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.
[The face-adorners of the bride of valor and the bedeckers of the glorious damsel who has a taste for carnage… ]
Of Sorcerer Sarmast Fighting Amir Hamza; Of the Trickery Performed by Chalak; Of Empress Heyrat Marching with a Sanguinary Army and Waging a Long War Against Mahrukh; And of the Trickeries Performed by the Tricksters and Trickster Girls
The face-adorners of the bride of valor and the bedeckers of the glorious damsel who has a taste for carnage, draw the comb of speech through the locks of their darling narrative and dot the letters on the mirror-like bright face of the page as if drawing dark moles on her comely face to ward off the evil eye.
When Empress Heyrat prepared to march against Mahrukh, some seven million sorcerers, including many renowned magicians of the tilism, prepared to accompany her on the campaign. Afrasiyab also sent two of his ministers, Abriq Mount-Splitter and Sarma Ice-Hurler to escort Heyrat. The empress mounted the throne and her sorceress-aides, Yaqut and Zamarrud, began fanning her with fly-whisks of phoenix feathers.
Thousands of magic drums sounded as her throne rose into the air and climbed into the clouds. The throne took on the shape of an enamelled building in which her jewel-encrusted throne lay surrounded by thousands of ruby-inlaid chairs. Bright and blazing like a flame, Heyrat’s body hovered over the throne. Magic bugles and bells sounded along the course and chants of “LONG LIVE SAMERI!” were heard as her procession flew along its path.
At Heyrat’s signal, a sorcerer threw magic citrons into the air that burst with thunderous sounds like the simultaneous discharge of tens of hundreds of canons and caused thousands of stars to fall from the heavens and disappear above Empress Heyrat’s head as a sacrifice for her life and to ward off harm.
Skirmishers of the battlefield flew alongside Empress Heyrat astride magical beasts, making the Earth and the heavens cry for reprieve from the deafening cling-clang of their arms and armor. The ranked and conceited sorcerers and sorceresses progressed forth mightily and with great splendor and arrived like a swelling tide in the precincts of the City of Manycolors.
Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and Mahrukh Magic-Eye were seated on their thrones when they heard the tolling of magical bells and the thunder of drums that shook the Earth. All the commanders of their camp headed out of the court and witnessed the arrival of Empress Heyrat and the sorceress’s army.
Everyone who saw the sight of that swelling horde called out, “O Protector! We seek Your protection!”Mahrukh and others were unnerved by the sight of Heyrat’s procession and their camp was thrown into commotion.
Heyrat’s army bivouacked on the other side of the arena. A hundred ruby-encrusted spires shone above their camp and for miles across the horizon the tents of sorcerers were pitched. The bazaars opened up in Heyrat’s camp and brisk trade began in all parts of the market.
The royal camp overlooking the Hall of Assembly was a sight to behold. Heyrat dismounted her throne, entered the court and ascended her station, which was ringed by the seats and thrones of throat-slitting warriors and sorcerers as mighty as Sameri. The forest of valor became crowded with lions. The trickster girls came out from their wilderness stations, presented themselves, and got busy making preparations for the impending battle.
Leaving all of them busy in their preparations,
Forget for a moment this tale
And hear in its place another story
Let us digress here to narrate the account of the sorcerer Sarmast, who had departed with great pomp and magnificence and twelve thousand sorcerers toward Mount Agate in Laqa’s aid. After traversing many stages, his army emerged from the boundaries of the tilism and arrived in the neighbourhood of Mount Agate.
Finding himself in the vicinity of a thick and enchanting forest, Sarmast desired to go hunting. He set up his camp at the foot of the mountain and, leaving his army camped there, started the hunt. After he had hunted many birds, wild asses and wild cows, a deer pierced by his arrow escaped and Sarmast gave it chase on his horse.
Amir Hamza’s son, Darab the World Conqueror, was already hunting in that part of the forest. As the deer ran past him he notched and shot an arrow that brought down the deer. As it collapsed the prince slaughtered it. In the meanwhile, Sarmast reached the scene and, noticing Darab standing over his prey, challenged him, saying, “How dare you slaughter my prey?” Darab replied, “O brave, I would never have targeted this vulnerable animal had I known that it was your prey. Please accept this deer, as well as all the animals I have hunted today, as a gift, and forgive my error.”
