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.
[Unable to find the tricksters, the red birds began landing on the citizenry. ]
Unable to find the tricksters, the red birds began landing on the citizenry. The moment a bird landed on anyone’s head he lost his mind and, roaring with passion and reciting love couplets, headed for the jungle.The whole city was overtaken by a strange madness and people embraced and kissed each other. Seeing that his spell had failed to capture any trickster, Baghban Magic-Gardener revoked it.
Suddenly, Burq appeared before them without a disguise. Afrasiyab recited a spell and everyone saw the floating, life-sized Magic Mirror materialize, which displayed his image at its center. From a distance, Burq threw a stone at it but it was deflected by the mirror.
Afrasiyab’s fourth minister, Abriq Mount-Splitter, recited a spell over some magic stones and hurled them at Burq. Those stones became giant hills and flew toward Burq. But because he was in possession of Jamshed’s mantle they seemed to him only the size of pebbles. However, when they fell on the city – heaven’s mercy – they buried and killed thousands of inhabitants, causing great upheaval in the city. The powerful sorcerers managed to emerge from under them by reciting counterspells but many ordinary sorcerers died upon impact. Abriq Mount-Splitter finally revoked his magic upon hearing the furore.
Amar emerged from Daniyal’s Tent and, wearing his cape of invisibility, continued to loot the city. He then moved Daniyal’s Tent to where Afrasiyab stood. The courtiers saw Amar lying on a jewel-enchased bed inside the tent while two fairies pressed his legs. Afrasiyab declared to his courtiers, “Amar seems a most powerful sorcerer. Are there any among you who can overcome and arrest him?” A sorcerer named Tamtaraq stepped forward at the emperor’s call and, reciting a spell, stepped into Daniyal’s Tent. Immediately, his legs went up and his head went down and he was suspended upside down, all his magic forgotten.
Amar got up from the bed and made a coal fire. Then he cut off a piece of Tamtaraq’s flesh. When he howled with pain, Amar said to him, “O bastard, I will now roast you as I am partial to sorcerer flesh!” Hearing this speech, the sorcerers were terrified. Tamtaraq’s brother, Waqwaq, came running and said to Amar, “Don’t eat my brother! I will pay you a thousand gold pieces.” Amar answered, “I would not settle for less than five thousand.” Waqwaq replied, “Very well! You will have your five thousand gold pieces but you must release my brother.” He brought five thousand gold pieces and piled them near Daniyal’s Tent.
Amar first made Tamtaraq unconscious and cut off the tip of his tongue. Then with a sweep of the Net of Ilyas, he collected the gold pieces and threw Tamtaraq out.
Waqwaq carried away his brother. Seeing that Tamtaraq was unable to speak and discovering that the tip of his tongue had been severed, Waqwaq was enraged. He targeted Amar with all kinds of magic, raining stones on Daniyal’s Tent and lighting an inferno around it. But he was unable to inflict any harm on Amar or the tent.
Amar now pulled out the four columns of Daniyal’s Tent and raised it over his head like a parasol. Both Amar and Burq headed out of the court.
When Afrasiyab consulted the Book of Sameri he saw it had become blank. He said, “I will also leave now!” and departed.
At that moment, a dark dust cloud rose and thousands of gongs and bells rang out in the skies. The conveyance of another Afrasiyab arrived with great pomp and ceremony and everyone paid him their respects.
It so happened that after Burq deceived Afrasiyab in Saba Raftar’s disguise, Afrasiyab looked in the palm of his left hand to read his fortune and learned that for him the next two watches of the day would be inauspicious; it would be best for him to depart and save himself the disgrace he would expose himself to by remaining there longer. Afrasiyab clapped and softly called out, “Come, O my magic double!” It immediately materialized and replaced Afrasiyab, and the emperor disappeared. The sorcerers present in the court were too occupied with the tricksters’ antics to notice the change.
Afrasiyab now addressed his magic double in the Magic Mirror, “You may leave now! I regret the indignities you suffered at the hands of the tricksters!” At these words, Afrasiyab’s magic double dissolved away in the mirror.
Now, when Afrasiyab consulted the Book of Sameri he saw written there:
“Magic had no effect on Burq because he was in possession of Jamshed’s mantle. What pressing need had you to acquire a piece of Lord Jamshed’s clothing and a gift of the tilism? It was on account of this contumely that your double was buffeted and disgraced by Burq. Had you stayed in the court, you’d have suffered the same fate.”
