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.
[At sorcerer Hoshiar’s order, the sorcerers dropped lightning bolts on the arena to burn up the shrubbery and trees.]
At sorcerer Hoshiar’s order, the sorcerers dropped lightning bolts on the arena to burn up the shrubbery and trees.A magic cloud rained and settled all the dust and dirt. The proclaimers of war made announcements and the criers shouted their declarations. They sang the denunciation of the ephemeral world and reminded the warriors that only the brave were remembered for their deeds after they were gone.
After they withdrew, the left and the right flanks and the advance guard and the center of the army were formed.
The sorcerer Hoshiar entered the arena with Empress Heyrat’s leave and sought combat after displaying the marvels of his magic. Princess Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane flew her magic dragon into the arena to answer his challenge.
Hoshiar shot an arrow at Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane. She recited a counterspell and a magic claw carrying a dagger appeared in the arrow’s path and cut it in two in mid flight. Surkh Mu now untied her hair. Thousands of stars rolled out of her hair and flew to the sky from where they fell like a comet shower on Hoshiar’s forces, killing thousands. Enraged, Hoshiar took out the flask of the magic water that caused loss of consciousness and mixed it with the water in a waterskin. He poured the entire contents of the waterskin onto a bale of cotton and recited a spell.
The bale of cotton flew up into the sky like a cloud. It covered Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe’s camp and rained down. Anyone on whom even a single raindrop fell lost consciousness. Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane, who stood in the arena, was the first victim of the magic raindrops that now rained in a cascade. Bahar, Mahrukh Magic-Eye and some other illustrious sorcerers raised magic canopies over their heads but the magic raindrops pierced these canopies and they all fell unconscious. The camp was thrown into disarray and Mahrukh’s army took to its heels.
Prince Asad took the reins of his horse with the intention of laying down his life in battle but he too, lost his senses when a raindrop fell on him. His army escaped and took refuge in the mountains, the deserts, and the wilderness. The renowned sorcerers who commandeered the armies and did not flee were rendered unconscious. They were pinioned at Hoshiar’s orders, who then instructed his men to announce the end of the battle.
Empress Heyrat returned to her court scattering gold pieces as a sacrifice to ward off the evil eye from Hoshiar. She ordered celebrations and her army unbuckled itself and rested.
Heyrat wrote the entire account of the battle to Afrasiyab and ordered the prisoners to be brought before her. They were all unconscious. Hoshiar put them under magic incarceration, stuck needles in their tongues, and sprinkled them with the magic water that restored them to consciousness. The prisoners opened their eyes and found themselves in that sorry state. They lowered their heads and did not speak.
Empress Heyrat said to Mahrukh Magic-Eye, “Did you forget this day would come?”
Mahrukh, whose tongue was pierced, could only answer by pointing heavenward with a gesture that God was her Lord and Master. She and her companions similarly offered terse replies to Heyrat’s comments in a manner that enraged the empress.
Heyrat thundered, “Raise the scaffolds! The Angel of Death will soon ply his trade; the life of not a single rebel shall be spared.” At her orders, executioners who excelled at skinning and sawing bodies presented themselves, the scaffolds rose, and the news was proclaimed in all parts of the tilism.
Heyrat ordered the sorcerer Hoshiar to incarcerate the rebels and set up a protective magic ring around the camp to keep the tricksters at bay.
Hoshiar led all rebel commanders to his pavilion and tied them to the posts. He said to his attendants, “Tell the water-carriers to fill their waterskins and bring them to me so that I may mix magic water with their contents. They may then sprinkle the water to make a protective ring around the camp. Go now, but leave one person on duty inside the pavilion.”
The attendants executed his orders and the water-carriers arrived at Hoshiar’s pavilion carrying waterskins. One after the other, they went before Hoshiar. He asked them to rub their bodies with a few drops of the restorative magic water as protection and mix the other kind that induced unconsciousness into their waterskins. The carriers then left to create the protective magic ring.
