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 Amar Ayyar. He disguised himself as a musician and started playing a pipe. The enchanting notes reached the ears of sorcerer Nisar, who ordered his servants to send for the musician. The servants conducted the false musician before Nisar, who saw a poverty-stricken, ragged old man before him. Nisar said to himself, A man of such talent and in so ravaged a state! Wondrous indeed are the ways of Lord Sameri. Nisar asked the false musician to play his pipe for him. The false musician made a humble bow and began.
Nisar was greatly pleased by his music. He rewarded him liberally and said, “O musician, I will listen to your music all day long and take Mahrukh to the Emperor of Hoshruba tomorrow.”
The false musician asked, “Where do you keep Mahrukh imprisoned?” Nisar said, “In the chest that lies before you.” After blurting this out, Nisar realized the musician must be a trickster, which was why he had wished to learn Mahrukh’s whereabouts. Nisar laughed and said, “O trickster, I recognize you!” Then sorcerer Nisar recited a spell and captured Amar.
Burq the Frank, who stood behind sorcerer Nisar in the attendant’s disguise, now struck from the back with his dagger. He lopped Nisar’s head, which flew off his shoulders. The noises of his magic spirits began to fill the air and it started darkening. Nisar’s attendants ran to investigate. Burq, who had already learned that Mahrukh was shut inside the chest, moved forward and opened its lid. Mahrukh had already been restored to consciousness at the moment of Nisar’s death. She got out of the chest and killed all of Nisar’s servants.
In the meanwhile, Amar swept the house clean with the Net of Ilyas. After the killing and pillaging they headed back to their camp.
Sorceress Sharara Blazing-Flame
On the way to their camp, Amar, Burq and Mahrukh crossed paths with a sorcerer in Empress Heyrat’s employ, who recognized them and said, “Enjoy life’s pleasures today, for tomorrow all of you will die.” Mahrukh said, “Nobody except the Almighty God can kill us.” The sorcerer replied, “I said all of you will die tomorrow because I was present in Empress Heyrat’s court today when the emperor’s missive arrived with the news that he would send sorceress Sharara Blazing-Flame to put all the rebels to death.” The enemy sorcerer then went his way.
Mahrukh became terror-stricken and the blood drained from her face upon hearing the name of Sharara Blazing-Flame. Amar Ayyar again opened his lips to comfort Mahrukh, saying, “O Queen, don’t become dejected at this news! The Almighty God is all-powerful. I leave now on my mission with the promise that Sharara won’t reach her destination. I will intercept her before she even enters Heyrat’s camp.” With these words, Amar left. Burq the Frank headed in another direction.
Mahrukh returned to her camp and was received by all her nobles and resumed her seat on the throne.
Now hear of what passed with Burq the Frank. He stationed himself in the region of Zahir in the forest bordering the River of Flowing Blood. Like Amar, Burq too, planned to kill Sharara as she entered the region.
Upon arrival in the forest, Burq witnessed three women of dazzling beauty wearing jeweled garlands; they sat in swings hanging from the trees. Burq said to himself, They must be sorceresses. I must avoid them and take another path lest they arrest me. Burq changed direction and headed for another part of the forest. The women called out to him, “O Burq, give us one push before you go!” Burq did not answer and ran some miles away from them. When he came to a stop he saw the same women swinging from the very same trees. Burq now ran in a new direction but when he stopped after several miles he encountered the same women. He ran now in a fourth direction but this time too, after several miles he again beheld the familiar scene. The women said to him, “O fool, come give us a push! Why do you go running like mad all over the place?”
Unable to escape, Burq approached them and said, “It would not bode well for you to bother me as I am a trickster. Now you have been warned and may do as you please.” Burq’s threats had no effect on the sorceresses. They captured him and led him toward Afrasiyab’s court.
Now we resume Amar Ayyar’s account. Planning to kill Sharara Blazing-Flame, he arrived in a place in Zahir where a verdant forest enclosed by mountains abounded in flowers and aromatic herbs. Wherever he turned his eye he saw lush and refreshing sights. The birds on tree branches sang melodious notes. Flowers of many colors were in bloom.
