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.
[Sorcerer Qahhar rode to the center of the arena atop his magic dragon… ]
Sorcerer Qahhar rode to the center of the arena atop his magic dragon and displayed his might by causing showers of fire and stones.He cried out, “O rebels, come out and face me to be chastised as you deserve.”
Nafarman flew her magic peacock to Mahjabeen and sought leave to answer Qahhar’s challenge. Mahjabeen conferred a robe of honor on her and gave her into God’s protection. Nafarman now encountered Qahhar the lost soul.
Both deployed their magic against each other. Qahhar threw a magic coconut at Nafarman, which exploded upon hitting Nafarman’s leg and broke her thigh bone. As Nafarman fell down wounded, Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane came forward on her magic throne and, after obtaining leave for combat, faced Qahhar.
Qahhar threw another magic coconut at Surkh Mu, who foiled his attack. She took out a box carved out of ruby after untying her hair, opened its lid, and tapped out sparkles from it onto the palm of her hand. She blew on them and they flew to the sky, shining brightly like stars. Suddenly, those stars shot down like meteors. They fell on Qahhar and pierced the ground after breaking his spine. A noise like the Day of Judgment was heard. Mahrukh’s sorcerers quickly recited spells and overpowered Qahhar’s magic spirits by slitting open their thighs and making blood sacrifices. At length the clamour subsided.
Sorcerer Azaab came into the arena next. Shakeel rode out to fight him astride his magic dragon. Azaab repeatedly attacked Shakeel with his trident but Shakeel foiled his attacks. Then Shakeel recited a spell and dealt a sword’s blow to Azaab. The magic sword fell on Azaab like a lightning bolt and burned down the garden of his soul; the second enemy commander was also dispatched to hell.
Sorcerer Shadeed entered the arena in high dudgeon. He put his hand in his sorcerer’s sack and threw a magic snake into the arena, which bit Shakeel. The latter tried to recite counterspells but they proved ineffective. When Shakeel fell down unconscious Mahrukh dispatched attendants to bring him back to the camp. Sorcerer exorcists were deputed to watch over the wound so that the magic venom did not kill him.
Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane now entered the arena and Shadeed deployed the same magic snake against her. Surkh Mu cut a peacock shape out of paper and recited a spell that made it come alive. As the magic snake darted toward Surkh Mu, her magic peacock swooped down and carried it away in its beak.
As both friends and foe alike praised Surkh Mu’s magic, Shadeed went into a mad rage. He notched an arrow and let fly after reciting a spell. Surkh Mu struck her hands together and forty magic shields barred the arrow’s flight. Shadeed’s magic arrow, however, pierced through all of them and struck Surkh Mu’s shoulder; injured, she retired from the arena.
Shadeed called out, “O Bahar, I have come to arrest you. Come out and face me! How long will you hide in corners and nooks?”
Bahar sat on her throne with great allure and magnificence, with bouquets placed around her. Several hundred attendants clad in gold finery, wearing pearls in their ears and carrying flower baskets, stood humbly before her. When Shadeed issued his challenge she flew on her throne, picked up a bouquet and threw it toward the jungle. A black cloud that was darker than the pitch black night rose from the mountains and darkness fell over the entire expanse. Bahar now opened her vanity box and applied silver dust and tilak to her forehead. Suddenly, everyone saw a moon and stars light up the darkness that engulfed them. The day became a moonlit night.
As Shadeed recited counterspells and clapped, Bahar threw a second bouquet and called out, “O spring, appear!” Suddenly a cool breeze picked up and the sorcerers in Shadeed’s army began clapping wildly with joy. Bahar threw a third bouquet and thousands of comely moon-like women materialized carrying musical instruments. Some of them were of the Turkic race, others Frankish, yet others Indian. They represented every race and tribe and their beauty was the envy of the sun and the moon. They played their instruments so alluringly that the enemy army became enamored of their Venusian charms.
Bahar now threw a fourth bouquet. Everyone in the enemy camp shut their eyes and upon opening them, saw spring appear in all its glory. The redolence of the flowers spread with the moonlight. For miles on end, the eye saw only gardens and orchards. The flower buds yawned and blossomed. Drunk on its own perfume, the fragrant breeze circulated and like a tipsy guest in a wine house, crashed against the ewers of trees.
