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 Princess Bahar.]
Now hear of Princess Bahar. She continued to advance and awaited the communiqué from Maykhar Rhino-Headthat would inform her of the rebels’ arrest so that she could behead them and send their heads to Afrasiyab’s court.
Princess Bahar set up camp in a verdant forest when one day a group of sorcerers arrived crying and wailing. Hearing their cries for redress, Bahar sent for them and inquired about the reason for their distress. They told her about the destruction of their camp and how the garden of Maykhar Rhino-Head’s life was visited by a calamitous autumn. Heaven’s mercy! Bahar’s face was drained of all blood. She bit the back of her hands with fury and rage. Without loss of time, she mounted her magic peacock, a huge and towering bird comparable in size to a simurgh.
His wings and feathers were like tree branches
His legs like the legs of a throne
His beak as long as a column
And a great cavern of a mouth
Bahar left behind her entourage and headed alone for Mahrukh’s camp. When her army commanders saw Bahar marching in by herself, they quickly mounted their conveyances and beat the drums to order the army to march with her. Bahar said to them, “I will go alone, take on the enemy, and destroy them by myself. I do not wish to take the army with me because enemy tricksters mix among soldiers to stir up mischief and will be difficult to identify in a crowd. You may follow me but stop within ten miles of Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp. It will not take me long to capture all of them and I will return soon.” Bahar took along a few companions and attendants and headed onwards.
In the meanwhile, a festive mood reigned in Mahrukh’s pavilion. Everyone was occupied in making merry, except Mahrukh Magic-Eye, who knew that upon learning of Maykhar’s death, Bahar would attack and cause mayhem.
Amar also learned that Maykhar Rhino-Head had preceded Bahar and now that he was dead it was only a matter of time before some calamity would visit them. He said to Mahrukh, “God will be your Protector. You must not despair and instead remain steadfast in the face of misfortune. I hear that Bahar is on her way and it will not bode well for us if I remain in the camp.” Amar left the pavilion and other tricksters also headed for the wilderness.
As Mahrukh busied herself with plans to ward off Bahar’s magic, a cold breeze like the breath of the Messiah wafted in. Mahrukh’s entire camp broke into shouts of “Spring is here! Spring has come!” Mahrukh and the commanders of her army involuntarily came out of their pavilions. They saw Bahar’s magic peacock with emerald feathers preening outside the camp and the sorceress princess in the saddle.
All the soldiers and commanders of Mahrukh’s camp came out of their tents and pavilions and gathered in one place to gaze on Princess Bahar’s resplendent face and her world-adorning beauty. Bahar recited a spell and clapped, causing clouds to rise from every direction. Mahrukh and her sorcerers recited counterspells and clapped to ward off the magic but to no avail. In the next moment, a yellow dust blew up from the ground and everyone in Mahrukh’s camp closed their eyes. When they opened them, they saw expansive, luxurious orchards wherever they looked in which the breeze wafted intoxicatingly. They beheld a yard-high crystal wall that stretched for miles on end.
After Mahrukh’s army had closed its eyes, Princess Bahar took out a paper, pen and inkwell from her sorcerer’s sack and wrote a tilism to create a garden with properties that would enchant anyone who stepped into its bounds. Since the garden was a tilism, tricksters could not enter it to rescue their companions once they stepped in it and became its prisoners.
When Mahrukh’s camp saw Princess Bahar fly on her peacock into the garden, all of them followed her inside. They beheld a luminous crystal platform that seemed to be made of light. A canopy of strung pearls rose over the platform. An ermine carpet was spread on the floor. Beautiful, moon-like cupbearers were gathered with goblets and ewers. They regarded Princess Bahar seated on a jewel-encrusted throne with lamps and bouquets placed before her. She wore a luxurious dress covered with jewels and held a jewel-enchased stick in her hand. If the rosy-cheeked beauties of the Garden of Life had beheld Bahar’s beauty they would have sacrificed their lives a thousand times for her. Even the beautiful Zulaikha had never seen such grace in her dreams. Bahar’s beauty was so astonishing that even charming fairies were fit only to be her slave girls. Her hair was a net for the birds of lovers’ souls; it entrapped the hearts of her admirers helplessly in its locks.
