Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism

Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism: Book 1, Episode 38

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.

[Now hear of what passed in the tilism.]

Sorcerer Aafat and Princess Hilal Magic-Wringer

Now hear of what passed in the tilism. Afrasiyab sat in the Apple Garden when the magic claw that had carried off sorceress Lamae Lightning-Bolt brought her before him. The emperor removed the spell that held her and returned her to consciousness. After hearing sorceress Lamae’s account, Afrasiyab beat his head in shame and chagrin. He sent off sorceress Lamae to her land and thought of assigning sorceress Chashmak Zan Lightning-Bolt to the campaign against Mahrukh.

At that moment, a sorcerer named Aafat, who was one of the emperor’s close confidants and illustrious commanders, laughed at Afrasiyab.

Afrasiyab, who grieved at his recent reversals, was enraged by Aafat’s ill-timed laughter. The emperor said, “O insolent man, how dare you laugh instead of consoling your master and weeping at his circumstances?” Aafat replied, “O Emperor, I laugh when I consider the rising fortunes of Amar Ayyar and Mahrukh Magic-Eye and how they humiliate your devotees, the renowned sorcerers of the tilism, who are the equals of Sameri and Jamshed. Amar trounced them and all of them turned tail. Verily, it’s a near impossibility to triumph over Amar.” Afrasiyab was incensed by these inauspicious words and said, “O ill-natured, worthless man, go away and never come back! How dare you dispirit and dishearten my courtiers by impertinently praising the enemy before them?”

Being of a noble nature, Aafat could not hold back after hearing Afrasiyab’s harsh words. Aafat said, “O Afrasiyab, it is such displays of vanity that brought Lord Sameri’s wrath down on you. As we know,

Any who raised the head of vanity was condemned

To this day the Tutor of Angels115 walks in ignominy

“You have not renounced your arrogance despite repeated humiliations. I speak true. You will never be able to kill Amar Ayyar. Everyday I feel more inclined to believe that his faith is indeed the true faith.”

Afrasiyab said, “It appears to me that you have joined Amar, which is why you sing his praises and take his side. I’ll teach you a lesson for your insolence. I would like to see how Amar saves you now.”

Afrasiyab ordered the sorcerers present in his court to arrest Aafat. When the sorcerers rose to arrest him Aafat tried to counter their spells but was overwhelmed by their greater number and was pinioned by them.

Afrasiyab ordered, “Take him across the River of Flowing Blood into Zahir and burn him alive in the open field that stretches from the Dome of Light and overlooks Mahrukh’s camp so that she too, may witness his terrible end and take admonition from it. That area is also accessible to the tricksters. I would like to see who dares to release him. Tonight this man of ill fortune should remain imprisoned in the execution grounds. Come morning, I will arrive at the Dome of Light and sit in the window that overlooks Mahrukh’s camp to witness the burning of Aafat on the pyre, and the helplessness of his sympathisers.”

Several thousand sorcerers led Aafat away. The entire region of Batin rang with the news and sorceress Aafat’s wife, Princess Hilal Magic-Wringer, also received the tidings. She headed out with several hundred beautiful slave girls to see her husband for the last time. Aafat’s friends and attendants wept and wailed and accompanied the princess, their hair dishevelled and collars rent. But they followed her at a distance because of their fear of the Emperor of Hoshruba.

When the party of sorcerers leading Aafat as prisoner arrived in Zahir a great hue and cry arose in that region.

Empress Heyrat’s magic birds brought her the news and she rode out on her throne to witness the sight. All the officers of her camp accompanied her. Magic bugles tooted and the criers made proclamations that anyone who rebelled against the Emperor of Hoshruba would be likewise punished and experience a similar plight.

In due time, the news also reached Queen Mahrukh’s camp that Aafat was condemned to be burned alive for the words he spoke in favor of Amar and Mahrukh. Everyone, including Amar Ayyar, received the news and became restive. Mahrukh ordered that the magic trumpet should be sounded and readied her army to attack and snatch Aafat from Afrasiyab’s clutches. Then Amar said to her, “O queen, if you were able to triumph over the armies of the Emperor of Hoshruba, we, the tricksters, would have speedily killed the emperor instead of undergoing any hardships. It is impossible for you to snatch Aafat from them. I advise instead that some of your sorcerers should fly into the sky by magic and hide there, and some more should invoke magic to sink into the ground. A part of our army should lie in wait here and another part should prepare to ambush. When they hear my war cry and witness Afrasiyab lying unconscious, they should attack the enemy camp and start the carnage. However, you must make these arrangements under cover of night. Let the remainder of the day pass without these preparations or your intentions will be revealed to the enemy. I must, however, start now and plan some trickery.”