Sarmast, who was intoxicated with the heady wine of vanity, did not accept the Prince’s excuse. He rebuked Darab, saying, “O unworthy fool, do you tempt me with meat because you think I covet it? I am the sorcerer Sarmast and shall now hunt you down for your contumely.”
The prince answered, “You sorcerers pride yourselves on magic; if you faced me in sword combat I would show you your true worth in no time.” Sarmast answered, “I give you my word that in our combat I shall not recourse to magic. Let us see what you are capable of, give me your best blow!” The prince answered,
“You should fulfill your desire first
For I let my enemy always deliver the first blow.”
Sarmast drew his sword. Rising in his stirrups and summoning the entire strength of his body into his arms, he unleashed the blow on Darab’s head. The prince brought his steed up to Sarmast’s and, contracting himself like a flower bud, covered his entire body with his shield. The shield received the full impact of Sarmast’s blow but only the hilt and the shank of Sarmast’s sword struck it. The angle from which the sword fell did not land a useful blow and was foiled by the prince.
Sarmast had not yet pulled himself together when Darab drew his sword and called out, “Be warned and beware lest someone should say that I attacked you without warning,
“You dealt me a blow now receive one from my hand
That will erase all happy thoughts from your heart.”
Darab now dealt the blow. Seeing the sharp blade come down with Darab’s mighty arm, Sarmast emptied his saddle and jumped onto the horse’s crupper to block with his shield. The lightning-like sword of the prince of lofty fortunes cut through the shield like a thunder bolt passes through dark clouds. It cut Sarmast’s helm and armor, his turban and under-cap89 and sank two digits deep into his skull.
Sarmast quickly stopped the progress of the blade with his hand armor and, with a twang, the sword came out of his skull, but a screen of blood covered Sarmast’s face and he fell down from the injury unconscious.
Darab’s first impulse was to behead him but he thought better of it; the consideration that slaying the injured and helpless was beneath the dignity of valiant men stayed his hand. He was engrossed in these thoughts when, suddenly, a dark storm began blowing and Sarmast’s foster mother, the pitch-black, cruel-faced, ugly sorceress Nagan, materialized before Darab.
Enraged from witnessing the condition of her foster son, she cast a spell. A fiery tower rose around Darab and imprisoned him, allowing no avenue of escape. Then she carried Sarmast in her arms to safety. In the meanwhile, Zardam, who was one of Sarmast’s retainers, arrived on the scene with the army at the same time that Prince Darab’s forces also landed there.
A battle broke out between the camps. The sorcerers employed magic and the armies of Prince Darabwere defeated in no time.They were routed and retreated into the mountains while Sarmast’s army returned to its camp.
Prince Darab’s trickster, Fattah Kishori, who accompanied his army, infiltrated Sarmast’s camp in a woodcutter’s disguise. He carried his sandals dangling from the end of a stick on his shoulders and logs of wood on his back.
In the meanwhile, some of Darab’s men returned to their camp and reported the events to Amir Hamza, who prepared to march to the prince’s rescue. An advance party of his companions and nobles immediately left to aid Darab.
In the enemy camp, sorceress Nagan treated Sarmast’s wounds with a magic salve that healed them at once. She instructed Sarmast in the delicate strategies of battle, advised him to leave for Laqa’s court, then departed. Sarmast started for Laqa’s court carrying Darab on a cart as his prisoner. Trickster Fattah and his army followed.
Laqa was seated on his throne when a dust storm arose. It became so dark that nothing could be made out and fire and stones rained down from the sky. Frightened out of his wits by these marvels, Laqa crept under his throne to hide.
A few moments later, Sarmast, whose arrival was heralded by these events, entered the court and, noticing the vacant throne, asked, “Where is Lord Laqa?”
Bakhtiarak welcomed him with all the tokens of honor and said, “Please be seated. Our Lord will join us momentarily.” Bakhtiarak screened off the area around the throne and tried to persuade Laqa to come out from under it. Bakhtiarak said, “If Your Lordship makes a habit of hiding there in fear, it would weaken the faith of your believers.” Laqa finally came out and was restored to his dignity and majesty. Once he resumed his seat on the throne, the screens were removed.
