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.
Before long, Qiran the Ethiope arrived at Sharara’s pavilion in an attendant’s disguise.He was searching for some way to gain entrance when suddenly a voice exclaimed, “BEWARE! QIRAN COMES!” Qiran made a leap and escaped. Everyone in the court asked Sharara Blazing-Flame, “Whose voice was that?” She replied, “I deputed a magic slave at the pavilion entrance to call out the name of anyone who approaches.”
Like Qiran, the other tricksters who came near the pavilion were also identified by the magic slave. All of them escaped and went to report to Mahrukh Magic-Eye. They arrived at her refuge and said to her, “O Queen, we are unable to perform our trickeries as we cannot even go near Sharara. It seems to us that our end is near.”
A hue and cry rose from the camp at these words. During this time, Amar Ayyar arrived. He shed tears at the miserable state of his companions and offered words of consolation. In the meanwhile, the tricksters left again on their mission.
As Sharara watched the dance recital, she received Afrasiyab’s missive, which read:
“I consulted the Book of Sameri and learned that all the rebels are hiding in the passes of Mount Lapis Lazuli. Advance with your army and arrest all of them.”
Upon receiving this message, Sharara ordered that the magic fife should sound in her camp to alert the warriors to march. Before long her army was ready. Sharara advanced speedily and surrounded Mount Lapis Lazuli. Queen Mahrukh and her camp were taken unawares; none of them could escape.
Amar said to Mahrukh, “It would be expedient for all of us to throw ourselves at the feet of this wretch Sharara and ask her to have our trespasses forgiven by Afrasiyab. Then she will spare us. Afterwards, I will deal with her in my own way.”
Mahrukh found Amar’s advice to her liking and took salvers of gold and jewels with her as offerings and left for Sharara’s camp accompanied by all her nobles.
Sharara’s army had encircled the mountain and her pavilion was set up nearby. When she heard the news of Mahrukh’s arrival she came out. Witnessing Mahrukh, Bahar and other commanders coming toward her with their hands tied with handkerchiefs in a gesture of submission, she stopped her soldiers from barring their way and stepped forward.
Mahrukh rushed forward to fall at Sharara’s feet and repeated the words Amar had instructed her to say. Sharara embraced Mahrukh and all her commanders and was most pleased that, because of her, a great nuisance would be eradicated from the tilism. She conducted all of them inside her pavilion and offered them lofty stations.
Then Amar Ayyar entered Sharara’s pavilion and said, “I also wish to enter the service of the Emperor of the Tilism.” Sharara received Amar with respect and offered him a seat of honor. Afterwards, Sharara hid herself in the blaze and ordered musicians, singers and dancer to perform. A musical assembly began and cupbearers as beautiful as the moon passed around goblets of roseate wine.
Amar Ayyar said to Sharara, “Your Honor should also join the assembly.” Sharara answered from within the blaze, “O Amar, it is for fear of you that I remain hidden in the fire.” Amar said, “I had better leave if you still nurse doubts about me.” Sharara replied, “Do not take offense at what I say. I will come out now.” With these words, she leapt out of the blaze as a flame and took her seat on her throne, reverting to her real form. All those present saw a beautiful woman seated on the throne. Amar now said, “If Your Honor grants me permission I will display my refinements in the cupbearer’s art.” Sharara laughed and said, “Why don’t you plainly say that you wish to make me unconscious with drugged wine?” Amar replied, “Heaven’s mercy! I will never again utter a word about the cupbearer’s art before you!”
While they conversed together, Afrasiyab again consulted the Book of Sameri and learned that Amar had presented himself before Sharara on false pretences and awaited a chance to overpower and kill her. Afrasiyab wrote a message and handed it to a magic slave to take to Sharara. It arrived before Sharara and delivered the emperor’s message. She opened the message which read:
“Do not believe a word Amar says for he has come to trick you. All the rebels are in your power at this moment. Arrest them and march toward Empress Heyrat’s camp. I will soon arrive there myself and have them executed in my presence.”
Sharara immediately cast a spell that caused a wall of fire to engulf Amar, Mahrukh and their companions. Fetters of flames encircled their arms and legs. All of them cried, “Your Honor, what is our crime?” Sharara replied, “You are all deceivers! The emperor alerted me about your duplicity and sent me this message.”
Sharara imprisoned them and after loading them onto carts and curricles, headed for Heyrat’s camp. Mahrukh had left behind some of her companions in the mountain pass to look after her remaining army and her goods and riches. When they witnessed these happenings, they shed tears and became convinced that all of them would die. They decided to fall upon Sharara’s army and give up their lives with honor in combat. Qiran arrived there in the interim and, after hearing their resolve, dissuaded them from following that course of action. He said, “All of you should raise your hands in prayer in the court of the Almighty, All Powerful, Invincible God. I will now go and kill that harridan Sharara but I would like one sorcerer from among you to accompany me.”
