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.
Sorcerer Zalim Kohi the Cruel
It so happened that a sorcerer named Zalim Kohi the Cruel lived on the mountain where Amar killed sorcerer Allama the Wise.Upon hearing the noises resulting from Allama’s death, he rushed to the scene and captured Amar with a spell. At that moment, Princess Bahar hurled a steel magic ball at him and shattered Zalim’s spine. His magic spirits made hellish noises as he died. A whirlwind rose from the ground and carried the corpses of both sorcerers Allama and Zalim toward Afrasiyab.
Princess Bahar turned to go back to her camp but Heyrat, accompanied by a few distinguished sorcerers, appeared on the scene and barred her way. She and Bahar began exchanging magic blows and then Mahrukh, with the trickster Qiran, arrived and joined the fight.
Bahar broke a garland from around her neck and threw it at the enemy. Suddenly, a cold breeze blew and a refreshing and bracing garden crowded with roses and jasmine appeared. The redolence of the flowers overpowered the senses of all of Heyrat’s companions. The scenery became more lush and verdant every moment.
In that very pasture a garden appeared
Which seemed of Paradise borne
Although it was in appearance a garden
It was in reality a tilism
Like the hand of the bountiful philanthropist
No branch was empty of flower or fruit
Colorful was the expanse with its myriad-colored flowers
And the fruit varieties that from branches hung
Beyond count or number in that garden grew
Both seasonal and out of season fruit
Empress Heyrat too, fell under the spell. She swayed drunkenly and stepped into the garden singing the praises of flowers. She plucked a rose and was about to inhale its fragrance when a ringdove came flying and with her claws took the rose out of Heyrat’s hand. The ringdove raised its head and spoke to Heyrat, saying, “O SOVEREIGN OF THE WORLD! YOU ARE THE EMPRESS OF THE TILISM. DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO FALL UNDER BAHAR’S SPELL. BEWARE! CONSIDER EVERY FLOWER IN THIS GARDEN WORSE THAN A THORN OR YOU WILL COME TO TERRIBLE HARM FROM THE ADVERSE SEASONS OF THE WORLD, AND THE BRANCH OF INAUSPICIOUS ACCIDENTS WILL SPROUT A NEW CALAMITY.”
These words of warning from the ringdove brought Heyrat to her senses. She realized she would have lived to rue the day had she smelled the rose. The empress invoked her magic to come out of the tilism and confronted Bahar.
Suddenly, Afrasiyab felt the need to consult Heyrat over some matter and dispatched a magic claw to fetch her. Bahar and Heyrat had exchanged a few magic blows when the magic claw swooped down and carried Heyrat away to Afrasiyab. She saluted the emperor and gave him a detailed account of all that had passed.
In the meanwhile, Mahrukh, Bahar and others routed the companions of Heyrat, and killed many by targeting them with their magic citrons and magic limes. When nobody remained to challenge them, Mahrukh and others returned to the camp with Qiran.
The throne was decorated for Mahrukh and she ordered a music assembly to begin. The revels began and cups of wine made the rounds.
Sorcerer Shakl Kush Image-Cutter
Meanwhile, Afrasiyab said to Heyrat, “I sent for you to consult you because I plan to inform the grandson of Lord Sameri, sorcerer Daud, about the commotion that has destroyed the peace of the tilism. If things worsen tomorrow, sorcerer Daud will accost us asking why we did not inform him of the events sooner. Therefore, I wish to send him the news. I am certain even from far away he could cause the destruction of the rebels.”
Heyrat replied, “O Emperor, it would not do to solicit the help of the grandson of Lord Sameri in such a casual manner. If you wish to seek his help you must go yourself and take thousands of rupees and living things in offerings and sacrifices. You must go for an extended period and meet him at leisure. He will lend his ear to your pleas for aid after awhile. If you sent someone in your place, it is all too likely that even an audience with him would be denied. Therefore, I suggest you write and send for sorcerer Musavvir the Magic-Painter instead. He is sorcerer Daud’s half brother, born of his father’s slave girl. Like sorcerer Daud, he too is an immortal sorcerer of Hoshruba. He would capture all the tricksters as well.”