Bahar dismounted and entered the flower garden followed by her female musicians. When Shadeed and his men marched after them they saw Bahar approaching. Her beauty was so dazzling and complete that even if a houri had beheld it she would have given herself in slavery to Bahar.
A violent passion for Bahar suddenly overcame Shadeed.
Bahar signalled to one of her attendants, who brought a knife and a basin and called out, “O admirers of Princess Bahar’s incomparable beauty, which resembles the brilliant sun, your merciless mistress needs a blood sacrifice from her admirers. Here is the blade and the basin. Come and prove your passion.”
The sorcerers in Shadeed’s camp ran and competed with each other to be the first to make the sacrifice. They hurried before Bahar’s attendant, who slit open their arms and collected the blood in the basin. When one lost consciousness another replaced him and died in the same manner. An amazing spectacle unfolded as blood sacrifices claimed man after man and the living vied with each other to make the fatal offering.
Bahar signalled another attendant to summon Shadeed. The attendant loudly called, “O Shadeed! Hasten before Princess Bahar, who summons you to her presence!” Shadeed walked toward Bahar upon hearing her call.
Bahar called to and led Shadeed deeper into her magic garden. He followed her voice spellbound, importuning and begging her to show him favor. When he approached he saw Bahar promenading in the garden carrying a flower cane. She wore a garland on her arm. Her hair was tied in a bun to one side of her head, the skirt of her mantle had slipped down to uncover her bosom, and the bottoms of her trousers were as tight as skin and gathered in folds at the knees.
Shadeed felt a frenzy of passion take hold of him a hundred times more powerfully than before. As he stood humbly before her, Bahar hit him with her flower cane and said, “Is this how you fulfill your lover’s duties? Heyrat cursed and abused me before the whole court but you never sought recompense from her!”
Shadeed answered, “O solace of my soul, indeed, I never learned of the incident.” Bahar hit him a few more times with her flower cane and said, “O bastard, now that you have learned of the incident what laurels have you won in defending my honor?” Shadeed answered, “At a word from you I will thrash Heyrat with my shoe and drag her before you.” Bahar lashed him even more severely with the cane and said, “O clown, would you only act if I ordered you? Do you not feel any violent compulsion yourself to avenge my disgrace?”
After being hit with Bahar’s magic cane, Shadeed became oblivious to every consideration. His senses were completely lost to Bahar’s spell and he said, “O beloved, I will drag that harridan Heyrat before you by her hair this very instant.” Bahar said, “I have no trust in your word. Send for the commanders of your army.” Shadeed sent for them and Bahar stopped her attendant from blood-letting them further.
When Shadeed’s commanders streamed before Bahar, she said to them, “I swear to the truth of what I state upon my honor and wish to inform you that Heyrat cursed and abused me. The one who kills her like a dog I will reward by sharing my bed with him.”
Bahar now ordered her attendant to put magic garlands on the arms of all commanders and tied one on Shadeed’s arm with her own hands.
Shadeed and his entire army headed for the Dome of Light feverishly reciting love couplets while thousands of others lay dead from the blood-letting. Except for its tents and equipages, their whole camp was emptied.
After they were gone, Bahar removed the silver dust from her forehead and recited a spell and clapped, causing the magic spring to disappear. The moonlit night was dispelled and the sun reappeared.
Kettledrums were beaten in celebration and Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp trussed up all the loot from Shadeed’s camp. Mahjabeen scattered gold pieces over Bahar as a sacrifice to protect her from evil and sang her praises. A resplendent robe of honor was conferred on Bahar by Queen Mahjabeen. Their armies took rest and festivities began in celebration of the day’s events. The tabla began playing and a dance recital started.
While Mahrukh’s camp was occupied in these revels, Shadeed crossed the River of Flowing Blood in great disarray and distress, arriving near the Dome of Light spellbound by Bahar’s beauty and full of the violent fervor induced by his desire.
He began hurling abuse at Heyrat and shouting, “Catch that whore Heyrat! Bring me that harridan and strumpet! How dare that wretch abuse my beloved Bahar!” Shadeed and his army began ravaging the City of Disregard. They killed any sorcerer who resisted them. A great tumult arose and the citizens shouted for redress and succor.
