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, Sarsar found an opportunity to disguise herself as sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt.She went to Raad’s pavilion and said to the guards, “All of you lack alertness. I shall guard my son myself.”
The false sorceress entered the pavilion and made Raad unconscious in his sleep. But as she did not have the time to bundle him up, Sarsar decided to carry away the unconscious Raad over her shoulders. When the guards sighted her they raised the alarm and the whole camp rang with the cries of “Catch her! Don’t let her escape!” Amar also rushed out when he heard the cries of alarm. Reckoning that Sarsar would head for the wilderness, he ran in that direction to intercept her. When Sarsar witnessed all the commotion she realized she should wait there while others headed for the wilderness in search of her. She took cover behind a tent.
When Sarsar found the field clear she finally made Raad into a bundle and went on her way. But when she entered the wilderness she ran into Amar Ayyar, who challenged her. Sarsar blew her whistle. Sarsar’s vizier girl Saba Raftar the Quick rushed to the scene to offer her assistance. Amar hit Saba Raftar with an egg of oblivion and made her unconscious. In the meanwhile, Burq the Frank arrived on the scene and helped Amar corner Sarsar. However, Sarsar made Burq unconscious with an egg of oblivion and kept slowly retreating while continuing to fight Amar. Once she saw an opening, she turned and ran at full speed.
It so happened that Qiran the Ethiope was coming from the direction taken by Sarsar. Seeing her carrying away a bundle, he charged her, cleaver in hand. As he was about to deal her a blow, Amar, who was pursuing Sarsar, shouted, “Now, now! What are you doing? She is my beloved! Did you forget she is your master’s darling?” Qiran stayed his hand but Sarsar realized that she was now under attack from the tricksters and, if she did not give up Raad, she would be captured herself. She threw down the bundle and escaped with her life. Qiran restored Raad to consciousness. Burq the Frank and Saba Raftar also came to and went their separate ways.
Amar and Qiran returned to their camp with Raad and said to him, “Now you should be doubly cautious.” Then everybody retired to rest.
But Sarsar once again entered Mahrukh’s camp disguised as a wine seller. A tika adorned her forehead, her eyes were lined with kohl, and her lips were painted with betel juice and missi. She sported a nose-ring and tinkling toe-rings. She wore a brocade-lined waistcloth and her mantle was knotted in front, bracing her shoulders. Carrying a small ewer on her hips and a bottle in her hand, she walked with a hundred coquetries.
The locks of that beloved rose in waves
For her ruddy cheeks were bright as flames
A girl born under auspicious stars
The sun of the sky of love she was
Thus, with such charm and allure, when she arrived near Raad’s pavilion the guards and their commanders called out to her, “O wine seller, give us a little wine!” Sarsar placed the ewer before them, allowing them a glimpse of her breathtaking, fairy-like beauty. All of them fell head over heels in love with her and said, “You should give us a cup from your own hand. The pleasure of wine increases when one receives it from a charming cupbearer’s hand.”
Sarsar offered them a cup of wine each and, because it was drugged, all of them soon fell unconscious. Sarsar slit open the panels of Raad’s pavilion and threw inside a handful of moths cast of a drug. They fell on the waxen candles and their smoke filled the nostrils of Raad’s attendants within, who also fell unconscious. After a moment, Sarsar peeped in and, finding them lying unconscious, rolled inside. She sat near Raad’s bed, filled a tube with a drug, blew it into his nostrils and made him unconscious as well. Afterwards, she made a bundle of him and headed out. As all the guards and attendants within and without lay unconscious, no one raised the alarm. Sarsar comfortably found her way out of the camp.
When Sarsar brought Raad to Afrasiyab’s court he ordered her to take him before sorcerer Musavvir in that very state. Carrying Raad’s bundle, Sarsar headed toward the City of Portraits.
Sorceress Surat Nigar Face-Maker
Now hear of what passed when sorcerer Musavvir received Afrasiyab’s message and the magic effigy made in Shakl Kush’s likeness arrived in his presence. When Musavvir learned that his son had been killed, he made loud lamentations and wept inconsolably. All his nobles dressed themselves in mourning.
Shakl Kush’s mother, Queen Surat Nigar, fell unconscious from receiving the shocking news of her son’s death. When she regained consciousness, she rent her collar and cried out, “O my son, you hid yourself from my eyes!
“When I think of you
My heart becomes restive
Where did death take you?
What evil eye felled you?”
Such plaints she continuously made
Her collar she continuously rent
And like clouds of the spring quarter
All her family and relatives shed tears
After crying much and shedding copious tears, Surat Nigar kissed the magic effigy of Shakl Kush, sat him in her lap, embraced him and showed him all the tokens of maternal affection. Then she wrote a note to Afrasiyab, which read:
“We have cooled our eyes with the sight of our son in the magic effigy. Now we send him back into your keeping. We will muster our armies and arrive soon to avenge our son’s death and destroy the enemy.”
