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 Laqa’s camp, Bakhtiarak sent the commanders to welcome Alam Shah, who conducted him inside.]
In Laqa’s camp, Bakhtiarak sent the commanders to welcome Alam Shah, who conducted him inside.Laqa was giving audience when Prince Alam Shah entered. All the courtiers rose to pay him their respects.
Alam Shah sat down beside Hasina infatuated, and kept reciting love couplets.
Bakhtiarak asked Alam Shah, “Why has Your Excellency honored us with a visit?” Alam Shah answered, “O Bakhtiarak, I would become your sworn slave if you could persuade Hasina to lie with me.” Bakhtiarak replied, “I will explore every possibility and do my very best to achieve your end. Your luck will have to do the rest. I will now talk to Hasina.” Bakhtiarak advised the prince to allow him privacy with the princess. Prince Alam Shah sat at a distance on a golden chair while Bakhtiarak sat beside Hasina to talk to her.
Bakhtiarak said, “O Princess, this son of Amir Hamza had once fallen in love with a sorceress who told him she would marry him only if he gave her his father’s head in marriage money. The prince confronted and fought his father to fulfill her wishes. I advise that you also put some conditions on your union with the prince. Ask him to bring you Hamza’s head; tell him that he must present the Pavilion of Suleiman as well, for you will marry him inside it. And order him to prostrate himself before Lord Laqa. I would advise you to remain cold and distant toward him and not let his youthful beauty tempt you to lie with him. There are two advantages to creating a conflict between him and his father: Nothing would be better than Hamza’s dying at his son’s hands, or Alam Shah himself dying in the attempt. Fatherly grief would not allow Hamza to survive long afterwards. Moreover, when he attacks his camp in the name of your love, no one will harm him. He would kill thousands of his own men.”
Hasina said, “O Bakhtiarak, you have come upon a most marvellous scheme that would cause the True Believers to kill themselves in an internecine war. Regarding your request that I desist from granting the prince his desire, know that lascivious thoughts cannot weaken me in such situations. Although I am four-hundred-years-old and fond of ravishing youthful men, I would not jeopardise an important mission on account of lust. Go now and do what you must, but do send the prince to me at night so that I may cool my eyes with his beauty and enjoy myself by kissing and fondling him without allowing him to satisfy his desire.”
Having come to this agreement with Princess Hasina, Bakhtiarak went before Prince Alam Shah and said, “O august prince, I did my very best in your service. At first Princess Hasina would not consent, but she gave in after much persuasion. However, she is adamant that you must bow your head before Lord Laqa, bring her your father’s head, and present to her also the Pavilion of Suleiman before she grants your wishes.”
Alam Shah said, “I shall bow my head before Lord Laqa without delay.” That very instant the prince prostrated himself before Laqa, who was greatly pleased and conferred a robe of honor on Alam Shah. Laqa exclaimed, “I will that my creature Hasina should marry this man.”
Alam Shah said to Bakhtiarak, “Have the drums of war struck in my name so that I may battle the camp of the True Believers and bring back Hamza’s head and the Pavilion of Suleiman for Princess Hasina.” Bakhtiarak answered, “I shall take the news to Princess Hasina that her lover has agreed to all her conditions and prostrated himself before Lord Laqa. I will then bring you her message. I cannot order the drums of war to be struck in your name as yet because she may accuse me of sending her lover into battle without her permission. I would have nothing to offer in defense of my actions.”
Bakhtiarak returned to Hasina and said, “O Princess, my plan is working just as I expected. Alam Shah is restless to go and fight his father. However, another concern now weighs on my heart. Hamza is the master of the Most Great Name – the dispeller of magic. When Alam Shah confronts him, Hamza will be able to remove your magic from him and the prince will come out of the spell. He will return to his senses and all my hard work would go to waste.”
Hasina answered, “I too, endeavour to erase the Most Great Name from the tablet of Hamza’s heart by sorcery and cast a spell that will make him unable to recall it. But the powerful magic needed to bring this about cannot be prepared overnight. It will be a few days before it is ready.”
Bakhtiarak said, “I would advise you to retire with Alam Shah to some pleasant garden. You may kiss and fondle him and share meat and wine with him. Have your pleasure with him in every manner except the ultimate act. I will think of more plans in the meanwhile.”
