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.
While these events were underway, Raad’s attendants returned to their senses in Mahrukh’s camp.When they found their master absent they went to Mahrukh and reported that someone had kidnapped Raad. His mother, sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt, became disconcerted. She cried with grief and gave in to ecstasies of anxiety. Amar comforted her and said, “Trickster girl Sarsar was in wait of an opportunity and she must have kidnapped him. Do not grieve. I will go and secure his release.” Then Amar left on his mission.
On the way, Amar met Burq the Frank and gave him the news. Burq also headed to look for Raad and, in his search, chanced upon Surat Nigar’s camp. He infiltrated the camp in disguise and witnessed Raad being taken by sorcerer Faulad Iron-Puller to the mountain pass and imprisoned there.
Burq tried to think of some trickery to secure Raad’s release. He was engrossed in these thoughts when the procession of Princess Almas passed and he accompanied it. After making queries, Burq determined that it was the procession of sorcerer Musavvir’s daughter. Burq continued onward with her procession, waiting for an opportunity to kidnap her.
In the meanwhile, he saw a servant of the eunuch Ishrat stop to prepare his hookah. Burq approached him and said, “Look here for a moment!” When the servant looked up, Burq made him unconscious with an egg of oblivion. He hid him in the nearby bushes and brought the hookah to the eunuch.
As he handed it to Ishrat, Burq said, “I would like you to stay behind a moment and let others carry on along their way. I heard terrible news about your employment and wish to inform you of it.” The eunuch became full of anxiety. He stayed behind with the false attendant while the procession moved on. Burq waited until the procession had moved well ahead. Then, with the egg of oblivion, he made Ishrat unconscious too, causing him to fall from his horse. Burq disguised himself as Ishrat and followed the procession of the princess on horseback, joining it before long.
In the meanwhile, Princess Almas arrived at her camp. It was set up far away from Surat Nigar’s camp to allow the Princess a chance to enjoy the scenery and amuse herself with revels. The princess sent all her attendants, confidantes and slave girls away. She ordered the panels of her pavilion overlooking the forest to be raised.
She sat looking at the expanse and remembering her beloved. Sometimes she cried, sometimes she complained of the fickle heavens. Sometimes she made frenzied utterances. At other times, she addressed the passing breeze. Thinking of her beloved, she recited:
“More beautiful than flower orchards is each flower in your garden face
Desire for them grows in my heart like a thorn
If I behold a rose garden that is not your face
May its flowers become in my eyes as thorns
You are as beautiful now as you were in the past
All beauties have this claim, but none your match
Your renown fills the marketplace
Your house is the Egypt of delicate beauty,
You are like Yusuf of Canaan.
The news of your sale excites the bazaar
I am ready to lose my head in your purchase
As I lost my life in your desire
For you I humbled myself many times
In this act I proved myself the worthiest
Every moment I look for you; I am always in your quest
I wish to die time and time again before your eyes
The cypress in embarrassment hides
As you with your lovely stature step toward the garden
Every moment I pluck at my breast like a lute with my nails
Hundreds of cries and lamentations rise vibrating from my veins
Drink wine in the garden and watch the cypress and jasmine
And I will attain my happiness to have you before my sight
O knower of my secrets, do not blame me for what I do
For I have shunned all honor in my beloved’s quest.”
While the princess sat engrossed in her beloved’s remembrance, Burq the Frank arrived in the eunuch Ishrat’s guise and noticed her sitting by herself, looking grief-stricken. The false Ishrat concealed himself to hear the princess’s heart-rending lamentations and the tale of grief she narrated.
The princess sighed and said, “O Raad, you bought my soul for a glimpse of your face. I will now depart this world with the hope of our union unmet.” When the false Ishrat heard this, he realized that the princess had fallen in love with Raad. He came out of his hiding place and approached the princess. Noticing him, she stopped crying, dried her tears, and turned an annoyed face toward him.
The false Ishrat leaned forward and whispered in the princess’s ear, “O Princess, I know that you are in love. You conceal it from me for no reason. I am your family’s slave. If ordered I would even pluck the stars from the sky for you. Tell me your secret and I give you my word that none will ever hear it from my tongue. And I would do all in my power to unite you with your beloved besides.”
When Princess Almas found him to be kindly disposed, she narrated her entire plight. The false Ishrat said, “O Princess of the world, let us go to the place where your lover is imprisoned. You should tell the prison guard that you have a question for your brother’s killer. He will let you in and then I will secure Raad’s release, for I am in reality the trickster Burq the Frank come in disguise to secure his release.”