Now hear of the tricksters. After they witnessed the rout of their camp and the capture of their army commanders, they went into action to rescue them.
Qiran the Ethiope headed for Hoshiar’s camp dressed as an attendant and from afar noticed the water-carriers sprinkling liquid around the camp. Qiran felt some unease on seeing them at work at that unusual hour. He decided some evil was in the water, which must be avoided. He took another path into Hoshiar’s camp and saw a water-carrier coming his way. Qiran asked him, “Did you finish the work?” He answered, “It will be days before a protective magic ring can be made around such a large camp as Heyrat’s. It’s not something that can be done overnight.” Qiran now realized that he was right to avoid the water-carriers and that any who crossed it would fall under its spell.
Qiran waited outside Hoshiar’s pavilion for an opportunity.
In the meanwhile, the attendant deputed inside the pavilion finished his two-hour shift and called out, “I have finished my shift. Another should replace me.” Qiran spoke up, “I waited to relieve you. You may go now as I am on duty.” After the attendant left, Qiran stepped inside and stood behind Hoshiar, fanning him with a kerchief.
In the meanwhile, Zargham and Jansoz also disguised themselves and headed for Hoshiar’s camp. However, they did not pay much attention to the water-carriers sprinkling the camp at that unusual hour. As a result, the moment they entered the ground marked by the magic water they fell unconscious.
Hoshiar had secretly deputed sorcerers inside the ring to alert him if they saw anyone fall unconscious. They carried Zargham and Jansoz before him. Hoshiar recited a spell and blew on the tricksters, which made their disguises evaporate. Seeing their changed faces, he realized they were tricksters. He said to himself, By the grace of Lord Sameri, I have two tricksters in my clutches. He tied them to the pavilion posts and resumed drinking, all the while he continued giving the magic water to the water-carriers.
By now, Amar also arrived near Hoshiar’s camp. Noticing the water-carriers, he turned and went in another direction. He came upon a water-carrier who sat eating in his small tent. Amar changed his disguise to a water-carrier’s and tied a waistcloth made of coarse red cotton, hung the water-carrier’s belt around his neck and tied a turban, one end of which he wrapped around his neck. Amar tied water bowls and fastened the belt, slung the waterskin over his shoulder and, holding it in the manner of an old hand, went and greeted the water-carrier.
He asked Amar, “Where do you work?” The false water-carrier replied, “These days I have no employment. I request you as a fellow water-carrier to find me work with your master.” He said, “Water-carriers are needed to sprinkle water around the camp. I will be able to find you work.” Amar asked, “Why do you eat at this late hour?” The water-carrier replied, “My brother, it’s because I find no time to eat between carrying and sprinkling water.” Amar commented, “Sometimes commanders have strange notions. What could be accomplished by sprinkling water around the camp?” The water-carrier told him everything about the two kinds of magic water and their properties.
After obtaining this information, Amar made some small talk then took out some sweetmeats from his pocket and offered them to the water-carrier, saying, “Have some.”
The water-carrier ate the sweets that were drug-laced and fell unconscious. Amar hid him in a corner of the tent and after disguising himself as the man and wearing his clothes, he went before Hoshiar and said, “Your Honor, all the water was used up. I now need some more for my waterskin.”
Hoshiar gave Amar the magic water to make people unconscious. Amar said, “Also, give me some of the other kind.” Hoshiar asked, “Didn’t you receive some earlier?” Amar answered, “It was my brother who received it. Now he is exhausted and I do his work.”
Hoshiar gave him some of the restorative magic water, which Amar rubbed on his body. He then poured some magic water into his hand. Hoshiar shouted, “What are you doing, O dolt? You must mix it in the waterskin.” Amar answered, “Regard what I do now! You will soon realize who is a dolt.”