Qiran and a sorcerer from Mahrukh’s camp proceeded onwards while their remaining companions beseeched the Almighty God with these words:
Might and grandeur are for Almighty God alone
And His dominion and property are they
All governments, regardless of their kind are His alone
And from His blessing and conferring exist
In the name of those God-fearing souls
Who gave their lives in His path
You alone have power over life, O Merciful One!
You are the One who is the Reviver of the Dead
Give us refuge from the enemy’s grasp
And from their power keep us safe
While they busied themselves praying, Qiran brought the sorcerer into the mountain pass and asked him to create a magic peacock. After the sorcerer created one from wax, Qiran put a jewel-studded saddle on it, reined its beak with a pearl-strung cord, and adorned its neck with beautiful jewels. Then Qiran disguised himself in Afrasiyab’s likeness and sat astride the magic peacock. He said to the sorcerer, “Begin reciting a spell that makes the magic peacock fly. Make whirlwinds rise and showers of fire and stone fall along the way so that the portents of a distinguished sorcerer’s arrival appear before Sharara as I approach her.” At Qiran’s orders, the sorcerer changed into an attendant’s dress, held Qiran’s stirrups, and recited a spell that caused whirlwinds to rise and fire and stones to shower down from the sky. The magic peacock rose into the air with Qiran in the saddle and the sorcerer alongside.
Sharara was on her way to Heyrat’s camp when the signs of a mighty sorcerer’s approach manifested themselves. She stopped and looked up as the fire showers fell to await his arrival. Before long, the false Afrasiyab, sporting a jewel-studded crown and wearing a sumptuous dress, appeared in her view astride a magic peacock. Seeing the emperor approach, Sharara stepped out of the blaze and came forward to pay her respects.
The false Afrasiyab stayed his peacock and said, “Well done, O Princess! There are no words to describe the amazing speed with which you clinched victory over the rebels.” With these words, he jumped down from the magic peacock. The sorcerer who accompanied him put an end to the spells that caused the whirlwinds and the rain of fire and stones. Sharara presented salvers laden with rich offerings, spread a gold brocade carpet in honor of the false Afrasiyab and ordered her attendants to set up her pavilion in that place.
While Sharara’s attendants got busy carrying out her commands, the false Afrasiyab said to her, “I made a pilgrimage to the Dome of Sameri and learned a spell that can reveal the events that will take place from now up to twelve years into the future. If you sit down with closed eyes and recite “O Sameri!” thrice, I will teach the spell to you.”
Sharara felt greatly honored by the false emperor’s attentions and kindnesses. She sat down with eyes closed in a pure and clean spot in that wilderness and chanted the refrain, “O Sameri!” Qiran, who stood beside her, hefted his cleaver in his hand and struck out with all the leisure in the world, smashing Sharara’s skull and making her brains fly out. Qiran then made his war cry and escaped. Sorceress Sharara Blazing-Flame thrashed about on the ground and was dispatched hellward. Her magic spirits cried out and her attendants ran to her aid. In the meanwhile, the wall of fire that enclosed Mahrukh, Bahar, Nafarman and others disappeared and a voice called out, “I WAS KILLED! SHARARA BLAZING-FLAME WAS MY NAME!”
When Amar heard this, he said to Mahrukh, “There, O Mahrukh, that ill-begotten sorceress was killed! Do not let her army escape alive now.” Mahrukh and all her companions took their magic coconuts and magic citrons, grew magic wings and fell on Sharara’s camp, which was already in upheaval at the proclamation of her death.
Thousands were killed and rolled in gore and dust in the very first charge of Mahrukh’s warriors. Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane let her hair loose and thousands upon thousands of stars rained down shattering the skulls and bones of Sharara’s men like a shower of meteors. Then Princess Bahar threw her magic bouquet at them. Spring manifested itself and a cold, refreshing breeze, which was like the breath of the Messiah, began to blow. The flower buds bloomed at once into flowers and vast gardens full of flowers and aromatic herbs appeared. Sharara’s sorcerers fell under her spell. Then magic swords fell on them from the air,
The enemy skulls with arrows were riddled
Like a rose-filled garden all paths in red were bathed
Every severed head was like a fresh cut flower
That forest their bouquet became
Covered all in blood every sorcerer
The envy of the rose garden became
The springtide was a sword for their rose garden
That was harvested in springtime
Wherever one looked one saw harvesting in progress
The dead lay drowning in blood
The destroyer of the garden of life
The flower of cruelty and tyranny bloomed
Well acquainted with the garden of the world, I
Never saw in autumn’s midst such a spring
The surviving sorcerers from Sharara’s army escaped weeping and wailing toward Afrasiyab’s court.
