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.
[Because Bahar had had an altercation with Heyrat…]
Because Bahar had had an altercation with Heyrat, she signalled to Amar that she was prepared to submit her allegiance and asked to be freed. Amar immediately removed the needle from her tongue.
After her release, Bahar felt tempted to deceive Amar in the same manner he had fooled her. She was also angry that a lowly trickster should demand the allegiance of a powerful sorceress like herself. She considered too, that Heyrat was, after all, her own sister and she must not join a revolt against her.
As Bahar turned a fiery gaze toward Amar, he said to her, “Know O Bahar that I released you on your word that you wished to offer allegiance. Do not imagine even for a moment that I have no power over you now that you are free. I swear by my faith that I will kill you with as little compunction as I kill a mosquito or common ant. You can do now all that you have in your power, and exert yourself to the best of your ability. You may send for all your sorcerers and helpers too.” With these words, Amar headed out of the pavilion. Bahar cried out, “Someone catch this thief!”
Sorcerers came running at Bahar’s call.
Amar Ayyar opened up Daniyal’s Tent like a canopy and sat down under it while Bahar and her sorcerers surrounded him.
Bahar said to Amar, “O rascal, now you have nowhere to run.” She threw a bouquet of flowers at Amar that made beds of tulips and poppies spring up all around Daniyal’s Tent. The bloom of the flowers made it appear like a spring day. However, as magic had no effect on the miraculous Daniyal’s Tent, Amar remained safe from Bahar’s spell inside it.
Witnessing that, Bahar said to her sorcerers, “Do not break the cordon around him. I shall now enter the tent and catch him myself.” The moment Bahar set foot in Daniyal’s Tent her head went down and her feet went up and she found herself hanging upside down from the entrance, all her magic forgotten. Amar gave her two lashes with his whip, which made that delicate beauty wince with pain.
Amar next reached into his zambil and took out four fairies and a bed with jewel-encrusted legs. He ordered Daniyal’s Tent to show its miraclous powers and expand. The tent enlarged and became a pavilion surmounted by ruby-studded spires, its screens and curtains sewn with jewels. The fairies arranged the furniture on the carpet. Amar laid himself on the bed while the fairies busied themselves massaging his limbs. Amar said to them, “Your lord and master has not slept a wink the whole night. You will wake me up at your own peril.” Then he closed his eyes.
When the sorcerers saw Bahar hanging inside the tent they cast spells and attempted to rescue her. But the moment they set foot inside they too, were suspended like Bahar and forgot all their magic.
A fairy woke Amar up and said, “You have visitors.” Amar angrily said to her, “I told you not to wake me, but you never listen.” Amar took out his whip and began lashing the sorcerers. They started howling and crying for help. The sorcerers outside began invoking their magic. One of them created a river of fire that engulfed Daniyal’s Tent; the flames surged like torrents but could do no harm to Amar or the tent.
The sorcerers outside dispelled the magic river of fire to see if Amar had been killed, but they saw him thrashing the sorcerers as before. Upon witnessing that sight, the sorcerers began reciting spells anew. They showered stones on Daniyal’s Tent, drowned it in a magic flood, even attempted to cut it down with swords. But none of that had any effect on it, and anyone who stepped inside was suspended upside down like others before him.
Amar Ayyar now addressed Bahar, saying, “Had I wished I could have captured and killed you long ago without seeking recourse to these tricks. But I have been proscribed the use of holy gifts for killing people. We tricksters employ tricks and deception only against sorcerers. If you fought in the tradition of chivalry, we would not enter the fight. Prince Asad and our soldiers would answer your challenge. I ask you again to submit your allegiance or else, I swear, in the name of Almighty God that I will kill you and nobody would be able to harm a single hair on my body.” Bahar said, “Release me. I will submit my allegiance.”
Amar ordered Daniyal’s Tent to release Bahar. After she was freed, Bahar again questioned whether she must give her allegiance to Amar or embrace death.
Amar read her face and realized that she still hesitated in making her decision. He said, “O Bahar, it ill becomes your dignity as a wise and astute sorceress and a beautiful woman to thoughtlessly prostrate yourself before Laqa. Indeed, I find it a marvel. If Laqa had any power or means, how could Hamza drive him from place to place? It proves that Almighty God is the True Creator of both worlds. Why must you renounce the authority of the Lord and True Creator and worship one of His creatures? Tear yourself away from this thorny path and enter the garden lit by the light of truth. It is a matter of time before both Laqa and Afrasiyab are killed. You must not think that Laqa can save him.”