Her tongue was the keeper of celestial secrets
Her mouth the custodian of mysteries divine
The bright lobe of her ear made the morn of doomsday shy away
Its dark mole the dark mark on the heart74
The swelling of her double chin was luminous like the sun
And the crease underneth an image of the crescent
The jasmine bushes bearing their bouquets
Expressed the fervour felt by the flower garden
Her soft jasmine bosom and her dainty walk
Disclosed a bold shyness, a timid audacity
Such were her shoulders, arms, wrists and hands that
The worshippers of beloveds would swear to them their life’s allegiance
Had the connoisseurs of beauty regarded the fine sheen,
Of her breasts, and the dark knobs of her nipples
‘Because her bosom is clear as the mirror
It reflects the pupils of her eyes’ they’d have exclaimed
When she dewed it smelled of rose essence
Before the refulgence of her stomach the moon hid its face
The shining navel of that inestimable pearl
Was like the face of Venus on the face of Earth
Like the line of sight is hidden in the eyes
Her waist existed and yet it did not
So remarkably cast were her thighs
Even the glance of imagination could find on them no purchase
Why her shank should not rival the Light of Tur
The soles of her feet rivalled the cheeks of houris
Witnessing the garden’s bloom and Bahar’s lovely aspect, everyone, including Mahrukh Magic-Eye and all the companions and commanders of her army, cried out, “O Princess Bahar, we are your admirers and followers; we’re ready to sacrifice ourselves like moths on the burning taper of your resplendent aspect. Show us favor in our miserable condition. Admit us into your slavery, O Princess! Augment our honor by allowing us to wait upon you.”
Princess Bahar showed them not the least favor and picked a bouquet and flung it toward them. Again, all of them closed their eyes. That bouquet dispersed and every single flower petal was transformed into a garland. When Mahrukh’s companions opened their eyes they found these garlands around their wrists.
Under Bahar’s spell they all importuned her and cried, “Forgive us, O Princess, for we were led astray by Amar Ayyar the sly thief and trickster. Now pardon our trespasses and lead us before Emperor Afrasiyab.” Bahar said, “Very well, follow me. I will take you to the emperor.” With a leap, she mounted her magic peacock and headed out of the garden. Her prisoners followed her like a frenzied crowd, passionately reciting love couplets. The tilism garden disappeared after Bahar stepped out of its bounds.
The tricksters witnessed from their stations their camp marching frantically behind Princess Bahar. They signalled with their whistles and gathered together. Burq said to Amar, “Master, I ask leave to work my trickery.” Amar Ayyar said, “Bahar is a powerful sorceress and you will not prevail against her. And even if you did you would have to kill her to secure the release of our companions. I wish to capture Bahar alive and persuade her to join our cause. However, you are free to act as you please if you can achieve your end without killing her.” Burq and the other tricksters told Amar they could not secure their purpose without murdering Bahar. Amar then asked them to desist from taking any action and instead wait for him to find a solution.
Amar Ayyar put his hand on his zambil and asked Prophet Aadam for a miracle, saying, “O Aadam, change my appearance to that of a fourteen-year-old boy.” After praying, Amar took out the goblet of Prophet Ishaq and sprinkled himself with its pure and untainted heavenly water.
Immediately, a change came over him.75 He became a beautiful fourteen-year-old boy dressed in a red tunic, satin pants and richly embroidered shoes. A three-fold belt was tied around his waist and he sported an embroidered cap sewn with pearls and jewels. The thirteen charms he wore around his neck signified he had not yet reached his fourteenth year. His moon-like beauty showed innocence, yet the look in his eyes revealed a romantic disposition. His cheeks were soft as roses and he was matchless in beauty and coquettish airs.
After attaining this appearance, Amar Ayyar entered a scenic forest that lay four miles from the path taken by Princess Bahar. He stationed himself in a luxuriant grove reminiscent of the garden of paradise. Amar unfastened his tunic and took off his cap. With his eyes closed and his hands on his ears, he tearfully intoned love couplets and ghazals76 that sang of separation between lovers.
As Bahar advanced forward with her prisoners, a captivating voice reached her from a mile away and affected her profoundly. Princess Bahar was not only an expert in creating tilisms but was also equally gifted in musical arts and had a taste for the pleasures of life. Entranced by the voice, she flew on her magic peacock toward it.
When she arrived at the spot Bahar saw a charming adolescent boy singing with his eyes closed and holding a tree branch. He sported earrings, a necklace and armlets studded with jewels. His hands were painted with henna and his luminous aspect shone brighter than the full moon. From his luxurious clothes he appeared to be the darling of his family. He sang so exquisitely that even the birds and beasts were entranced. A bird was perched on that beloved youth’s arm, another sat atop his head, and a third had climbed onto his hand. But he sang completely oblivious to what went on around him.
Bahar approached the rosy-cheeked, false beauty and asked him, “O elegant cypress of beauty’s garden, of which happy garden are you a sapling? Indeed, your parents must have hearts of stone to let you stand here on this road that is full of peril.”