In the end, Afrasiyab sent a letter to sorcerer Musavvir the Magic-Painter. It contained all the news about the inauspicious events that had taken place in the tilism, including Mahrukh’s rebellion and the trouble created by the tricksters, and expressed a desire that he come to their aid. Along with the letter, Afrasiyab also sent many gifts and offerings.
When Afrasiyab’s message arrived before sorcerer Musavvir, he expressed concern at the hardships of the Emperor of the Tilism and ordered his armies to be ready so that he could depart to aid him.
As Musavvir gave the orders to his army, his son, sorcerer Shakl Kush Image-Cutter said to him, “I would that you assign this campaign to me. I would return triumphant and have an opportunity as well to practise my magic to my heart’s content. It does not become the dignity of Your Honor to advance against an insignificant horde of rebels.”
At first, Musavvir refused to grant Shakl Kush’s wish. However, at long last he gave way and sent his son with a vast army of sanguinary sorcerers. Musavvir then wrote a message to Afrasiyab, which read:
“I am sending my son to your aid. He will first destroy the army of the rebels then present himself in your court.”
After sending the message to Afrasiyab, Musavvir said to Shakl Kush, “You must first head toward Empress Heyrat’s camp to fight with Mahrukh. Only after you have destroyed or captured all the rebels should you present yourself before Afrasiyab.” Musavvir then instructed his son in the strategies and pitfalls of war, gave him injunctions on the preparation of magic works, and sent him off.
He sent an army with him and said,
“You who are unmatched warriors, twins of glory
Save my life from Mahrukh and her companions
Advance and free me from all sorrows
And make sure to hang Amar Ayyar alive
To make my enemies’ eyes full of thorns
If you bring me the head of that lion warrior
You will put on my head a golden tiara of obligation
I will make you the commanders of brave hearts
Only lions with lions deserve to fight.”
At his command, a man-destroying magic dragon
Emerged all saddled, like a dragon from Mount Qaf
None could match its stature or from it hide
Under the azure sky, none matched that towering giant’s height
The army started moving, the ground started shaking
And with darkness, the sky became overcast
As Shakl Kush’s army headed on its mission, Musavvir’s message arrived in Afrasiyab’s presence. He sent Heyrat back to her camp with instructions to receive Shakl Kush with deference and accompany him onto the battlefield. Upon return to her camp Heyrat awaited Shakl Kush’s arrival.
Before long, Musavvir’s son, Shakl Kush, completed his trek and arrived near Heyrat’s army. Heyrat welcomed him and brought him into her court. She arranged for Shakl Kush’s army to bivouac and held a feast in his honor.
When the magic birds brought the news of Shakl Kush’s arrival to Queen Mahrukh, she said, “We would have had good reason to fear if Musavvir himself had been sent on the campaign against us. There is no fearing this mere boy. God Almighty is all-powerful.” With these words, Mahrukh busied herself in preparation for the battle.
In Heyrat’s camp, the feast continued and everyone lavished attention on Shakl Kush and carried out his every wish. When the Painter of Nature studded the empty expanse of the Nine Heavens with the planetary fixtures, and the bright face of the sun disappeared from the world’s album,
The darkness of the night approached
In the eyes of champions, the world in darkness drowned
The blue sky wore a black garb
The warriors wished their enemy ill and became on mischief bent
The drums of war were beaten in both camps and warriors on both sides readied their arms and armor. Queen Mahrukh and Bahar made a magic pen and drew their own and their army commanders’ portraits to counter Shakl Kush’s magic; he would prepare their portraits and cut them with magic scissors on the battlefield.
Be it known that when Shakl Kush’s magic scissors cut a part from the portrait’s body, it severed the same body part of the person whose portrait it was. Mahrukh and Bahar drew their portraits with a magic pen and entrusted these portraits to their magic spirits so that they and their commanders would remain unharmed by Shakl Kush’s magic.
