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.
[In the court of the Emperor of Hoshruba, the real Afrasiyab’s returned with his majestic entourage.]
In the court of the Emperor of Hoshruba, the real Afrasiyab’s returned with his majestic entourage.He ascended his throne and everyone paid their respects. Afrasiyab said, “O my magic double, you may now leave!” The emperor’s magic double disappeared.
The sorcerers mistakenly imagined that they had been humiliated and drugged by Amar Ayyar earlier only because the real Afrasiyab had not been present in the court. Some said that it would have been impossible to drug the Emperor of Hoshruba. Others said nobody could claim to have seen the emperor, whose rank and station were secret; after serving him all their lives they had yet to differentiate between his many appearances and were unsure if they had ever set eyes on the real Afrasiyab.
Once the court was in session, the dancers presented themselves and revels started. Sorcerer Hoshiar gave an account of his companion Hamnasheen to Afrasiyab. The emperor said, “Congratulations on his deliverance. How is he now?” Hoshiar answered, “By the grace of Lord Sameri, he is well.” At that juncture, the false Hamnasheen, who pretended to have recovered his senses, rose from his bed, presented himself, and greeted the emperor.
When Afrasiyab asked him how he felt, the false Hamnasheen replied, “By the grace of Lord Sameri and Your Excellency’s honor, I am now fully recovered.”
Afrasiyab offered him a seat in the court where he sat down to watch the dance recital. But before long he found fault with the singer and began criticising her art, commenting, “She is not on the beat! There, her voice trembled! There, she gasped for breath! There, her voice quivered! See how she sings against the accompaniment! Now she lisps; she is completely unharmonious.”
Hearing this, Afrasiyab said, “O Hamnasheen, you seem to know a great deal about singing!” The false Hamnasheen replied, “By Your Majesty’s grace, I have witnessed many celebrated recitals. I am an authority on many arts – not only the art of the song – all because I live in the time of an august emperor like Your Excellency.”
Afrasiyab said, “Very well, sing something for us.”
The false Hamnasheen saluted the emperor humbly, sat down and started singing a ghazal.
Afrasiyab was greatly pleased by the false Hamnasheen’s singing and conferred a robe of honor on him. The false Hamnasheen said, “I know a spell to illuminate a candle in whose light one can see the court of Indra in all its glory and watch fairies dancing. I discovered this spell in my grandfather’s book; he had learned it in Bengal.” Afrasiyab enthusiastically said, “O Hamnasheen, light that candle without delay so that we can witness this marvellous magic.” He answered, “Please send for five sers of lard and equal amounts of pitch and butter.”
At Afrasiyab’s order, the requisite materials were produced. The false Hamnasheen screened himself off from others and made a large torch with the material provided and added large amounts of drug into it. Then he lit up the candle in the center of the court and its smoke started filling the palace. The false Hamnasheen said, “All of you must stare at the flame, and shortly you will witness the fairies dancing.” Then he sat aside and began mumbling, pretending to recite a spell.
Everyone in the court, including Afrasiyab and Heyrat, stared at the flame. In the crowded assembly people leaned over each other to watch the spectacle and see what marvel would transpire. After a while, the smoke from the drug filled their nostrils and addled their brains. They started calling out, “It’s true, fairies are dancing in the flame.” Others said, “Regard Indra giving audience.” Some others started dancing themselves. Finally, everyone, including Afrasiyab and Heyrat, fell unconscious to the floor.
The false Hamnasheen beheaded another twenty sorcerers and swept through the palace with the Net of Ilyas, stealing all the furniture with which the court had been refurnished.
Loud noises rose again and pandemonium broke out. The magic spirits of the murdered sorcerers called out their names one last time, dust storms rose and whirlwinds circled around.
Amar drew his dagger and stepped toward Afrasiyab intenting to behead him. The ground cleft suddenly as before and magic fairies emerged. Amar quickly put on his cape of invisibility and left the Dome of Light. The magic fairies restored Afrasiyab to consciousness by spraying his face with the essence of rose and keora then returned to the earth and the ground closed upon them.
