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.
[Meanwhile, Mahrukh advanced and her army clashed with Heyrat’s forces.]
Meanwhile, Mahrukh advanced and her army clashed with Heyrat’s forces. Magic was deployed on both sides;Raad continuously emerged from the ground and roared; Mehshar continuously struck. A great pandemonium and uproar was witnessed in both camps as magic citrons and magic limes were hurled by sorcerers at their opponents.
With her spell, Princess Bahar summoned a magic spring that captivated the enemy sorcerers. Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane unfurled her hair and shooting stars showered on the foe, killing them in great numbers, Princess Nafarman wreaked havoc on the enemy with the magic she cast. Sorcerer Shakeel piled up the enemy sorcerers on the field.
Wherever the flaming lightning bolts fell
They cleared the expanse of enemy’s existence
The army submerged in the waves of blood
Where blood-splashing swords in every surge struck
The warriors ready with their swords unsheathed
The archers shot at targets that came into view
Necks fell under the curved blade as if it were the prayer hall arch
Every headstrong infidel was a humbled soul
The shining blade of the dagger swam in life blood
The skulls of the foe as dagger handles were already marked
When Heyrat beheld this picture of her army’s defeat, she struck the drums to announce the cessation of hostilities. She flew to the sky where she invoked magic to cause a surging river of fire to pour down into the arena and it began raining flames. Mahrukh also struck the drums to call her army back to camp. Heyrat extinguished the river of fire and returned to her court.
Mahrukh entered her encampment and held an assembly of her commanders.
Sorceress Mehshar and Raad Thunder-Clap made offerings and submitted their allegiance. They were welcomed by all the commanders in the camp and Mahrukh conferred robes of honor on them. She took off her precious necklace to present to Raad Thunder-Clap and gave him the rank of commander. Soon, preparations began for the celebrations. Mahrukh feted Mehshar and Raad and goblets of wine were passed around.
Leaving Queen Mahrukh’s camp busy in these revels,
Let us wheel around the steed of pen
And write of sorceress Hasina’s adventures
Hasina had put Prince Alam Shah under her beauty spell and issued the call to war at Bakhtiarak’s advice. One day, when the world-illuminating greater star111 retired to its westerly abode and its luminous minister, the lesser star,112 took over the reign of the land, war drums were struck in Laqa’s camp in the name of Prince Alam Shah.
The messengers of Amir Hamza’s camp delivered this news to the auspicious ears of their just king. King Saad ordered that war drums be beaten in answer from their camp. The valiant champions and warriors began their preparations for battle. The armory distributed arms and armor to soldiers, who decorated themselves with weapons of their choice. The steeds were fitted with reins and saddles. For four watches of the night, everyone remained busy in these measures.
When the eastern mint issued the coin of the sun and it became currency in the bazaar of the heavens in lieu of the moon’s dinar,113 the King of True Believers emerged from his private pavilion and received the salutations and blessings of his commanders. His Excellency led his army to the arena astride his battle charger, Siyah Qitas. The ceremonial royal horse trotted beside him.
From the other side, Laqa, in the company of Prince Alam Shah and sorceress Hasina, descended like a scourge. Alam Shah sat astride a fairy-faced horse beside Laqa’s throne. All the commanders and officers of Laqa’s army were arrayed out behind him. Hasina had magically augmented her beauty and anyone who laid eyes on her was captivated by her charm.
The grounds keepers of the two armies dug up and levelled the elevated patches and filled up depressed areas of the arena to make it smooth and level for battle.
Next, the battle arrays were formed, and after they were established, Alam Shah sought Laqa’s leave for combat and took the reins of his steed. He raced his horse into the arena and challenged the valiant True Believers thus: “Any of you who considers himself my match should come out and face me.” Everyone in the army of True Believers wept at his words and said, “We would never raise our hands in combat to harm our prince.”