Princess Almas’s rosebud-like lips blossomed into the flower of laughter upon hearing these auspicious words. She joyously called out,
“If I give up my life from happiness it would be proper
For these happy tidings have made my soul fully content.”
She ordered her palanquin and rode in it to Raad’s prison. Burq accompanied her in Ishrat’s guise. When they arrived at Faulad Iron-Puller’s camp, he came out and bowed before Princess Almas. She told him that which Burq had instructed. Faulad removed the fiery cordon from Raad’s prison and she went in and found solace in her beloved’s sight.
The false Ishrat stayed outside with sorcerer Faulad Iron-Puller, who offered him wine and meat. At first the false Ishrat coyly refused but, when Faulad insisted, he filled a goblet with red wine and secretly drugged it. He offered it to Faulad saying, “You must have a cup first, only then will I drink.” Faulad took the wine and drank it. The false Ishrat then offered drugged wine and drugged sweets to all of Faulad’s attendants too, saying, “Have a taste. These sweets are from the princess’s own table.” All of them ate the sweets and drank the wine and fell unconscious.
Burq the Frank immediately cut off their heads. The moment they died, darkness enveloped the place. A great hue and cry rose and Raad was released.
As Princess Almas felt frightened by the growing commotion, Raad said to her, “O Princess, you witnessed how easily Faulad was killed while you watched.” The princess too, marvelled at the alacrity of the trickster. While they still stood in shock, Burq came in and said to them, “O pair of lovers, we must now hurriedly depart lest Queen Surat Nigar hears these tidings and sends some calamity your way. She is camped only a few miles from this place.”
Princess Almas said, “O Burq, there’s a forest near my royal pavilion that no one frequents. Let both Raad and me proceed there to pack my belongings and rest. Then we will depart for Queen Mahrukh’s camp.”
Burq said, “You will be provided all you need, but now’s not the time for that. It’s not safe to stay around any longer.” But Princess Almas insisted still, and Burq had no option but to give in to her wishes.
Princess Almas Fairy-Face brought Raad to her camp and seated him on a luxurious seat. She sent for all the paraphernalia of revel making. The wine service and salvers of kebabs for accompaniment were provided and the two began drinking.
The two of them to the pleasure chamber retired
Where a carpet of gold thread and bed awaited them
In that place, finally alone, they
Began kissing and fondling each other
While Raad made a thousand plaints
The princess his every request denied
While Raad’s desire and passion grew
She at once offered and denied herself to him
That fairy like beauty told her lover
“In your camp we will fulfill our desires.”
Dejected and unsuccessful, Raad finally said this,
“Bring me some wine then from the niche.”
With a hundred coquetries that beauty rose
And stretched her hand toward the niche
She took down the bottle of wine with one hand
And with the other a goblet picked
The two drank the wine and inebriated became
Intoxicated already from the ecstasy of love
One’s arms became the other’s pillow
One’s lips became the other’s solace
They drank and then drank some more
To all joys and sorrows indifferent,
They became oblivious of themselves
They became their own cupbearers and their drinkers
To his fairy-like beloved, Raad made love
Every too often they kissed and embraced
Now he took her in his arms to sleep
Now with his lips he fondled hers
Occupied while they were in these endearments
A sleeping menace became awake
That cruel woman, that tyrannical sorceress
To wit Surat Nigar Face-Maker, deceitful and sly
Came to learn that Raad was released from prison
And his guards and keepers all beheaded were
And that the cause of these terrible events
Was none other than her own daughter Almas
Who went to the prison without informing others
And dispatched to hell the prison keeper and guards
Hearing this report of her daughter’s doings
An enraged Surat Nigar burned like a blaze
She departed at once with fury filled
And arrived at the entrance of the princess’s pavilion
All the attendants and slaves of Princess Almas ran away in fear at the sight of Surat Nigar and she barged into the pavilion. Finding Almas lying in Raad’s embrace, she was overtaken by ecstasies of rage.
Surat Nigar recited a spell and struck her hands. The piece of ground on which the princess’s bed lay rose from the earth into the air. Surat Nigar also flew by invoking magic. Burq, who stood under the pavilion watching this calamity unfold, tearfully followed the flying piece of ground carrying Raad and the princess.