Amar said to himself, I should decorate this place and station myself here. This is a beautiful and enchanting part of Zahir. It would be little wonder if Sharara chose this place as her camping ground. From his zambil, Amar took out carafes of rose and keora water mixed with drugs with which he doused all the tress in his vicinity. He made garlands of false flowers with drugs and hung them from the tree branches. The whole forest was now redolent with the perfume drug. Amar disguised himself as a hump-backed, ninety-year-old woman and came out from a mountain pass walking with the help of a cane, and hid himself in a nook.
From far away, Amar saw three women taking Burq away a prisoner. Crying and soliciting help, Amar approached the women. The sorceresses asked the false old woman why she cried. She answered, “Empress Heyrat appointed me a guard of this forest. This thief, deserving of beheading, stole my betel box. This is the third time he has done so. I want you to get him to return my stolen goods. I will die without having my tobacco!”
The sorceresses asked Burq, “O wretch, what did you do with her betel box?” Burq realized from the old woman’s speech that it was Amar Ayyar come to rescue him. He replied, “If I return her betel box will you set me free?” The sorceresses began buffeting and slapping him. Burq took the opportunity to put plugs of antidotes in his nose and said, “Don’t be angry with me. I’ll tell you – I put this old woman’s betel boxes in a cave near her house.” The sorceress asked the false old woman, “How far away do you live?” She replied, “My house is on the other side of the mountain, past the forest.”
The sorceresses and Burq accompanied the false old woman, who led them toward her house. When they arrived in that lush garden decorated by Amar, the sorceresses fell unconscious from inhaling the perfume drug. Amar and Burq immediately cut off their heads.
God’s Mercy! Such a tumult rose as was never heard before. Fire and stones rained from the sky and the whole forest was destroyed. The guards of the River of Flowing Blood rushed to investigate the matter. Amar and Burq escaped after robbing the sorceresses of their jewels and clothes. The guards carried their bodies before Emperor Afrasiyab in the Apple Garden and narrated how the tricksters had killed the keepers of the tilism forest.
Afrasiyab was livid with rage. After giving instructions for the sorceresses’ last rites to be performed, he ordered thunderously, “O Sharara Blazing-Flame, present yourself at once!” No sooner were the words spoken than flames lit up in the air and came together in the form of one giant flame, which approached the emperor. A woman of resplendent face, as beautiful as a fairy, draped from head to toe in ruby jewelry, stepped out of the flame and bowed before Afrasiyab.
The Emperor of Hoshruba ordered, “Depart immediately to Empress Heyrat’s aid with the one-hundred-thousand-strong army at your command and destroy the enemy camp. Do not leave a single soul alive. Then you may await rich rewards from my bounty. You will be raised in station and honor and receive lands and fortune besides.”
After receiving the emperor’s commands, Sharara returned to her abode and arranged and readied her army. She concealed herself in the flame as before and advanced with great majesty toward Heyrat’s camp. She and her army speedily crossed over the River of Flowing Blood without making any stops and reached their destination.
Heyrat sent a welcoming party upon receiving the news of her arrival. Sharara entered the empress’s court, made an offering, and received a robe of honor. Her army bivouacked and Sharara’s pavilion was set up. A dance recital was ordered in Sharara’s honor and cups of wine were passed around. After having a few cups and her humors charged with inebriation, she wrote a letter to Mahrukh, which read:
“I am Sharara Blazing-Flame. My magic is known and familiar to all and sundry. There is no one who can counter me. O Mahrukh, it is incumbent upon you to present yourself to me upon receipt of this letter. I will have the emperor pardon your misdemeanours but in the event of your refusal, I will punish you severely.”
Sharara sent this message with a magic slave, who brought it to Mahrukh in her court. After reading it, Mahrukh wrote a reply. It read:
“Learn that I recognize neither Afrasiyab nor that whore Heyrat. I am a slave girl of Amar Ayyar, whom I consider my emperor. O Sharara, do all that you can in your power, and show me not the least mercy. My Lord is Mightier still.”
