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.
[While they prayed, a joyous and happy Empress Heyrat arrived in the Dome of Light. ]
While they prayed, a joyous and happy Empress Heyrat arrived in the Dome of Light. The courtiers paid her their respects and she took her seat beside Afrasiyab. The attendants of the empress put bowls of dry fruit, perfume boxes and flower vases before her. Heyrat opened a gold betel box, prepared a gilauri,95 and put it into Afrasiyab’s mouth with her own hands. Then she put her arms around the emperor’s neck coquettishly and said proudly, “You must not allow any delay in sending that tyrant to his doom.”
Afrasiyab issued his orders and the crier announced to all citizens of the City of Disregard to gather in the field opposite the Dome of Light to witness Amar Ayyar’s sorry state. Only a short time remained in his life before he would be meted out a humiliating and painful death, receiving the deserts of his evil life.
The citizens of the City of Disregard started gathering in the field. They said to each other, “Regard the results of rebellion; one washes his hands of his life.” The wise and sagacious took instruction from Amar’s example and said, “O brave men, witness that it is the same Amar who brought even Lord Laqa to grief and who is the deputy of the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction. The skewed revolutions of the fickle heavens can see no man of pride and majesty prosper for long. It tyrannically killed many renowned men and the earth covered them with a veil of dust.”
Amidst these cries and hubbub, the Turk of the Heavens96 was led away to his westerly prison. Mourning was proclaimed in the world’s inn for Amar. Presently, the eve of sorrows descended, all clad in black.
Afrasiyab recited a spell, which determined that as long as he was alive no one would be able to open the lock of Amar’s cage. Then Afrasiyab removed the spell from Amar’s body. When it was removed Amar felt he could move inside the cage.
As the evening progressed, everyone in Afrasiyab’s court busied themselves in revelry, their minds finally at peace that Amar could not break out of his prison.
Since nobody was deputed to keep watch on Amar, after some time had passed, he took out a pasteboard effigy from his zambil and disguised it with his likeness. He then put on the cape of invisibility and left the effigy in his place. He retired to a corner of the cage where he was invisible to everyone but the All Seeing God.
All night long people kept arriving in the field overlooking the Dome of Light and tablas played continuously.
Eager to take revenge on Amar for stealing from them, every sorcerer decided to strike Amar at least once when he was dragged out of the cage. One promised to pierce his heart with his trident and short spear. Another proclaimed that he would pull out Amar’s tongue from its root. Yet another sorcerer planned to extract Amar’s eyes from their sockets.
Amidst such talk, the dawn broke and the Luminous Bird97 fluttered out of its cage from the eastern sky in preparation for its flight across the sky. It illuminated the assembly of creation by its lustrous feathers. Dams of darkness broke and the world was flooded with light.
When it was morning, Afrasiyab recited a spell to unlock Amar’s cage and ordered the sorcerers to bring him out. They caught Amar’s effigy by its collar and pulled it out. Clad in the cape of invisibility, Amar too, came out of the cage. While the sorcerers belabored his effigy, Amar started looting the possessions of the beautiful and lovely sorceresses and the moon-faced slave girls with the Net of Ilyas. He stuffed betel boxes, dressing boxes, glasses, perfume boxes, water utensils, platters and makeup boxes into his zambil.
Finally, Amar said to one slave girl, “Now I am going away!” She turned to the one standing next to her and said, “Someone just said to me that he is leaving.”
Amar called out loudly, “O clown Afrasiyab, I am now going away!”
The sorcerers were frightened when these words rang out in the court. All the seats, thrones, tables, carpets, curtains and screens in the court disappeared all of a sudden. At that moment, Amar’s effigy also broke into pieces and the sorcerers realized to their great chagrin that the one they thought was Amar was, in fact, a pasteboard effigy.
Afrasiyab turned to sorceress Khumar and said, “O wretch! To impress me with your resourcefulness you brought me a pasteboard effigy of Amar! Confess the truth of the matter to me at once!” Khumar answered, “O Emperor, when I produced the captive you yourself conversed with him. If it were a pasteboard effigy I had brought you, how did it speak? And if you suggest that I had made a magic slave to deceive you, consult the Book of Sameri and you will learn the truth. Any mischief on my part will be revealed.”
When Afrasiyab looked into the Book of Sameri he learned that Khumar told the truth and discovered that Amar had escaped after tricking him.
Now Afrasiyab ordered his minister, Baghban Nature-Gardener, to catch Amar and produce him without delay.
