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.
After the armies returned from the battlefield, the tricksters set out on their mission, resolved to attack and kill sorceress Surat Nigar at the first opportunity.Each infiltrated her camp in a different disguise.
Amar entered Surat Nigar’s court disguised as a carpet-keeper and started trimming the wicks of the candles. He put drugs on the burning candles and the rising fumes spread, rendering many people unconscious.
Sarsar recognized Amar and said to Surat Nigar, “There is Amar, disguised as the keeper of carpets, trimming the candlewicks.” Surat Nigar recited a spell. Two magic slaves emerged from the ground and caught Amar. When they brought him before Surat Nigar, she asked, “Who are you?” Amar answered, “I am the Angel of Death, who extracts sorcerers’ souls.” Surat Nigar asked, “Didn’t you feel the least bit afraid you would forfeit your life by breaking into my camp?” Amar replied, “No one can kill me but God Almighty.”
Enraged at these words, Surat Nigar decided to put Amar to death. At that moment, Sarsar said, “Put him in my custody. I will take this trickster before Empress Heyrat.” Surat Nigar replied, “Very well, take him.”
Meanwhile, cries of “Amar is caught!” had risen from Surat Nigar’s camp when Amar was captured by the sorceress. All the tricksters present there in disguise heard this.
Burq the Frank quickly changed his disguise to the trickster girl Saba Raftar and headed for Surat Nigar’s pavilion. He saw Sarsar bring Amar from the other side. The false Saba Raftar greeted Sarsar and said, “Where do you take this wretch?” She answered, “To the Dome of Light.” The false Saba Raftar said, “You can stay behind and keep watch on the camp. Put him in my custody. I’ll take him there.” Sarsar was fooled and handed Amar to the false Saba Raftar. Burq led Amar away and after they had gone some distance he cut off Amar’s handcuffs and fetters and said, “Master, it’s me, your own Burq the Frank.”
Amar was greatly pleased at Burq’s cunning. Then Burq returned to guard Mahrukh’s camp. Now, Amar disguised himself as Saba Raftar and returned to Heyrat’s camp, where he ran into Sarsar again. She asked, “O Saba Raftar, how did you return so quickly?” The false Saba Raftar answered, “I was on my way to the Dome of Light when a magic claw came down and carried Amar Ayyar away, crying, ‘I was sent by Emperor Afrasiyab!’”
At this explanation, Sarsar did not ask further questions.
The false Saba Raftar said, “I have a headache. I should get some sleep.” She then lay down to rest.
Now hear of the real Saba Raftar. She disguised herself as the trickster Zargham and headed for Queen Mahrukh’s camp to arrest Burq the Frank. She saw Burq standing outside his camp and called out to him. But Burq recognized Saba Raftar in Zargham’s disguise and rushed at her, dagger drawn. Saba Raftar shot an arrow at Burq, who jumped into the air to dodge it, but the arrow struck and injured his big toe. Yet, Burq continued chasing Saba Raftar. She ran toward her camp, removing Zargham’s disguise as she ran, lest her camp mistake her for the enemy trickster, and sought refuge in Surat Nigar’s pavilion.
Surat Nigar and Sarsar had recently seen Amar in Saba Raftar’s disguise. When they saw another Saba Raftar enter the pavilion they arrested her. When Saba Raftar told Sarsar the secret codes with which the trickster girls recognized each other, Sarsar realized that she was the real Saba Raftar.
Amar Ayyar, who lay close by disguised as Saba Raftar, heard this conversation and ran to escape. As the trickster girls Sarsar and Saba Raftar gave him chase, he threw drug bombs at them. The two trickster girls jumped back to evade them but the drug-filled smoke had already spread all around. Before they had gone any distance, one of them fell unconscious by a lakeside and another at the foot of a mountain.