Bakhtiarak now returned to Prince Alam Shah and said, “O Prince, I communicated your situation to Princess Hasina. She expressed a wish to spend some private moments with you and forbade me from striking the drum of war in your name as yet. You may leave on your mission only after both parties have fulfilled their desires. It seems to me that by setting these conditions, she only wishes to test your fidelity. She is a great warrior herself and it was not on account of any weakness that she set those conditions for you. Now you may go and enjoy yourself with her.”
Alam Shah replied, “I am ready to fulfill her wishes. I will do as she commands.”
Bakhtiarak spoke to Suleiman Amber-Hair and a garden blooming with flowers was reserved for Princess Hasina and Prince Alam Shah. Cups and ewers, musk-perfumed goblets, royal carpets, an array of fine foods, and all instruments of luxury and leisure were provided, along with moon-faced cupbearers and elegant and worthy slave girls. Hasina entered the garden holding Alam Shah’s hand and beheld the pretty garden where spring reigned. There was a profusion of watercourses beside which cypress and leafy trees grew. Fruit hung from the trees in clusters and every tree was covered with flowers. The garden and its fauna seemed entirely free of the fear of autumn or the hand of the hunter or the pruner.
In the middle of the garden was a fully appointed summerhouse provided with all comforts. A throne was set up in the corner and a carpet and a royal bed were laid out. Melodious singers and moon-bodied dancers were in attendance. The two lovers sat down on the throne and made love talk. They sipped the crimson wine and kissed and embraced each other.
When Prince Alam Shah attempted to satisfy his desire, Hasina stopped him on one pretext or another. Sometimes she glared angrily at him with knitted brow. When Alam Shah expressed annoyance and anger at her coquettish refusals, she smiled, put her arms around the prince’s neck, and said, “O jasmine-bodied prince, while I am willing to scatter and sacrifice a thousand lives at your feet, I am bound by Lord Laqa’s decree. By his grace, I will allow you to drink the nectar of union with me very soon. Just wait two days longer.”
When the prince still would not desist, she brought him to the bed on the pretence of lying with him but when the prince was at the peak of his passion, she recited a spell that put him to sleep.
It also left Hasina burning with desire and she thought, If I lie with him and Lord Laqa’s mission is hindered, I will earn universal condemnation in the tilism and Afrasiyab will send me into exile. As Bakhtiarak suggested, it would be prudent to remain the master of my passion for the next few days. After Hamza is killed, I will carry this beautiful youth to my home in the tilism and ravish him to my heart’s content. But I must not let him be killed, even if I let him encounter Hamza for the pleasure of Lord Laqa. Bakhtiarak spoke like a pimp when he said it would be equally beneficial whether the prince killed Hamza or Hamza killed the prince.
Princess Hasina remained occupied with these thoughts. Sometimes she thought, There is no knowing what the fickle heavens hold for us. I should lie with him before some calamity overtakes us. Soon fear of Laqa would overcome her; the thought filled her with dread that upon learning the truth, Laqa might destroy both her and her lover.
Thus, Princess Hasina and Alam Shah remained occupied with each other with all the previous restraints. Whenever Hasina attended the court, Alam Shah accompanied her.
All these events were reported to Amir Hamza by his messengers and spies. The army commanders grieved at the news of the prodigious warrior, Alam Shah, renouncing the True Faith. King Saad said to them, “Prince Alam Shah is under a spell and not the master of his senses. If he attacks us, no one must injure or kill him.”
Everyone was greatly perturbed by this command. It made any encounter with Alam Shah perilous, allowing the attacker all the advantages and privileges and the defenders none. The whole camp was disturbed, and Amir Hamza continuously mourned his son.
Witnessing this sorry state of affairs in his camp, Amar Ayyar’s son, Chalak, decided he should put an end to them by killing Princess Hasina. In the meanwhile, Bakhtiarak also sent one of his tricksters, Tarar the Speedster, to capture Hamza so that Alam Shah could destroy the camp of the True Believers without hindrance.
Trickster Tarar the Speedster
Tarar the Speedster decorated himself with trickster’s devices and left. When he arrived near the camp of True Believers he disguised himself as an attendant and entered the camp with other retainers and officers of the camp. He positioned himself in a nook and when the king adjourned the court at a late hour and everyone rose, Tarar the Speedster hid himself under a throne.