While Mahrukh and Bahar busied themselves in making these arrangements, their camp prepared for battle. The arms and armor were readied and burnished.
Shakl Kush meanwhile, prepared magic scissors and drew the portraits of Mahrukh’s army commanders. He put oblations of lard into the bonfires to prepare spells and finished his praying and worship rituals. His warriors likewise remained occupied all night long in their preparations.
Finally, it was time when the scissors of the world’s revolutions cut up the curtains of night. They slashed the collar of dawn and attired the sun in a luminous dress.
The Emperor of the East emerged
And the signs of victory appeared with him
The True Believers, young and old alike
Stepped forward now lion-like to fight
They arrayed out in left and right flanks
The rings of obedience in their ears they wore
At that moment the blackguard Shakl Kush arrived
With blood-thirsty eyes he regarded his opponents
Whose blood he would soon start to shed
For he was matchless in making mischief
Mahrukh Magic-Eye realizing his intent
Led her army to attack and bring him down
The world exclaimed, ‘Doomsday comes!’
Like a vessel of mercury trembled the sun
The warriors’ war cries caused a blast like the Day of Judgment. The display of magic works by sorcerers caused such a din that it deafened even the ear of the heavens. After the two sides had made battle arrays and the arena had been cleared and cleaned, the criers came forward from both sides and stirred their champions by eulogizing past warriors, who had won glory on the battlefield. Like bright swords, their tongues sparkled in singing praises of the great battles of yore. They filled the heads of their champions with the desire to perform similar brave deeds.
Finally, it was time to do battle. Shakl Kush rode into the arena on his magic dragon, displayed his magic works and feats of sorcery and called out in challenge, “O tribe of ingrates, you will shortly witness your death and destruction at my hands. You will see how you roll in dust and gore.”
Mahrukh rode into the arena on her flying throne and said, “Watch what you say O insignificant boy of trivial talent! In no time you will depart this world, full of unmet desires and unrequited hopes.”
Mahrukh’s words enraged Shakl Kush. He took out a magic effigy in Mahrukh’s likeness from his sorcerer’s bag and threw it into the arena with the command, “O Shamama,133 in the name of Sameri go and bring me Mahrukh a prisoner!” The magic effigy started toward Mahrukh.
Queen Mahrukh leapt down from her throne, recited a spell on the magic effigy and picked it up in her hand, saying, “It’s a pity that this magic effigy’s limbs and shape are exactly like Shakl Kush’s but it does not have his head. I will now give it the head of Shakl Kush as well.” At these words, the face of the magic effigy became like Shakl Kush’s and it turned upon Shakl Kush with hostile intent.
Shakl Kush recited a counterspell and put it back in his sorcerer’s bag. Now Mahrukh began reciting spells and attacking Shakl Kush. But he countered all her attacks and continued making a portrait of Mahrukh with a magic pen. He reckoned, in his inexperience, that only after he had captured or killed Mahrukh would other sorcerers come out to challenge him. Catching him unawares, sorcerer Raad Thunder-Clap stomped both his feet on the ground and sank into earth. His mother sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt witnessed this and flew up into the sky in anticipation.
Shakl Kush was engaged in magic warfare with Mahrukh when sorcerer Raad emerged from the ground beside him and screamed, causing Shakl Kush to fall unconscious from his magic dragon. As his army commanders ran to carry him away, sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt flashed and struck, cleaving Shakl Kush in two and sank into the ground. Heaven’s mercy! Shakl Kush was dispatched hellward and the heavens and Earth reverberated with thunderous and blood-curdling voices that exclaimed, “I WAS KILLED! SHAKL KUSH IMAGE-CUTTER WAS MY NAME!”
Now Mahrukh found her chance and advanced, a steel magic ball in hand. Seeing their commander lying dead, Shakl Kush’s warriors tore off their collars in grief and charged in avenging rage from the other side.