Amar splashed the water from his hand into Hoshiar’s face. He fell down unconscious without a word and Amar speedily cut off his head. Hoshiar’s magic spirits screamed and a tumult ensued. Amar immediately took hold of Hoshiar’s water carafes. From all corners a chorus of voices shouted “CATCH THEM! SLAY THEM!” Amar released Zargham and Jansoz, who pulled out the needles stuck in the tongues of Princess Mahrukh and Bahar. Once released, they helped their companions become free while Amar looted the pavilion with the Net of Ilyas.
The noises made by Hoshiar’s magic spirits sent Hoshiar’s attendants running to his pavilion, along with Hoshiar’s mother, sorceress Mugheela. She charged into his pavilion, recited a spell, and hammered the ground with clenched fists, which made Amar sink up to his waist into the earth. As Mugheela rushed forward to carry Amar away, Qiran, who still stood at his post as Hoshiar’s attendant, called out, “Here!” As Mugheela turned to look, Qiran hit out with his cleaver. Mugheela’s brains flew all over the place and her skull was smashed into a thousand pieces. As she rolled in agony and died, the terrible noises of her magic spirits filled the air. Amar was released from the ground and resumed looting the pavilion. In the meanwhile, all the commanders of Queen Mahjabeen’s camp were set free and started fighting Hoshiar’s companions.
Prince Bahar now invoked her magic and created a veritable picture of spring. Gardens filled with flowers and aromatic herbs manifested themselves. The entranced enemy sorcerers waxed poetic in praise of spring.
Bahar ordered them to charge and put Heyrat’s camp to the sword. Hoshiar’s army immediately attacked Heyrat’s forces.
Unmindful and oblivious to the revolutions of the fickle heavens, Empress Heyrat was giving audience surrounded by her sorcerer ministers when Hoshiar’s forces targeted them. Thousands were killed in Heyrat’s camp in the first charge. Chilli necklaces, needle clusters, and magic arrows were exchanged on both sides and steel magic balls were hurled at each other by the sorcerers of the two armies. Thunderous noises of magic spirits rose, lightning bolts struck, ice slabs fell from the skies, black clouds billowed up and clustered over as a terrible darkness in which not even a hand could distinguish its pair spread over the combatants.
Heyrat stood on her throne in a panic and shouted, “Light the magic torches!” As her sorcerers and sorceresses recited spells to light the magic torches, Mahrukh invoked powerful magic that extinguished all of them. A wholesale carnage of Heyrat’s forces now began and blood flowed onto the ground in such quantities that – except for the tulip or the calamus draco108 – no grass would ever sprout there again.
Heaven’s mercy! A day like doomsday was unleashed on Heyrat’s camp. Hoshiar’s forces, specially trained for combat duty by the Emperor of Hoshruba, killed thousands of Heyrat’s men. Prince Asad the valiant also slew hundreds with his relentless sword.
From her throne, Empress Heyrat dove into the ground. Presently, the whole world juddered and the mountains collided with each other as if something had shaken the Earth from its foundations. Princesses Mahrukh and Bahar sought counsel together, concluding that they must satisfy themselves with the God-gifted victory obtained over Hoshiar’s forces and declare the cessation of hostilities, since they could not combat Heyrat’s magic.
The magic fife from Mahjabeen’s camp announced the end of combat. Mahrukh and her commanders separated themselves from their adversaries and returned triumphant and victorious. The tricksters, who had escaped after killing the sorcerers, also reported back to their camp. When Mahjabeen’s dispersed forces, which had retreated into the forests and mountains, heard of their commanders’ return, they too, began returning to the camp. Before long, the camp’s bazaars opened up, the pavilions were filled, and Mahjabeen sat on her throne watching a dance recital.
In the enemy camp, Empress Heyrat emerged from the ground and was received by her army commanders, who stood at the ready to lay down their lives in her service. A part of Heyrat’s surviving forces had absconded, others had dispersed. She gathered all of them in the Hall of Assembly while her army pitched their tents and bivouacked once more.
Heyrat sat in her court awhile with knitted brow. Then she handed the charge of her forces to her deputies and flew back to Afrasiyab astride her magic peacock.