Amar Ayyar went on his way. He arrived in the wilderness and blew his whistle to summon his trickster companions. When they gathered, Amar informed them about their mission. Each trickster described the trickery he would perform to achieve his end. Amar approved of the trickery they described, which will be revealed in due time. Afterwards, the tricksters left on their respective missions and Amar went his own way.

On the other side, villainous sorcerers led Aafat into the field. Empress Heyrat’s entourage also arrived and was stationed on one side of the field. Afrasiyab had ordered that a pyre be built and Aafat kept incarcerated during the night.

When the bride of the day arrived in the house of lamentations dressed in black, and the evening of sorrows displayed her mourning face, a guard and vigil was deputed on sorcerer Aafat. Empress Heyrat’s entourage bivouacked in their place. The vigil squads remained on the alert and constantly made rounds of the camp. A sorcerer named Tadbir, appointed to supervise the building of the pyre, ordered that the forest be cut down to obtain wood.

As advised by Amar, Queen Mahrukh and half of her army slipped away under cover of darkness. Once they arrived near their marks, they invoked magic, flew to the sky, and sank into the ground as planned, to lie in ambush.

The trickster Burq the Frank reached the open field and saw sorcerer Tadbir supervising the arrangements for the pyre. Burq disguised himself as a woodcutter and, carrying an axe on his shoulder, went before him.

He said to Tadbir, “As I was cutting a tree, a flame leapt out of its trunk and turned into a fairy and started dancing. I ran away in fright and came to report it so that you may also witness this marvel.” Tadbir was greatly surprised. He accompanied the false woodcutter, who led him to a deserted place where he made Tadbir unconscious with an egg of oblivion, put on his clothes, and assumed his disguise. He bound the real Tadbir and threw him into a cave, then returned to the field and resumed work.

When building the pyre, Burq left a cavity in the middle that could accommodate up to three persons. While Burq made these arrangements, Qiran the Ethiope dug a tunnel from the forest leading up to the cavity in the pyre. Disguised as sorcerers, the tricksters Zargham and Jansoz helped prepare the pyre and threw large amounts of drugs onto the logs.

While the tricksters made these preparations, Amar Ayyar headed along the bank of the River of Flowing Blood and arrived at a colorful garden that was the envy of paradise. Tall and soaring trees lined the garden. Every plant was bestowed richly by the bounty of the Eternal Gardener. And yet the garden was draped in sorrow and every flower sat on its branch with a rent collar, robbed of its beauty and charm.

Amar entered the garden and witnessed a woman dressed in black, who sat surrounded by several hundred slave girls wailing and lamenting. The woman was none other than the wife of sorceress Aafat, Princess Hilal Magic-Wringer. In the past, she had used that garden in Zahir for her pleasure jaunts; now she stopped there to spend the night in mourning before joining her husband to burn alongside him. That luminous moon of beauty sat marked by the eclipse of dread in the midst of her attendants, remembering her husband and suffering violent pangs of grief.

When Amar heard her lamentations, he realized she was sorcerer Aafat’s wife. Amar hid in a garden nook and disguised himself as an old woman. White-haired, with bent back and walking with the help of a stick, the false old woman arrived before Princess Hilal crying, “Ah, my son!” She introduced herself as Aafat’s nanny, vowed her life’s sacrifice to keep the princess from harm, and cried copiously in her embrace. Then she said to Princess Hilal, “O Princess, accompany me to the gate of the garden. Come alone as I am going to attempt your husband’s rescue and want you to hear the details.” Princess Hilal left her slave girls behind and followed the false old woman, who led her to a deserted spot and made her unconscious with an egg of oblivion. Amar now disguised himself as Princess Hilal, put on her clothes and put the real princess into his zambil.

The false Princess Hilal returned to her companions. After a few moments, she declared, “Lord! Lord!”116 Her companions and slaves fell down at her feet and cried, “O delicate flower of beauty’s garden, consider your youth and desist from the thoughts of dying with your husband. For the sake of lords Sameri and Jamshed, keep the fire of separation from burning your heart away.” The false Hilal answered,

“The one struck by fatal love’s arrow

Finds life a veritable burden to pass.