Amar made many powerful arguments about the True God’s omniscience. He had already implanted fear of him in Bahar’s heart with his tricks. Now, revealing his grandeur by the miracle of Daniyal’s Tent, he finally prevailed over Bahar and her heart was cleansed of all pollution. She felt light at heart and peaceful. Since Bahar was already taken with Amar’s singing, she readily put her head at his feet and said, “I am now your humble slave girl.”
Amar embraced Bahar and said, “O Princess, I may have called you my sister from deceit in the beginning, but I consider you now my sister in earnest. God willing, you will attain a high rank in this tilism.” Bahar replied, “And I promise that I will be at the forefront when any sacrifice is needed.”
After making this pact with Amar, Princess Bahar stepped out of Daniyal’s Tent and said to her army commanders, “I have submitted allegiance to Amar. It would be best for you to follow suit. If not, you may go where you please.” The sorcerers gave her their pledge of obedience without protest.
Bahar now recited a spell and clapped. It dispelled the frenzied state that had gripped Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp. The flower bracelets around their arms wilted and fell off and everyone regained command of their faculties. The remainder of Princess Bahar’s fifty thousand sorcerers also submitted their allegiance to the True Faith. Amar Ayyar rolled up Daniyal’s Tent and accompanied Princess Bahar, who wished to present herself before Mahjabeen and make an offering.
After Bahar made her offering to Queen Mahjabeen, Prince Asad and Mahrukh Magic-Eye embraced her and said, “Your arrival has raised our spirits and strengthened our morale.”
Afterwards, Queen Mahjabeen brought everyone back to their camp. The armies of Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Princess Bahar merged and Mahrukh found herself in command of well over a hundred thousand sorcerers.
All the commanders returned to their stations and occupied themselves with celebrations and carousing. Bahar was given a jewel-studded seat in Queen Mahjabeen’s court. Singers and dancers presented themselves and roseate wine was drunk. The tricksters also returned to the camp and joined the festive assembly.
While they were thus occupied, the magic birds flew in and announced that Princess Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane’s commander-in-chief, Shamshad Elephant-Body, was approaching. Mahrukh Magic-Eye sent a welcoming party to receive him and ordered that his men should be lodged in her camp.
Upon arrival, Shamshad Elephant-Body presented the goods and treasures he had brought at Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane’s orders. Soon the revels and carousing resumed in the camp.
Sorcerers Shadeed, Qahhar, and Azaab
Now hear of Emperor Afrasiyab, who had retired to Mount Quartz after Princess Bahar left on the campaign against Amar and Mahrukh.
Afrasiyab sought diversion in the sights and sounds of the scenic expanse. Mount Quartz resembled a bouquet of vibrant colors from the many flowers that covered its face, and from the goldcloth-draped trees that stood laden with blossoms. The warbling of birds echoed in the air. But instead of consoling him, the sight reminded Afrasiyab all the more of Princess Bahar. He tried to recite a few love couplets to quieten his pining heart but when it remained restive he penned a letter of apology to Princess Bahar that was full of excuses about the incident involving Heyrat. He wrote:
“O Empress of the Land of Beauty, Sovereign of the Kingdom of Graciousness, Princess of the Clime of Charm and Allure, Mistress of all Moon-like Beauties, Sweet Tongued Beloved, Light of Fairies’ Bright Aspects, Illuminator of Love’s Face, Spring of Lovers’ Souls, and Rosy-Cheeked Princess Bahar, may the garden of your hopes remain always abloom with desire’s flowers! May every branch of hope’s tree bear fruit as luscious as your lips! May the grove of your peace and comfort always remain lit up like the morn’s smile! May the eve of sorrow and grief forever hide its face from you like a grief-stricken soul! My dear beloved, I melt away in sorrow ever since you left my court with an unhappy heart. Do not take offense at Heyrat’s words. I remain your true lover as always. Pray return from this dangerous campaign and confer on your lover the cup of your audience. Another servant of the empire will replace you on this mission and put paid to the rebels. The throne of beauty is the only throne that befits your person, your lover’s breast the only bed where you may repose. You must exert yourself in your lover’s bed, not on battlefields.”
