noticed Princess Bahar stringing a garland of tears that issued ceaselessly from her eyes, like an oyster burbling forth shiny pearls. It seemed that the hands of beauty had decked the lovely face of this bride of spring with a veil of pearls. The rosy hue of her face revealed that her delicate emotions were in turmoil. Afrasiyab was upset upon seeing Bahar in this state and asked, “O envy of Zephyr’s garden, may no sorrow ever torment you. Tell me what grief has caused the flower of your heart to wilt?”
Bahar answered, “I have been called disloyal to the emperor! It is now my desire to visit Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp and unleash the winds of autumn on the blossoming garden of her fortunes. Her aiders and abettors may plead like nightingales but I will show them no mercy. The tree of every rebel’s soul will be cut down or lie uprooted in the Garden of Life. But, O Gardener of the Empire’s Garden, I will no longer have a seat at your feet. Like a flower’s perfume finally exits the garden, I too, must depart now from Hoshruba.”
When Afrasiyab heard these heartbreaking words from the mouth whose narrowness recalled the embouchement of flower buds, saw Bahar’s narcissus-like eyes fill up with dew drops of tears, regarded her lips, delicate as rose petals, quivering from passion and acrimonious speech, and noticed her loss of composure as she uttered these words, Afrasiyab chastised Heyrat, saying, “If you brand a person like Princess Bahar as disloyal can you escape a like charge yourself?” Heyrat replied, “I know all too well what lies behind your words. Your fake and hollow righteousness won’t deceive me even for a moment. I can recognize a man’s intentions in his eyes. Of course you would come to her defense.”
These cutting remarks were not lost on Bahar and discomfited her further but they silenced Afrasiyab because they addressed his guilt.
Bahar resolved in her heart to battle Mahrukh Magic-Eye and destroy her army, then go into exile. She humbly said these words, which fell in the garden of speech like a shower of rose petals: “Your Excellency will appoint one of your loyal commanders to fight the foe. I request that I should be granted this campaign.”
Afrasiyab realized that if he stopped Bahar now Heyrat would get a chance to say that he was protecting his beloved. He gave Bahar leave, saying, “Very well, you may take charge of the mission but you must not directly engage with the foe. Ask one of your commanders to destroy Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp. I will send you further assistance as well.”
Bahar replied, “To this day I have never sought anyone’s aid. Even if Your Excellency himself came to my assistance I would be mortified with shame and sever my neck with my own hands. Pray do not send anyone to help me.”
Afrasiyab answered, “Indeed, it would be unnecessary. You are brave and stalwart yourself.” He conferred a robe of departure on Princess Bahar, who mounted her conveyance and returned to Mount Solace with frowning and angry mien.
Afrasiyab was deeply grieved by Princess Bahar’s departure on that unhappy note. A day after her leaving, he also left in rancor and departed for Mount Quartz by himself.
After her arrival in Mount Solace, Bahar ordered the commander-in-chief of her army, Maykhar Rhino-Head, to muster her army. Bahar’s yellow pavilion was loaded onto a magic dragon and sixty thousand sorceresses and sorcerers decked with their magic equipment prepared to march.
The next morning, when the Sovereign of the Heavens appeared on the throne of sky with his parasol of golden rays, the magic bugle was sounded for the march and the army started on its journey.
Princess Bahar ascended her throne, bouquets of flowers were placed before her, a cloud shadowed the throne and a light, pleasant drizzle followed her conveyance. As her throne passed by, flowerbeds sprang up and the flowers bloomed in greeting. Her attendants held a golden canopy above her head. Magic fairies appeared in the air and squirted each other with paints while singing the songs of Holi.73 The sorceresses and sorcerers accompanying Bahar made sacrificial offerings of flowers of gold and silver to protect her from evil and displayed their magic works.
