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.
[Bakhtiarak ate the dates and fell unconscious. ]
Bakhtiarak ate the dates and fell unconscious. Chalak bundled him up, leaped out of the pavilion and sped toward the wilderness where he climbed up a hill from where he could keep an eye on anyone who might follow him.After satisfying himself that he was not pursued, Chalak restored Bakhtiarak to consciousness and asked him, “Tell me truthfully the origins of the magic trooper.” Bakhtiarak replied, “If I tell the truth will you spare my life?” Chalak replied, “Why do you ask for my word? Should it be my pleasure, I will reprieve your life, and should I feel like it, I will behead you.”
Bakhtiarak answered, “All I know is that sorceress Nagan has gone into hiding to capture the Most Great Name; she gave me an amulet to call her in time of need by placing it in fire. Should you wish, I could summon her.” Bakhtiarak had planned to secure his release and have Nagan capture Chalak. However, Chalak too, had thought of a trick. He said to Bakhtiarak, “Very well, you may summon Nagan.”
Bakhtiarak started a fire and put the amulet into it. Immediately, a whirring sound was heard and Nagan arrived. She asked Bakhtiarak, “Why did you call me?” Bakhtiarak did not dare say a word about Chalak; he only pointed in the direction where Chalak stood, signalling her to arrest him. But Nagan did not understand him because Chalak had hidden himself a moment before she arrived. As she looked in all directions uncomprehendingly, Chalak, who was ready with his slingshot, fired a well-aimed shot at Nagan. Her head flew off her shoulders and fell far away from the impact. She dropped to the ground dead and was dispatched hellward, even before the commotion caused by her death had subsided.
Bakhtiarak too, dropped to the ground and closed his eyes but Chalak dragged him to a tree and tied him to it. Now disguised as Nagan, Chalak headed toward Sarmast’s camp. Seeing his nanny, Sarmast greeted her respectfully and asked, “Have you already captured the Most Great Name?” The false Nagan caught Sarmast by the hand and said, “I learned that these three days will be inauspicious for you. It would be almost impossible for you to escape the tricksters. If you accompany me I will show you how to ward them off.”
The false Nagan took Sarmast into a wilderness where she gave him an apple from her sack and said, “Eat this apple. It is from the garden of Lord Sameri. It will lengthen your life and nobody will be able to kill you.” Sarmast ate the apple and dropped to the ground, unconscious. Chalak immediately beheaded him. A great noise and pandemonium engulfed them and fire and stones rained from the sky.
Prince Darab and other commanders of Amir Hamza’s army captured by Sarmast were released from his magic. They decided to put an end to Laqa’s menace once and for all. They drew their swords and fell upon Laqa’s army. The sorcerers’ camp was taken by surprise. They reckoned there were powerful sorcerers among the True Believers, who had killed their leader, Sarmast. Convinced of this, they turned tail. The valiant True Believers killed infidels for many hours.
When the bloodshot eyes of the Darling of the Night94 hid her face in a veil of crimson tears, and the skirts of the day were painted red by dusk, the commanders of the army of True Believers returned to their camp. Laqa retired to the fortress of Mount Agate in grief and defeat, and the sorcerers retreated into the tilism.
King Suleiman Amber-Hair sent another message to Emperor Afrasiyab soliciting his aid.
Emperor Afrasiyab was seated in the Dome of Light while Heyrat was arrayed out against Mahrukh. The sorcerers from Sarmast’s defeated army presented themselves before Afrasiyab and the magic claw brought him King Suleiman Amber-Hair’s note. These events thoroughly incensed and nettled Afrasiyab and he grasped the tricksters’ capacity to cause damage. He considered how difficult a time he had had trying to capture their leader, who had entered his tilism with just a handful of his companions. And he realized what a terror they must have been for Lord Laqa, who had had to contend with thousands of tricksters in Amir Hamza’s camp.
Afrasiyab first sent a message to Empress Heyrat. He wrote:
“Empress, you must not beat the drums of war as yet. If you battle the rebels now, the tricksters will interfere with your campaign and sabotage it. You must first send the trickster girl Sarsar to capture the tricksters. Afterwards, confronting and defeating Mahrukh and her rebellious horde will be a small matter.”
