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, Amar and his trickster companions also presented themselves. ]
In the meanwhile, Amar and his trickster companions also presented themselves. Amar took sorcerer Aafat and Princess Hilal Magic-Wringer out of the zambil.Finding themselves rescued from the jaws of death and in the safety of the royal pavilion, they looked around in surprise.
Amar gave them all the details and said, “O Aafat, it was I who rescued you from the pyre in the disguise of the sati.” Aafat prostrated himself before Amar, who raised him into his embrace. Aafat made an offering to Queen Mahrukh and was awarded a robe of honor. Aafat and his wife Hilal were assigned their own pavilion, where they retired to rest and celebrate.
The bodies of Empress Heyrat’s slain sorcerers were carried away on her orders and her army returned crying and wailing to its camp. Heyrat thought of avenging herself on Mahrukh’s camp but decided to wait for Afrasiyab’s instructions in the matter.
By this time, a downcast Afrasiyab returned from Zulmat to the Apple Garden. He angrily ordered his first minister, Baghban Magic-Gardener, “Bring Amar a prisoner from Mahrukh’s court and punish anyone who interferes.”
Baghban sank into the ground by magic to travel subterraneously to avoid the danger of encountering tricksters.
In Mahrukh’s court, Amar Ayyar suddenly felt disquieted and became apprehensive. He realized that after suffering that terrible humiliation at his hands, the Emperor of Hoshruba would not let the matter pass but would try to take revenge. Amar said to himself, Afrasiyab will certainly dispatch someone to arrest me. It would be best for me to go into hiding.
Amar brought out a Kashmiri warrior from his zambil.
Be it known that Amar keeps many infidel sorcerers and warriors as prisoners in his zambil. They are fed by their jinn guards and the confines of the zambil appear to be a city to these prisoners. Furthermore, there are seven cities within the zambil. This zambil, which appears to the human eye in the shape of a small purse, was gifted to Amar by Prophet Aadam the Friend of God.
Amar made the Kashmiri unconscious, disguised the man as himself, put him into a bed in the front yard of the royal pavilion, and then disappeared by putting on the cape of invisibility.
In the meantime, Afrasiyab’s minister tore out of the earth in Mahrukh’s court and shouted, “Baghban Magic-Gardener is my name!” Mahjabeen’s sorcerer commanders hurled steel magic balls and magic citrons at him. Baghban foiled them and recited a spell that started a cold breeze that put Mahrukh’s entire court to sleep. When Baghban did not find Amar in the court, he decided to search outside before looking for Amar in the wilderness. He searched for Amar in the yards and inside the tents until he found him asleep in the yard and carried him off, putting a magic claw around Amar’s waist.
Before flying away, Baghban removed his spell from Mahrukh’s court. As they returned to consciousness, he shouted from the sky, “O rebels, the emperor only gave me orders to arrest Amar or else I would have beheaded all of you. I am taking Amar away. Is there any among you powerful enough to snatch him from me?”
The sorcerers in Mahrukh’s court readied their magic coconuts and magic devices to fight him again but Amar, who was present there in his cape of invisibility, whispered into Mahrukh’s ear, “I am hidden under the cape of invisibility. Stop your sorcerers from challenging him.”
Mahrukh intervened and said to her courtiers, “Do not confront him. God will protect Amar. Let Baghban take him away.” The sorcerers did not challenge Baghban, who flew away and in a short time arrived in the Apple Garden and threw the false Amar before Afrasiyab.
The emperor summoned the headman and ordered that the prisoner be brought to consciousness and executed. The sorcerers restored the false Amar to his senses. When the Kashmiri warrior opened his eyes he was confounded to find himself in the court of the majestic emperor. When he saluted Afrasiyab, the emperor said, “Regard O wretched trickster how quickly I apprehended you. Now you will die a most painful death!” The warrior said, “O Emperor, I am your humble servant, not a trickster. I am of your own faith – a Laqa worshipper.” Afrasiyab replied, “I will never be deceived by your false words again.” He ordered the executioner, “Kill him!”
The warrior again beseeched Afrasiyab, “O Emperor, satisfy yourself by every means but do me justice. I am from Kashmir. The True Believers defeated me and wished to convert me to their faith but I did not accept. Then Amar imprisoned me in his zambil. I am still perplexed by the way I was released and brought here.” Afrasiyab became doubtful when he heard his imploring and pleading and looked into the Book of Sameri. It read:
“The warrior tells the truth. Amar disguised him in his likeness. Then Baghban carried him away.”