Sorcerer Maykhar Rhino-Head
Maykhar Rhino-Head marched at the head of the forces riding a magic dragon; an army of sixty thousand sorcerers followed behind him. The army traveled in stretches of ten miles with great majesty. When they stopped to rest after completing a day’s journey from Mount Solace, Maykhar Rhino-Head said to Bahar, “If Your Excellency will give me leave I will advance with twelve thousand sorcerers and arrest Mahrukh’s soldiers. That way, when Your Honor arrives on the scene you will not be burdened with having to make arrangements for war and need only supervise the beheading of rebels and sending their heads to the emperor.” Bahar answered, “Very well! Go forth and defeat the enemy with the spell I have taught you.”
Maykhar Rhino-Head sped on his mission taking along twelve thousand sorcerers from his own personal force. He traveled with dispatch and arrived near the august camp of Mahrukh Magic-Eye where he set up his pavilion and struck the drums ordering his soldiers to bivouac.
As his men set up camp, Maykhar erected another pavilion adjacent to his own and sat down with his sorcery apparatus to invoke his magic. He made a ring with swine blood, stood on a sandalwood bench, and started reciting a spell. Then he bathed in swine blood himself and burned thorn apples, swallow wort, mustard and cotton seeds on flaming braziers to cast the spell.
The magic birds flew into the court after noticing Rhino-Head’s men set up camp. They eloquently sang the queen’s adulations and said, “PRINCESS BAHAR’S STALWART COMMANDER, MAYKHAR RHINO-HEAD, HAS ARRIVED BENT ON MISCHIEF.”
Mahrukh said to Amar Ayyar, “Only God can protect us now. It is a disaster that Princess Bahar has been sent on the campaign against us. Let alone fight her, we are not even her commander’s equal!” Amar Ayyar replied, “God is the Protector. You must not fret about it.” While Mahrukh and Amar Ayyar were occupied in this conversation, the tricksters left the camp and headed for the wilderness.
Despite Amar’s words of comfort, the whole camp was thrown into a state of great agitation and turmoil at the news of Maykhar Rhino-Head’s arrival. While cowards deserted the ranks from lack of self-confidence, those who were brave and loyal became convinced that they would now meet their deaths.
Sorceress Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane
Amar was ready to head to the wilderness after comforting everyone when a cloud suddenly appeared in the sky and showered down thousands of stars. Princess Nafarman said to Mahrukh, “Your Excellency, it seems Princess Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane, the governor of the City of Scarlet Locks, is approaching.”
Mahrukh sent Nafarman and others with a welcoming party to conduct Princess Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane into the court. Amar delayed his departure to learn more about the new arrival.
A powerful sorceress and a great beauty, Princess Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane was held in high regard by Emperor Afrasiyab. She was both rich and powerful and had thirty thousand sorcerers under her command. She had come on the mission to convince Nafarman, her soul sister, to break with Amar Ayyar so that she might intercede for her with Afrasiyab and have her offense forgiven.
Nafarman went with the welcoming party and greeted and embraced Princess Surkh Mu. When Surkh Mu entered the court Mahrukh rose to greet her and offered her a golden throne. Surkh Mu saw Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe giving audience, the court in session, and Amar Ayyar sitting on a jewel-encrusted chair. Because Afrasiyab had already made known Amar Ayyar’s description within Hoshruba she recognized him without difficulty.
Surkh Mu laughed upon regarding Amar’s strange form and said to Nafarman, “My sister, it’s a pity that you revolted against the emperor and invited misfortune down on yourself.” Nafarman answered, “My sister, the star of Amar Ayyar’s glory is ascending. Afrasiyab will be killed and the tilism conquered. Those who side with Amar will survive and others will be destroyed. You too must join hands with us.”