Mahrukh gave her reply to the magic slave who took it to Sharara. Upon reading it, Sharara was enraged but bided her time as a few hours remained to the close of day. Before long, the world-illuminating star hid away in the fire temple of the west, and the lustrous moon of the sky ascended the throne of the Zanzibarian dark night and issued its coin of light.132
When the day departed and the night came
When the dark in the sky spread
The sound of war drums rose to the skies
From the camp of Sharara Blazing-Flame
The magic birds brought this news to Mahrukh, who ordered the magic fife to answer in reply from her camp. The tricksters hid away in the wilderness. The valiant and brave prepared for battle. The doors of the armory were flung open for the warriors. Sorcerers prepared their spells.
“The criers and heralds should make ready
To proclaim aloud in our camp the news
Quicker than quick the troopers and foot soldiers
Put on their weapons, their armaments and arms
Throw open the doors of the armory wide
Lay before the warriors their weapons of choice
Prepare all night for the battle we must
Our name and honor in the morning to defend.”
Everyone their arms and armor secured
Some made keener the point of their spear
Suddenly in the vault of the sky was glimpsed
The resplendent standard of the bright sun
In its preparations for the impending battle
The King of Stars appeared to the view
It did not ascend its azure throne
But rode instead the sky’s steed
His lance of rays in his hand he wielded
The field of battle lay open before him
He sported not on his back a shield
His aspect itself a blinding shield became
The moon that made plans to battle Emperor Sun
With its entire starry horde was ensnared
In her bed of dreams Sharara the unclean
Opened her eyes and with her head of conceit rose
Ordered she, “My army should stand at ready,
Their vicious gaze to the battlefield turned!”
She sent for all her battle gear
All the trappings of her magic and sorcery procured
Prepared to head for the battlefield
The vile sorceress a magic dragon rode
Then her warriors also saddled their steeds
Readied themselves, on viciousness bent
Leading that vast, billowing army
From her encampment the blighted sorceress emerged
In her wake rose a dust cloud in such abundance
The sands of time it used up entire
Mahrukh too, her commanders ready for battle
Made due preparations on her side
The steel helmets on their heads sported
Their bodies in cuirasses and armor dressed
In their belts wearing lightning bolt-like swords
That were for the palace of life death’s flood
When they unsheathed their blades in anger
The meaning of “To all creatures there is death” they revealed
They sat astride quick steeds whose hooves
Raised a dust so blessed it could serve to embellish the eyes
In valor the equal of lions were they
Swift in their charge like the commands of God
With such preparations Mahrukh the sanguinary
Departed now for the field of battle
Her glory like a crier proclaimed,
‘The death of the foe approaches! Give way!’
When Queen Mahrukh entered the arena
The criers and heralds battle arrays made
The evil incarnate Sharara Blazing-Flame
Swiftly emerged from within her ranks
The magic dragon Sharara galloped
Entered the arena rutting elephant-like
She took her position in the field
And from her opponents sought combat
In Mahrukh’s camp all were terror-stricken
All lost their senses at Sharara’s sight
Mahrukh’s commanders both celebrated and renowned
Became silent and still, portrait-like
Astride the magic dragon, Sharara recited battle chants
While her foe’s trepidation and dread continuously increased
Now the audience may lend their ear
To hear the story of the wise Shakeel
He decided to answer Sharara’s challenge
But before long a thought bothered his mind
The consideration that it may cause new trouble
For his lovely beloved Khubsurat the Beauty
Who did not magic or sorcery know
Someone might imprison her finding her alone
It would put Shakeel under immense pain
He would spend the rest of his life in remorse
Led by this consideration Shakeel summoned
Mehran, one of Princess Bahar’s attendants
And commanded her when she presented herself
To remove Khubsurat from potential harm
The dutiful Mehran swiftly arranged
A magic peacock for Khubsurat the Beauty
The princess seated beside her, Mehran departed at once
And brought Khubsurat to a mountain pass
Now Prince Shakeel approached his mother
And asked with an untroubled mind
“Order me, O my noble mother,
To tear limb from limb the enemy!”