Seeing his court in disarray, Afrasiyab summoned a magic rain cloud whose shower restored everyone to their senses and extinguished the drug candle Amar had lit. At the emperor’s command, the whole palace was again appointed with furniture.
Everyone sat on their thrones and stations and continued to marvel at Amar’s audacity and cunning.
Afrasiyab said disingenuously, “There’s no doubt that Amar is the favored one of Lord Laqa. He cannot be killed by any means. He spoke the truth when he said he would kill all against whom Lord Laqa sent him. I am certain he will carry out his mission.”
Then Afrasiyab turned to Heyrat and said, “However, I am myself under Lord Laqa’s orders to kill Amar. Therefore, I request my empress to go forth and battle Mahrukh Magic-Eye while I contemplate some further strategy. It would be unwise to send for Amar Ayyar to be brought here.”
Empress Heyrat mounted a magic peacock and returned to her camp in the region of Zahir, with her moon-faced attendants.
After Amar escaped from the Dome of Light it occurred to him that once before when he had tried to escape he ended up wandering on the banks of the River of Flowing Blood; if he tried again he would not find a way from there to his camp.
Amar disguised himself as a sorcerer and walked around the City of Disregard. In one place he heard some sorcerers talking. One said, “Amar is a veritable scourge. He fooled the emperor a second time and escaped.” Another said, “He won’t be able to escape because the River of Flowing Blood will bar his way.” A third sorcerer said, “This land has forty doors. He will reach the region of Zahir only if he takes the eastern door.” Finally, yet another sorcerer said, “You speak as if an accomplished trickster like Amar would not know the exit.”
Amar Ayyar then headed for the eastern door of the city. He arrived at the outer limits and saw a magnificent gate guarded by thousands of sorcerers. As he was already in a sorcerer’s disguise, he sprinted through the gate. When the gatekeepers asked his destination, Amar replied, “I am in Empress Heyrat’s service and go in pursuit of Amar Ayyar. I cannot delay my errand to reply to your questions and invite the royal ire.”
Amar cleared the gate and headed onwards. After traveling some distance, he saw the River of Flowing Blood and Empress Heyrat’s encampment. Amar continued on and traveled a little distance before he finally saw Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp and entered it.
Everyone who saw Amar ran to embrace him. A warm and noisy welcome followed the cries of “Amar has arrived!” All the commanders of the army, who had prayed for his safety and well being, came out of the royal court. Bahar, Mahrukh, Mahjabeen and Nafarman all embraced Amar and made gold offerings as a sacrifice to ward off any harm from befalling him. All of them proceeded to the royal pavilion and drums were struck in celebration. Amar sat on his station and recounted his adventures in Afrasiyab’s court. The whole court laughed uproariously at his exploits.
In the meanwhile, Empress Heyrat also joined her forces as drumbeats announced her arrival. Her commanders received her and she ascended her throne. Before long, she was occupied with planning for battle.
Sorceress Hasina Magic-Beauty
Now hear of sorceress Princess Hasina, who departed in aid of Laqa toward Mount Agate. Leading an army of sorcerers and flying on her magic throne, she arrived at her destination after a few days’ journey and entered the fortress of Mount Agate.
Laqa was giving audience and watching a dance recital when red clouds appeared in the sky, heralding the approach of sorcerers. Bakhtiarak and King Suleiman Amber-Hair rose to welcome the arriving party. Soon Hasina’s army of sorcerers descended, along with their beautiful commander. She had augmented her beauty and comely face with magic and everyone who saw her was greatly impressed by her charming looks. Laqa’s commanders welcomed her and conducted her into the court. Bakhtiarak arranged for the army of sorcerers to be camped opposite Amir Hamza’s camp.
Upon entering the court, Princess Hasina prostrated herself before Laqa, who said, “Since you bowed your head you will receive the bounty of my grace.”