Princess Surkh Mu laughed at Nafarman’s words and said, “What droll things you say! Where is the comparison between Emperor Afrasiyab and Amar Ayyar? How can you contrast the heavens with the Earth ? Talk some sense! Tell me, what could Amar Ayyar do even if he killed sorcerers in the thousands? The armies of the Emperor of Hoshruba are without count and number. Imagine a city with hundreds of wells and each well filled with swarms of mosquitoes. Now imagine those swarms to be the armies of sorcerers at Emperor Afrasiyab’s command. If he were to release even a single swarm from a well, his armies would inundate the entire lands of the tilism. Who can fight the Emperor of Hoshruba? Even if I forced myself to believe that Amar Ayyar could surmount these impossible odds, how would he acquire the tilism key? Without the tilism key there’s no conquering the tilism. Afrasiyab himself does not know where the tilism key is hidden. Tell me, how would Amar ever find it?”
Nafarman answered, “The Almighty God, the Creator of Causes, will find a way for the tilism key to be found and for Hoshruba to be conquered. Are you not familiar with the saying:
“If the enemy is strong
The Protector is stronger still.”
Princess Surkh Mu replied, “Alas sister, it seems that you and I must now part ways. I shall never offer my allegiance to a lowly person like Amar Ayyar.”
While they were exchanging these words, Maykhar Rhino-Head completed the spell and made his offering to the magic spirits. Drenched in swine blood, he stood at the entrance of his pavilion, recited an incantation and blew it in the direction of Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp. Suddenly a cloud covered Mahrukh’s camp and a cold breeze picked up. Surkh Mu said to Nafarman, “Beware, this is a sign of approaching trouble.” She tried to fly away to escape the calamity but the cloud enveloped Mahrukh’s whole camp. A waft of cold air hit Surkh Mu’s face and she fell unconscious. When she came to after a few moments, she said to Nafarman, “Now I too, have been engulfed in this trouble because of my love for you.”
Everyone in the camp, including Nafarman, Mahrukh, Shakeel and their other commanders were taken unawares. They had imagined that Maykhar would sound the drums of war and face them in the arena. They recited counterspells but they proved ineffective. Gusts of cold air hit them and they too, fell senseless.
They opened their eyes after a moment and asked for wine, recited verses in its praise, and swayed drunkenly. They picked up ewers and goblets and drank and indulged in horseplay, slapping each other and pulling each other’s whiskers. In their inebriation, some thought that the floor was a swelling sea and, holding their noses, attempted to dive headlong into it. After awhile, the whole camp gathered together and sang Holi songs to the accompaniment of drums, fifes and stringed instruments. The air filled with music, the loud voices of the drunkards, and the gurgle of ewers. The entire camp remained thus occupied. If someone tried to escape, a waft of cold air issued from the clouds and made him unconscious.
The three tricksters who had left the camp regarded the state of their companions from far away. They signalled with their whistles and Qiran the Ethiope joined them. They gave him a complete account of the event and Qiran retired to think of some solution. The other three tricksters went away in different directions.
After Maykhar Rhino-Head completed his spell, he ordered water-carriers to fetch him bath water to wash his blood drenched body. Qiran happened to pass by the riverside where water-carriers were filling their waterskins. He asked where they would take the water and, upon learning that it was meant for Maykhar, Qiran said to one of the water-carriers, “I have brought a message for you. I have something a friend of yours entrusted me to give you.” The water-carrier was tempted by these words and thought, Even though I do not know this man, perhaps someone sent me a gift. I should collect it from him.
Qiran took the water-carrier to a deserted place and hit him in the face with an egg of oblivion. The water-carrier fell unconscious and Qiran tied him to a tree. He put on a coarse waistcloth and slung the waterskin on his shoulders. Qiran fastened his belt and took his tools and, concealing his cleaver inside, returned to the riverside disguised as the water-carrier. There he filled up the waterskin and headed for Maykhar Rhino-Head’s camp. Seeing the water-carriers streaming into the sorcerer’s tent, the false water-carrier followed them inside.