In the meanwhile, both Raad and Princess Almas awoke from their dream of oblivion. Raad tried to recite a spell and fly away with Princess Almas but Surat Nigar’s spell kept him from remembering any. He said to the princess, “It appears we have become captives of magic.” The princess started crying and washing her face with tears of remorse, saying, “O unfaithful, unloving heavens, you could not bear even a short happy union between two lovers. You robbed us of it in no time.” She complained about their tyrannical fate at times and, at other times, they cried in each other’s embrace.
She would cry,
“What a hand, O Fate, you dealt me
My lover you took from me
Before whom should I make my complaint
That you left me unhappy and forlorn?
That you put to sword my desire’s house
Ah my comely lover, alas! Alas!”
While the princess made these laments, sorceress Surat Nigar recited another spell and the flying piece of ground broke into two pieces, separating Raad and Princess Almas, and the two pieces went flying in different directions. The heart of the princess became cleft with grief and laden with a thousand sorrows. The two lovers were in a state of shock and grief that cannot be described. Even the pen that composes this breaks into dark tears.
When the two of them separated in that manner, Burq the Frank, who followed them on the ground, could not decide whether to follow Raad or Princess Almas. In the end, he ran back to his camp and gave the news to sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt.
Unnerved by the terrible news about her son, she speedily flew by magic and reached the piece of ground that carried Princess Almas.
Sorceress Mehshar thunderously flashed and swooped down, catching Princess Almas in her magic claw. But Surat Nigar quickly reached her side and cast a spell at which thousands of magic slaves flew up and caught Mehshar. She tried to break free by reciting spells; she thrashed about and fluttered her wings, but to no avail. Surat Nigar put a magic incarceration spell on Mehshar and took her and Princess Almas to a horrible, dreadful wilderness.
Sorcerer Zalim Black-Face
Once she landed in the wilderness, Surat Nigar recited a spell and directed it skywards. The piece of ground carrying Raad came flying down and descended beside her.
Surat Nigar wrote a spell and gave it to a magic slave. It disappeared and, after a few moments, the earth cleft and a sorcerer emerged from it. He bowed respectfully to Surat Nigar and stood awaiting orders. Surat Nigar said to him, “O sorcerer Zalim Black-Face, I have summoned you so that you may keep these three as your prisoners. It would not have been wise to keep them prisoner in the camp since my daughter is among them and everyone high and low would come to learn that sorcerer Musavvir’s daughter was kept in captivity because of her love. Moreover, the tricksters would infiltrate the camp and secure the release of their commanders and companions. Therefore, I brought them here to put them in your custody.”
After that, sorceress Surat Nigar flew away toward her camp. Sorcerer Zalim Black-Face made a magic tower and imprisoned Raad, Princess Almas and sorceress Mehshar inside. We will hear more of them before long.
Now we return to give an account of sorceress Surat Nigar. After returning to her camp, she ordered her army to prepare to march. Packing and loading their tents and pavilions, she and her defeat-incarnate army headed for Empress Heyrat’s camp.
The magic birds conveyed the news to Heyrat that sorceress Surat Nigar and her army were approaching to present themselves in her service. Upon hearing this, Heyrat took her nobles and ministers along and went out to welcome the sorceress. The empress ordered that carpets inlaid with jewels be spread in the path of Surat Nigar. Heyrat received her warmly and brought her to the court with great esteem and honor. Surat Nigar’s army was camped beside Heyrat’s own and the empress gave commands that all comforts be provided to Surat Nigar’s commanders and men. And in this manner, her army set up camp in great comfort.
Surat Nigar said to Heyrat, “I have returned after imprisoning Princess Almas Fairy-Face and Raad. Your daughter Khubsurat the Beauty is enamored of Mahrukh’s son Shakeel, and mine of Mehshar’s son Raad. The same adverse fate has marked both of us. O Heyrat, I wish you to strike the drums of war so that tomorrow I may wipe out the rebels and avenge the blood of my son.”
Heyrat feted and regaled Surat Nigar all day. When the revolutions of heaven brought about a change and the face of the bride of the sky became darkened with the blackness of the night, the sound of war drums rose from Heyrat’s camp as per sorceress Surat Nigar’s wishes.
The spies took this intelligence to Queen Mahrukh and conveyed it to her after singing her adulations and praises. The clarions of war answered the call to war from Mahrukh’s camp as well. Both camps prepared magic weapons and readied their arms and armor.