Sarmast prostrated himself before Laqa and told him that the Emperor of Hoshruba had sent him to help fight Hamza. Laqa conferred a robe of distinction on Sarmast and King Suleiman and Bakhtiarak provided a pleasant station for his army to set up camp.
Clapper-drums began beating and gongs were rung. The sorcerers rested and meat and wine were served in the court. A dance recital started and a musical assembly got underway.
Amir Hamza’s spies, who were present in Laqa’s court, returned to their camp and arrived in the Pavilion of Suleiman at the station of audience. They prayed with humility and devotion,
“You, whose courage matches Faridun’s, and magnificence equals Dara’s
You, whose person dispelled all tyranny from the world,
May your kingdom, riches, magnificence, and knowledge
Last forever and prosper till the end of time.
“A sorcerer named Sarmast has arrived with an army of twelve thousand sorcerers of dark fortune to aid Laqa. He plans to fight your servants and your evil-hunting forces. He has also brought Prince Darab as a prisoner with him.”
Amir Hamza cancelled his departure to secure Darab’s release; now that Sarmast was there, he would face him on the battlefield.
At Laqa’s court, a feast was held in Sarmast’s honor. Laqa sent Sarmast’s deputy, sorcerer Zardam, the leftovers from his plate. As the macebearer came out carrying the food tray and looked around in search of a laborer, the trickster Fattah Kishori stepped out disguised as a laborer and offered to carry it. On the way, the false laborer purposely stumbled and dropped the food. Cursing him, the macebearer started putting the bowls back onto the tray. The false laborer also helped and, without the macebearer catching him, used the opportunity to drug the food. They soon resumed their errand and arrived at Zardam’s pavilion.
Zardam was mightily pleased when he learned that Laqa had sent him his leftovers as a special favor. In the meanwhile, the false laborer hid himself behind Zardam’s pavilion. After Zardam and his companions ate the food and fell unconscious, he entered the pavilion by slitting open the panel, and beheaded all of them.
Immediately, the terrible cry and uproar of the magic spirits rose. People ran toward Zardam’s pavilion screaming, “Catch him! Don’t let the murderer escape!” Fattah raised the pavilion panel, made his war cry and escaped, adding his voice to the chorus of those running to catch him.
When informed of these events, Sarmast said to Bakhtiarak, “I will not rest a moment longer! Order the drums of war be struck. I will destroy the rebels one and all.” Bakhtiarak answered, “As you please!”
In the time that remained before the close of day, last rites were performed for Zardam and his companions.
Finally, the world-illuminating sun was imprisoned; the billowing forces of the Abyssinian of the Night unfurled their dark flag of mourning in the world’s inn; the Daughters of the Corpse90 entered the cemetery of the skies and the shower of dew fell on all creation like tears of grief. At Sarmast’s orders, the drums of war were beaten and the clarions sounded.
The spies of the King of True Believers presented themselves before him. After singing his praises, they informed him of the news. Trickster Chalak headed for the Music Assembly of Solomon and struck the Timbals of Sikander and Hashsham. The Earth and the heavens reverberated with the report. The Turkic flutes, the pipe of Kayumars, and the fife of the ancient king Afrasiyab sounded.91 For four full watches of the night, arms and armor were readied. The criers exhorted the braves and champions to remain alert with their proclamations. Valiant warriors prepared to lay down their lives in the battlefield when the night ended and it was time. When the Night’s Watchman,92 along with its army of stars, finished his vigil, the arrival of the Emperor of the Fourth Heaven93 was proclaimed from his eastern chamber to the four corners of the world.
At the break of dawn, the two armies came forward and streamed into the arena in platoons and groups.
Amir Hamza was occupied in prayer in the Roving Prayer Tent when the trickster Chalak arrived with the news that his great army had filled the arena and awaited his arrival. Amir came out decorated with arms. His worthy and noble commanders congregated around him, and Amir rode Ashqar Demon-Born to the threshold of the king’s private pavilion. King Saad, the Shadow of God, the Refuge of the World, emerged from the pavilion on the throne of Solomon. The criers called out, “In the Name Of Allah!” and all the commanders bowed to their sovereign. The drums were struck, kettledrums were beaten and attendants called out, “Make way for the king’s procession! Show deference and keep your distance!” Ringed by his commanders, the king’s conveyance headed toward the arena as Laqa arrived with sorcerer Sarmast.