He saw Maykhar sitting on a bench. The water-carriers came forward, poured water over him and went out to refill the waterskins. The false water-carrier stepped up behind Maykhar. He opened the mouth of the waterskin with one hand and took out his cleaver with the other. After pouring out the contents of the waterskin, he pulled it over Maykhar’s head. Bewildered, the sorcerer tried to turn around but Qiran struck, breaking Maykhar’s head with his cleaver. As Maykhar fell to the ground unconscious, Qiran speedily cut off his head.
A terrible clamour broke out. Darkness covered everything. The sorcerers ran toward Maykhar’s tent. The false water-carrier leaped out of the tent and escaped. As the sorcerers poured into their commander’s tent, they heard a terrible cry exclaiming, “I WAS KILLED. MAYKHAR RHINO-HEAD WAS MY NAME!”
The sorcerers carried away his corpse amidst weeping and wailing.
The cloud that covered Mahrukh’s camp parted and dispersed. Everyone came out of their drunken trance and returned to their senses.
Princess Surkh Mu said to Nafarman, “I will leave now. I don’t know what happened here and what dispelled it.” Nafarman replied, “All of us were under Maykhar’s spell. Some trickster has killed him and the spell has been removed.”
Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane trembled with fear when she learned how quickly the tricksters had dispatched Maykhar hellward. She said, “Sister, this event has convinced me of what you stated about the tilism. What alacrity on the tricksters’ part! Bravo!” Nafarman said to her, “Don’t go anywhere. Stay and see what happens next.” Surkh Mu stayed on to witness what other marvels would unfold.
In the meanwhile, Qiran returned to the wilderness and signalled with his trickster’s whistle. Burq hurried to him and asked, “Master, why did I see flames and hear noises rising from Maykhar’s camp?” Qiran replied, “I dispatched Maykhar to hell. Hurry and bring Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s army to slay the enemy.”
Burq sped to Mahrukh’s camp and said to her, “Maykhar has been killed. Attack his army without loss of time.” Mahrukh ordered magic bugles to be sounded and the army quickly prepared. In no time, sixty thousand sorcerers fell upon Maykhar’s twelve thousand men.
Both sides deployed the use of magic. Slabs of ice dropped from the sky. A sorcerer created a river, another produced a rain of fire, yet another caused a shower of stones. Magic arrows and barbs fell in a hailstorm on the warriors. It was as if the end of the world had been proclaimed by the heavens.
Mahjabeen ordered her throne to be carried into the battlefield. Dil Aaram showered lightning bolts on the foe with her spells. As usual, Amar Ayyar went jumping and leaping around to rob, pillage and kill. He remained occupied beheading sorcerers and cutting off their legs.
Prince Asad now made his war declaration,
“Asad the renowned, the mighty lion
The favored one of the Lion of God
When I descend into the battlefield with drawn sword
From all corners rise cries of ‘Mercy’ and ‘Quarter’”
Dark clouds had risen from all directions. Swords flashed like lightning. Heads fell like raindrops. Shakeel fought alongside Prince Asad, routing the enemy while safeguarding the prince from their magic.
Within a short time, Maykhar’s twelve thousand sorcerers were destroyed. The servants and shopkeepers accompanying them escaped toward Princess Bahar’s camp. Mahrukh and her army pillaged and ransacked the enemy’s encampment and returned to their camp. The commanders retired to their pavilions to rest. Celebrations began and offerings were made to Queen Mahjabeen on the occasion of her victory and triumph.
Princess Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane also rose from her seat and made an offering to Mahjabeen and said, “Your Excellency, if I were to return to my lands Afrasiyab would not spare my life since I was here with you when the battle started. Now, consider me one of your slave girls. I will live and die with you.” Mahrukh embraced Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane and conferred a robe of honor on her.
Surkh Mu dispatched a message to the commander of her armies, Shamshad Elephant-Body, to join her with his entire army and the treasury. She gave the letter to a sorcerer who flew away toward the City of Scarlet Locks by invoking his magic.
73. Holi: the spring festival observed by the Hindus. The faith of the sorcerers and their magic devices are a mix of many different faiths practised in India.