Hearing her voice, the false youth opened his eyes and turned a frightened face toward Bahar. Then he saluted her humbly and said, “I will leave. I did not know that this garden belonged to you.” His cheeks flushed with blood and Bahar realized she had frightened the innocent boy. She dismounted and came toward him. The false youth began to retreat, asking for her forgiveness with clasped hands and saying tearfully, “I made a mistake! You will never see me here again!”
Bahar thought, How terrible! He is so very innocent. God knows how he happened by here. She spoke softly to the boy, saying, “Don’t be afraid, child. I’ll be kind to you. Tell me the name of your parents.” Hearing Bahar’s words, the false youth stopped, and said affectedly, “Promise me you will not punish me. It was because my sister beat me that I ran away and came here.” Bahar was saddened to hear that fear had driven the boy from his home into the wilderness. She felt sorry for his parents and realized they must be searching for him. She said, “Have no fear. I will not punish you.” The false youth said, “Do you promise in Lord Sameri’s name?” Bahar said, “I promise in Lord Sameri’s name that I will not punish you.”
The false youth took a few hesitant steps toward Bahar but quickly retreated and his frightened look returned.
Bahar thought, How cruelly he must have been punished that his fear does not leave him! She took out a colorful bouquet from her sack and offered it to the false youth, saying, “Do you want this?” Now the false youth realized that if Bahar cast a spell over him it would foil his plan. He smiled at the sight of the flowers and said, “Yes, I do.” Bahar hid it and opened her arms wide, saying, “Come into my arms then and you can have the bouquet.”
The false youth ran and embraced her, saying, “Now sister, give me the flowers. Give me the flowers you showed me.” Bahar kissed his cheeks and said, “Think of yourself now as my son.” He asked, “Will you continue to be my kind sister?” Bahar answered, “Yes, I will.” He said, “Then give me the flowers.” Bahar asked him, “Where is your home?” He replied, “It is far from here. You can see my house by that tree, far away.” Bahar said, “Liar, it is not so close that you can see it.”
While they were engaged in this conversation, Bahar’s companions and attendants also arrived on the scene. The false youth tore out of Bahar’s embrace at the sight of them and said, “I will go now.”
Bahar said to her attendants, “The child is shy and frightened. Head to the camp. I will join you there.”
After her attendants departed, Bahar asked the boy, “You were ready to leave your sister?” He replied, “Do you want me to accompany you to your home instead?” When Bahar said yes, he asked, “Will you catch me a deer?” Bahar said, “What will you do with a deer?” The youth answered, “I remember my sister saying that she would cook venison for me on the day I got married. Now that I am in the forest I want to catch a deer and take it with me. It will please my mother and she will find me a wife.” Bahar laughed at his childish speech and said, “See how happy you become at the thought of a wife, foolish boy! If you become my son I will find a princess to be your bride. Give me the name of your father. I will send for him and ask his permission to adopt you.” He answered, “My father is the sorcerer Umayya, and my mother’s name is Gulrang. Come sister, I will take you with me to my house.” Bahar answered, “I think you have gotten lost. Come with me and I will send my attendants to locate your house and send for your father.” The false youth answered, “Very well! But I want to sit with you.”
Seating him in front of her on her peacock, Bahar headed toward her camp, located ten miles from Mahrukh’s garrison. A few moments later, she arrived and sent for her commanders, saying, “Mahrukh’s army is following me under my spell. As long as the magic garlands remain on their wrists they cannot break free of it. You must remain cautious and place vigils to ward off any unforeseen threats.”
Bahar said to her attendants, “Provide all the apparatus of revelry in my pavilion and remain alert. But as I can guard myself, do not stand outside my pavilion nor step inside for tricksters might enter in your disguise. My heart is racing. I am tired and weary and exhausted by the journey. I won’t be able to behead the rebels tonight. I will kill them tomorrow.”
While Bahar’s army went and cordoned off Mahrukh’s camp and deputed vigils, her attendants got busy. They provided a golden throne and jewel-encrusted bed in Bahar’s pavilion. They laid out choice foods on colorful platters and arranged the wine service and trays of kebabs. They served delicacies and, after stocking bread platters, betel boxes, perfume boxes and snack boxes, all the attendants left her pavilion.
Princess Bahar entered with the false youth, ordered the carpet keepers to raise the panels of her pavilion, and said to them, “The shades of evening are now falling. Light the pavilion, then go and rest.” The carpet keepers lit up the glass lights and went away, leaving Bahar and the false youth alone in the pavilion.
