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 meanwhile, the throne of sorceress Khatif arrived before Emperor Afrasiyab in the Apple Garden. ]
Sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt and Raad Thunder-Clap
In the meanwhile, the throne of sorceress Khatif arrived before Emperor Afrasiyab in the Apple Garden. He looked into the Book of Sameri, wherein he read the following:
“It was your own magic water with which Amar Ayyar humiliated her and rendered her unconscious. Amar would have killed her but because she is a powerful sorceress her magic spirits bore her away on the throne.”
Afrasiyab recited a counterspell to remove the magic from Khatif and she came to. Because she had been splashed with the powerful magic water, however, she became ill and the Emperor of Hoshruba gave her leave to return to her land.
Afrasiyab now sent a magic slave to summon sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt. When Mehshar received the call she started out with great preparations, along with her sorcerer son, Raad Thunder-Clap, and arrived in the emperor’s court.
Afrasiyab said to her, “O Mehshar, I order you to assist the empress and fight the rebels.”
Sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt took a hundred thousand sorcerers with her. Flying on the throne with lofty ambitions, flashing, raining flames, she and her son disappeared into the clouds, followed by their entire army and its tents and pavilions.
The marching army behind its commander
Was like the stars following the moon
The page of the field was scribbled
By the dark scrawling lines of riders and troopers
The myriad colors of their standards
Made the desert floor a colorful bouquet
Throwing the world into unearthly commotion
They caused a turmoil greater than a tempest
The gall of the Cow of the Earth they turned to water
Let alone the Earth, they made the heavens tremble
Countless like the grains of sand
The armies filled the horizon from end to end
Be it known that the Emperor of Hoshruba had constructed many sight-seeing stations and pleasant gardens for his excursions throughout the tilism. When sorceress Mehshar’s army was at two days’ distance from Mahrukh’s camp it halted in one such garden, situated in a lush, green forest.
A sorceress named Baran was the ruler of a nearby majestic mountain. She was unmatched in beauty and comeliness; many a sorcerer pined away for love of her. Mehshar’s son, Raad Thunder-Clap, was among those marked by the love of her calamitous beauty. When the army landed, Raad decided to soothe his eyes with the sight of his fairy-like beloved, and set out for her abode.
Upon arrival, he bribed one of Baran’s sorceress attendants with gold and jewels to inveigle her mistress to come out on the palace balcony so that her listless lover could derive some comfort in admiring her beauty.
The attendant brought Baran out on the balcony on some pretext. Enthralled by her beauty, Raad Thunder-Clap was lost in admiration.
In the meanwhile, Baran’s other lovers also arrived on the scene. Seeing Raad before the palace of their beloved, a blaze of jealousy lit up in their hearts. They cast a spell to render Raad deaf and mute and arrested and pinioned him. Then they led Raad into the wilderness to kill him, keeping far away from his mother’s camp.
At the same time, Amar arrived in the wilderness, thinking to himself, Sorceress Khatif escaped but it is certain that before long Afrasiyab will send another scourge on us.
Absorbed by these thoughts, Amar saw three sorcerers leading a young man into the wilderness as prisoner. From the youth’s noble physiognomy, Amar reckoned him to be a renowned sorcerer. Amar thought, If I deliver him from their clutches he might feel indebted to me and join our cause. Amar put on the dev jama that changed into seven different colors, adopting a new hue every moment. He covered his face with ten pasteboard masks that had several mouths from which snakelike tongues darted out. He stuck pasteboard arms onto his body and smeared it with a lotion that made every pore of his skin appear to spew flames. Then Amar blew the White Conch that struck terror even into the hearts of demons.
The sorcerers leading Raad into the wilderness froze in their tracks upon hearing the blast of the White Conch and felt their feet turn to sand. As they looked around with frightened eyes, Amar appeared. They beheld, advancing toward them, a ten-headed creature of horrible mien, whose body was covered with flames and whose attire changed colors from red to blue to black to green to yellow every moment.
Frightened out of their wits by this sight, the sorcerers prostrated themselves before the creature. Amar called out, “I am the Angel of Death of Lord Laqa!” The sorcerers trembled with fear and asked, “What is the reason for your visit?” Amar answered, “I come to extract the soul of the sinner you lead to death. But your lives too, have reached their end and I must claim them too.”