Earlier, when Empress Heyrat had heard of the arrest of Mahrukh, Amar and others, she headed for Sharara’s camp. She was on her way when her sorceress-aide Yaqut presented herself and said, “I received news that Sharara has been killed and Mahrukh has returned victorious and triumphant.” Heyrat returned to her camp after receiving this inauspicious news.
After Mahrukh returned from the battlefield, she gathered her dispersed army. Her companions, who prayed for her in the mountains, began to arrive after receiving news of her success. Kettledrums sounded notes of triumph and victory.
Mahrukh stayed in those environs for one day to organize her army anew. The following day the marching drums were beaten and the army advanced with great majesty and ceremony and reached its old campsite within view of Heyrat’s camp. Mahrukh’s triumph-incarnate army set up their tents. The pavilions of the nobles and commanders were raised and the camp came alive with the bustle of old.
Queen Mahrukh resumed her seat on the throne and said to Bahar, “One of your attendants removed Princess Khubsurat the Beauty from the battlefield and took her into the safety of the mountains; send for her now. Since we have as many friends as we do enemies, the princess must be brought back to the camp before any trouble finds her.” In deference to Mahrukh, who had personally ordered her, Bahar departed to bring back Khubsurat the Beauty herself.
Sorcerer Naag the Serpent
Now hear of what passed with Princess Khubsurat. Bahar’s attendant, Mehran, brought her to the banks of a river near the mountainside to enjoy the sights. It so happened that one of Afrasiyab’s subjects, a sorcerer named Naag the Serpent, lived in those parts. He recognized Princess Khubsurat and approached Mehran and said, “O Mehran, there is no pleasure in killing you for you are a mere attendant, but Khubsurat is the daughter of Empress Heyrat and I will certainly take her back to the court.”
Naag the Serpent recited a spell whereupon a black snake came out of the ground and coiled around Mehran. It was so venomous a snake that merely from its coiling around her skin Mehran fell unconscious. Naag the Serpent then caught Khubsurat and headed on his way.
In the meanwhile, the trickster girl Sarsar also arrived on the scene and witnessed Naag capturing Princess Khubsurat. She said to herself, God knows what sorcerer Naag intends to do with the princess. I should snatch her from him lest he should dishonor her in any way. Sarsar approached Naag and hit him in the face with an egg of oblivion. As soon as Naag fell unconscious Sarsar cut off his head. His magic spirits clamoured and cried out, “I WAS KILLED! NAAG THE SERPENT WAS MY NAME!”
Mehran regained consciousness at the death of Naag and headed in search of Khubsurat. In the meanwhile, Sarsar made Princess Khubsurat unconscious, made her into a bundle, and brought her to her pavilion. She said to her companions Saba Raftar and Shamima, “Keep watch to make sure nobody takes away this bundle.” Then she went to Heyrat’s court and said to the empress, “I can bring Princess Khubsurat the Beauty before you as a captive if you give me your word that you will not kill her.” Heyrat said, “I would never harm her for she is my own daughter. Quickly capture her and bring her to me.” After receiving the empress’s assurance, Sarsar returned to her pavilion, picked up the bundled up Khubsurat and headed out.
Qiran, who was present in Heyrat’s camp in disguise, saw Sarsar carrying a bundle and reckoned that it must be one of his own commanders. He called out, “O mistress, you would surely die if you took another step.” Sarsar drew her short sword and fell upon Qiran. A great commotion rose in the camp as the fight broke out.
In the meanwhile, Princess Bahar arrived at the mountainside in search of Khubsurat and came upon the corpse of Naag the Serpent. Bahar saw no one around and realized that Khubsurat had fallen into trouble. She decided to search for her in Heyrat’s camp and upon arrival beheld Sarsar with a bundle over her shoulders, fighting Qiran. Bahar recited a spell that made Sarsar’s feet stick to the ground. Princess Bahar flew away with Khubsurat and also took Sarsar along with a magic claw.
In the meanwhile, Qiran decided that it would not do to stay in Heyrat’s camp any longer and escaped from there.
Sorcerer Allama the Wise
When Bahar arrived in the wilderness with Khubsurat and Sarsar, she came across one of Emperor Afrasiyab’s attendants, sorcerer Allama, who was on his way to Heyrat’s camp to deliver the emperor’s message. On an impulse, he challenged Bahar but when she turned to face him, he realized that he would not be able to fight her. Sorcerer Allama had with him a little soil from Jamshed’s grave, which he threw on Bahar, making her fall unconscious. Allama carried Bahar, Sarsar and Princess Khubsurat in a bundle to Heyrat’s court.