Seeing the resourcefulness and reach of the tricksters, Afrasiyab was enraged and said to his trickster girls, “Fools! Did I depute you so that the tricksters could wreak havoc in my city?” Sarsar replied, “O mighty emperor! I had arrested Amar Ayyar at your august orders even though he is the Prince of Tricksters and it was no easy task to capture him. But Your Excellency did not deem my protestations worthy of your attention. However, I will fulfill your wishes again.”
Afrasiyab said, “Burq can cross over the River of Flowing Blood because he is in possession of Jamshed’s mantle. But Amar does not have any tilism gifts and will not be able to cross. If he took the route from where Prince Asad entered the tilism, he would not have to cross the river. However, the distance to his camp would grow longer. The path would stretch to become equal to the length Prince Asad has traveled into the tilism. You must follow Amar and arrest him regardless of the route he chooses. Once you have accomplished your mission, send me the news and remain stationed across the River of Flowing Blood. I will kill Amar in full view of Mahrukh Magic-Eye and her camp.”
Sarsar left after receiving her orders.
Be it known that the City of Disregard had forty doors, each of which opened onto a different path. Some doors led out of Hoshruba.Other doors led out of the region of Batin to the banks of the River of Flowing Blood. Yet other doors led from Batin directly into Zahir, bypassing the river.
Sarsar thought that Amar must have taken the latter route. To search for him she followed the path that bypassed the river and entered Zahir.
After Sarsar left, Afrasiyab addressed his court, saying, “I find myself in a bind. Whenever I dispatch someone to capture Bahar, he is promptly killed. Is there no one among you who can go and bring me Bahar as a prisoner?”
A sorcerer named Namrud rose from his seat and said, “The servants of the Emperor are not helpless before rebels like Bahar. I ask leave to depart on the campaign. In the flash of an eye, I will bring her to you as a captive.” Afrasiyab answered, “Very well! You have my permission. Take the army along.”
Namrud replied, “It would be unworthy of me to fight Bahar with an army’s help. Moreover, it is difficult to identify tricksters when they infiltrate a large army to work their mischief. I shall not take any attendants along either. I will barge directly into Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp and arrest Bahar. I’ll see how they stop me!”
Namrud invoked his magic, grew wings, and flew away.
Now hear of Burq the Frank. He was able to cross over the River of Flowing Blood by virtue of Jamshed’s mantle. But when he arrived in the region of Zahir he was seen by the trickster girls Shamima, Sunubar and Tez Nigah. They challenged him and both parties drew swords. Although Burq was all alone, he acquitted himself with great distinction. Soon Jansoz also happened by and joined Burq in the fight. The two of them fought their way out of the trickster girls’ cordon. Burq, who was fearful of someone snatching Jamshed’s mantle from him, separated from Jansoz and headed out on his own.
The trickster girls pursued them. Finding Jansoz alone, they surrounded him. Sunubar threw her snare rope at him from behind. As Jansoz jumped out of its loops Shamima threw another that entangled him. Jansoz fell down and Tez Nigah quickly made him unconscious with an egg of oblivion. With Shamima’s help she made a bundle of him and gave it to Sunubar, saying, “Take him to the emperor. The two of us will now look for the other tricksters.”
As Sunubar carried the bundle to Afrasiyab’s court she was sighted by the trickster Zargham. He ran two miles ahead of Sunubar and spread out the loops of his snare rope along her path and covered them with grass. Holding the other end of the snare rope in his hands, Zargham hid himself in the bushes and waited.
When Sunubar approached the trap her heartbeat quickened with a sense of foreboding. As a precautionary measure, she called out, “O trickster, I recognize you!” Zargham thought that Sunubar had indeed recognized him and decided to come out of the bushes, but then paused and wondered if Sunubar only pretended to have seen him. He decided to remain hidden a little longer. While he made these calculations, Sunubar loaded and fired her slingshot. The stone fell close to Zargham. Now he was convinced that Sunubar had indeed seen him. He was about to emerge from his hiding place when Sunubar shot her sling in another direction. Zargham concluded that Sunubar had made those claims in pretence to deceive her enemies. He remained hidden and on the alert.
After satisfying herself that nobody lay in ambush for her and the dread she felt was only on account of her solitude, Sunubar leapt to continue on her way and landed right in the middle of Zargham’s trap. She was about to make a second leap and clear it when Zargham roared like a lion. As Sunubar momentarily hesitated, he pulled the end of the snare rope; its loops closed on Sunubar and she fell down. In one leap Zargham reached her side and made her unconscious with an egg of oblivion. Then he untied Jansoz and restored him to consciousness.
Zargham was tying Sunubar to a tree when Sarsar arrived there in her search of Amar. Seeing that the tricksters had taken Sunubar prisoner, Sarsar drew her short sword and charged them, shouting, “O wretches, now you won’t escape from my hands!”