After he finished writing, Afrasiyab recited a spell whereupon a magic slave emerged from the ground. Afrasiyab handed him the letter and ordered him to take it to Bahar wherever she might be found. The magic slave departed and arrived in Mahjabeen’s court where Bahar was seated, and delivered her the message. After reading it, Bahar wrote in reply:
“Salutations, Emperor Afrasiyab, the illustrious master whose armies are like the armies of stars, who is like the Jupiter in nature and Venus-like in charms, who is wise like Mercury,82 and the most excellent commander of the sorcerers. May you remain free always of the sorrows of love, and remain forever the beloved in the eyes of the beauties of the world. Your epistle arrived redolent with the perfume of love. It was a bouquet from the garden of desire and the freshest fruit of love’s orchard. The love that you speak of, however, is but a dream. I would that you remain ever engrossed in the mirror of Heyrat’s beauty. I would that you renounce love for me. But if you insist on professing it still, I desire that you present yourself with Prince Badiuz Zaman and Princess Tasveer, whom you have imprisoned, and submit your allegiance to Amar Ayyar. I have sincerely pledged my allegiance to him and vowed to give my life in his service. End of Letter. My regards!”
Bahar handed her reply to the magic slave, who took it to Afrasiyab on Mount Quartz. Upon reading Bahar’s letter, a fiery “Aah!” rose from Afrasiyab’s breast and scalded his senses and reason. He struck his hands together in anguish and a bank of clouds rose in the skies from which a single cloud swam to Mount Quartz. Riding that cloud were three sorcerers, named Shadeed, Qahhar and Azaab, who were the rulers of the lands adjacent to Mount Quartz. They saluted Afrasiyab and noticed his downcast face and distressed look. They stood humbly before him awaiting their orders.
Finally, Afrasiyab said, “O Shadeed, Qahhar and Azaab, you must immediately depart with a large army and bring back Princess Bahar, whose resentment toward me has driven her to join the enemy. You must first use persuasion but if she refuses to accompany you peacefully, you must fight and take her prisoner. However, Princess Bahar is a powerful sorceress and will not be easily captured. I am now headed for Lord Jamshed’s mausoleum from where I will send you the lord’s mantle. It is a powerful gift of the tilism. You may depart now and wait for it to arrive.”
The three sorcerers returned to their lands. They mustered armies of seventy thousand sorcerers each and departed on their mission. After marching and bivouacking, and after a night and a day they arrived near Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp and set up tents and pavilions. The camp was organized, the army bivouacked, and the sorcerer commanders Shadeed, Qahhar and Azaab stationed in their pavilions.
The magic birds brought the news to Queen Mahjabeen and Mahrukh, who sent for the commanders of the army and enjoined them to remain on alert. The camp was alerted and the commanders and sorcerers began invoking their magic lest Shadeed should attack upon seeing them off guard. The bugles began trilling in platoons and regiments and weapons were polished and burnished.
Emperor Afrasiyab returned to the Apple Garden where everyone paid him respects. The emperor sat down despondently on his throne with knitted brow. Heyrat asked, “How are your humors, Your Excellency?” Afrasiyab answered testily, “Your feuding with Bahar has caused her to join hands with the rebels.”
Heyrat replied, “That chit of a girl has become too proud; she no longer considers others her equals. Her evil heart was already set on making mischief and she praised Mahrukh Magic-Eye to my face. Your Honor must not bemoan her leaving us. You have countless faithful servants who would arrest Bahar in a trice at your command and produce her before you.”
Afrasiyab replied, “This is all talk and empty words. I spent hundreds of thousand of rupees in nurturing and training Mahrukh, Nafarman and Bahar, and instructing them in magic. How could I kill them all of a sudden? I still nurse a hope that they will return to my allegiance. Therefore, I am headed for Lord Jamshed’s mausoleum to bring his mantle. I would that you return to the Dome of Light as I don’t require your presence here. It bodes ill for rulers when they antagonize their army commanders instead of winning their hearts and offering them encouragement.”
Afrasiyab then left for Jamshed’s mausoleum while Heyrat returned disconsolate and dejected to the Dome of Light.
After the sorcerers Shadeed, Qahhar and Azaab camped they sent a string of missives to Bahar full of admonitions and injunctions. They asked her to return to the folds of Afrasiyab’s obedience and told her that all was not yet lost. They warned her against siding with the rebels and destroying the faith of their gods Sameri and Jamshed, but each time Bahar offered them a terse reply. The sorcerers wasted a whole day trying to convince her, but to no avail.
Finally, the day came to an end. The sorcerer Night took out stars from its sack of darkness to make its offering and the inauspicious Saturn83 squatted in the heavens to invoke its magic. Thus they conspired together against the morning sun.