Baghban recited a spell that caused a column of smoke to rise, billowing from the Earth to the Ninth Heaven.98 Baghban commanded that column, “Bring me Amar Ayyar wherever you find him. Do not release him even for a moment after his capture.”
The column of smoke disappeared in search of Amar.
Now hear of Amar Ayyar. After he emerged from the Dome of Light, he robbed all those who had assembled to witness his execution. Their caps, headgear, turbans and cummerbunds began to disappear as Amar swept the crowds with the Net of Ilyas. The commotion caused by these events was followed by a stampede as people ran crying, “We see ourselves being robbed but do not see the hand that robs us. Run before some calamity strikes us.”
The field was soon deserted. People locked the doors of their houses. The bazaars shut down. Amar headed for his camp from one of the gates of the City of Disregard, looting and stealing all he could along the way, and took off his cape of invisibility. He was on his way when the smoke column surrounded him and carried him away like a cyclone. It brought Amar to Baghban Nature-Gardener, who caught Amar by the hand and led him to Afrasiyab and said, “My Lord, I present this troublesome creature before you as ordered.”
Afrasiyab regarded Amar with a fiery glance and said, “Tell me how you would like to be put to death.” Amar replied, “I see nobody under the skies who can cast even an evil glance at me.” Afrasiyab said, “Do you not realize that you are now in my power to punish as I please?” Amar retorted, “It still remains a question whether I am in your power or you are in mine. Only this is certain, that I can punish you speedily and so rigorously that you would not recognize your own face.”
Afrasiyab was incensed by Amar’s words but he kept his calm and said to his courtiers, “He is like the man who unburdened his heart by cursing and abusing his captor once he knew he had forfeited his life.”
Afrasiyab asked Amar, “Tell us why you believe nobody can harm you.” Amar said, “O Emperor of Hoshruba, first you must tell me who you reckon Laqa to be?” Afrasiyab replied, “We consider him our God.” Amar asked, “Tell me then whether or not it is true that life and death are in God’s hands?” All the sorcerers present declared, “Indeed, Lord Laqa has absolute power in all matters. He may kill or bring to life at will.”
Amar said, “I want you to know then that I kill sorcerers by the will of Lord Laqa. Otherwise, an ordinary mortal like myself would have no power to kill mighty sorcerers and retainers of the Emperor of the Tilism. As the saying goes,
“Even should both heaven and Earth conspire
The one whom the Lord guards none may harm.
“Lord Laqa sent me into Hoshruba to destroy those creatures of his who become unmindful of their lord. Learn that I am Lord Laqa’s Angel of Death and kill and destroy all those heedless, rebellious creatures against whom he deputes me. I have Lord Laqa’s ear and am privy to his confidences.”
Afrasiyab and all the sorcerers said, “Indeed, it is as he describes. Not a blade of grass moves without the will of Lord Laqa. Amar speaks the very truth.”
Some sorcerers declared, “It is also true that we are often guilty of trespasses against our Lord.”
“Neither a mote increases or decreases
Nor a grain moves without God’s consent.”
Afrasiyab rose from his throne and reverentially kissed Amar’s hand. He removed the spell from Amar and said respectfully, “O Lord Laqa’s Angel of Death, please increase our honor by seating yourself in my court, and reveal who among us have you marked for your own.”
Amar sat down on a bejewelled chair and said, “O Emperor, I cannot reveal Lord Laqa’s secrets but if you wish I can show you the other marvellous gifts conferred on me by my Lord. I can confound you by my mastery of seventy-two different disguises, or entertain you with my gift of song. The will of Lord Laqa, however, is a secret of which I am unaware myself. There’s nothing I can tell you of it.”
Afrasiyab said, “It’s true that no one but Lord Laqa himself knows his will. Please display for us the talents and gifts that you described.”
Immediately, Amar became invisible where he was sitting. Everyone in the court cried out, “Indeed he was the Angel of Death sent by Lord Laqa.”
Amar retired to a secluded corner where he took off his cape of invisibility and disguised himself as a beautiful damsel. The false damsel put on a luxurious dress, adorned herself with gold and jewels, and came before Afrasiyab. She gracefully greeted the Emperor of Hoshruba, who was stunned by her ravishing beauty and allure. Finally, Afrasiyab asked, “O rosebud of the garden of elegance, who are you and what has brought you here today?” The false damsel answered coquettishly, “O Emperor, your slave girl is in love with you and her heart finds no solace.” Afrasiyab took her by the hand and seated her beside him.