Hasina rose and sat on a throne while Laqa conferred a robe of honor on her. Hasina asked, “O my lord, who are these accursed creatures who have the temerity to consider themselves your equals?” Laqa said, “That is a very long tale that the devil designate of my court could tell for he knows it well.”
As Hasina turned to Bakhtiarak, he gave her the whole account, from Amir Hamza’s advent to the present. At the end, Bakhtiarak said, “O Hasina, you can witness an example of Amir Hamza’s ravages even in the tilism itself. Amar Ayyar and Prince Asad are still at large; even the Emperor of Hoshruba has been unable to capture them.”
Princess Hasina said, “Order the drums of war to be struck in my name. In no time I will wipe the entire camp of rebels out of existence.”
Bakhtiarak sniggered at her words and said, “You have just arrived. I suggest you see the sights of this world awhile. Death will soon find you and nothing will remain.” Hasina replied, “You see spears and lances even in a carafe of urine.”99 Bakhtiarak answered, “I spoke thus because one trickster alone caused such mayhem upon entering the tilism; here you will have to contend with one hundred and eighty thousand tricksters. While only Prince Asad went into the tilism, his father and grandfather have been putting up an unremitting fight. These recalcitrant creatures of Lord Laqa cheat death at every opportunity.” Hasina replied, “I will succeed by the grace of Lord Laqa. At my hands, you will soon see the rebels come to a bad end.”
Hasina rested a few days to recover from the travails of her journey and was given a feast by King Suleiman Amber-Hair. Dance recitals and revels continued. Finally, during an afternoon audience, Hasina said to Laqa, “Tonight the battle drums should be beaten in my name. Tomorrow morning I will destroy the enemy.”
When the Emperor of Heavens retired from the russet court of afternoon to rest in his western palace, when the black pavilion of the Prince of Darkness100 was pitched and the dark tent ropes stretched out to the four corners of the world, drums of war were beaten in Laqa’s camp as per Hasina’s wishes.
The messengers brought the news to the court of the King of the True Believers and gave an account of Princess Hasina’s arrival to the courtiers of the mighty king with these words: “The sorceress Princess Hasina has arrived from the tilism and plans on doing battle tomorrow morning. The war drums are being beaten in the enemy camp.” The King of True Believers said, “Battle drums should be struck in our camp, too.”
Amar’s son, Chalak, headed for the Music Gallery of Sikander and struck the Timbal of Sikander. The trumpets blared the call of impending strife and evil. Every brave became alert and made preparations for battle. The noise of drums and clarions rose from all corners.
All night long the warriors remained busy in battle preparations. When the Sultan of the Golden-Headgear101 ascended the throne of light and the World Conquering Emperor102 entered to rule the field of heavens, Laqa rode out with great pomp and majesty, surrounded by an entourage of evil sorcerers. Princess Hasina rode her magic throne into the battlefield and arrayed her forces.
Amir Hamza also finished his morning prayers and, along with all the commanders of the army, presented himself at the Hall of Audience. After a moment, King Saad’s entourage appeared from the private pavilion. All the commanders bowed, made a ring around his throne and conducted him onto the battlefield.
The masters of the column and ranks arranged their men for battle and the groundsmen levelled the arena. The water-carriers sprinkled the ground to settle the dust. The criers sang of the futility of life and proclaimed the denunciation of the world to the warriors with these words: “Yes, O braves! Here’s the ball and here’s the field. The battlefield provides an opportunity to earn renown. Redeem your lives by scattering them in your noble cause. Those who do not cover themselves with glory in battle are not long remembered. Nobody recalls the mighty kings that lived nor sees a trace of their graves. Shine in the arena of battle and earn everlasting fame.”
After the criers withdrew, a warrior named Bubran Lion of Battle came forward from Laqa’s army after receiving permission for combat and made a display of his martial dexterity. He cried, “Come out and fight!” and challenged the commanders of Amir Hamza’s camp with these words: “Is there anyone among you who can confront me? If there is such a one, let him prepare to be made dust.”