“I would not feed my body to the fire of disunion. I find it far preferable to die united with my lover and escape separation’s blaze.” The false princess cried bitterly after calling out,

“No one should witness the flame of searing love rising

Lovers burn and turn to ash without giving out smoke.”

Then the false princess sang,

“If my lips utter a sigh it would burn up the world, set aflame the forest

But this wicked heart remains unburned though my sighs fill it.”

Then she ordered her attendants, “Bring my bridal dress and costume. I will decorate myself for my last journey on the path to eternal union when I enter the assembly of spirits in the company of my husband.”

The attendants brought out the dress and jewelery and carried them on trays to the false Princess Hilal, who decorated her locks, strung pearls in her hair, and left it loose. As she adorned herself, the layer of missi and lac dye on her lips was so captivating it robbed the lovers of all their sensory possessions and bled their souls. She decked herself in a red dress to further ignite the flame of love in the hearts of lovers; her attire showed her breasts to advantage with their high angle, further robbing the lovers of their peace of mind.

In short, after she was all dressed, fragrant as the jasmine and adorned as asati,117 her lovely slave girls worshipped her and placed garlands and sweetmeat offerings around that delicate beauty. The false Princess Hilal sat on her throne and laughed joyously, for

Happy and cheerful she headed for her lover’s court

The false Hilal tossed and played with a magic coconut as the carriers led her throne to the pyre.

As she was carried along the paths of the tilism, sorcerers, citizens of the tilism and other creatures followed her. All of them promised offerings in her name if she answered their prayers. They worshipped her and asked for her blessings. When the false Princess Hilal saw throngs crowding the way, she stopped the procession and sang the denunciations of the worthless world. She enjoined everyone to engross themselves in thoughts of God. She said, “Hear that the one who loves his Lord, in whose soul the Lord resides, whose heart the Lord fills with Himself, the one who gives up his body and soul in His name, for such a one it is easy to give up life too. Without the oppressive garb of bodily existence, he discovers true happiness. The perfect act in this world is to love the Lord, for it leads to being in His presence every moment and becoming one with Him in the end.”

Pipes and cymbals played before the sati’s throne. She offered some the flowers torn from her garlands; to others she gave the ashes from the ceremonial worship fire. She went along her path offering injunctions to all who would listen.

Finally, the bright and luminous star emerged from the dome of the east, burning in the fire of separation of the Night Sky’s Beauty,118 and rode out on the throne of heaven to show the world the burn marks of his lover’s heart.

By the time it was daylight, the sati’s procession arrived in the field where the pyre had been built. Afrasiyab came out of his bedchamber and took his seat in the Dome of Light.

The calamity-struck Aafat, with his grieving heart, prayed continuously to God. He importuned the Lord and prayed to Him in the name of His favored ones, saying, “O my Lord, like Mahrukh, I too have converted to the True Faith. Ward off this calamity from my head.”

Sorcerer Aafat had not finished praying when a commotion suddenly rose and the false Princess Hilal’s procession arrived there. All those assembled rushed to see her. They thronged around her throne and inquired of her about their prospects. Some were curious to know when a child would be born to them. One who was destitute inquired when he would come into riches and estate. The false Princess Hilal answered their queries and her procession kept moving onward.

Witnessing the hubbub, Afrasiyab asked the sorcerers in his court, “What is the reason for this disturbance?” One of them answered, “The wife of sorcerer Aafat has arrived to burn with her husband as a sati.” When Afrasiyab sent for the false sati and she arrived before him, the emperor nearly lost consciousness, overwhelmed by her great beauty.

Afrasiyab endlessly reasoned with her, saying, “O charming beloved, give up the thought of dying a sati and ask me for land and riches and take me for your slave in love.” That false, moon-faced beauty answered, “O Emperor, my spirit would attain peace only when the fire of separation is quenched in my heart. Without it, gold and riches and estate are all as dirt to me.”

The sorcerers had already seated Aafat atop the pyre as instructed by the emperor. The false princess jumped down from the throne, joined Aafat and seated him in her lap.

The sorcerers approached and burned a lamp under her palm to collect lamp black and test whether or not her love was true and whether or not the fire of love had already consumed her body and soul. Everyone bore witness to the truth of her love: the flame did not burn her hand, the false princess Hilal kept smiling as lamp black collected on her palm.