Empress Heyrat was cut to the quick by Afrasiyab’s actions and her heart conflagrated in a blaze of jealous rage. That houri-cheeked false beauty then turned to Heyrat and said, “O Empress, I am not a woman but the Lion of the Forest of Trickery, Amar Ayyar.”
Afrasiyab was stunned and thought, Indeed, he must be the favored one of Lord Laqa. Afrasiyab lavishly rewarded Amar for his mastery in disguise and said with great deference,
“Indeed you are the one privy to the Lord’s secrets
All his hidden mysteries you clearly see.
“Please regale us now with your gift of song and intone your honeyed notes within this assembly of friends.”
At Afrasiyab’s request Amar danced and afterwards played the pipe. Then he sang so melodiously that all those present in the assembly were entranced and swayed rapturously in time with his singing.
With everyone ecstatic and in transports of joy, Amar took control of the wine service and drugged the wine. He poured a cup and brought it to Afrasiyab, then threw it into the air and caught it on the palm of his hand.
Afrasiyab’s heart overflowed with love and kindness and he drank the drugged wine. All the sorcerers in the court also had their fill of wine from the hand of their cruel, tyrannical cupbearer – Amar the notorious. He drugged them one and all.
As Afrasiyab felt a gust of cold breeze against his face he shouted, “O Amar, every one of our one hundred and seventy-five gods has arrived to hear you sing. Lords Sameri and Jamshed too, offer their praise.” Amar replied, “You must not allow any of them to leave the assembly.”
Heavily drugged, Afrasiyab rose and dancing from his throne holding Heyrat’s hand, but they soon fell unconscious onto their faces. The sorcerers in the court cuffed and buffeted each other and dropped senseless in the midst of altercation. Some spoke inanities, pulled moustaches and slapped each other’s faces. Yet others delivered a detailed account of their family and kin to those around them. In the end, everyone lost consciousness.
Amar drew his dagger and beheaded some twenty sorcerers and swept the assembly with the Net of Ilyas. A great din and racket rose as the sorcerers were killed. Clouds gathered in dark clusters, lightning flashed and magic spirits cried.
Amar stepped toward Afrasiyab and Heyrat to kill them. But the moment he approached the throne, the ground cleft and magic fairies clad in gold cloth and wearing pearl earrings emerged. They carried sprays and bowls filled with the essence of rose and musk. They put Afrasiyab’s head in their lap, sprayed his face, and said to him, “O EMPEROR, REGAIN CONSCIOUSNESS.”
As Afrasiyab opened his eyes, the magic fairies sank back into the earth. Amar hid himself among the sorcerers’ corpses disguised as a corpse, placing pieces of flesh dripping with blood on his face and neck.
When Afrasiyab looked around, he saw the whole assembly looted bare, all his courtiers fallen unconscious, and many sorcerers lying dead.
Afrasiyab looked up to the sky and made a sign, whereupon a rain cloud immediately materialized. It started raining and the raindrops restored the unconscious to their senses.
Heyrat said, “Emperor, witness how Amar has tricked us again.”
Afrasiyab replied, “There is no place where he can run and hide from me. I will have him captured in an instant.”
Afrasiyab exclaimed, “May all that is stolen reappear!” At these words, the thrones, chairs, cups, ewers, flowerpots and carpets reappeared as before. The assembly resumed and the sorcerers removed the corpses from the court.
Afrasiyab ascended the throne and consulted the Book of Sameri. He discovered that Amar lay disguised as a corpse among the slain sorcerers. The Book of Sameri advised Afrasiyab not to try to capture Amar himself; that he must return to the region of Batin because the next few hours were inauspicious for him. Once Afrasiyab learned this, he said to the sorcerers, “Do not carry away the corpses yet; Amar is hiding among the dead.”
In the meanwhile, Sarsar arrived there after hearing the news of Amar Ayyar’s capture. Afrasiyab said to her, “Go and look for Amar among the dead and take him prisoner. He lies among them disguised as a corpse.”
The sorcerers were engrossed by Sarsar’s doings as she started searching for Amar among the dead. Afrasiyab seated his magic double on the throne and disappeared without anyone noticing his absence or when the change occurred.
Sarsar finally found Amar. She jumped on his chest and tried to pinion him but Amar caught Sarsar’s neck with his legs in a scissors hold and executed a lock that toppled her over and brought him on top. He blew a powdered drug into Sarsar’s nose that made her unconscious. Carrying Sarsar in his arms Amar ran away.
As the sorcerers stood watching and marvelling at the scene, Heyrat cried, “Don’t stand idly and gawk! Catch him before he carries Sarsar away.”