The sorcerers entreated him, “O Angel of Death of Lord Laqa, tell us some way to defer our doom that we may taste of life’s pleasure awhile longer.” Amar answered, “If you offer alms, that may move Lord Laqa to show mercy on you.” The sorcerers bestowed on Amar all the gold and jewels they carried on their persons.
Amar took out an apple from his zambil and offered it to them, saying, “Each of you should eat a slice of this. It will extend your lives.” The three sorcerers had a piece each. After a moment, when the drug-laced apple’s effects were felt, they shouted, “O Angel of Death, we feel our hearts palpitating!” Amar answered, “It is because the blood vessels lengthen as one receives longevity.” The sorcerers soon fell unconscious and Amar unsheathed his dagger and beheaded all of them. The slain sorcerers’ magic spirits made a hue and cry and a racket rose.
Having been rendered deaf and mute by magic spells, Raad Thunder-Clap now regained the faculties of hearing and speech. Once the commotion subsided, he glared suspiciously at Amar, who said, “You glower at me now even though I saved your life?” Raad asked, “What is your name?” Amar answered, “I am an angel of Lord Laqa.”
Raad Thunder-Clap said, “O angel of our Lord, I was taken unawares by these sorcerers. I am the son of sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt. With my magic I can dive into the ground to emerge beside the foe and roar like the sound of a thunder clap. The sound bursts the skulls of the enemies and even if mighty sorcerers should escape death, the impact of my thunder clap yet makes them fall unconscious. My mother strikes them in the form of a lightning bolt and can cleave them in two. Afrasiyab sent us to battle Mahrukh Magic-Eye and we are headed to decimate her camp.”
Amar said to himself, It was most fortunate that I ran into him. Otherwise they would have proved a terrible scourge. Now I must find a way to kill him too. While Amar made these calculations, a puff of cloud materialized and sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt arrived on the scene. After she had found Raad missing from the camp, she searched for him frantically, anxious that no enemy trickster should kill her son.
When Amar saw her coming he put on the cape of invisibility. Witnessing Amar’s sudden disappearance, Raad was convinced that Amar was, indeed, the angel of Laqa. Sorceress Mehshar recognized her son and descended. She changed into the form of a woman and embraced her son. Seeing the dead sorcerers lying around, she asked Raad who had killed them.
He told her how he had been captured and how the angel of Laqa had brought him freedom. Mehshar said, “It is most unfortunate that he left. Had I seen him I would have filled the skirts of his hopes with riches of desire.” Raad said, “The angel of Lord Laqa disappeared all of a sudden. Perhaps he is still present but invisible. Let me call to him.”
Raad called, “Show us favor if you are present O angel of Lord Laqa. My mother wishes to see you.”
Amar took off the cape of invisibility and appeared. Sorceress Mehshar bowed her head reverently before Amar and said, “You are our benefactor. Because of you Lord Sameri again conferred the robe of life on my son. I wish you would accompany us to our camp as an honored guest and visit our quarters. I will do all I can to recompense your act of kindness.” Amar answered, “I have no objection.”
Sorceress Mehshar recited a spell that summoned a jewel-encrusted flying throne. She seated Amar and Raad Thunder-Clap on the throne and accompanied them to her camp, flying in the form of a lightning bolt. They arrived above her camp and descended into a vast garden in full bloom. Amar saw the garden was lined with fruit-laden trees and clustered with flowers. A majestic palace furnished with the rarities of the world rose in the nave of the garden.
Sorceress Mehshar seated Amar on a couch and presented salvers laden with gold and jewels as offerings. She said, “While these offerings may not be worthy of Your Lordship, I hope you will accept them. And do tell me your real name.” Amar answered, “I already told you that I am an angel of Lord Laqa. You repeat yourself to no purpose.”
The sorceress sent for her box and took out the Folios of Jamshed to ascertain whether or not Amar told the truth. The Folios of Jamshed read:
“The man before you is Amar Ayyar, the supporter of Mahrukh Magic-Eye, who disguised himself to save Raad’s life. Before he creates any trouble, you must make him an offering and send him away. You are further advised to kill him should an opportunity offer itself, for Amar is a great menace.”
Mehshar turned fiercely toward Amar upon learning this.
Amar said, “What harm have I done you? Have you taken leave of your senses that you look fiercely at me? It reminds me of the saying that no good deed goes unpunished.” Mehshar replied, “You fooled me with your talk before but you can do so no more. I know your name is Amar. Now tell me, O enemy of my emperor, what should I mete out for your punishment?” Amar replied, “It was on account of your humility that I spared your life earlier. Now do your worst and show me not the least compassion.” Mehshar said, “I am indebted to you. How can I return your kindness with evil? Take these offerings of gold and jewels and depart.” Amar answered, “Rest assured, I have no plans of taking up residence with you.”