Be it known to the readers that thousands of battles take place in this story. Therefore, the humble narrator has given their description with an eye to brevity. Lengthening a narrative unnecessarily is an idle exercise. Thus only those battles that are entertaining and take place between renowned, illustrious sorcerers will be described in detail. The rest will be mentioned in passing so that neither the audience nor the readers of this tale become weary and disinterested.
Now we return to our story.
All night long the two camps bustled with the preparations for battle. When the sun, flying its golden standard in Earth’s every corner, appeared and showed its majestic sight to the world, Surat Nigar and Empress Heyrat led their armies into the battlefield with great stateliness.
Queen Mahrukh Magic-Eye and Princess Bahar arrived from the other side with the champions of the world and decorated the battlefield with their presence. They settled the dust clouds with magic rain. The battle arrays were formed. The criers made their calls and withdrew, and the proclaimers made their proclamations and retreated. Surat Nigar rode out on a magic dragon and challenged her opponents.
Princess Bahar came out to answer her challenge. Surat Nigar hurled a magic coconut that exploded and released thousands of portraits. These portraits crept like shadows and wrapped themselves around Bahar.
In answer to Surat Nigar’s spell, Bahar took off her bracelet and threw it toward the sky. Immediately, everyone saw a pearl-strung cord appear that hung down from the heavens to the Earth. Bahar climbed it and reached high into the air from where she invoked her magic. A flame shot down like a sunburst and burned up all the shadows wrapped around her body.
When Surat Nigar witnessed this, she drew a portrait and threw it at the pearl-strung cord. The portrait fell to the ground and came alive, releasing flames from its mouth that burned up the pearl-strung cord. Bahar dropped to the ground but, with her magic, she survived the fall.
She plucked a few hairs from her head and threw them at the portrait. Those hairs ensnared the portrait like a snare rope and dragged it before Bahar, who cut it up with scissors.
Then Bahar took out a bouquet of flowers and hurled it at Surat Nigar. Gold and silver flowers rained down on Surat Nigar and her companions, all of whom fell under their spell. They swayed in ecstasy and sang praises to Bahar.
At that moment, the earth cleft and magic slave girls emerged. They gleaned the flowers from Bahar’s bouquet and called out, “O QUEEN SURAT NIGAR, TO FALL UNDER THE SPELL OF A CHIT OF A GIRL LIKE BAHAR ILL BECOMES THE WIFE OF SORCERER MUSAVVIR. BEWARE!”
At these words, Surat Nigar came to her senses. She drew her magic sword and attacked Bahar. The two sorceresses engaged in magic swordplay. In the meanwhile, Empress Heyrat ordered her army commanders to attack and sorcerers charged from all sides. Queen Mahrukh too, advanced with her warriors and the two armies merged and a pitched battle was fought. Clouds that made magic showers rose by the sorcerers’ spells from both sides. Tempests blew with great violence; fire and stones rained. The cries of “O Sameri! O Jamshed!” rose from the battleground. Corpse piled over corpse, and the dead lay in heaps. The sorcerers on both sides targeted each other with steel magic balls and the floor of the forest became red with blood as a powerful turmoil unfurled into wholesale carnage.
When the golden-robed emperor137 moved to its westerly court and the King of Stars138 – the adornment of heavens – with its starry hordes, ascended the seat of the sky, the armies disengaged themselves from their opponents and returned to their resting places in their respective camps.
Surat Nigar said to Heyrat, “I will now make portraits of Mahrukh’s commanders because today I suffered great ignominy at the hands of that inconsequential girl Bahar. None of them will escape my wrath.” Heyrat answered, “You may take all the steps you deem appropriate.”
While they conversed, the ground cleft and a magic slave appeared and handed a letter to Heyrat. It was from Emperor Afrasiyab, who had written:
“O Empress, I need to consult you on a matter of importance. Come to the Dome of Light and ask Surat Nigar to postpone the battle for the present.”
When Heyrat read the message she said to the magic slave, “Inform the emperor that his command will be carried out.” Heyrat asked Surat Nigar to postpone the battle until her return then she sent away the magic slave and dressed and adorned herself for the journey to the Dome of Light.
Heyrat gave injunctions to Sarsar, saying “You are a trickster girl. Make sure that no tricksters attack and cause the least grief to Queen Surat Nigar with their deceptions.” Sarsar answered, “Rest assured, no trickster would dare show his face here.” After making all these arrangements, Heyrat finally departed and Sarsar remained in the camp to keep watch.
137. Golden-Robed Emperor: an allusion to the sun.
138. King of the Stars: an allusion to the moon.