He sent the note to Empress Heyrat with a magic slave and then wrote one to sorceress Princess Hasina Magic-Beauty. It read:
“O Princess, you had left with the promise to go to Lord Laqa’s aid but I learned that you fell ill afterwards and could not fulfill the undertaking. If you’re still indisposed, please inform me so that another sorcerer can be nominated for the campaign. If, however, you are now restored to health, you may proceed and complete your mission.”
Afrasiyab dispatched that letter too, with a magic slave who brought it to Princess Hasina. She wrote in reply:
“I am fully recovered now by the Grace of Lord Jamshed. I will depart shortly on the mission assigned to me and Your Honor may put your mind at ease on that account.”
The magic slave returned to Afrasiyab. The emperor was satisfied by Hasina’s reply.
When Afrasiyab’s note reached Heyrat, she said to the trickster girl Sarsar, “The emperor orders that you go and take Amar Ayyar captive.” Sarsar answered, “Very well!” Putting on a trickster’s dress and weapons, she set out on her mission.
Now hear of the tricksters. They were busy making revels in Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp when the news of Empress Heyrat’s arrival was received. They retreated into the wilderness to plan some trickery to ransack her camp.
Engrossed in these thoughts, Amar Ayyar came upon a wedding party in the environs of the Dome of Light. He saw a group of sorcerers drinking wine and watching a dance recital under a canopy while the groom sat on a throne attired in a luxurious golden dress. Amar was delighted by the sight and thought, A destitute fellow like me will never come across a better opportunity. I must rob them and provide for myself.
Amar went to a nearby cave where he disguised himself as a minstrel, fixed a beard on his face that reached down to his waist, and rubbed lotions on his face to acquire a ruddy complexion. Disguised as an old man with a wrinkled face and bent back, he put on a chemise and turban; then he returned to the assembly carrying a tambourine in his hand and a pair of flutes stuck in his belt.
The false minstrel sang a congratulatory song with such pathos that he captivated everyone.
A sorcerer named Taseer, who was the father of the groom, reckoned the false minstrel was a master of musical arts. He showed him much reverence, seated him by his side, and said, “Have a drink or two. Consider this your own house. I will also make you an offering according to my status.” The false minstrel said, “May you rise in dignity! May you attain a higher rank. May your lordship prosper forever.” Then he sat down to sing and play the flute.
Sarsar, who was searching for Amar Ayyar in the wilderness, heard the sound of singing. She went to investigate and saw a minstrel regaling the wedding party. She recognized Amar Ayyar at first sight. She listened to Amar’s singing for some time and thought, Praise the Lord! My lover is not only a renowned man but also a consummate master of all arts!
However, Sarsar was there on Afrasiyab’s orders to capture Amar. She entered the assembly and whispered to sorcerer Taseer, “This man is Amar Ayyar. You must arrest him immediately.” Seeing Sarsar’s lips move, the false minstrel realized that she had recognized him and counselled Taseer to capture him. He walked straight up to Taseer and said, “Look who comes behind you.” As Taseer turned, Amar knocked him on the head and made away with Taseer’s pearl-embroidered headgear.
As the sorcerers ran to catch Amar, Sarsar stopped them, saying, “Wait here, I will go and catch him myself.” Sarsar drew her dagger and went in pursuit of Amar. As he stopped in the wilderness for a moment’s rest, Sarsar arrived and challenged him, saying, “Here you are O wretch. Now you won’t be able to escape me.” Hearing her challenge, Amar also drew his dagger and they started fighting.
Burq the Frank arrived on the scene in the meanwhile and said to Sarsar, “I offer my salutes to my lady!” Sarsar answered, “O Burq, your master styles himself the Emperor of Tricksters. Why is he unable to fight me on his own? If he is indeed so powerful and great why does he need the crutch of your assistance? If his claim is just, you should go away and leave me and your master alone to sort out this matter between us.”
Burq replied, “Indeed, I have no business intruding here. Everyone must allow a lover and his beloved privacy. I know you wish to be rid of me so that you can make love to him.” With these words, Burq left them.
