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, in Mahrukh’s camp the news circulated that Prince Shakeel had been captured.A little while later, news arrived that Shakeel had reverted to the faith of Sameri and joined Heyrat’s camp. Mahrukh was devastated to hear this. Amar Ayyar, who was present in the court, said to Mahrukh, “O Queen, once the tilism is conquered, thousands of children will return to their homes. If some don’t, there will be others to take their place. You should consider this event a blessing for your son; in our camp, he would have melted away and died for love of Khubsurat. There he will have reason to live. Thus, God created an excuse to save his life. You should be mindful of the bigger interests of your son and not let yourself be disillusioned by these day-to-day events. See my own example: Prince Asad was captured but I did not mourn. My brow did not become clouded in the least.”
In the end, Queen Mahrukh dispelled grief from her heart and resolved to be patient and show perseverance.
Prince Shakeel asked Empress Heyrat if he could have her permission to visit Princess Khubsurat. Heyrat gave her consent, saying, “You may go and spend one night in the Pleasure Garden to soothe your eyes with the beauty of the one you seek.”
At the same time, Empress Heyrat also secretly sent for sorceress Taus and said to her, “Furtively keep an eye on the two and ensure that they do not give in to their desire and commit the ultimate act.” After receiving these instructions sorceress Taus left.
Now hear of Prince Shakeel. As the poet has said,
When the time of union approached
The fire of desire more fiercely blazed
Prince Shakeel bathed and decked himself out in a fine costume.
When he entered the bathhouse
His youthful body with perspiration beaded
After washing and laving that flower of youth stepped out
Like the bright moon emerges from within dark clouds
The prince, his bath complete
In a robe of honor was royally dressed
He was adorned with inestimable jewels
Until his body a sea of jewels became
Bands of pearls, ear decorations, a nau-ratannecklace, an aigrette
Each item of jewelry became him more than the last
Its folds like swelling sea waves
His golden headgear shone bright like sun’s flower
The lovely bands he wore and bracelets of pearls
A sight to solace the heart, comfort the soul
Its every component a veritable Mount Tur
So brilliantly did the jewelry on his body shine
Thus adorned he proceeded out
Like a cypress sapling in full bloom
When he came out and mounted his steed
Salvers of pearls as his sacrifice were offered
When Princess Khubsurat heard of his approach, she too, adorned herself, decorated the garden, and arranged a musical assembly.
Quick O cupbearer, pass the glass of wine
Sound the notes O singers from your rebecks and lutes
Opened now is the door of revels and pleasure
Far from the heart is the familiar pain
The lover will have today the union long sought
As the assembly of revels its peak attains
Today I am released from constant longing
Today luck smiles even on the ill-starred
In the sky plays his tambourine the sun
In the heavens dances the lovely Venus
That delicate beauty, the garden’s soul
Rose from her place and bedecked her house entire
She put a golden throne in the center
And placed chairs beside it in neat rows
Then she adorned herself and sat waiting
Her beauty that day a vision to behold
The very sight of her pretty face
For lovers’ hearts was a thunderbolt
Her tender beauty of fourteen years
Was like the apex of the moon on the fourteenth day127
While she waited, the beautiful Shakeel
Arrived happy and joyous at her garden’s gate
He called out to her from the entrance
“Your lover – your sacrifice – is at your door.”
Hearing her lover’s pining voice
That houri-like beauty rushed to the garden gate
Accompanied by her lover, that moon-like beloved
Returned to the assembly smiling happily
Seven circles of sacrifice around him she made128
Then said, “Ah, my sleeping fortunes did awake!
All praise to the Almighty, All Powerful Lord!
All my sorrows have turned to joy today.
The eye of my heart with light is filled,
Now that I am in my lover’s embrace.
This was indeed my only wish,
This indeed my desire of old,
That I get sight of my dear beloved.
I prostrate myself to offer a thousand thanks.”
Seeing this degree of devotion from his beloved
The lover was beside himself with joy
Himself used to the hardships of love
His cup of joy overflowed, he lost consciousness
That moon-like beauty rushed to fetch
The rose essence from the niche where it lay
She sprinkled his face with that fragrant water
That presently restored to consciousness that youth
He regarded the fickle heavens with unbelieving eyes
He doubted now his circumstances, now his luck
He washed with tears of unbelief his face
From the joy of union he copiously cried
He said continuously under his breath,
“Wondrous indeed are the ways of the Lord!