In the meanwhile, the day came to a close. The Dancing Girl of the Heavens77 donned her star-studded skirt and presented herself to perform before the King of the Stars.78 The Bright-Faced Turk of the Sky79 armed himself with a dagger and mounted a vigil at the entrance of the heavens’ pavilion.
Bahar offered some fruit and sweetmeats to her guest and laid out delicacies and choice foods before him. He ate the fruit but did not share the food with Bahar. After having her meal, Bahar sat on the throne and said, “My dear child, sing a little for me.” The false youth produced a fife and began playing, and sang songs of love and separation. Enraptured by his voice, the beasts of the forest gathered outside Bahar’s pavilion. Even the breeze became still. A complete trance was cast over the surroundings. His singing moved Bahar so powerfully that she cried without cease like a cloud of spring quarter and stared wonderstruck at his divine talent.
After one watch of the night had passed, he put down the fife. Bahar could not bear it and entreated him to carry on playing. She said, “Dear child, do not abandon me to die of anguish after lacerating my heart. Play on so that my wounded heart may find solace.” He replied, “I feel a headache coming on.” Bahar thought that perhaps he felt shy and if she gave him a glass of wine he would lose his inhibitions and sing with greater pathos. She filled a goblet and offered it to him, saying, “Drink this sherbet, my child!” He said, “Do you think I do not know this is wine? We drink it at our home. Put the whole wine service before me.” Bahar set the wine service before the false youth and he began arranging it according to his way. Placing red cups near green ewers, he organized the bottles like flowers in a bouquet. Bahar was most pleased to see these refinements and reckoned he must be the scion of an illustrious family.
In the process of arranging the wine service the false youth used sleight of hand to drug the wine. He said to Bahar, “You must drink first, O Princess, for you have the pride of place in this assembly. I will drink a cup after you.” Bahar marvelled at his delicacy and drank up the wine when he offered her the cup. Then he offered her a second glass, saying, “It is against the conventions of drinking to drink a single cup or refuse the cupbearer.” After offering Bahar a few more cups, he poured a few for himself and cunningly emptied them down his collar, tricking Bahar into believing he too, was drinking.
Afterwards, he took up the fife again and started playing. By now Bahar was fully intoxicated. She kissed the mouth of the wine bottle every few moments and broke into songs. She became oblivious to all concerns and continued drinking while the singer sang. The rest of the evening passed in this manner and by its end, Bahar was completely unmindful of her body and soul.
Finally, the Beloved of the Sky80 looked out from her eastern bed to show the creatures of night her resplendent face, and the World-Illuminating Lamp81 dismissed the assembly of stars.
The false youth saw Bahar lying unconscious on her throne. Her pants had climbed to her thighs and her bosom lay uncovered as her mantle had slipped, leaving it exposed. Amar pulled out Bahar’s tongue and pierced it with a needle, then tied her to a column of the pavilion and made her smell restorative salts.
Bahar sneezed and regained consciousness. Amar greeted her and said, “Sister, you still haven’t found me the deer.” The memories of the previous night were still impressed on Bahar’s mind. When she tried to answer, she realized she could not speak because her tongue had been pulled out and pierced. She immediately returned to her senses, and gestured to Amar to know what had happened to her.
Amar produced a whip from his zambil and shouted furiously, “I am the King of the Tricksters, the Bearder of Non Believers and Beheader of Sorcerers.
“I am the master trickster
The embodiment of wisdom and cunning
A calamity for infidels everywhere
Amar Ayyar, of all tricksters the prince
“Regard the handiwork of the True God, O Bahar, how I captured you and rendered you helpless. You would live if you submit your allegiance; otherwise you must be speedily dispatched to the Future State.”
74. Its dark mole the dark mark on the heart: this is probably an allusion to the legend that the dark mark on the heart represents Aadam’s (Adam’s) first act of disobedience against God. Here the mole on the ear refers to the inviting beauty of her ear that creates mischievous desire in a lover’s heart.
75. The Angel Jibrail (Gabriel) had declared Amar Ayyar his protégé. He had fed Amar Ayyar three grapes. The first grape gifted him with a melodious voice. The second gave him the power to change into seventy two different forms, and acquire the shape of anyone he chose. The third grape gave him the ability to converse with all creatures and understand their language.
76. ghazal: a genre traditionally used for composing love sonnets
77. Dancing Girl of the Heavens: an allusion to the sky.
78. King of the Stars: an allusion to the moon.
79. Bright-Faced Turk of the Sky: an allusion to the moon.
80. Beloved of the Sky: an allusion to the sun.