While they had this conversation, Afrasiyab consulted the Book of Sameri to learn what had passed with sorceress Mehshar. He saw written there:
“The sorceress Mehshar has brought Amar into her camp and seated him on a couch. She converses with Amar and makes him offerings of gold and jewels.”
Afrasiyab raged marvellously when he learned of this.
Sorceresses Khumar and Makhmur Crimson-Eye
Be it known that at that moment two powerful sorceress sisters, Makhmur Crimson-Eye and Khumar were present in the court.
Makhmur Crimson-Eye was loved by Afrasiyab just like her sister Khumar and Princess Bahar. And like them, Makhmur Crimson-Eye did not respond to Afrasiyab’s advances because of her fear of Empress Heyrat’s vengeance. She was sitting elegantly beside her sister when Afrasiyab angrily ordered her, “Go at once to the garden near Mahrukh’s camp where Mehshar Lightning-Bolt sits with Amar Ayyar. Bring Amar to me as a prisoner and punish Mehshar if she intervenes.”
Makhmur invoked her magic and flew off. She soon arrived in the camp of Mehshar, who gave her a seat beside herself. Makhmur censured Mehshar, saying, “You have angered the emperor by receiving his enemy, Amar, with honor. You would do well to end the matter here and let me take him to the court as a prisoner, or else you will invite the emperor’s wrath and forfeit your life.”
Mehshar answered, “My sister, it is against my faith and principles to allow any harm to come to Amar after he saved my son’s life.” Makhmur said, “Abandon such thoughts. Drop all your scruples and fear only Afrasiyab. You will lose your life if you show intransigence in this matter. You may wish to lay down your life for Amar but I will not disobey the emperor. I will take this wretch as a prisoner with me.”
While they argued, Amar found his chance. He splashed some magic water from the carafe on Makhmur Crimson-Eye’s face. She immediately fell unconscious. As Amar drew his dagger and ran toward her, a magic claw swooped down and carried Makhmur away.
Mehshar said to Amar, “You must leave immediately. I too, must go and hide somewhere in the tilism. Afrasiyab has now become my enemy. He will kill me upon sight. You made a terrible mistake by trying to harm Makhmur.”
Amar answered, “O Mehshar, remember,
“If the enemy be strong,
The Protector is stronger still.
“Why must you go and hide in some nook in the tilism? Come with me to Mahrukh’s camp and bide your time there in peace. Regard that all who have joined our ranks are still alive with their honor intact. It’s a matter of time before, God willing, the tilism is conquered. Then you will witness that those who joined us will receive higher ranks and greater honor in Amir Hamza’s court. Even if we are overwhelmed by Afrasiyab – as you fear – you would fare no better or worse than the rest of us. Sharing a calamity reduces its severity. The choice is up to you. I have given you my best counsel.”
Mehshar said, “You speak true. Come, we are with you. I will not escape and hide, I will join you and die fighting. Let us start in the name of God.”
Sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt rose and ordered the drums of departure to announce the march. Her orders were carried out and the tents and pavilions were packed and loaded onto the magic conveyances. Mehshar ascended the flying throne and seated Amar beside her. Then she departed for Mahrukh’s camp with great majesty.
Sorceress Lamae Lightning-Bolt
When sorceress Makhmur regained her senses she found herself in Afrasiyab’s court. She said to the emperor, “As I argued and quarrelled with Mehshar, Amar splashed magic water on my face and I fell unconscious.”
When Afrasiyab looked into the Book of Sameri, he saw this written there:
“Amar made Makhmur Crimson-Eye unconscious with the magic water. Now Mehshar Lightning-Bolt has joined ranks with Amar and departed for Mahrukh’s camp.”
Afrasiyab immediately clapped and a magic slave materialized. The emperor ordered, “Summon sorceress Lamae Lightning-Bolt!”
The magic slave delivered the message without loss of time.
When sorceress Lamae presented herself, Afrasiyab said, “Go and arrest sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt, who is headed for Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp.”
Sorceress Lamae took along a one-hundred-thousand-strong sorcerer army and flew away on her mission, flashing majestically in the form of lightning.