At that moment, the steadfast pillar of the army of True Believers, the heart and soul and second in command of Amir Hamza the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, and the Lord of the lands of India, to wit, King Landhoor bin Saadan came forward astride his battle elephant. He sought and received his king’s leave to go and counsel the prince.
When Landhoor confronted him, Alam Shah said, “O pheni-eating,114 worthless Indian, you think you are my equal? Very well then! Give me the best blow from your repertoire of knocks.” Landhoor said, “O Prince of lofty station, I dare not fight with you as I am your slave and you my master. But it is most lamentable that you not only rebelled against your king but also challenged your noble father against all considerations of duty and honor in the quest of a shameless harridan, whore, and prostitute.” Alam Shah fiercely answered, “O Indian, how dare you utter these vile words against your mistress and owner, and my honored and pledged wife. I shall make an example of you!”
He brought down his sword on Landhoor’s head but Landhoor deflected the blade with a strike of his hand, foiling the prince’s blow and catching his wrist. Alam Shah took hold of Landhoor’s collar. As they struggled, their mounts collapsed under them. The two combatants emptied their saddles. They tied up the skirts of their coats, rolled up their sleeves, grappled with each other, and exerted themselves against the other’s might. It seemed as if two rutting elephants or two demons were locked in combat and clashed their heads together.
Sorceress Hasina cast a spell that drained Landhoor’s power and might; he felt his limbs become lifeless. Alam Shah pinned Landhoor to the ground and gave him prisoner to Laqa’s soldiers, who incarcerated Landhoor with other commanders of Amir Hamza’s camp. As the trickster, Tarar the Speedster, had already captured and imprisoned Amir Hamza in a cave, there was nobody who could challenge Alam Shah. The prince now drew his sword and attacked the army of True Believers.
Amir Hamza’s surviving army commanders saw no choice but to fight back. The King of the True Believers charged into the arena and Laqa’s armies also attacked. King Saad made his war declaration,
“I am the king of kings, majestic as Faridun the Great
I am the spring to the splendorous garden of Kaikaus and Jamshed
My arm is as strong as Bahman’s arm
I am brazen-bodied like Isfandiar!”
The two surging armies clashed with a roar and merged in sword combat. The cling-clang of arms and war slogans of champions mixed with the cries of the injured and dying.
The commanders of the True Believers’ army showed consideration to Alam Shah and avoided harming him. The prince, however, injured and maimed many and martyred several of them.
When Alam Shah injured King Saad too, the royal attendants carried their king away on a movable throne. The tricksters valiantly transported the women of Amir Hamza’s camp on their backs to the safety of the hills. The army commanders emptied out their camp and pavilions and, along with King Saad and their men, took refuge in a mountain pass.
Alam Shah charged into the empty camp and secured the Pavilion of Suleiman. Finding that he had no challengers, Alam Shah ordered his attendants to carry away the pavilion. Later, he ordered that drums be struck in Laqa’s camp to call the warriors to camp.
Alam Shah declared, “Tomorrow I will attack the mountain hideout where the True Believers have taken refuge and kill every single one of them.” Laqa returned to the fortress showering gold on Alam Shah’s head as a holy offering to ward off any harm that might befall him. The warriors rested and celebrations began in the fortress of Mount Agate.
Alam Shah said in the court, “Now I should be married to Princess Hasina. I have obtained the Pavilion of Suleiman. Soon I will bring back Hamza’s head too.”
Hasina, who was only too eager to lie with the prince, said to Bakhtiarak, “Do not make further delays. Marry me now to the prince.” Bakhtiarak answered, “You will spoil my plan with your impatience, but I will do as you wish. Prepare yourself to be married so that you can take your pleasure with the prince.”
Sorceress Hasina returned to her abode and ordered her attendants to decorate the garden and adorn her quarters. They released water in the watercourses, pruned the trees, and festooned the summerhouse where all the instruments of musical assembly were provided. Revels were organized in the Pavilion of Suleiman too, for the pleasure of Prince Alam Shah. Musicians, singers and dancers regaled the assembly. Goblets of roseate wine were passed. The revels continued and Alam Shah sat bedecked as a bridegroom on the throne.