Burq the Frank, who was present in the wilderness, saw all this from afar and ran to Mahrukh’s camp where he gave the whole account to sorcerer Shakeel. Hearing of his beloved’s capture, in a frenzied state Shakeel rushed to aid her with tears in his eyes. His mother, Queen Mahrukh, could not bear to see him leave in such a distressed state. Overcome by maternal love, she followed him.
In the meanwhile, the trickster girls had departed in search of their leader, Sarsar. Seeing Mahrukh coming, Saba Raftar disguised herself as trickster Zargham.
She approached Queen Mahrukh in Zargham’s disguise and made her unconscious with an egg of oblivion. Saba Raftar now bundled up Mahrukh but, as she headed for her camp, she ran into Qiran, who had come from there. He recognized Saba Raftar in Zargham’s disguise and rushed at her, cleaver in hand. Saba Raftar dropped Mahrukh and escaped. Qiran restored Mahrukh to consciousness and the two of them headed onwards.
In the meanwhile, sorcerer Shakeel had intercepted sorcerer Allama, who was carrying away Princess Khubsurat. The two sorcerers invoked their magic and recited spells and charms against each other. Now, one sank into the earth by reciting a magic spell; now, the other flew heavenwards by magic. The smoke from the magic fires rose; the waves of the magic sea roared.
Sarsar, who witnessed their magic combat, found a chance to make Shakeel unconscious with an egg of oblivion. Sorcerer Allama now put Shakeel under magic incarceration and carried him toward Heyrat’s camp. But Sarsar arrived first in Heyrat’s camp and the empress received news that sorcerer Allama was bringing her daughter along with her lover and Princess Bahar. Heyrat immediately came out and proceeded on her conveyance to receive Allama.
In the meanwhile, it occurred to sorcerer Allama that, rather than take his prisoners to Heyrat’s court alive, he should behead them, lest some misfortune should intercept him on the way and the prisoners be set free. Allama stopped near a mountain to carry out his plan.
When Shakeel had departed from camp to rescue Khubsurat from Allama, Amar Ayyar had also left after him. He arrived at the same mountain where Allama had stopped, appeared before him in a sorcerer’s disguise and accosted him, saying, “O shameless wretch, why have you caught these women who embody someone’s honor? You seem a most consummate rascal!” Sorcerer Allama asked him, “Who are you?” Amar answered, “The emperor has made me the custodian of this place. I am its master.” Allama answered, “Don’t be so cross. I only have the emperor’s fugitives Shakeel, Bahar and Khubsurat in my custody.” Amar said with a laugh, “I did not recognize you earlier. In fact, your wife is my sister-in-law by relation. You must share a meal with me at my house before proceeding onwards.”
Allama made excuses and said with great politeness, “O brother, let us kill these fugitives first.” Amar said, “Let me see a glimpse of Shakeel’s face. I want to see for myself the comely face that made Princess Khubsurat renounce her own family.” Allama had cast a spell to make his prisoners invisible to the human eye for fear of Mahrukh’s sorcerers intercepting him. He removed it, cast many spells on Shakeel to render him completely powerless, and then showed his face to Amar.
When Amar saw his face he said to Allama, “Give him to me so that I may cut off his head.” He then led Shakeel by his hand to a secluded corner and said to him, “I am the father of four and have been born from fifteen wombs. Make me an offering so that I may spare your life.” Shakeel marvelled at this speech and wondered how the sorcerer could have been born from fifteen wombs since everyone is born from just one. Then he realized it might be Amar. Overjoyed, Shakeel replied, “I will pay you five thousand rupees if you release me.” Amar made him take a pledge then returned to Allama and said, “I feel pity for him; he is already dying in separation from his beloved. Must you kill him?” Allama replied, “I will spare him only if he submits his allegiance to Emperor Afrasiyab.” Amar said, “Let me go and persuade him.” He returned to Shakeel and said, “It is entirely likely that after your release you may not pay me the sum you promised. I would then have no recourse to force you to pay. Therefore, I would prefer that you give me Khubsurat’s bracelet.” Shakeel now became certain that it was Amar and realized that he would be presently released. He was most pleased and said, “What of her bracelet? I am your slave and my beloved is your slave girl. You are free to take all her jewelry.”
At these words, Amar also realized that Shakeel had finally recognized him. He returned to Allama and said, “You were right. These rebels are very headstrong and would not consent to submitting to the emperor. Bring me some large stones from the bottom of the mountain and let us smash their heads and make them die a most painful death.” Allama said, “Keep guard on them while I fetch the stones.” He went down the mountain and fetched some stones.
As he was on his way up, Amar took out a stone from his zambil and rolled it down toward Allama. The sorcerer’s head broke into a hundred pieces when the stone hit him. Stones and fire showered from the sky and the noises of his magic spirits rose at his dying.
All the prisoners were released and Shakeel started for the camp with his beloved.