Afrasiyab had recently returned from the Dome of Light to the Apple Garden when Empress Heyrat’s conveyance arrived. The courtiers rose to pay their respects. Heyrat sat beside Afrasiyab and gave him the entire account, from the slaughter of the sorcerers’ army to the circumstances in which Hoshiar had met his death. When Afrasiyab consulted the Book of Sameri, he saw it written there:
“It was your magic water that was employed by Amar Ayyar to kill Hoshiar and Mugheela.”
Afrasiyab trembled with rage when he learned this and said, “O Empress, you may return to the camp. This time I will send terrible calamity upon the despicable rebels. They will die a horrible death.”
As directed by Afrasiyab, Heyrat returned to the camp. Her servants and attendants received her with great deference and she resumed her seat on the throne.
Sorceress Khatif Lightning-Bolt
It is recounted that Hoshruba had seven sorceresses who lived in the form of lightning bolts. They struck as noisily as claps of thunder and burned the enemy alive on the battlefield with powerful bolts. After Heyrat left, Afrasiyab sent for them. No sooner did the Emperor of Hoshruba issue his orders than a crimson cloud containing the seven flashing lightning bolts materialized in the sky. As it approached the cloud descended and the seven lightning bolts rolled onto the ground and acquired the forms of gold-skinned females. The names of these sorceresses were Mehshar, Lamae, Khatif, Shola Bar, Chashmak Zan, Satial Nur and Saiqa Bar. They were richly dressed and covered with gold and jewels. They greeted the emperor and asked, “Why has Your Excellency sent for his slave girls?”
Afrasiyab said, “One of you must depart to help Empress Heyrat in her campaign, and the rest will await further orders at your stations.”
Sorceress Khatif Lightning-Bolt answered, “This slave girl will march against the rebels and punish them.” Afrasiyab conferred a robe of departure on Khatif and the seven sorceresses returned to their lands.
Sorceress Khatif Lightning-Bolt mustered a hundred-thousand-strong army of sorcerers and, with all the tents and pavilions loaded on conveyances, she advanced thunderously and with great razzle dazzle to join Empress Heyrat. The sorcerers cast spells to transform their faces into monstrous shapes and forms and the entire army rose into the sky riding clouds and carrying fiery weapons. The loud and frightening cracks of thunder flying past turned the gall of men to water.
Ugly of face and uglier of nature
Hideous of mien, unsightly, evil-spirited
Tyrannical, ruthless, drunken louts
Foul-mouthed and bursting with vanity
Wicked-hearted, pitiless warriors
The sorcerers departed to battle their foe
Meanwhile, in the court of the Emperor of Hoshruba, the trickster girls Sarsar and Saba Raftar presented themselves after sorceress Khatif Lightning-Bolt had departed. To express his displeasure, Afrasiyab turned his face away from them. The trickster girls said, “What is our crime, Your Excellency?” Afrasiyab replied, “You were retained and received sustenance to serve the empire and obtained your salaries without moving a finger. Regard Amar and his companions! They killed several of my renowned sorcerers after entering the tilism. You, however, never killed any rebel commanders or brought even a single one of them a prisoner to me.”
Sarsar was chagrined by the emperor’s angry words of censure. She bowed her head in shame and replied, “I shall depart and do all I can to capture Prince Asad, who styles himself the Conqueror of the Tilism, as well as Mahjabeen Diamond-Robe, who is the queen of the rebels. It would break the spirits of the rebels and rob them of their figurehead and driving force. May the emperor forgive my mistakes and cleanse his pure heart of any rancour toward his slave girl.”
Afrasiyab was pleased by Sarsar’s speech. He conferred robes of departure on the trickster girls and sent them on their mission. Then he occupied himself with pleasant diversions.
108. tulip or the calamus draco: the tulip is the symbol of the slain or martyred. The berries ofcalamus draco yields resina draconis or Dragon’s Blood—a red resinous substance used in medicines and varnishes.