The warriors arranged themselves in ranks and columns. The groundsmen levelled the uneven areas of the arena. The water-carriers sprinkled the arena and settled the dust, leaving the whole battlefield clean of all shrubbery and debris. The criers from both camps came forward and recited challenges to the enemy to rouse their warriors.
After securing Laqa’s permission, Sarmast flew into the arena astride his magic dragon and challenged Amir Hamza’s camp, saying, “O accursed creatures of Lord Laqa, who among you dares to come forward and face me?”
King Saad gave Mandvail Isfahani leave to fight and he confronted Sarmast.
The sorcerer recited a spell and, presently, a dust cloud arose from the direction of the wilderness and a fully armed magic trooper materialized and said to Mandvail, “Give me your best blow!” As they parried with lances, the magic trooper was able to disarm Mandvail with a strike of his lance. When Mandvail drew his sword, the magic trooper wrested it from his hand by securing hold of his glove, lifted him from his saddle by his cummerbund, and slammed him to the ground. He took Mandvail prisoner and gave him into the custody of Sarmast’s army.
The magic trooper called out to the True Believers, “Those among you who covet death must come out and face me.” One after another, Amir Hamza’s commanders faced the magic trooper and were taken prisoner by him. Several hundred commanders of Amir Hamza’s camp were captured in this manner.
Finally, the day came to an end. As the twilight caught the skirts of Sun’s robe and pleaded with him not to hide his face, the Virgin of the Heavens retired to mourn her beloved day in the chamber of darkness.
Sarmast ordered that cessation of hostilities should be announced by the beating of drums. He returned to his camp and the two armies returned to rest for the night.
The trickster Chalak now headed out to discover the origins of the magic trooper.
In Laqa’s camp, Bakhtiarak said to Sarmast, “Hamza is the master of the Most Great Name. No spell will work on him when he enters the arena, and the Name will render void all your magic.”
Sarmast recited a spell to summon his foster mother, sorceress Nagan, and said to her, “We must capture Hamza, who is the master of the Most Great Name – the revoker of spells.”
Nagan said, “I will prepare some magic to capture the Most Great Name. Once I have done so, Hamza will be unable to recall it. I will now go into hiding to escape the tricksters’ attacks.”
Bakhtiarak said, “I fear the tricksters will strike tonight to free their commanders. It would be preferable if you stayed.” Nagan gave Bakhtiarak an amulet and said, “When you are in need, place this amulet in fire and I will come immediately to your aid.” Then Nagan flew away.
Chalak tried to find a trace of the magic trooper but was unsuccessful. He then disguised himself as an attendant and entered the pavilion of Bakhtiarak, who recognized Chalak at once.
Be it known that Amar Ayyar had killed Bakhtiarak’s father, Bakhtak, and cooked and fed his pottage to Bakhtiarak. Ever since, Bakhtiarak had acted with great humility and deference toward the tricksters and did not meddle in their business, knowing they could kill him as easily and without the least compunction.
Bakhtiarak now greeted Chalak, showed him every sign of honor and seated him at a high station. Bakhtiarak asked, “What brought my venerable master’s son here today? I also wish to know whether or not my life will be spared.” Chalak answered, “As a matter of fact, your death hovers above your head. I came here to ask you something and am resolved in the event of your not answering truthfully to relieve you forever from the burden of life.” Bakhtiarak covered himself in a white shroud and lay down at Chalak’s feet as if already dead.
Chalak said, “Get up. You must not die so quickly. First eat some dates from my hand.” Bakhtiarak whined, “Your Honor may ask me what you wish, or kill me should it please you more, but why must you make me unconscious with drugged dates?” Chalak drew his dagger and snarled, “O wittol! How dare you make objections! Quick, eat these dates!” Bakhtiarak replied, “Very well! I will comply.”
89. under-cap (araq chin): a cap worn under a turban to absorb sweat.
90. Daughters of the Corpse: the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor which consist of seven stars, four of which are thought in Muslim folk tradition to resemble a corpse and the other three to be the daughters walking in front of it.
91. The Afrasiyab mentioned in this instance is an ancient King of Persia. Not to be confused with Afrasiyab the Emperor of Hoshruba.
92. Night’s Watchman: an allusion to the moon.
93. Emperor of the Fourth Heaven: an allusion to the sun.