By now the field was fully crowded. Empress Heyrat and her sorcerers stood around the pyre. Zargham and Jansoz, who were busy making arrangements in sorcerers’ disguises, brought canisters of oil and butter they had mixed with drugs and poured them on the logs of the pyre. Burq the Frank, disguised as sorcerer Tadbir, lit up a bunch of dried grass and threw it on the logs. Immediately, a flame blazed and sheets of fire rose up from the pyre. Amar – still disguised as the false Hilal – wrapped Aafat in the Net of Ilyas, stuffed him into the zambil and jumped into the cavity at the center of the pyre. Qiran already awaited him at the tunnel’s mouth and led Amar out the other end.

In the meanwhile, the whole pyre caught flame and smoke rose from the drugs sprinkled on the logs. The drug potions mixed in the oil and butter that Zargham and Jansoz had poured on the pyre spread for miles. One after the other, the sorcerers who were gathered around the pyre, including Empress Heyrat, sneezed, and fell unconscious.

With faint repellent plugs in their noses, Amar and Qiran made their war cries, drew their daggers and began beheading enemy sorcerers. Soon Burq the Frank, Zargham and Jansoz also joined the killing spree.

Hearing the war cries of the tricksters, Queen Mahrukh, Princesses Bahar, Nafarman, Surkh Mu and others appeared in the sky and emerged from the ground to wreak havoc with their spells. They hurled steel magic balls, magic citrons and magic limes that shattered the spines of enemy sorcerers. As they died, the flames conflagrated higher and whirlwinds swept the field. The smoke rose so densely and in such abundance that it filled the chamber of the Dome of Light from where Afrasiyab surveyed the scene. All his courtiers were drugged senseless upon inhaling it. The Emperor of Hoshruba, who leaned out of the window, became unconscious himself and fell tumbling down the Dome of Light. Suddenly, the earth cleft and magic slaves emerged from the ground and caught him to break his fall.

Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s army came out of their hiding place and ambushed Afrasiyab’s sorcerers, who were killed, not in the thousands but in the hundreds of thousands. A wave of carnage surged and covered the foe. A river of blood began to flow.

When Mahrukh unsheathed the magic sword

Sparks flew in the thousands

Lightning and thunderbolts everywhere struck

The enemy corpses piled up in the battlefield

Such a terrible din rose from the arena

The old man heavens trembled with fear

The foe disappeared into fires of hell

Where Mehshar Lightning-Bolt fell

Like death, come to separate the body from soul

Like a thunderbolt it hovered on the head of the foe

The Cow of the Earth averted its eyes

From the blinding flash in the heavens

Even the bright star of the skies trembled with fear

When it recalled its flash and glare

From the sword’s dazzling flash

All vegetation burned up all of a sudden

The flames of the sword burned brighter

And like clouds heads began to shower blood

Amar looted the enemy’s goods and belongings and stripped the dead of their clothes. During the ensuing commotion, magic slaves carried Empress Heyrat to safety. They also restored Afrasiyab to consciousness. When he opened his eyes, Afrasiyab beheld the field in a doomsday like ferment, with his men swimming in blood and gore. Too ashamed by the sight, he awakened Heyrat from her faint and, by growing magic wings with a spell, flew away toward the region of Zulmat.

After Heyrat regained her senses, she invoked a magic cloud that rained and brought everyone to consciousness. As Heyrat prepared to repulse the attackers, Queen Mahrukh and Princess Bahar realized that they would be unable to capture the Dome of Light, and if Heyrat ordered the River of Flowing Blood to do so, it would surround them and they would become its prisoners. They immediately sounded the clarion to call their armies back to camp. The tricksters retreated into the wilderness. Thus, after the bloodshed and slaughter of the foe, Queen Mahrukh’s triumphant force returned to the safety of their encampment where large scale celebrations and revels were planned.


115. Tutor of Angels: according to Islamic folk belief, Azazil (Satan) was a jinn who lived on earth and on account of his piety he was invited to teach the angels and received the title of Muallim al-Malakoot (Tutor of Angels) until he was driven away from the Heavens for refusing to prostrate himself before Adam.

116. Lord! Lord: the original words are sat! sat! which can be interpreted variously. It could also mean “Right is Right!” but since Princess Hilal plans to burn herself and become one with her Lord the above interpretation was chosen by the translator.

117. Sati: a Hindu woman who burns herself alive in her husband’s funeral pyre. However, Princess Hilal Magic-Wringer is not Hindu because her gods are Sameri and Jamshed.

118. the bright and luminous star…of the Night Sky’s Beauty: an allusion to the unrequited love between the sun and the moon who must forever remain separated in day and night.

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