Afrasiyab ordered that the face of the warrior should be washed. The paints and lotions washed away and the warrior’s real face was revealed. Afrasiyab released him and conferred a robe of honor on him, and the warrior entered the emperor’s service.
Afrasiyab now said to Baghban, “It was not Amar whom you produced before me.” Baghban answered, “I brought him here thinking he was Amar. I should not be faulted since I am not adept in the art of tricksters; I truly thought it was Amar.”
Afrasiyab accepted Baghban’s excuse. The emperor now sent a magic claw to fetch the trickster girl Sarsar from Heyrat’s camp. The magic claw produced Sarsar in no time. When Sarsar saluted the emperor, Afrasiyab said, “You are a trickster. Search for Amar Ayyar and bring him to me a prisoner. If you fail me I swear upon my faith that I will kill you with my own hands. Do you not see the daring deeds performed by the enemy tricksters? What is the purpose of my having you as a trickster girl?”
Sarsar went away trembling in fear of the emperor’s wrath. She armed herself and departed on her mission. When she crossed the River of Flowing Blood, she met up with the other trickster girls and gave them the news. While they left to perform their trickeries, Sarsar disguised herself as an attendant and arrived in Mahrukh Magic-Eye’s camp.
As Sarsar made her rounds, she saw one of Mahrukh’s slave girls leave her pavilion on an errand. Sarsar approached her and said, “I request that you find me employment with the queen.” The attendant answered, “Go and submit your request in the court. I have no say in these matters.” Sarsar accompanied her and they went conversing together until they reached a deserted spot. There, Sarsar made her unconscious with an egg of oblivion and assumed her appearance, putting on the attendant’s costume and making herself into her likeness.
Then Sarsar returned to Mahrukh’s court. When she appeared before the queen, Mahrukh said, “Go and put a water bowl by the chair in the privy chamber. I have to attend to the call of nature.” Sarsar filled the water bowl and carried it there. In the meanwhile, Mahrukh also made her way there. Sarsar found her chance to make Mahrukh unconscious with an egg of oblivion. She then sat down to make herself into Mahrukh’s likeness and put on her clothes. Sarsar tied Mahrukh into a bundle and carried it dangling from one hand, heading for the storage area. She asked the attendants of the storage to step out as she wished to put something away in privacy. After they left, the false Mahrukh locked the real Mahrukh in a chest. Then she sent for the attendants, showed them the chest and said, “You are warned on pain of death not to open this chest!” The attendants put the royal seal on the chest.
The false Mahrukh now returned to the court and sat on the throne.
After some time, she said, “Lay out the food in the front yard. I wish to have my meal.” As ordered, the cook laid out the food and the false Mahrukh sat down to eat.
Amar Ayyar removed his cape of invisibility and returned to the royal pavilion. When he came in and did not see Mahrukh on the throne, he asked for her. The courtiers told him she was having her meal in the front yard. When Amar came out, the false Mahrukh said, “Please have some food with me.” At first Amar declined but when the false queen insisted that he eat a little, Amar joined her.
After they had eaten, the slave girls brought the bowls to wash their hands. The false Mahrukh offered Amar her hand towel, pushed her betel box toward him, and dismissed her attendants, saying, “You may wait for me in the court. I now wish to consult with Amar privately.” After they left, Amar wiped his mouth with the hand towel, which was steeped in a drug. Amar sneezed and immediately fell unconscious. Sarsar made a bundle of him, slit open the tent, and made her way speedily toward the River of Flowing Blood.
The guards and soldiers saw her carrying a bundle but as she was disguised as their queen, they did not dare challenge her. However, Burq the Frank, who came from the direction of the wilderness, sighted the false Mahrukh flying out of the camp and recognized her as a trickster girl. He immediately drew his short sword and attacked her. Sarsar too, unsheathed hers and fought back. She approached Burq fighting and targeted him with her snare rope. Burq jumped up to clear its coils and upon landing hit Sarsar with an egg of oblivion, which made her sneeze and fall unconscious.
As Burq reached for the bundled up Amar, he heard Saba Raftar’s war cry from the wilderness. She challenged Burq and fell upon him with her dagger drawn. As Burq fought her, Saba Raftar reached over to Sarsar and hit her in the face with an egg of awareness, which brought Sarsar to consciousness. Seeing Burq and Saba Raftar busy fighting, Sarsar saw her chance and ran away carrying Amar. As Burq tried to follow her, Saba Raftar blocked his path. Burq blew his trickster whistle so that another trickster would hear his call and stop Sarsar.