Surat Nigar Face-Maker dispatched this message to Afrasiyab’s court with the magic effigy. Afterwards she ordered her attendants to make preparations for departure. After a day’s preparations the tents and pavilions of her army were packed and loaded and, with an army of several hundred thousand ferocious sorcerers, Surat Nigar departed toward Empress Heyrat’s camp.
One of Surat Nigar’s daughters, Almas Fairy-Face, learned of her mother’s departure on the campaign and insisted on accompanying her to kill her brother’s murderer and avenge his death. Surat Nigar tried to dissuade her, saying, “My child, you do not know magic. You are still in your teens. Stay at home and occupy yourself with play and games. Do not insist on accompanying me for war awaits us where I am headed.” Almas Fairy-Face, however, would not be deterred. Surat Nigar could not hold her back in the end and took her along and the army advanced with great majesty.
After his wife departed, sorcerer Musavvir organized his own army and, leaving one of his advisors in charge of his court’s affairs, departed to aid Heyrat.
Surat Nigar Face-Maker arrived near Heyrat’s camp first and ordered her army to pitch their tents and pavilions when they were a day’s journey from Heyrat’s camp. She ordered her royal pavilion to be set up and said to her commanders, “Tomorrow we will march from here to Heyrat’s camp!”
The army bivouacked in the stretches of the forest and the acclivity of the mountains. Cauldrons were put on fire and food was prepared for the warriors. A dance recital began in Surat Nigar’s royal pavilion and everyone occupied themselves with revels.
In the meanwhile, the trickster girl Sarsar Swordfighter, carrying sorcerer Raad’s bundle, arrived in that forest. Upon regarding the large army camped there and sighting the royal pavilion, she asked one of the campers whose army it was and who was its commander. He replied, “It belongs to Shakl Kush’s mother, sorceress Surat Nigar, who has come to fight Mahrukh.” Sarsar was most pleased to hear the news. She told herself she would not have to journey all the way to the City of Portraits and could hand over Raad to Surat Nigar and turn back. Thus decided, Sarsar headed for the royal pavilion.
The attendants stopped her and asked her the purpose of her visit. She told them it was to inform Surat Nigar that Sarsar Swordfighter had arrived. When the attendants informed Surat Nigar, she sent for the trickster girl. Sarsar entered and witnessed a music assembly underway. Surat Nigar sat on the throne surrounded by thousands of sorcerers and sorceresses on seats and stations.
Sarsar saluted Surat Nigar, placed the bundle before her, and said, “I have brought sorcerer Raad Thunder-Clap, your son’s murderer, to present before you!” Surat Nigar was delighted by the news. She conferred a rich robe of honor on Sarsar, offered her a high rank in her court, and sent her away after offering her the best of her hospitality.
Then Surat Nigar said to her attendants, “Send for Princess Almas Fairy-Face so that she may kill her brother’s murderer with her own hand since she came expressly for this purpose.” The attendants left to carry out her orders.
Princess Almas was strolling in the forest, enjoying the lush green expanse in the company of nine hundred attendants, slave girls and sorceresses when she received her mother’s summons and arrived before her in all her allure.
Witnessing the resplendent beauty of her daughter, Surat Nigar glanced at her heel134 to ward off the evil eye from Almas. She seated Almas beside her and, after putting Raad under magic incarceration, had him restored to his senses and ordered him to be brought into her presence. Then she targeted Raad with her rebukes and imprecations.
Almas Fairy-Face beheld a beautiful young man in his early twenties standing before her, wearing magic chains and fetters. His face shone like the moon. She saw his thick eyebrows, his muscular arms and shoulders, and the signs of bravery, serenity, courage and fortitude on his face.
Was it his stature or a cypress in the garden
In his perfection he was peerless and beyond belief
His height was one the calamity of doomsday would acquire
A ringdove would fall in love with that cypress beloved
His knitted brows were a calamity for loving hearts
The mole on his gold-like face the touchstone
His locks were the snares for lovers’ lives
His mole a bait for the birds of souls
His eyebrows from humility were not bent
But were a mosque’s arches, where lovers prostrate
Lit up with kohl from the Mount Tur135
His eyes were the source of divine light
The pink hue on the whites of his eyes
Were red clouds over the moon in the sky
Everyone who glimpsed his eyelashes praised
Those lattices on the entrance of a friend’s house
How could one describe the beauty of his cheeks
How can one encounter two moons at one glance
His thin and shapely, beautiful lips
Were two goblets brimful with pure wine
His smile was the lofty smile of beauty
His lips, the confidants of his beauty’s secret
Shaped like an ewer’s, a rarity was his neck
More lofty than the lofty heavens his neck
His wrist, his arms, his hands, his feet
Truly matchless were in the world entire
In short, from head to toe, he was
Doubtless the envy and pride of desire
Seeing his lovely face, Princess Almas fell head over heels in love with him. Entangled in the snare rope of his locks, she felt restive, bit her lips, and regarded his face with longing. Her heart became restless and she began to lose her self possession. From her burning desire she became frenzied and shed tears.