As Burq walked away, he saw Saba Raftar coming from the opposite direction. He realized that if she joined Sarsar it would spell trouble for Amar. Burq challenged Saba Raftar, who drew her sword and fell upon Burq.
A sorcerer named Sayyah happened to pass where Amar Ayyar and Sarsar fought. He was on his way to attend the wedding of sorcerer Taseer’s son. Seeing the two fighting in the wilderness, he captured them by magic.
Sarsar said to him, “Why have you arrested me? I am a servant of the emperor.” Amar interjected, “She lies. I am a minstrel and she’s my wife. Because I am old and infirm she runs after other men. When I catch her red-handed and attempt to kill her lovers she comes in my way and fights with me. Today I am resolved to put an end to her mischief. Release me now so that I may slice off the tip of this strumpet’s nose.”
Sayyah said, “I heard that Afrasiyab sent Sarsar to fight the tricksters. But I do not recognize her since common folks like me have no opportunity to set foot in the emperor’s court. I cannot say which one of you is telling the truth.”
Amar said, “You may learn the truth at the wedding ceremony of sorcerer Taseer’s son.” Sayyah said, “Very well. I was headed there myself.”
With the help of a magic claw, he carried Amar and Sarsar to the wedding gathering and asked sorcerer Taseer about them. He answered, “All I can tell you is that the minstrel arrived here and was followed by this woman. The minstrel ran away after snatching my headgear, which is a sure sign that he is a trickster. As I have never seen a trickster or trickster girl before, I cannot verify that this woman is Sarsar. However, having captured them presents a wonderful opportunity for us to gain admission to the royal court. You should take both of them to Empress Heyrat, who has arrived in the region of Zahir.” Sayyah answered, “I can invoke my magic and discover their true identities. But as you state, they are our passports to the royal court. I will leave for Empress Heyrat’s court after participating in your ceremony.”
Sayyah tied up Amar and Sarsar, and sat down to watch the dance recital.
Now hear of Burq the Frank. In the midst of fighting Saba Raftar, he jumped into a cave. Saba Raftar jumped in after him, dagger drawn, and shouted, “There’s nowhere you can run to now.”
Burq had fixed the snare rope to the mouth of the cave. When Saba Raftar jumped in, Burq pulled the rope and Saba Raftar fell into his lap entangled in the snare rope. Burq made her unconscious with a drug then disguised himself as Saba Raftar. The real Saba Raftar he dressed up and disguised as Amar Ayyar. Then he tied the false Amar Ayyar into a bundle and headed to where the wedding party was assembled.
Noticing the false Saba Raftar carrying a bundle, everyone gathered to see whom she had caught. The false Saba Raftar approached and saw Amar and Sarsar sitting tied up.
The false Saba Raftar blessed Sayyah the Traveler, then said, “Why are you holding my sister prisoner?” Sayyah replied, “I could not tell the difference. Now I will take both of them before Empress Heyrat.”
The false Saba Raftar said, “How could you not tell the difference between a woman and a man? I am Sarsar’s vizier girl. The one you have tied up is Princess Sarsar, but the minstrel is one of Amar Ayyar’s companions. I caught the real Amar Ayyar!”
Sayyah wished to establish the truth of her account. One of the attendees said to him, “I have the portraits of the tricksters and trickster girls with which you can verify their faces.”
Once their identity was verified, Sayyah released the real Sarsar and tied up the false Amar, who was really Saba Raftar in disguise.
After she was released, Sarsar recognized Burq but she said to herself, These idiots and clowns assembled here are all blind to sense and reason. They would meet the punishment they deserve at the tricksters’ hands. Let them reap their rewards since they humiliated and disgraced me. I should leave them to their just deserts.
WhenSarsar left, the false Saba Raftar said to Taseer, “I made a pledge that after I captured Amar Ayyar I would hold a celebratory feast and be a cupbearer for the sorcerers. All praise to Lord Sameri that after I caught Amar I came upon an assembly of sorcerers. It is my desire to serve wine to everyone in this gathering. I will compensate you for the wine used today from your cellar. All I ask is that you let me be the host.” Taseer answered, “Think of it as your own home. Drink and serve to your heart’s content without thought of expense.”