Heyrat, who was present in the Dome of Light, heard these noises and sent sorcerers to investigate the matter. They soon returned and apprised the empress of the situation.
Heyrat ordered the gong-ringers who inhabited the ground tier of the Dome of Light to stop Shadeed and his men. They immediately confronted Shadeed and skirmished with the marauding army. Magic was deployed by sorcerers on both sides. The gong-ringers were mighty sorcerers and they killed Shadeed’s men in the thousands. Shadeed himself, however, fought his way to the Dome of Light but because it was protected by a tilism he was unable to climb it and fell down each time he tried.
Leaving Shadeed trying to climb the dome and his army fighting with the gong-ringers, we return to give an account of what passed with Emperor Afrasiyab when he left Heyrat and entered the dark, secret region of Zulmat.
Afrasiyab crossed the Desert of Being and forded the River of Fire to arrive near the mausoleum of Jamshed. Hundreds of thousands of sorcerers were stationed there in gruesome and dreadful magical guises. A palace entirely made of jewels was suspended in the air. Thousands of bells hung from the palace of as many domes. The palace was appointed with seven swings where Jamshed’s seven handmaidens sat.
As Emperor Afrasiyab approached flying, the bells began ringing and created a din. The handmaidens of Jamshed jumped off the swings and came toward him. Afrasiyab stood on one leg while he prayed to Jamshed and cut a piece of flesh from his other leg to place as an offering on the palace dome.
Upon receiving admittance, when Afrasiyab stepped inside the palace, the seven handmaidens saluted him and asked, “O EMPEROR OF HOSHRUBA, WHAT BRINGS YOU HERE THIS DAY?” He answered, “I am headed for the mausoleum of Lord Jamshed.” The handmaidens answered, “THE MAUSOLEUM OF LORD JAMSHED STILL LIES A LONG DISTANCE AWAY BUT ITS BOUNDARIES START HERE. YOU CAN RECEIVE THE GIFTS OF THE TILISM EVEN AT THIS PLACE. TELL US THE PURPOSE OF YOUR VISIT.”
Afrasiyab answered, “I seek Lord Jamshed’s mantle in my fight against a plague of opponents. Amar Ayyar, who is denounced by the gods in the Book of Sameri, has entered the tilism. Thousands of sorcerer disciples of Lord Jamshed have been killed and mutinies brew in Hoshruba.”
Jamshed’s handmaidens replied, “LORD JAMSHED’S MANTLE IS YOURS FOR THE TAKING: SINCE YOU ARE THE EMPEROR OF HOSHRUBA AND MAY DO AS YOU PLEASE. BUT YOU WILL NOT FIND HERE HIS RING, NECKLACE AND OTHER SOUVENIRS FOR THEY LIE IN THE NEIGHBORING TILISM, NUR AFSHAN OF DAZZLING LIGHT. ALAS, YOU CAUSED THE DESTRUCTION OF YOUR LANDS AND NOW YOU ARE EYEING THE SOUVENIRS OF THE TILISM. LORD JAMSHED HAD FORETOLD THAT THE LAST EMPEROR OF HOSHRUBA WOULD BE AN INCOMPETENT BUNGLER; HE WOULD LOSE HIS WRIT OVER THE TILISM AND CAUSE THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL ITS SOUVENIRS AND MARVELS. IT APPEARS, INDEED, THAT YOU ARE THE ONE DESCRIBED. IT SEEMS OUR END IS NEAR TOO, FOR YOU WOULD ONE DAY ALSO ORDER US TO FIGHT AT YOUR SIDE. THE CHEST IN WHICH YOU WILL FIND LORD JAMSHED’S MANTLE LIES BEFORE YOU. YOU MAY TAKE IT FOR ALL WE CARE!”
With these words, one of the handmaidens flung the key to the chest toward Afrasiyab.
Tears welled up in Afrasiyab’s eyes at this speech and he said to them, “I will not take Lord Jamshed’s mantle if it displeases you. I made every possible effort not to battle Mahrukh. That was the reason I indulged her even when she committed unforgivable offenses. It is still my desire that the rebels should return to my allegiance. I seek the mantle only to overpower and arrest them and restore them to honor after a quick reprimand.”