On the way, it occurred to her that instead of intercepting Mehshar on the way to Mahrukh’s camp, she should arrest her there along with other rebels. It would not only save her two separate campaigns but also earn her greater renown too. She proceeded with dispatch to Empress Heyrat’s camp. The empress welcomed her upon arrival and Lamae Lightning-Bolt’s army set up camp and bivouacked.
Sorceress Lamae remained in the form of a lightning bolt all day long for fear of the tricksters’ attacking her. When one watch of the day remained, the torch of the sun slowly burned up in the assembly of heaven and the moon’s candle lit up and spread its light in the cosmic congregation. Only then did the sorceress show herself in her court in human form. She ordered the war drums to be beaten. The call to war was given and the whole camp was thrown into turmoil as they made preparations for battle.
The magic birds brought these tidings to Queen Mahrukh. At her orders, bugles trilled to answer the enemy’s call to war. The preparations for battle and carnage started and remained underway for the next four watches of the night.
When the Lord of Darkness110 retreated and the King of Golden-Headgear came out of his eastern palace and gave audience on the throne of sky, sorceress Lamae and Empress Heyrat entered the arena; one flashing brilliantly in a magic cloud, leading her one-hundred-thousand-strong army of sorcerers, the other in her enamelled palace accompanied by her numerous force.
Queen Mahrukh and Princess Bahar rode in on magic thrones at the head of their army. The blaring magic bugles deafened the ears of heaven and a great turmoil shook the earth as the sorcerers’ hordes marched. The sorcerer groundsmen dropped thunderbolts to clear the arena of shrubbery. Magic clouds cast by their spells rained and settled the ashes and dust.
Criers from both sides came out to enthuse the warriors, and called out, “You must return triumphant to your camp and earn renown for your noble and valiant ancestors.”
After the criers emptied the field, sorceress Lamae flickered in the arena in the form of lightning. With a flashing bolt, she cleft all her challengers from Mahrukh’s camp into two. Then she flashed with a blinding light that filled the sky. When no challenger came out from Queen Mahrukh’s camp sorceress Lamae struck Mahrukh’s army columns, killing and burning thousands.
Mahrukh’s army ranks were thrown into upheaval and her celebrated sorcerers recited counterspells to avert sorceress Lamae’s magic.
Mahrukh took off her crown and supplicated in the court of God Almighty in the name of Fatima.
“Send aid O Fatima, daughter of Muhammad
Send aid O light of the Majestic Prophet’s house
This feline army has come to kill me
Send aid O Lioness of God.”
The arrow of Mahrukh’s prayer reached the mark of acceptance. Everyone on the battlefield saw a magic cloud arise from the wilderness with the standard of Mahrukh’s camp fluttering above it. Next, thousands of sorcerers riding magic dragons came into view, led by sorceress Mehshar, who sat with great magnificence beside Amar Ayyar on a flying throne.
Mehshar’s army took position on one side of the arena while she made her war cry and struck sorceress Lamae’s army in the form of a thunderbolt, killing thousands. When she regarded this sight, sorceress Lamae stopped attacking Mahrukh’s army and charged at Mehshar. The two became entwined. The spectators saw two entangled, quivering, flashing lightning bolts in the sky and flashing bolts filled the arena. Whenever the lightning bolts struck, sorcerers in Heyrat’s camp shouted, “O Sameri! O Jamshed!” They tooted their bugles, struck drums and raised and unfurled their colors. The racket resembled the din of doomsday.
In the meanwhile, Raad Thunder-Clap dismounted his throne and dove into the ground by invoking his magic. As Mehshar and Lamae fell entangled to the ground and rolled across the arena in combat, the earth suddenly cleft and Raad raised his head beside sorceress Lamae. He made a booming roar like thousands of thunderclaps striking simultaneously.
Because Lamae was a powerful sorceress, the impact did not shatter her skull. Instead, she fell unconscious. As sorceress Mehshar rose, rumbling into the sky and flashed, ready to strike down Lamae, a magic claw swooped down and carried sorceress Lamae away.
Raad Thunder-Clap now tore out of the ground in the midst of Lamae’s ranks and roared, shattering the skulls of countless sorcerers. Many fell unconscious. Sorceress Mehshar flashed and fell, cleaving bodies in two wherever she struck. Lamae’s army started to retreat even as Heyrat ordered Lamae’s commanders to defend their positions.
110. Lord of Darkness: an allusion to the night.