When the king and all the commanders and officers returned to their resting places, Amir Hamza remained in the Pavilion of Suleiman. The vigil made rounds of the camp and the horn trilled at regular intervals. Muqbil Vafadar sat on night duty outside Amir Hamza’s pavilion armed with his bow and quiver. When Amir Hamza’s snores floated on the air, Tarar the Speedster threw moths made of a drug at the candles and tapers. They fell on the flames and the smoke from the drug spread in the pavilion. The attendants who pressed Amir Hamza’s legs fell unconscious. Tarar the Speedster now rolled out from under the throne and reached Amir Hamza’s bedside. He removed the sleep veil from Amir Hamza’s face with the help of a rod and, filling a tubular device with a drug, put one end into Amir Hamza’s nostrils. As he inhaled, Tarar blew from the other end to send the drug into Amir Hamza’s nostril. It overpowered his senses, he sneezed and fell unconscious.
Next, Tarar approached the entrance of the pavilion and called out to Muqbil in Amir Hamza’s voice.
Muqbil replied, “I am at your service,” and entered.
The moment he stepped in, with an egg of oblivion Tarar made him unconscious as well. He dragged Amir Hamza’s attendants by their feet onto the floor and spread his trickster’s mantle on the bed. After tying Amir Hamza with his snare rope and wrapping him in the trickster’s mantle, Tarar bundled him up and came out of the pavilion carrying him on his shoulders.
He made his way out of the camp under the cover of the tents. He ducked at any sign of danger and proceeded when it cleared. When he saw the soldiers of the vigil he flattened himself like a lizard against the ground; when they passed he moved forward, mimicking the walk of cats and dogs. In this manner, he made his way to the end of the camp from where he sped leaping and bounding to his destination.
On the way, it occurred to Tarar the Speedster that if he carried Amir Hamza to his camp the tricksters would secure his release. He arrived in a mountain pass and wondered if he should behead Amir Hamza and take his head to Laqa’s court instead. Then he thought, A trickster of the caliber of Amar Ayyar is still alive, who would surely avenge Hamza’s death on me. Hamza’s progeny and commanders as well would wreak havoc upon hearing the news. Moreover, Alam Shah is also present in the camp. His filial love might awaken at the sight of his father’s head and he might ask why I killed his father and demand vengeance. Then I would pay with my life.
In view of these considerations, Tarar put the bundled up form of Amir Hamza in a dark and narrow cave in the mountain pass and blocked the entrance with a stone.
He returned and gave Bakhtiarak a complete account of how he had imprisoned Hamza in a place where he would die from hunger and starvation. Bakhtiarak said, “You did well in not bringing Hamza here. The tricksters would have freed him in no time.”
In the morning, the news of Amir Hamza’s kidnapping caused a great uproar in the camp of the True Believers. King Saad dispatched the tricksters Abul Fatah and Samak to search for Amir Hamza and bring news of him.
Bakhtiarak now visited Hasina and said to her, “Now you will be able to achieve your end. You may go ahead and pit Alam Shah against Hamza’s camp to slay them with his hand. Hamza has been kidnapped at my orders.” Hasina said, “Very well, order the drums of war to be struck.” Next, Hasina said to Alam Shah, “If you wish to lie with me you must now fulfil your promise and bring me your father’s head.”
Alam Shah replied, “Blow the bugles of war. I will cut Hamza to pieces.”
Having secured Alam Shah’s pledge in this matter, Bakhtiarak headed for Laqa’s court, where he gave him a complete account and asked for the drums to be struck in Alam Shah’s name. Upon his orders, Laqa’s minions left to issue the call to war.
Sorcerer Hoshiar the Cunning
While these preparations are underway, let us hear of Amar Ayyar.
As Empress Heyrat made her plans to battle Mahrukh Magic-Eye, Afrasiyab dispatched the sorcerer Hoshiar the Cunning to arrest Mahrukh and all her supporters and give them into Empress Heyrat’s custody.
Afrasiyab gave Hoshiar two carafes filled with magic water, one of which caused loss of consciousness while the other dispelled it. Afrasiyab said to him, “Mix the water that causes loss of consciousness with a large quantity of regular water and sprinkle it around your camp to create a protective ring. Any trickster who crosses it will fall unconscious. When you go into combat, splash the water on your adversary and it will make him lose his senses too. In this manner, you will capture the rebels’ entire camp. When the tricksters attack, you must arrest them similarly.”
Hoshiar returned to his house with the magic water and ordered the sorcerers under his command to prepare to march. When the powerful sorceress Mugheela, who was Hoshiar’s mother, learned that her son was leaving on a campaign, she made preparations to secretly accompany him. After completing his arrangements, Hoshiar returned to Afrasiyab. The emperor gave him the robe of departure. Hoshiar mounted a magic dragon and left with his twelve thousand sorcerers riding magical birds and beasts, ringing gongs and blowing bugles.