Sarsar realized that if other tricksters came to Burq’s aid she would be cornered. She headed for the path that passed through the second tier of the Bridge of Magic Fairies. Sarsar called out, “O Bridge, give me way in the name of Emperor Afrasiyab!” The smoke parted immediately at her words, a path was revealed and Sarsar disappeared into it while Burq watched helplessly. Saba Raftar also dodged Burq and escaped, and the trickster returned to his camp.
Upon arrival, Burq heard cries that Amar and Mahrukh had disappeared while having their meal. When Burq learned the details he said, “It appears to me that Sarsar carried away Amar and the real Mahrukh is lying unconscious somewhere in our camp.”
The storekeeper said, “The queen had put something away in a chest. We should check its contents.” When Burq opened the chest he found Mahrukh locked within. He restored her to consciousness and seated her on the throne. The slave girl who had been rendered unconscious by Sarsar also returned to the court. Mahrukh was greatly distressed to hear of Amar’s capture and the whole camp continuously discussed the sad and tragic event.
Now hear of the trickster girl Sarsar. As she escaped from Burq and passed over the Bridge of Magic Fairies, Amar regained consciousness. He opened his eyes and found himself tied in a bundle and carried on Sarsar’s back through a narrow, dark, and dreadful passageway that would turn the gall of braves to water. Amar regarded all this and kept silent.
Sarsar now reached the Desert of Flames and called out, “O Desert of Flames, give me way in the name of Emperor Afrasiyab!” The flames made way too, and Sarsar crossed the Desert of Flames and came to stop when her path was blocked by a wall of darkness so intense that it could not be ascertained where the world ended and the heavens began.
Suddenly, a sorcerer whose body glowed like a flame, materialized and caught Sarsar around her waist with a magic claw. He swung her over his head and hurled her into the air. Amar closed his eyes in fear and when he opened them after a moment he saw that a fiery magic slave was carrying them away. It arrived at a river of fire and dove into it where there was nothing but utter darkness. Amar was frightened out of his wits and kept silently reciting “Help, O Merciful God!” The fiery magic slave swam across the river and came out on the other bank. There, a magic trooper materialized and flew away, holding Sarsar by the hand.
Finally, Amar saw a mountain appear in the distance. The magic trooper landed there and threw Sarsar down the mountain. Amar closed his eyes as Sarsar fell tumbling down. When he opened his eyes he saw Sarsar had landed in Afrasiyab’s Apple Garden.
It was a garden that was created as a tilism. Protected from the hands of autumn, and the revolutions of time and chance, trees laden with flowers in eternal bloom lined the garden. Verdure and bright shrubbery refreshed the sight wherever one turned his gaze. The song birds and creatures made of magic sang and warbled in their honeyed tones,“O AFRASIYAB! O AFRASIYAB!” The garden’s entire landscape and buildings were a tilism. Every chamber and house was as charming as a fairy, with the columns and roof fitted with intricate fixtures and the summerhouse clustered with jewels.
An array of aromatic herbs and flowers grew there
An array of tilisms populated that expanse
The walls and doors were made with magic
On a different scheme than all doors and houses
Neither fire could burn nor rain soak them
Neither summer nor winter within were felt
If one desired a thing within its walls
That object presently appeared on a shelf therein
The birds and beasts there of jewels were carved
They ambled and flew far within its walls
Roamed in the shape of animals all day
And worked in the form of humans all night long
Lustrous night lamp rubies embedded in walls
In the day shone as rubies, in the night glowed as lamps
Every flower, every thorn in that garden was of magic made
Its roses and rose buds had no equal in creation
The hours of clocks chimed and invisible, rang
With the sound of dancing and clapping
When left open the garden chambers
Rang with the music of a myriad instruments
And once closed the chambers gave off
A thousand pleasant strains organ like
Velvet carpets laid out and spread on its floors
With the runes from Suleiman’s time on it inscribed
The drapes and curtains in that garden’s tilism
Drew at one’s desire and closed at one’s wish
Afrasiyab sat on a throne in the center of the summerhouse and gave audience. Thousands of sorcerers stood humbly before him with their arms folded on their breasts.
Upon arrival, Sarsar saluted the emperor and put the bundle of Amar before him. She said, “I present the emperor’s enemy. Your Honor’s slave girl performed the mission given her and risked her life to produce Amar before you.” Afrasiyab conferred a precious robe of honor on Sarsar and said, “Open the bundle.”