When Princess Almas Fairy-Face thought of the fruitlessness of such a passion, and realized that the difference in her situation and the circumstances of Raad would make a union between them impossible, she was overpowered by her emotions and broke into tears.
Her mother embraced her and reckoned that when she saw her brother’s murderer before her eyes she cried from grief remembering her dead sibling. Surat Nigar said to Almas, “My child, your tears will not bring your brother back from the dead, they will only make your heart melt in blood.”
Witnessing the princess overwhelmed by emotion, everyone attended to her. Some offered her words of comfort. Some offered to take all her calamities on their heads.136 Others offered themselves in sacrifice to the princess to protect her against any calamities. A hubbub rose in the court.
Hearing the noises, Raad Thunder-Clap, who stood passively with his eyes lowered and his head bowed, looked up. His eyes beheld that destroyer of life and faith, to wit, Princess Almas Fairy-Face, and the same moment his love was claimed by the hawk of her glance. He saw her marvellous, world-adorning beauty. Her dark locks seemed to be the envy of the dark of the night; the midday sun offered itself as the sacrifice to her refulgent cheeks; her delicate lips robbed the delicate jasmine petals of their pride; the redness of her lips made the heart of the Badakhshan ruby melt into blood with jealousy. Dressed in mourning for her brother, she seemed like the Fount of Life in the Land of Darkness. The worlds of coquetry, airs and dalliance all sacrificed themselves at her least movement. The most alluring beauties of the world submitted her their allegiance for her superior beauty.
Moon-like, moon-faced and wearing pearls in her ears
The owner of beauty, in gold clad
Full of brightness her luminous face
Even a mirror could not reflect such blinding light
Her high nose was such
That it taught her conceit
Her eyebrows delicately bent
Were the life of the world entire
If her eyes were narcissus-like, her ears were like roses
On one side the proud rose on the other the self loving narcissus
From the redness of her lips, the bright sheen of her teeth
The oyster and the pearls to the depths of sea sink
When in a smile her teeth were displayed
Pearls offered themselves as their sacrifice
How to define the dimples on her cheeks
They were golden citrons made by nature’s hand
The light of morn her bright neck was
The mole on her bright face the morning star
Who could match the matchless hand
That would such a neck embrace
The color of henna on her hands the blood of lovers
Her fingers the envy of coral branches
How could one describe the clarity of her torso
Like a mirror her stomach shone bright
Like two citrons were her two breasts
Or two apples from Rizwan’s paradise
Her body was clad all in black
She was grieving, was most sorrowful
Clad in her black apparel she was
The mecca of lovers’ hearts draped in black
Beholding her beautiful existence
Raad became like an arrow-pierced prey
Before, young and old were engrossed by his beauty
Now, portrait-like, Raad became engrossed by hers
Overwhelmed by that image of beauty
With her Raad became besotted
Seeing her luminous aspect
Like a mirror he stared wonderstruck
He said to himself, If fortune should favor me,
And would confer a beloved like her on me
If I could have with her but a single tryst
With my heart and soul my dedication I would show.
He had this conversation in his heart
Then became all quiet, helpless as he was
Sorceress Surat Nigar sent for the executioner to put that poor youth to death. At that moment, God Almighty willed it so that a message arrived for her from sorcerer Musavvir. It read:
“My princess, I hear that Raad has been brought to you a prisoner. Do not kill him where you are stationed. Instead, you should take him to Empress Heyrat’s camp, which is close by. I will also arrive there. Then we will hang him in full view of the rebels, and also chastise any who come to his aid from the rebels’ camp.”
After reading the letter, Surat Nigar stopped the executioner from putting Raad to death. She ordered one of her attendants, sorcerer Faulad Iron-Puller, to keep Raad in custody for the day.
Faulad took Raad into a mountain pass and put magic chains and fetters on him. Afterwards, Faulad recited a spell and a wall of fire encircled the mountain pass. Smoke rose from the fire in such abundance that it completely covered the place where Raad was imprisoned. Sorcerer Faulad set up his own tent at some distance from the wall of fire and rested there with his companions and attendants.
After Raad was taken away from Surat Nigar’s pavilion, the absence of her beloved made Princess Almas Fairy-Face inconsolable. A few moments later, she said to her mother, “Now I will go to my pavilion and take some rest.” Her mother granted her leave and Almas sent for her conveyance. A palanquin with latticed doors arrived and the princess’s procession made ready. She mounted her palanquin and the group proceeded. A eunuch named Ishrat accompanied it on horseback, supervising the arrangements of the procession.
134. Looked at her heel: a common superstition among Indian women who glance at their heel after looking at their children’s beauty to ward off the evil eye.
135. Kohl from the Mount Tur: the kohl (black eye liner) made from the burned stone of Mount Tur. See also note 21.
136. Take all her calamities on their head: a ritual by which someone pledges to sacrifice himself or herself to keep a loved one from coming to harm.