From Amir Hamza’s camp, the warrior Bahram sought King Saad’s leave to answer Bubran’s challenge and rode into the arena to fight him. During lance combat, Bahram relieved Bubran of his weapon but Princess Hasina cast a spell and Bahram felt his power drain out of his body. Bubran lifted Bahram out of his saddle by his metal cummerbund and slammed him to the ground. He sat on Bahram’s chest and pinioned him. Thereafter, he signalled to a trickster in King Suleiman Amber-Hair’s service, who made Bahram unconscious with an egg of oblivion and carried him away a prisoner to his camp.
Bubran Lion of Battle again called out, “Those who wish to meet their deaths should come out and face me.” Mandvail Isfahani faced him next but Hasina’s spell rendered him powerless too, and he was also taken captive.
Next, Muhleel Jang Iraqi came out and was likewise captured. In this manner, seventy commanders of Amir Hamza’s forces, including Aala Gurd, Mala Gurd, Kapi Arzal and Kapi Zalzal became prisoners.
At that moment, the standards of the left flank were unfurled and the kettledrums mounted on elephants and camels were struck. The rank-splitting, column-destroying champion, Prince Hashim Swordfighter, son of Amir Hamza, brought his horse forward and sought King Saad’s permission for battle. The king conferred a robe of honor on the prince and said, “Go forth in the protection of God!” When Prince Hashim sought Amir Hamza’s forgiveness for any sins of omission or commission, he embraced his son and put a protective necklace around his neck to ward off magic. He recited Prophet Ibrahim’s prayer on Prince Hashim and gave him leave.
Hashim raced his mount toward the battlefield,
Hashim the warrior headed for the arena
Astride a fairy-faced mount, a battle charger
Hashim crossed the expanse between him and the adversary in just three strides and clashed powerfully with Bubran, disarraying the senses of his foe. Bubran unsheathed his shining sword and brought it down on the head of the worthy prince, who used excellent skill to foil the blow. The prince then drew his own sword; he feigned to deal Bubran a side blow but landed one on his head instead. Princess Hasina cast spells to stay his hand but none of her spells worked because the prince wore the protective necklace. The prince’s sword finally cleft Bubran in two. Drums and clarions sounded in the camp of True Believers and the valiant prince challenged the enemy warriors again.
This time, sorceress Hasina came out to answer his challenge. Everyone thought it was the sorceress who confronted the prince but unbeknown to all, she had concealed herself and sent a magic effigy in her exact likeness to fight the prince. The magic effigy dealt the prince a sword blow. The prince dodged it and struck one himself that cut the magic effigy in two. Both pieces of her body flew skywards and, after a moment, ankle-bells chimed and anklets tinkled.
The prince saw sorceress Hasina arrive. Her lovely hairdo, her charming stature and her life-breathing lips gave cheer to those sunk in hopelessness and sorrow. Her lips wounded and lacerated hundreds with the sword of smile and the Turks of her eyes, armed with the daggers of eyebrows, killed hundreds of thousands.
When Prince Hashim Swordfighter beheld the stunning beauty of that destroyer of patience and composure, he called out,
“Plant the tree of friendship that may bring hearts cheer
Uproot the plant of enmity that only bears untold grief
God entwined the thread of my life with your locks
Command your ruby lips now to grant me life.”
That beauty, whose cheeks were resplendent as the moon, said, “O august prince, O life-sacrificing lover, you swear love to me and yet fight your beloved. Come, surrender your weapons to me.”
Prince Hashim handed over all his weapons, including his sword, shield and dagger. The beauty said, “A necklace is more becoming around the neck of the beloved. Why do you wear it? Put it around my neck.” Hashim replied, “O charming friend, O incarnate beauty,
“If you asked I would surrender you my life
And submit as readily something dearer still.”