The handmaidens answered, “WHEN YOU MADE ALL THESE PREPARATIONS, WHY DID YOU NOT SEND THE TRICKSTER GIRL SARSAR SWORDFIGHTER AND HER COMPANIONS AGAINST AMAR AYYAR? SHE WOULD HAVE GUARDED THE SORCERERS YOU SENT AND AMAR AND HIS TRICKSTERS WOULD NOT HAVE HAD THE FIELD TO THEMSELVES.” Afrasiyab answered, “You speak true. Upon my return I will dispatch the trickster girls against the enemy tricksters.”
Afrasiyab then picked up the key to the chest in which Jamshed’s mantle lay. When he opened its lid a flame leaped out of it and scorched Afrasiyab. He cut open a vein and made an offering of his blood that extinguished the flame.
Afrasiyab saw Jamshed’s jewel-embroidered, silken mantle lying inside, filled with the soil from his grave. The mantle was proof against all magic and rendered useless even powerful magic of mighty sorcerers like Afrasiyab. When it was snapped into the wind against a rival army they fell unconscious, no matter how powerful the sorcerers or how numerous their horde.
Afrasiyab flew away after securing Jamshed’s mantle and arrived in the Apple Garden in the region of Batin. He recited an incantation and clapped. A mighty sorcerer named Rutas, whose body glowed like fire, emerged from the ground and bowed before the Emperor of Hoshruba.
Afrasiyab said to him, “You are a distinguished sorcerer of the tilism. I confer Lord Jamshed’s mantle on you because I can think of no worthier recipient. Take it with you and bring me Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Bahar as prisoners.” Rutas answered, “Your Excellency has bestowed too great an honor upon me. I am nothing but a humble slave of Lord Sameri, and a loyal subject and vassal of Your Highness.”
Rutas received Jamshed’s mantle proudly and put it away with great care. Then he asked Afrasiyab, “Should I depart alone or take an army with me?” Afrasiyab answered, “I already sent an army with Shadeed and others, but do take along twelve thousand sorcerers as a precaution. Depart immediately and bring all prisoners to the Dome of Light where I am now headed. It is within easy reach from all corners of Hoshruba and from its vantage point I will be able to watch over the battle.”
While Afrasiyab mounted his throne and departed, Rutas returned to his abode and mustered a twelve-thousand-strong army of sorcerers. The marching drums were beaten and his army set out with its tents and equipage. Rutas rode at the head of the army astride a magic flamingo.
Now we return to Afrasiyab, who arrived near the Dome of Light to see the City of Disregard in turmoil, a great commotion brewing, and the air rent by cries of “Redress! Succor!” Afrasiyab saw sorcerer Shadeed making attempts to climb the Dome of Light and understood immediately that Bahar had cast a spell on him. In his wrath, Afrasiyab wanted to reverse Bahar’s magic so that Shadeed’s senses would be restored and the same frenzy would overtake Bahar. But one consideration stopped him: that such an action would likely kill Bahar, and even if she survived she would forever hold a grudge against him. He knew it would not do to antagonize or harm his beloved for then his desire would remain unrequited.
Afrasiyab picked a magic citron and hurled it at Shadeed. It shot through his chest and a great din arose as Shadeed died. Afrasiyab then pointed his fingers and ten lightning bolts fell on Shadeed’s companions and burned to cinder their gardens of life as well.
The noise and commotion caused by their deaths took a long time to subside. When Afrasiyab finally entered the Dome of Light and Heyrat saluted him, he said, “This was all the doing of your sister Bahar, who put Shadeed under such a powerful spell that he became entirely forgetful of himself. But, ultimately, you must shoulder the blame for her causing the death and destruction of such a large number of my men.”
Heyrat answered, “Your Excellency should grant me leave to go and chastise that strumpet.” Afrasiyab answered, “I will find a way to arrest and punish Mahrukh since she rebelled against me and my authority. You may have a free hand in the matter of your sister, however. Deal with her as you see fit. I have already sent Rutas with Jamshed’s mantle to arrest both Mahrukh and Bahar. If he is unsuccessful, you may advance against them.”