Leaving Laqa’s camp occupied in merrymaking, let us hear an account of Amir Hamza’s camp. King Saad lay bleeding and unconscious in the mountain pass and his champions and nobles were also injured. When the king regained his senses, he said, “Raise me onto my steed’s saddle, fasten me to it and send me into the battlefield. To lay down my life fighting is far preferable to me than an ignoble existence such as this!” At these words, the women gathered there wept and wailed. When the dizziness subsided and the king again opened his eyes, he said, “Our camp encountered all these troubles because Amar Ayyar was not with us. We have many tricksters but they are tricksters in name alone. There are none that are capable of getting us out of this trouble.”
The trickster Chalak was cut to the quick by these words. He said to himself, I should kill that whore Hasina or lay down my life in the endeavor. He put on his trickster’s livery and set out for the Fortress of Mount Agate.
When Chalak arrived in Laqa’s court he witnessed wedding arrangements underway. He disguised himself as an attendant and asked a passerby, “Whose wedding is taking place here?” The man gave Chalak all the details regarding sorceress Hasina’s nuptials with Prince Alam Shah and told him that Hasina would be wed from her garden. Chalak obtained the directions to Hasina’s garden and headed there.
Chalak disguised himself as a sorcerer, marked his body with sandalwood powder, plaited his hair and smeared it with dust. He tied the portraits of Sameri and Jamshed to his arms, put on a saffron-colored waistcloth and affixed a diamond tablet on his forehead; it was carved with the words, “Special Aide to Emperor Afrasiyab.” It made his forehead look like it was carved out of diamond. Carrying a trident and chaffing dish, the false sorcerer entered Hasina’s garden. To any who asked his particulars, Chalak replied, “I am sent by Emperor Afrasiyab.”
When the news was conveyed to sorceress Hasina she came out of her bridal chamber to welcome the false sorcerer, who introduced himself as Makkar the Cunning. Hasina took him into the summerhouse and asked him to make himself comfortable. Makkar gave her a letter and said, “I don’t have orders to sit down. The emperor has sent you this message and awaits an answer.”
Hasina read the letter given her. It read:
“Well done, O Hasina! You accomplished a great deed by destroying Hamza’s camp. I brought back some fruit from my visit to the Garden of Sameri, which I distributed among my faithful servants. I offer you your share by the hand of the sorcerer Makkar. By eating this fruit you will receive the gift of longevity, since the Garden of Sameri is full of marvels. I bind you by an oath on my life that you eat this fruit when you receive it. Allow only your close confidantes to remain in your presence when you eat it lest the shadow of an impure person is cast on the fruit and defiles it. Then you must speedily put an end to the battle and return to court to receive lands and riches as your reward. End of the letter. Regards.”
Hasina was overjoyed upon reading the letter and sent all her slave girls to await her outside the garden. She allowed only a handful of close confidantes, who were most immaculately clean, to remain by her side. After making these arrangements, she said to Makkar, “Please present the fruit sent by the emperor.”
The false sorcerer sent for trays, then took out many brightly colored, shining and fresh fruit from his pocket and arranged them on the trays. He made a respectful bow before the fruit then offered it to Hasina. The sorceress put the tray on her head as a sign of respect and said, “There is no end to the emperor’s kindnesses. He never fails to remember or show favor to his slave girls. As the emperor has bound me by an oath on his life to eat the fruit, I wish to eat it in your presence, O Makkar, so that you can bear witness to my actions before the emperor.”
Then Hasina ate the fruit and also offered some to her confidantes. As soon as they ate the drug-laced fruit, Hasina and her companions fell unconscious. Chalak slaughtered Hasina and beheaded her attendants. Immediately, their magic spirits caused an uproar and sorcerers and sorceresses ran into the garden.
Chalak took advantage of the spreading darkness to remove Amir Hamza’s protective necklace from Hasina’s neck and escape after jumping over the garden wall.