With these words, he put the protective necklace around the neck of sorceress Hasina, who turned and started toward Laqa’s camp. Prince Hashim followed her, reciting,
“I would not turn from my purpose till I achieve my end
Either I will seek union with my beloved or lay down my life in the attempt
If my grave were opened the rising smoke
Would tell the world of my smouldering heart within
Show your face O beloved that the world may fall at your feet
Say a word that they may release their suppressed sighs
I do not chase beauties in the manner of those unfaithful
I will lie at your door until I give up my soul.”
As Prince Hashim reached Laqa’s camp, one of King Suleiman Amber-Hair’s tricksters made the prince unconscious with an egg of oblivion and took him to the prison where he was incarcerated with Amir Hamza’s other commanders. Laqa ordered the drums to announce the cessation of hostilities and his army returned to its camp and rested.
Amir Hamza also returned to his pavilion and, after taking his bath, arrived at the court. He saluted the king and took his seat. In view of the capture of his army commanders, King Saad had called off all dancing and festivities and an oppressive silence reigned in the court.
Meanwhile, Laqa returned to his camp to the sound of festive music. Revels were held and wine flowed. His soldiers found respite from their hardships and relaxed. Laqa rested the following morning.
Finally, in the world’s private pavilion, the evening that burns lovers like tapers threw a dark veil on morning’s beautiful face and that time approached when the night envelops and conceals all.
Laqa again ordered the drums of war to be struck. The messengers brought the news to the King of True Believers and the call to war was answered from his camp by a blast of the Timbal of Sikander. The whole night the armies remained busy in preparations. When morning’s beloved saw her face in the sun’s mirror, and the day was fully lit and emerged from the night’s belly, lords of the arena led their men into the battlefield and rank-destroying champions arrayed themselves in files. Amir Hamza, with the King of True Believers, and Laqa with the iniquitous Hasina, took positions on opposite sides of the arena. The sorcerers too, formed ranks while playing musical instruments, singing chants, wielding tridents, and pentadents, and displaying their apparatuses of warfare. Once the battle arrays were drawn, it was time for carnage to begin.
Sorceress Hasina rode out on a magic peacock and challenged the camp of True Believers, saying, “I seek combat, O disloyal subjects of Lord Laqa. Today you will receive your reward and the sword will make you its prey.”
Upon hearing her challenge,
The righteous son of the noble Hamza
Alam Shah of name, titled the Rustam
who was famed as the Rustam Elephant-body, the pride of the Pavilion of Suleiman and destroyer of warriors of elephant-might, took his father’s leave for combat and entered the arena to face Princess Hasina.
Hasina further augmented her beauty by reciting a spell. Her forehead was radiant like Venus. Her ruby lips were more crimson than Badakhshan rubies,103 and her sparkling teeth outshone pearls and put them to shame. Her smile was like a shower of salt on the lacerated soul of lovers, and with her coquetry, her manner and her airs, she slew her lovers without the help of a knife.
The moment Prince Alam Shah beheld her, the spell of her love was cast. Even though Amir Hamza’s sons and commanders never fall victim to the beauty of a sorceress – no matter how charming – Alam Shah was captivated by Hasina because of her magical beauty. He became completely oblivious to all considerations and could see nothing except his beloved’s face. He forgot all deference due Amir Hamza and the King of True Believers. His senses all in disarray, he recited love verses. Tears of blood welled up in his eyes and sighs and lamentations issued from his lips, disclosing the secrets of his passion.
After declarations of love were exchanged between Hasina and Alam Shah, she turned toward her camp and the prince followed her. Bakhtiarak ordered the cessation of hostilities for the day. Amir Hamza returned to his camp from the tragic events of the day with a heavy and afflicted heart.
99. You see spears and lances even in a carafe of urine: a metaphor for finding improbable things where they cannot possibly exist. Refers to the old medical practice of visually inspecting urine samples to diagnose illness.
100. Prince of Darkness: an allusion to the sky.
101. Sultan of the Golden-Headgear: an allusion to the sun.
102. World Conquering Emperor: an allusion to the sun.
103. Badakhshan is a region in north Afghanistan that was famed for its rubies.