The two sides deployed their magic. Some recited spells that made their opponents vomit blood and die. Others invoked magic that killed their opponents with great agony. Summoned by spells, black serpents came out of the ground and bit the sorcerers targeted by the spell. Poisonous scorpions were unleashed by the spells of other sorcerers. Clouds of many colors flew above the battlefield, simultaneously showering fire and water. Heads flew off necks and rained on the ground; corpses floated in a river of blood.
A fierce battle was underway and in every corner, steel clashed with steel. When magic and sorcery were ineffective, the sorcerers struck their foes with their tridents and pentadents. Swordfights broke out and severed heads lined the ground like a freshly harvested crop.
Blood flowed from the swords
Like water from mountain veins
Glory to the renowned sword fighters
From blood the Earth looked a Yemenite agate
No sooner than a rider fell from his steed
Than the speeding steed’s hooves made him dust
Shakl Kush’s army secured his corpse with great difficulty and took the path of retreat from the battlefield. Heyrat, who had witnessed the combat with her army, thought of launching an attack on Mahrukh’s camp but realized that with Shakl Kush’s army in full retreat, the tide of the battle was now irreversibly turned. She struck the drums to announce the cessation of hostilities and returned to her camp.
Mahrukh entered her camp covered in glory and triumph. She took her bath and gave audience in the court, which filled up with her noble commanders. A dance recital began and a festive mood prevailed in the camp.
Shakl Kush’s defeated army returned to Afrasiyab’s court and placed Shakl Kush’s corpse before him. Afrasiyab became very anxious and said, “Alas! He was sorcerer Musavvir’s only son and fell in the battle for my cause. How will I be able to show my face to Musavvir now?”
Afrasiyab ordered that Shakl Kush’s corpse be burned, and made a magic effigy of the sorcerer. He implanted a magic spirit within it, which made Shakl Kush’s effigy come alive. Afrasiyab sent it to Musavvir with great ceremony, accompanied by Shakl Kush’s surviving army. The Emperor of Hoshruba also sent a note to Musavvir, which read:
“O Sameri’s grandson, your son performed great deeds of valor before dying and passing into Lord Sameri’s service. I have sent you his magic effigy. It will live for forty days. You may shower it with all the affection and love in your heart to give yourself solace.”
After Shakl Kush’s army left with his magic effigy, Afrasiyab thought of capturing the one responsible for Shakl Kush’s death and sending him to Musavvir as well so that he might avenge his son’s blood. Afrasiyab sent for the trickster girl Sarsar and said to her, “Bring me sorcerer Raad Thunder-Clap a captive!” Sarsar replied, “I shall present him in no time.”
Sarsar prepared all her trickster’s devices and set out. She entered Mahrukh’s camp in disguise and awaited an opportunity. Witnessing an attendant come out of the court, she followed her and when she reached a secluded corner, Sarsar made her unconscious with an egg of oblivion. Sarsar now made herself up in the attendant’s likeness and returned to the court and began moving the fly-whisk above Raad.
Amar Ayyar, who was present there, looked up and recognized Sarsar in the attendant’s disguise. He rose from his place and came toward her to catch her unawares. But Sarsar read Amar’s intent. She leapt and ran away. Amar called out, “Where do you go, O slave girl?” Sarsar replied, “Come to your senses, O slave born. Did even your father ever dream of having a slave girl?” Amar ran after Sarsar but she escaped.
Mahrukh asked, “Who was that ill-mannered slave girl who addressed such rude remarks to Amar Ayyar?” He replied, “Sarsar has come to kidnap Raad. She will take him away if she sees us drop our guard. We must remain on the alert.” The alarm was sounded throughout the camp and everyone took precautions.
After Mahrukh adjourned her court all the commanders returned to their pavilions but both Mahrukh and Bahar remained awake for fear of the trickster girls.
133. Shamama: the sorcerer Shakl Kush is addressing the magic effigy by this name.