Zargham and Jansoz drew daggers and confronted her, saying, “Our lady, the day master Amar conquers you he will make you sift grain and turn the hand mill. He provides his wives neither food nor clothes and makes them press his legs all night besides.” Sarsar said, “May I inter your master in a deep grave! May his life end in the prime of youth! I will show you whose lady I am! I will teach you wretches a fine lesson!”
Sarsar showered them with abuse and started fighting. Her short sword and their daggers flashed liked lightning. Sarsar fought her way to where Sunubar lay and hit her in the face with an egg of awareness. Sunubar sneezed and regained consciousness. She also joined the fray and the tricksters no longer had the upper hand against Sarsar. However, Sarsar did not wish to be deterred from her mission to catch Amar and sped away in the middle of the fight. Seeing her escape, Sunubar too, ran away after dodging the tricksters.
When Sarsar arrived at the banks of the River of Flowing Blood she saw Amar wandering on the other side, searching for a way to cross again into Zahir. Sarsar crossed over into Batin and threw a muslin kerchief steeped in perfume drug along Amar’s path. When Amar passed along he noticed an expensive kerchief lying on the ground with its corners knotted up. Amar picked it up and found fifty gold pieces tied from one corner, some rupees and coins from another, and sweet betel nuts and cardamoms from a third. He thought it must have been dropped there by one of Batin’s noble sorcerers.
As he put away the gold pieces and the rupees into his zambil the smell of the perfume drug filled his mind. He swooned and dropped unconscious to the ground. Sarsar made her war cry and came out from her hiding place. While making a bundle of Amar she decided to summon a trickster girl and dispatch her to Afrasiyab’s court to apprise the emperor of these developments.
Burq saw Sarsar from far away and crossed over into Batin disguised as the trickster girl Tez Nigah. He made his hairdo like the trickster girl’s, wore a greenish yellow mantle and colored his lips with missi and betel juice. He made the cast of a severed head from pasteboard and also made arms and legs covered with false skin. Then he took out a bottle of blood from his trickster’s bag and, covering his own head with the pasteboard cast, poured blood all over it and on its exposed veins. Attaching the pasteboard neck to the head with a strap of false skin, he scattered the pasteboard limbs around to give it the appearance of a dismembered corpse. Then he lay down on the path he reckoned Sarsar would take and hid his limbs under his clothes.
In due time, Sarsar passed that way and saw a dismembered corpse. Fresh blood flowed from the neck attached to the head with a shred of skin. Sarsar’s heart sank when she approached and recognized Tez Nigah’s face. Her eyes welled up with tears. Sarsar dropped Amar’s bundle and embraced the corpse crying and loudly wailing, “Alas, those wretched tricksters killed my sister. Alas my sister Tez Nigah! You were separated from me!”
As she was crying, a jet of blood shot out from the slit throat of the corpse and sprayed Sarsar’s face. She sneezed and fell unconscious. Burq the Frank made his war cry and got up. Spreading his trickster’s mantle, he laid Sarsar on it and placed Amar beside her. Then he applied plugs of restorative salts to their nostrils and both Amar and Sarsar regained consciousness.
Burq now approached Sarsar, greeted her and said, “Pray accept my salutations, O my lady! Look at you lying shamelessly here in broad daylight beside my master. If you could not find a garden nook for pleasure-seeking at least you should have taken the trouble to retire into a pavilion. You must not forsake the minimum requisites of decency.”
As Burq said these words, Amar Ayyar opened his eyes and, finding himself lying next to Sarsar, amorously embraced her, crying, “Come to me, O Life of the World! O Solace of the Hearts of Lovers!”
Finding herself in that predicament, Sarsar answered, “You bastards deserving of beheading! You sucked on the teats of a bitch as infants.” With that she kicked Amar as he amorously called out,
“O to hear the jingle of your ankle bells
When your feet drum my chest on the night of union.”
Sarsar blushed crimson at these words. She leapt away and escaped.
Amar now caught Burq’s hand and said, “Son, I will not ask for Jamshed’s mantle from you. But do come along with me to the court.” Amar led him to the court where Burq presented Afrasiyab’s four crowns to Asad and Mahjabeen, who made an offering of them to Amar. Queen Mahjabeen conferred several hundred thousand gold pieces on Burq in reward and Bahar too, presented him with fifty thousand gold pieces. The renowned commanders of the court sang Burq’s praises continuously and calls of “Bravo! Well done!” rose from all corners.
Moon-like cupbearers carrying goblets of wine circulated in that paradisiacal congregation and songsters sang captivating songs in mellow and harmonious notes to delight the assembly.