That I find myself in my lover’s arms,
I wonder whether I am in a dream or awake.
I fear my heart from joy might burst,
I wonder if this joy my last would be.”
Thus speaking, he rose from the throne where he sat
And prostrated himself on the floor of dust
Bowing his head before Almighty God
He made prostrations in thanks a hundred times
Then he cried and his heart melted and flowed out with his tears
So abundantly he wept that the dust to loam turned
Then that fairy like beloved raised him by his hand
And he rose and near that beautiful beloved sat
The assembly of revels anew now began
But the two hearts in love became restless, longed for more
Now that their earnest wish was granted them,
Now that they were happily together gathered,
They forgot their past suffering and sorrows, all
Their prayers answered, joyful were their hearts
A desire for union now overwhelmed the prince
From modesty and reserve the princess became quiet
To that moon-like beauty said the restless youth, the prince
“Come, let us depart for my mother’s camp
We’ll proceed there and get ourselves married,
To save our faith from destruction by the hand of lust.”
“I am but your slave girl,” the princess said,
“All you wish a command it is for me.”
Hearing her reply, her devoted lover
Summoned with magic spells a flying throne
Then looking in all directions with caution’s eye
He sat Khubsurat on the throne, and away
Toward Mahrukh’s camp happily they flew
So that their longings may be soon fulfilled
Upon witnessing this scene sorceress Taus
Rushed forward to stop them from escaping
As instructed by Empress Heyrat, sorceress Taus had clandestinely kept an eye on Prince Shakeel and Princess Khubsurat to ensure they did not abandon themselves to their passion. When she saw them depart on the throne, she rushed after them. As Shakeel and Khubsurat flew out of the garden and approached a mountain, Taus caught up with the couple and challenged them.
Taus and Shakeel fought with magic spells and hurled magic citrons and magic limes at each other. Then sorceress Taus recited a spell on a magic coconut and hit it against the ground. Immediately, Shakeel sank into the ground up to his waist. Taus caught Shakeel, but before she could fly away with him, the trickster Zargham, who had arrived on the scene and witnessed the whole fight, loaded an egg of oblivion in his sling and fired at Taus. She immediately fell unconscious. Zargham pierced her tongue with a needle, tied her to a tree and afterwards restored her to consciousness.
Zargham now said to Taus, “If you do not submit your allegiance to Queen Mahrukh I’ll put you to a painful death with my relentless dagger.” Zargham then recited the praise of the Creator of Both Worlds with such eloquence that infidelity’s rust fell away from the mirror of sorceress Taus’s heart.129 As her tongue was pierced, she gestured to Zargham that she was willing to submit her allegiance.
Zargham released Taus, who removed the spell from Shakeel and he emerged from the ground. All four of them now headed for Mahrukh’s camp and soon arrived there.
Zargham brought the news to Queen Mahrukh, who came out with the nobles of her court to welcome her son and daughter-in-law and conduct them to the royal pavilion. Everyone embraced Shakeel. Sorceress Taus was given the robe of a commander, celebrations began, and an assembly of revels was held that would have been the envy of the court of Jamshed.130
After two days the news reached Empress Heyrat. It immediately ignited a blaze of rage in the chaffing dish of her breast. She decided to prepare her army to assault Mahrukh’s camp and kill them one and all. But the trickster girls, Sarsar and Saba Raftar, who were present there, kept her from executing her plans, saying, “Put off your plans momentarily. We will go and capture the leader of their camp, Mahrukh. You may execute her instead of Shakeel.” The two trickster girls then left on their mission.
Sarsar entered Mahrukh’s court disguised as an attendant while Saba Raftar waited outside. A dance recital was underway at the court, with Amar Ayyar in attendance. He noticed an attendant standing in a corner, looking furtively in all directions. Amar realized that it was a trickster girl in disguise, taking stock of the situation. He rose with the aim of catching her by deceit but Sarsar realized Amar’s intent. She ran clear past the screens, jumped out of the pavilion, and escaped after shouting her war cry, “I am Sarsar Swordfighter!”