Mahrukh said, “My son, refrain from this terrible thought
You haven’t seen wars, in silence watch
The sight of you covered in gore and dust surely would
Bring your mother to the door of her grave.”
In short, Mahrukh did not give her son combat leave
Sorcerer Raad came forward to confront Sharara instead
Left and right he struck on the ground both feet
And by magic presently into the earth sank he
To emerge beside Sharara Blazing-Flame
And make his powerful, terrible scream.
Its impact felled Sharara from her magic dragon in a faint
But she recovered just as quickly, invoked her magic and made,
Sorcerer Raad a prisoner of her spell
Then she made ready to strike and put out his life.
But before Sharara could kill Raad, his mother, sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt, came forward and fell at Sharara’s feet, exclaiming, “O Sharara, consider me your slave girl and spare my son’s life!” At these words, Sharara took pity on Raad and released him.
Sharara now grew magic wings, soared to the sky and stopped at a high point above the arena. From there she hurled a magic coconut at Mahrukh’s camp. It broke open near the warriors and thousands of black serpents emerged from it, showering sparks from their mouths. They circulated in Mahrukh’s army and the sparks they spewed became flames that leapt on Mahrukh’s soldiers and wrapped themselves around their limbs. Mahrukh’s commanders recited counterspells to ward off the snakes and rained magic showers to extinguish the flames.
In the meanwhile, Sharara hurled a magic citron and called out, “O my commanders, attack these rebels!” Sharara Blazing-Flame’s army, wielding their tridents, pentadents, shining swords and such like weapons of sorcery fell upon Mahrukh’s force.
At the same time, Empress Heyrat, who had accompanied Sharara to witness the fight, also attacked Mahrukh’s camp. Mahrukh now advanced, her sorcerers casting their spells. The two armies exchanged magic citrons and magic limes, and magic swords struck like lightning bolts. As the two armies merged, a pitched battle was soon being fought with swords and magic.
The valiant warriors now advanced
Together the force took a forward step
Everyone drew from their sheaths their swords
Big and small, everyone now joined the fight
The sky its revolutions forgot, and the Earth
From the impact of fierce combat convulsed
The maces sang as they rained constant blows,
“Where is mighty Sohrab and where the great Rustam?”
The saddle-axes cleared saddles of their occupants
From head to navel the troopers it cleaved
Covered in blood, the stone-hearted swordsmen
Appeared like Yemenite rubies to the eye
With their spells, Princesses Bahar and Nafarman and Queen Mahrukh slew thousands and caused hundreds of others to lose their minds.
In the meanwhile, from the sky Sharara hurled another magic citron on the arena. The moment it crashed against the ground sheets of fire rose and fell on Mahrukh’s forces. Before their eyes the sheets came together into a cloud of fire that descended on them and began to envelop Mahrukh’s army. Queen Mahrukh, Prince Shakeel, Bahar and other celebrated commanders retreated at the sight. Unable to counter Sharara’s magic, Mahrukh’s army was dealt a resounding defeat. Both Sharara and Empress Heyrat gave chase and slew Mahrukh’s retreating forces for many miles.
Queen Mahrukh, her commanders and her surviving army arrived near Mount Lapis Lazuli and took refuge in its passes. Many of their companions met their end, covered in gore and writhing in agony.
Toward evening, Sharara stopped the carnage of Mahrukh’s retreating forces and turned back. She dispatched spies to find news of where the rebels were headed and where they had taken refuge. Then Sharara sat on the throne in her pavilion and recited a spell that created a blaze that covered and hid her from everyone’s view. Her voice ordered revels to start and dance recital and music assembly to begin. In compliance with her orders, the festivities were soon underway.
The tricksters had witnessed how their army had been defeated. When they saw Sharara occupied with revels they set out to perform their trickeries.
132. The act of issuing a coin meant that the person (entity in this case) was now the ruler or king because the coins carried a ruler’s image on one side.