Amar now said to Burq, “My dear, I must ask you to hand over Jamshed’s mantle now. Amir Hamza had ordered that such marvellous devices and the mementoes of the prophets must be employed against the enemy only as a last resort. And look at you! The moment you found yourself in possession of Jamshed’s mantle you headed straight for the City of Disregard and challenged Afrasiyab. Had I wished, I could have donned the cape of invisibility, beheaded all enemies and conquered the tilism. But we must remain an aid and assistant to the Conqueror of the Tilism merely in the capacity of tricksters. Now, do surrender Jamshed’s mantle to me.”
Burq answered, “I do not depend on Jamshed’s mantle for my trickeries. God willing, even without it I will kill thousands of sorcerers.” He handed Jamshed’s mantle to Amar Ayyar.
While they were engaged in this conversation a horrible sound suddenly broke upon them. A magic claw swooped down with a flash of light and carried away Bahar and a thunderous voice proclaimed, “I AM SORCERER NAMRUD!” The courtiers and Princess Mahrukh Magic-Eye rose from their stations in agitation. Thousands of magic coconuts and citrons targeted the magic claw. But none of them had any effect because it was the magic claw of a mighty sorcerer.
Amar Ayyar and the tricksters followed the flight of the magic claw, which landed with Bahar on a mountaintop. The sorcerer Namrud proclaimed by magic in a dreadful, booming voice, “O TRIBE OF INGRATES, KNOW THAT I AM STATIONED ON THIS MOUNTAINTOP SO THAT NONE MAY SAY THAT I CARRIED OFF BAHAR FURTIVELY. I CHALLENGE THE COURAGEOUS ONES AMONG YOU TO SNATCH HER FROM ME.”
Namrud deputed a magic slave on the peak of the mountain to alert him if anyone approached. Then he spread a magic carpet and sat down. He sat Bahar, who had fallen unconscious after catching Namrud’s powerful gaze, down on one side of him.
Amar Ayyar climbed the mountaintop in the guise of a sorcerer carrying a bowl full of brightly shining pomegranate seeds the size of chicken eggs. The magic slave deputed on the peak warned Amar not to proceed further. When Amar did not desist, it called out to Namrud, “BE ALERT, AMAR AYYAR IS APPROACHING!” Namrud replied, “Let him come!”
Amar arrived before Namrud, greeted him, and said, “O Namrud, your magic slave lies! I am, in fact, a servant of Emperor Afrasiyab, who sent these pomegranate seeds for you from the Apple Garden.” Namrud laughed and said, “O Amar, you have no equal in slyness. I won’t fall for your tricks but do let me see what kind of pomegranate seeds you brought me.”
Namrud took the bowl from Amar’s hands and saw pomegranate seeds of a marvellous variety. When he took out a few for closer inspection, steam rose from them and a wisp of the vapor traveled up Namrud’s nostrils. He sneezed and fell unconscious. Amar Ayyar cut off his head without loss of time.
Clamour and noises arose, darkness fell, and after a few moments, a plaintive cry was heard, “I WAS KILLED! NAMRUD WAS MY NAME.” A bird of bright plumage emerged from his skull and flew off toward Afrasiyab’s court.
Princess Bahar was freed from Namrud’s spell at his death. She returned with Amar Ayyar to Mahjabeen’s court where everyone celebrated her release and revels began.
The shiny-colored bird that came out of Namrud’s skull arrived in Afrasiyab’s court. It informed him of Namrud’s end and burned up.
When Emperor Heyrat again insisted on leading the campaign against the enemy with an entourage of renowned sorcerers, Afrasiyab finally gave her permission. Heyrat busied herself planning the campaign and marshalling the army.
Now hear of Laqa. Earlier we had learned of Suleiman Amber-Hair sending a missive to Afrasiyab requesting him to send someone to aid Laqa. The Emperor of Hoshruba had dispatched sorceress Hasina on the campaign. However, when Hasina reached her city to make preparations, she fell ill and could not proceed to Laqa’s aid. After some time, Suleiman Amber-Hair sent a second letter to Afrasiyab with the same message.
The magic claw carrying the letter for Afrasiyab arrived as Empress Heyrat was busy preparing for her own campaign. After reading Amber-Hair’s letter, Afrasiyab turned to one of the commanders of his army, sorcerer Sarmast, and said to him, “O Sarmast, you must go to Lord Laqa’s aid.” Sarmast retired to his abode upon receiving his orders. He gathered an army of twelve thousand sorcerers and marched toward Mount Agate with great majesty and glory.