The trickster girl Saba Raftar, standing outsidoutside the pavilion, was sighted by Qiran the Ethiope, who came from the direction of the wilderness. He stealthily crept up on her and picked her up in his arms. Saba Raftar struggled and tried to break loose but could not release herself from Qiran’s hold. Sarsar, who witnessed this scene from afar, approached Qiran disguised as Amar and said, “O Qiran, since she is your beloved, you should let me chastise her. It is improper for you to say harsh things to her and hand out her punishment.” Qiran surrendered Saba Raftar thinking it was Amar who spoke to him.
Sarsar cried, “I am Sarsar Swordfighter!” and ran away with Saba Raftar. At that moment the real Amar also came out of the court and both he and Qiran gave chase to the trickster girls, but they escaped with lightning speed, running like the wind.
The tricksters returned to their camp and Sarsar returned to Mahrukh’s court in the disguise of another attendant, and came upon the pavilion of Mahrukh’s mother, sorceress Mah. Because of her advanced age, sorceress Mah mostly remained confined to her pavilion and seldom went to the court.
Sarsar put on Amar Ayyar’s disguise and entered Mah’s pavilion. Mah greeted the false Amar and offered him a seat beside her. She placed wine before the false Amar who filled up a cup after drugging it and offered it to Mah. She said, “Please, have this yourself.” The false Amar answered, “The devotees of life’s pleasure do not stand on ceremony. I will have a cup too, but do have this one yourself.” Mah took the cup from him and drank it up in one gulp. The false Amar dismissed Mah’s attendants, saying he had some private business to discuss with her. When Mah fell unconscious after drinking the wine, Sarsar removed her to a corner and disguised herself as Mah.
In the meanwhile, the traveler on the path of sky131 removed his golden headgear in the assembly of west and dark old lady night lodged in the house of time, and lit up the torch of the moon.
Disguised as sorceress Mah, Sarsar headed out to see Queen Mahrukh in her private pavilion. Mahrukh had adjourned the court and now took rest. Seeing her mother enter, she got up and offered the false Mah the seat of honor with great respect. The false Mah said, “My child, the trickster girls circulate outdoors. I will sleep beside you tonight and keep you under my protection so that no one may harm you.” Mahrukh ordered that a jewel-enchased bed be set for her mother beside hers, and saw to all her comforts. The false Mah lay down on the bed.
When Mahrukh fell asleep the false Mah drugged Mahrukh unconscious, tied her into a bundle and escaped by slitting open the pavilion panels. The vigil squad making rounds of the camp sighted her and barred her way. Sarsar drew her dagger and injured a few soldiers. The noise of the skirmish was heard in the camp and Amar rushed out of his pavilion to pursue Sarsar, who fought her way out of the cordon and into the wilderness carrying the bundled up Mahrukh. There she ran into Qiran, who challenged her. They began to fight and before long, Amar also arrived on the scene and the two tricksters attacked Sarsar from two sides.
In the meanwhile, the cold forest air restored Mahrukh to consciousness. When she opened her eyes she found herself all bundled up. She recited a spell that ripped the trickster girl’s bundle and the knots of the snare rope that tied her limbs fell open. Mahrukh broke out of the bundle and captured Sarsar with a spell.
Sarsar said, “Any sorcerer can capture a trickster with a spell. I am a match for tricksters, not sorcerers.” Qiran said to Mahrukh, “She speaks true. You may release her. God willing, we will overpower her with tricksters’ devices.”
Mahrukh removed her spell from Sarsar. She and Amar stood aside to watch Qiran and Sarsar fight. The two tricksters fought with daggers, now deploying eggs of oblivion, now trying to entangle their opponent with their snare ropes.
The combat between them attracted a sorcerer named Nisar, who was one of Afrasiyab’s devoted servants. When Nisar arrived on the scene to investigate the matter, Amar, Qiran and Sarsar all ran away to avoid involving the sorcerer in their feud.
Nisar recognized Mahrukh. He respectfully greeted her and asked, “What brought Your Honor to these parts?” Mahrukh explained how Sarsar had captured and brought her there.