The false Saba Raftar smiled and took charge of the wine service. She drugged the wine while arranging the cups and goblets, and then served the assembly. After they fell unconscious, she released Amar Ayyar, who was in the minstrel’s disguise. Immediately, Amar began looting the assembly while the false Saba Raftar beheaded the sorcerers.
In the meanwhile, Afrasiyab opened the Book of Sameri. Since Empress Heyrat’s departure on the campaign he had consulted it often to make sure that his wife did not suffer humiliation at the hands of the tricksters. The false Saba Raftar had beheaded only a few sorcerers when the Book of Sameri alerted Afrasiyab to her doings, and the emperor learned that Amar and Burq sowed strife in the environs of the Dome of Light. Afrasiyab thought, How long must I endure these tricksters’ depredations? Today I must capture and kill Amar!
The emperor sent for sorceress Khumar, who was already wroth with Amar after their earlier encounter when Amar had duped her and shaved her head on the banks of the River of Flowing Blood. Afrasiyab ordered Khumar to produce Amar and Burq before him as prisoners and release the real Saba Raftar.
Khumar grew magic wings and flew away. She soon arrived at the scene and called out to the tricksters, “Stop, O wretches!” Burq quickly escaped the moment he heard her challenge. Amar hid himself in a nook too, but Khumar came down from the sky in the form of lightning and carried away Amar Ayyar in her magic claw. She recited a spell that set Saba Raftar loose, who ran away once freed from her bonds. Next, Khumar pointed her finger toward the sky and a puff of cloud materialized above the wedding guests who lay drugged. It rained and restored everyone to consciousness. Finding the sorcerers lying murdered around them, they said, “Witness what the tricksters have reduced us to with their evil deeds!” Then they went about their business.
Khumar arrived at the Dome of Light, saluted the emperor and produced Amar before him. Amar had fallen unconscious, buffeted by the powerful gusts of wind as he was being carried by the magic claw. When he opened his eyes he found himself in Afrasiyab’s court and saluted him.
Afrasiyab said, “Tell me O Amar if you ever believed that you would see this day?” Amar replied, “I did indeed; I will now rob your court and shave your beard. I came here today for this very purpose.”
Enraged by this reply, Afrasiyab sent a note to Empress Heyrat in which he wrote:
“O Empress of the World, we have captured Amar Ayyar. You should hand over the command of your camp to your deputies and return so that I may kill him in your presence to pleasure your heart and comfort your eyes.”
Afrasiyab dispatched the note with a magic claw and imprisoned Amar in a steel cage.
When the magic claw delivered Afrasiyab’s note to Heyrat, she broke into joyous laughter and looked more pleased than she ever had. She summoned her army commanders and gave them the news. She instructed them to take care of the camp in her absence and ordered the music assembly to play festive music in anticipation of Amar Ayyar’s death.
As the drums began playing celebratory notes, Heyrat clad herself in a red dress, covered herself with ruby jewelery, and departed for the Dome of Light mounted on a magic peacock.
In the meanwhile, the magic birds brought news of Amar’s capture to Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe and informed them of the celebrations in the enemy camp, and of Empress Heyrat’s departure to preside over Amar’s killing.
Princesses Bahar, Nafarman and Queen Mahjabeen ordered their armies to get ready to march to Amar’s rescue or die fighting in the effort. Mahrukh Magic-Eye said, “It’s nearly impossibile to reach the Dome of Light.” Prince Asad said, “No mortal has the power to kill Amar. He is the Beheader of Sorcerers and the favored one of seven prophets. He will only die after he himself asks for his death three times. Afrasiyab has no power to harm even a hair on his body. We must all pray to the True Savior for Amar’s well being and safety.”
All of them called out in prayer, “O Supreme Creator and Kind and Merciful Lord, all of us converted to the True Faith and became enlightened on account of Amar Ayyar. Because of his efforts we put our belief in You – the One God without partners. We pray You to take Amar into Your care and protection.”
94. Darling of the Night: an allusion to the sun.