In the meanwhile, the turmoil continued and sorcerers ran in all directions in the ensuing confusion.
Now hear of what passed in the Pavilion of Suleiman, where Alam Shah sat dressed as a bridegroom. When Hasina was killed the spell she had cast on him was removed. The prince fell unconscious as the spell was broken. When he came to he found himself sitting in Laqa’s court dressed like a Laqa worshipper.
He asked the courtiers, “What are my circumstances?” They replied, “You prostrated yourself before Lord Laqa and today is the day of your wedding.” Then they gave Alam Shah a complete account of how he fell in Hasina’s love and fought and routed the camp of the True Believers.
Alam Shah rose in a blazing rage and cried, “Alas, that infidel made a staunch True Believer like me prostrate myself before him and murder my companions by my own hand!” Alam Shah drew his sword and made his war declaration,
“Alam Shah, the Prince of Elephant Might
My might made the throne of Marzuq tremble
I am the one whose name in every assembly
Will be now proclaimed Rustam Elephant-Body!”
A sword fight broke out in Laqa’s court. Amir Hamza’s army commanders Landhoor, Hashim Swordfighter and others, who had been imprisoned together in a tent, were also freed of sorceress Hasina’s spells upon her death. When they heard Alam Shah’s war cry and the rising racket reached them, they broke their fetters and rushed out swinging the chains that had imprisoned them. They killed the guards, snatched their weapons and charged into Laqa’s court.
In the meanwhile, Alam Shah fought his way out of the court and fell upon Laqa’s camp. Taken unawares, Laqa’s soldiers defended themselves as best they could but by that time Alam Shah had already killed thousands, throwing Laqa’s camp into upheaval.
Chalak rushed to the mountain pass to apprise his army of the news. The commanders who were not too badly injured quickly marshalled their men and charged Laqa’s forces.
It is recounted that Amir Hamza, who was thrown into a cave by the trickster Tarar the Speedster, regained consciousness after a day. He broke his bonds, removed the stone that blocked the cave entrance and came out.
However, he lost his way in the mountains and wandered for two days. Then he came upon a woodcutter and hired him as a guide to find his way back to his camp. Amir Hamza arrived at his camp when Alam Shah charged Laqa’s camp. Amir Hamza recited the Most Great Name and rendered useless the magic spells cast by sorceress Hasina’s companions. A pitched sword battle now raged between the two camps. Heads flew off shoulders and were kicked around like beggars’ bowls.
Finally, Laqa’s army was defeated. The false god took refuge in the fortress of Mount Agate while the sorcerers retreated into Hoshruba.
Amir Hamza’s army captured the war booty and brought back the Pavilion of Suleiman. It was set up at the same spot in Hamza’s camp where it had stood earlier. The wounds of the injured were sutured. The army bivouacked, the bazaars opened up, and the women of Amir Hamza’s camp returned from their mountain refuge. The trickster Chalak presented the protective necklace to Amir Hamza, who rewarded him with a robe of honor.
In the meanwhile, at Bakhtiarak’s behest, King Suleiman Amber-Hair again sent a message to Afrasiyab. It read:
“O Afrasiyab, I request you in Lord Laqa’s name to send someone else to aid our lord. Sorceress Hasina crossed Lord Laqa by falling in love with Hamza’s son, therefore our lord destroyed her. Now he again awaits your help. It is hoped you will presently carry out his wishes.”
The message was sent to the mountain, the gong was rung, and the magic claw materialized and carried off the letter.
111. Great star: an allusion to the sun.
112. The lesser star: an allusion to the moon.
113. The dinar coin was minted in many denominations but they were usually silver, hence the association with the moon. A gold dinar was called a surkh (red) dinar.
114. Pheni-eating: pheni is an Indian vermicular sweetmeat that is served soaked in milk. Here the term is used in a derogatory sense. By calling Landhoor a pheni-eater Prince Alam Shah is suggesting Landhoor is less powerful than the meat-eating prince.