Sorcerer Nisar said, “I wish to submit my allegiance to Your Honor and join your fellowship. If Your Excellency would condescend to visit her servant’s house of sorrows and make it a palace of joy by supping with me, I will afterwards follow your lofty procession with my whole family and all my goods and chattels.” Mahrukh granted his wish and accompanied him to his house.
Sorcerer Nisar brought the queen to a hill atop which stood a majestic palace that was his residence. Mahrukh saw that the palace was tastefully adorned and decorated with glass lights. The sorcerer seated her on a throne and presented a wine service and salvers of fruits. Nisar offered Mahrukh drugged wine, even as he expressed his devotion to her cause. After Mahrukh had a few cups, she fell unconscious and Nisar locked her up in a chest. He decided to take her before Afrasiyab and Heyrat the next morning.
When Amar Ayyar and Qiran the Ethiope returned to their camp they discovered that Mahrukh had not returned. They reckoned that Sarsar had planned to capture Mahrukh and must have caught her after they had left the scene. Amar set out again in search of Mahrukh.
He entered Heyrat’s camp in a sorcerer’s disguise and approached Sarsar, who stood outside the empress’s court after returning from the wilderness. Amar said to her, “You accomplished a great deed today, O Sarsar, by capturing Mahrukh!” Sarsar looked hard at the false sorcerer and recognized Amar. She answered, “I didn’t take anyone prisoner today.” Amar said, “Do not try your tricks on me.” When Sarsar swore that she had not captured Mahrukh, Amar headed out of the camp to search for Mahrukh elsewhere.
On the way, Amar met Burq the Frank and explained the whole situation to him. Burq also joined Amar in his search. The two of them searched for Mahrukh all night long. When the sun rose from its bed of sleep and started on its journey in the desert of sky, and the darkness of night retreated from the banks of the world, Amar and Burq arrived near sorcerer Nisar’s abode. When they noticed the luxurious palace atop the hill they thought that perhaps Mahrukh was imprisoned there. Amar and Burq now parted company. Burq disguised himself as a sorcerer and arrived at the palace gates where one of sorcerer Nisar’s sorceress attendants stood guard.
In his sorcerer’s disguise, Burq smiled at her and said, “It has been so long since I’ve seen you. How have you been?” The attendant took Burq for an old acquaintance. She replied, “I am well, thank you. I pray for your well being. How have you been?” The false sorcerer replied, “Lord Sameri be praised, I am well! Tell me, why do you stand guard here by yourself?” She answered, “My master has captured Mahrukh and I am keeping watch on her.”
As they talked some more in this vein, the false sorcerer approached the attendant, whose name was Nau Ratan, and said, “I wonder what kind of grass grows on this mountain. It has a bad odour. My hands started smelling after breaking one of its blades. See if you recognize the smell.” The false sorcerer extended his hand toward Nau Ratan, who smelled it and immediately fell unconscious because Burq’s hand was coated with a drug. He carried Nau Ratan to a deserted corner where he took off her clothes, disguised himself as her, and returned to the house.
The other servants said to the false Nau Ratan, “O Nau Ratan, you left your post without waiting for a replacement?” She replied, “I was on guard duty all night long and nobody came to relieve me even for a moment. Now send someone else. I am not the only guard here.” At this terse reply the other servants fell silent.
The false Nau Ratan saw that sorcerer Nisar was awake and sat drinking on his throne. She stood behind Nisar fanning him with a kerchief.
127. apex of the moon on the fourteenth day: a full moon usually falls on the fourteenth day of the lunar month.
128. Making seven revolutions around someone is a sacrificial ritual by which a sacrifice is pledged.
129. …infidelity’s rust fell away from the mirror of sorceress Taus’s heart: in the poetic and mystical traditions, the heart is described as a steel mirror that may become clouded with impurities or rust and, once they are removed, returns to its pristine clarity.
130. Court of Jamshed: not to be confused with the sorcerer god Jamshed of Hoshruba. The Jamshed referred to here is an ancient king of Persia. This name is often attributed in legend to Prophet Suleiman and Sikander. It is invoked in this book in connection with Queen Mahrukh’s court to convey the grandeur of her court.
131. Traveler on the path of sky: an allusion to the sun.