The sorcerers ran at her orders but Amar managed to escape the Dome of Light. He sped like the wind and arrived in the City of Disregard.
Realizing that the city was full of sorcerers and they could easily capture him, Amar headed for the wilderness at the back of the Dome of Light and escaped toward the area used by Empress Heyrat as her private grounds. Seeing the trickster girls Saba Raftar and Shamima coming, Amar threw Sarsar into a cavern and, drawing his dagger, started fighting the trickster girls.
That part of the City of Disregard was a thoroughfare. One of Afrasiyab’s retainers, a sorcerer named Hoshiar the Cunning, who was on his way to the emperor’s court, passed there on his magic bird with his servants and attendants. Seeing the trickster girls fighting a stranger, he reckoned it must be Amar. As Hoshiar recited a spell to catch Amar, the trickster girls stopped him saying, “O Hoshiar, do not interfere in a fight between tricksters. Tricksters never seek a sorcerer’s help to catch an opponent.” Hoshiar said, “Talk some sense. One must destroy the enemy by any means.” As he began reciting an incantation, Amar put on the cape of invisibility and disappeared.
In the meanwhile, the sorcerers who had followed Amar from Afrasiyab’s court also arrived there. The trickster girls said to them, “Amar threw Sarsar in a cavern before our eyes.” The sorcerers headed there to rescue her.
Amar, who had not left the scene, jumped into the cavern. He produced a pasteboard dragon from his zambil and raised its head from the cavern’s mouth. The approaching sorcerers saw a dragon spewing fire and ran from it. They stopped at a safe distance and did not dare advance. From afar they recited spells to capture snakes, clapped, and made protective magic circles – none of which had any effect on the pasteboard dragon.
The sorcerers said to each other, “It’s a mighty and powerful dragon that will not be dispelled. What a pity that Sarsar should lose her life in this manner.”
To retrieve Sarsar from the cavern, they offered much gold and jewels to a companion of Hoshiar. His name was Hamnasheen and he was as peerless a sorcerer as he was impossibly old. As he advanced reciting an incantation, Amar pulled the dragon inside. Witnessing this, Hamnasheen thought the dragon had been dispelled by his spell. He boldly jumped into the cavern where Amar had laid a trap with his snare rope. Hamnasheen fell down entangled in it and Amar immediately drugged him with an egg of oblivion.
Amar again raised the dragon’s head at the mouth of the cavern. The sorcerers standing far away thought the dragon had killed Hamnasheen too. They started reciting incantations and spells again. In the meanwhile, Amar stripped Hamnasheen, threw him into the zambil, and put on his clothes. Disguised as Hamnasheen, he came out of the cavern pulling the dragon with a rope a few steps behind him. He called out to the sorcerers, “I found no trace of Sarsar or the dragon in the cavern.”
When the sorcerers saw the dragon creeping up on the false Hamnasheen, they cried, “The beast is upon you! Run for your life.” Hearing their cries, the false Hamnasheen left the dragon and ran toward his companions. He fell down unconscious beside Hoshiar. His teeth were clenched and his skin began turning blue. Hoshiar said to the trickster girls, “We cannot rescue Sarsar.”
The trickster girls got busy trying to rescue Sarsar themselves. Hoshiar took the false Hamnasheen on a conveyance to Afrasiyab’s court.
Hoshiar saluted Afrasiyab and approached the throne to give an account of Hamnasheen and their encounter with the dragon. Afrasiyab’s magic double, who had replaced the emperor, ordered that a physician be sent from the City of Disregard. Upon arrival, he gave the false Hamnasheen an antidote and put him on a bed in the courtyard for further treatment.
In the meanwhile, Sarsar returned to her senses inside the cavern and came out. On her way, she passed the false dragon and the sight of it shocked and terrified her. She ran for her life, never once looking back.
On the way to Afrasiyab’s court she met Saba Raftar and Shamima. When she asked them about Amar’s whereabouts they replied, “After throwing you into the cavern he put on his cape of invisibility and disappeared. We are sure he escaped.” Sarsar said, “It would be pointless to present ourselves in the emperor’s court now. It would earn us nothing but shame. Everyone would point a finger at us and say we were unable to capture Amar. Let us search for him in the wilderness.” With those words, the three trickster girls parted.
95. gilauri: a large preparation of the areca nut seasoned with spices and chunam and enveloped in leaves of the betel palm.
96. Turk of the Heavens: an allusion to the sun.
97. Luminous Bird: an allusion to the sun.
98. Ninth Heaven: the Ninth Heaven is deemed the seat of God.