The sorceress Mugheela grew magic wings and followed them but remained hidden from all.
When Hoshiar arrived near Heyrat’s camp she sent a welcoming party to receive him. Her commanders conducted Hoshiar into her presence while his army bivouacked and set up pavilions and tents beside Heyrat’s camp.
Hoshiar gave Empress Heyrat a detailed account of his mission and said, “Please order the drums of war to be beaten. Tomorrow I will destroy the rebels’ whole army.” Heyrat acquiesced to his request and her commanders struck the clarion.
The magic birds flew into Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s court. With raised beaks they sang her adulations and praises in chaste words and eloquent terms and announced, “THE SORCERER HOSHIAR HAS ARRIVED AT AFRASIYAB’S ORDER. HEYRAT HAS ISSUED THE CALL TO WAR WITH THE INTENTION OF COMBAT AND CARNAGE. NOW YOU MAY DECIDE WHAT YOU PLEASE.” After communicating these words the magic birds flew away.
Mahjabeen said to Mahrukh Magic-Eye, “You too, must answer her call to battle and start preparation this evening.” Mahrukh replied, “Very well.” She sent for the commanders of the army, issued orders to give the call to war, and before long the whole camp received the news.
In the evening, when the throne of dusk was laid on the blue skies and the Emperor of Afternoon104 hid his face and escaped into the dominions of the west, the clarion was sounded from Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp and the drums of war were beaten as thunderously and terribly as the blast of the Last Trumpet. The arena rang with a call to the True Believers to prepare for war.
The illustrious sorcerers, the Jamsheds of the times, the equals of Sameri, all began to invoke their magic. The warriors inspected the readiness of their arms. Queen Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe adjourned the court and entered her private pavilion. All the tricksters, including Amar Ayyar, departed for the wilderness and hid themselves in hilly passes.
Prince Asad inspected the preparedness of his men. Mahrukh Magic-Eye, Surkh Mu, Nafarman, Shakeel and Bahar each invoked rare and powerful spells, knowing they would have to face Empress Heyrat on the battlefield. They made magic slave girls and gold-feathered magic peacocks, readied ancient spells from the times of Sameri, promised sacrifices of the foe to magic spirits and secured pledges from them to come to their aid when summoned. The whole night was spent in these preparations.
The carpet-keeper of fate threw an azure spread on the golden throne of heaven and the Lord of the Day105 entered the World’s Hall of Audience.106 The lions of the forest of valor, the valiant lords of fields of carnage, renowned sorcerers and noble commanders started for the arena. The sorcerer commanders rode magic thrones and beasts. A special suit of armor and choice weapons adorned Prince Asad’s strong and powerful body for the impending combat with Heyrat’s army.
Ringed by her army, Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe rode her throne to the battlefield with great majesty.
From the station of audience to the battlefield, there was an unending display of Mahjabeen’s paraphernalia of grandeur and luxury. Row after row of war elephants and camels stood covered with golden saddles, with the champion warriors and standard-bearers of the army in seat. The star-studded sheets that covered the elephants made the starry skies envious. Several thousand Arabs scattered gold and silver coins in an offering to ward off the evil eye from their sovereign. They were followed by the kettledrums mounted on elephants and camels. The drummers clad in gold and silver brocade dresses sang the tunes of lalit, bherveen, and bhibhas.107 The criers marched alongside, inciting and stirring warriors to combat with their exhortations.
All of a sudden, Empress Heyrat’s procession materialized on the horizon. Those assembled saw thousands of enamelled palaces come flying in the air while sixty-four thousand magic bugles heralded their approach. Sorcerers and sorceresses clad in fine clothes flew beside them and began pouring into the arena. They sported bracelets of pearl and coral and wore hoops and earrings. Mounted on gold-feathered magic peacocks, the sorceresses were clad in saris worked with precious jewels. Carpets of gold cloth were spread in the enamel palace in which Empress Heyrat sat, and hundreds of thousands of sorcerers stood alert behind her. Clapper-drums and bugles played in the assembly, and a dance recital was in progress.
All the pomp and grandeur of Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s procession waned before Empress Heyrat’s splendorous entourage.
104. Emperor of Afternoon: an allusion to the sun.
105. Lord of the Day: an allusion to the sun.
106. World’s Hall of Audience: an allusion to the sky.
107. lalit, bherveen, and bhibhas: names of three Indian classical ragas.