Shadeed and the other sorcerers conferred and decided that if they waited until Afrasiyab sent them Jamshed’s mantle they would be called cowards and pansies throughout the length and breadth of the tilism. They convinced themselves that Bahar was an insignificant threat and, rather than waiting for Jamshed’s mantle, they must declare hostilities and arrest her speedily to earn renown on their own. They ordered the drums of war in their camp to be beaten at once.
Mahrukh’s magic birds brought her the news and her camp also answered the call to battle. The drums were beaten and the magic bugle trilled. The battle preparations remained underway for four full watches of the night. Bengalese horns trilled, evil spirits were tamed by songs to wreack havoc, and magic spirits were invoked with blood sacrifices. Then spirits were summoned and tempted to offer their help with sweetmeats. The sorcerers targeted their rivals by composing magic spells with their names and lighting lamps with the blood of wagtails and crows. The wicks of the lamps were trimmed. Soil and rocks from cremation grounds, ashes of oil sellers’ corpses, and bones of the dead were gathered. The spells were readied and the properties of the magical citrons, limes and oranges were assigned to them. Adulations of gods Sameri and Jamshed were sung. The bonfires were stoked to burn the whole night. Then the sorcerers retired to catch a wink of sleep.
The warriors sharpened their shining daggers and ground them on stone to make their edges even keener. Swords were made serrated and broad swords were sharpened to give them deep edges. They became sharp and keen to the degree that one could not safely slide one’s finger along the blade. Every sword became a mirror that reflected the face of death’s bride.84 The iron shone so brightly that men were tricked into marching to the arena believing it was already the morn of battle. The warriors made claims of their bravery the whole night and talked of nothing else but the battle.
Finally, the Conjuror of the Skies produced a golden orb from its eastern pocket and entered, juggling it in the ring of heavens. The Turk of Sun sharpened his luminous dagger on the whetstone of the firmament.
Prince Asad said his morning prayers at the crack of dawn. The sorcerers who had submitted allegiance to him were sworn to the faith of sorcery until the enemy’s destruction, and yet they turned their hearts to thoughts of God to solicit His aid.85
Presently, the morning gong rang in the camp, the bugle sounded, and everyone started preparations for the march to the battlefield. The officers mounted their steeds and the foot-soldiers and troopers made vows of valor.
Dil Aaram came into view bearing aloft Queen Mahjabeen’s throne by magic. Mahrukh Magic-Eye, Shakeel, Nafarman, Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane, and Princess Bahar arrived before Queen Mahjabeen with great majesty, riding magic thrones and peacocks. They made low bows to her and escorted Queen Mahjabeen’s throne. Renowned sorcerers riding magic geese and magic dragons poured into the arena row after row, column after column, rank after rank, file after file. They were joined by Prince Asad with his army of warriors. Displaying his equestrian skills, the prince sat astride a giant steed of enormous rump.
When Prince Asad took position at the head of the army as the commander-in-chief, lightning bolts danced in the arena and terrible, thunderous noises were heard. Dark clouds rose from the direction of the wilderness and, leading their armies, the sorcerers Shadeed, Qahhar and Azaab arrived with great fanfare. They flooded the arena like a tidal wave. They hurled thunderbolts that burned down the shrubbery and removed obstructions between the rival camps, then settled down the dust with magic showers.
The army commanders arranged their men. Warriors on both sides formed fourteen rows as impregnable as the Rampart of Sikander. The criers recited the valorous deeds of past kings to stir thoughts of brave deeds in the hearts of their men, and the minstrels sang martial songs. Their cries and songs turned the warriors’ hearts to thoughts of martyrdom and earning glory on the battlefield.
82. Wise like Mercury: an allusion to the ancient belief that the planet Mercury presides over knowledge and intelligence.
83. The inauspicious Saturn: astrologers traditionally attributed death, destruction and other evils to the planet Saturn.
84. Every sword became a mirror… reflected the face of death’s bride: an allusion to the South Asian Muslim ritual of aarsi mushaf in which a mirror is put between the newly-weds and the bridegroom sees the bride’s face for the first time in the mirror’s reflection.
85. The sorcerers who submitted allegiance…thoughts of God to solicit His aid.: the sorcerers and sorceresses fighting on the side of the True Believers have not yet converted to the True Faith because once a sorcerer or sorceress converts they can no longer exercise magic as it is proscribed in the True Faith. Stripped of their magical powers they would be unable to help the cause of the True Believers. The sorcerers and sorceresses have pledged allegiance to it and, by the same token, also to God.