The bundle was not yet opened when a magic claw brought the letter from King Suleiman Amber-Hair in which he had given an account of sorceress Hasina’s death and sought Afrasiyab’s aid at Laqa’s behest.
Afrasiyab read Suleiman Amber-Hair’s note and wrote to Laqa in reply:
“Your humble slave has captured Amar Ayyar, the deadly enemy of Your Lordship. I request you to send your devil designate, Bakhtiarak, to kill him with his own hand. On his return journey, I will accompany him with an army of sorcerers that will destroy Hamza’s forces.”
Afrasiyab handed the message to sorceress Princess Khumar to take immediately to Laqa.
Bearing the emperor’s reply, Princess Khumar flew away by magic and speedily arrived at the fortress of Mount Agate. In deference to Laqa, she decided to announce her arrival at the gates of the court.
It so happened that the trickster Chalak had come to Mount Agate to spy on Laqa and his court in a macebearer’s disguise. Sorceress Khumar saw him standing at the gates and said to him, “O macebearer, announce in the court that Emperor Afrasiyab’s messenger sorceress Khumar has arrived from Hoshruba with a letter from the emperor.” The false macebearer replied, “Wait here, I will go and announce your arrival.” He stepped inside, waited a few moments, then came out and said to Khumar, “Come with me, O Princess, and receive your instructions.”
Khumar followed Chalak, who brought her to a deserted corner and gave her a fruit, saying, “Lord Laqa has sent this fruit for you to eat before you appear in his presence. It will make your body glow with our lord’s divine light.”
Khumar prostrated herself and said, “O lucky me! His Lordship shows such munificence, even toward his insignificant creatures. No sooner have I arrived than I receive a gift from his bounty!” After expressing her gratitude, Princess Khumar ate the fruit. The effects of that drugged fruit became manifest to Khumar immediately upon eating it. Her head went down and her feet went up and she fell unconscious.
Chalak saw his chance. He took out his razor and shaved Khumar’s head clean. Then he took out Afrasiyab’s message from her bag and replaced it with one of his own composition. Afterwards, Chalak headed for Laqa’s court to await Khumar’s arrival.
After some hours, Khumar regained consciousness. She got to her feet and said to herself, I must have lost consciousness from eating the fruit Lord Laqa sent. Indeed, such must be one of its properties. Surely, when the pollution and contamination of the former self are purged and the soul is renewed, a person would lose consciousness. Clearly, I am as clean and pure today as the moment I came out of my mother’s womb. Engrossed in these thoughts, Khumar headed for Laqa’s court. Every now and then she inspected her limbs to see if they had started glowing with divine light. It never occurred to her that her hair had been shaved off.
Khumar entered the court and prostrated herself when she saw Laqa on the throne. The courtiers started laughing at the sight of the shaven-headed sorceress. Laqa said to Khumar, “Raise your head, O being of my creation! I bestow my mercy upon you.” Khumar finally raised her head and Laqa offered her a chair beside his throne. As she took her seat, Bakhtiarak addressed the court, reciting,
“Neither her beauty altered nor my passion showed variance
Even with her locks shaved I remain as miserable as before.”
Khumar did not understand the import of what Bakhtiarak said. She produced the envelope from her bag and offered it to Laqa. At a sign from Laqa, his court secretary took the envelope from Khumar, opened it and took out the letter. Seeing that it was full of invectives and insults, he humbly said to Laqa, “I am unable to read this letter as it seems to be written in a talismanic hand.”
Bakhtiarak said, “Let me read it.” When the court secretary gave him the letter and Bakhtiarak read it, he laughed uproariously and said, “Listen to the words of this missive, O Lord! It reads:
‘Hear, O disgraced bastard, clown, ass, idiot, pimp, inane bear of the dark path, who is monkey-like, swine-natured, hideous of face, ill-born, astray, foolish-faced, dark of complexion and darker of disposition – to wit, Zamarrud Shah, alias Laqa – who is eternally cursed in the court of heavens and blighted by God. Hear this, O accursed creature after thousands upon thousands of curses, and may God make you a burning log in hell! You turned thousands of creatures away from the True Faith. You are ordered to present yourself forthwith in the dignified court of Amir Hamza the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction to convert to the True Faith and renounce your false claim of divinity, otherwise my forces will march against you and I will depute an army of sorcerers to bring you to the door of ruin and destruction; the eyes of regret will shed tears at your terrible end and none will remain who will even remember your name. Consider this short message a memorandum of ample warning. End of Letter. Thousands of curses upon your head!’”