Instead of following them, Amar now changed into Sarsar’s disguise and returned to Surat Nigar’s pavilion and said to her, “O Queen, I will show you a marvel if you would accompany me.” Surat Nigar accompanied Amar, taking him for the trickster girl. Amar brought her to the edge of the camp and then hit her in the face with an egg of oblivion, bundled her up, and carried her away.
In the meanwhile, the real Sarsar and Saba Raftar regained consciousness. They returned to their camp and heard cries that someone had kidnapped Surat Nigar. The two of them ran to pursue the culprit.
Amar, in the meanwhile, resolved to kill Surat Nigar but the moment he attempted to do so, the Earth shook and horrible cries rose. Amar realized that Surat Nigar was a powerful sorceress and he would not be able to kill her by himself. He decided to take her to his camp and headed there, planning to kill her with the help of other sorcerers and sorceresses.
The trickster girl Sarsar did not follow Amar but headed for Queen Mahrukh’s court instead. She entered there in the disguise of Burq the Frank and said to the queen, “Please come with me to the border of the camp. Amar wishes to see you there.” As Mahrukh never denied her tricksters’ requests, she accompanied the false Burq. When they reached a deserted corner Sarsar hit Mahrukh in the face with an egg of oblivion, made her unconscious and hid her in a nook in the wilderness. Then she returned to Mahrukh’s camp in the queen’s disguise and said to the attendants, “I am resting in the front courtyard. Should Amar Ayyar come and ask for me, send him there.” Then the false Mahrukh lay down in the courtyard and pretended to be asleep.
In the meanwhile, Amar arrived at his camp carrying the bundle of Surat Nigar. When he asked for Mahrukh, the attendants guided him to the courtyard. Amar woke up the false Mahrukh and laid the bundle before her, saying, “O Queen, I have brought you Surat Nigar a prisoner.”
The false Mahrukh said, “She will not die easily. In my bedchamber lies my sorcerer’s bag in which I keep the magic devices of Sameri. If you bring me the magic steel ball from that bag I will be able to kill her.”
While Amar went to Mahrukh’s bedchamber to bring the magic steel ball, Sarsar lifted Surat Nigar’s bundle onto her shoulders, slit the pavilion panels with her dagger and escaped. Once she had put a safe distance between herself and Mahrukh’s camp, she called out, “Sarsar Swordfighter is my name! Regard, O Amar, how trickeries are performed and how I fool people by throwing dust into their eyes!”
The camp guards and sorcerers ran to catch her and a commotion arose. Amar also rushed out when he heard that Sarsar had carried away the bundle in Mahrukh’s disguise. His heart sank when he thought that Sarsar may have killed Mahrukh, which was why she had been resting so comfortably in the camp in her disguise. Amar ran after Sarsar with great trepidation.
Meanwhile, the sorcerers chasing Sarsar began reciting spells to catch her by magic. In anticipation, Sarsar restored Surat Nigar to consciousness. When she came to her senses she saw Mahrukh’s sorcerers and Amar Ayyar running toward her. She picked up a handful of soil from the ground and began reciting a spell to ward them off. Seeing this, Amar called out to his men, “Run for your lives. She is a powerful sorceress and will kill all of you.”
Some of Mahrukh’s sorcerers flew into the sky by invoking magic, others sank into the ground. Amar ran away but kept shouting, “O Sarsar, I swear by my fidelity to Hamza that I will kill you if you have harmed Mahrukh.”
Sarsar made no reply.
Amar ran toward Surat Nigar’s camp, entered it in an attendant’s disguise, and awaited Surat Nigar in her pavilion. Before long, the sorceress arrived there with Sarsar. Once she settled down she asked Sarsar, “What did you do to Mahrukh?” Sarsar answered, “I left her unconscious in the wilderness.” Surat Nigar said, “Go and bring her to me.” When Sarsar left, Amar followed her. As Sarsar came out of the camp, Amar called out, “Where do you go?” Sarsar ran in terror upon hearing Amar Ayyar’s voice because Amar had sworn to kill her.
Amar threw his snare rope at Sarsar, who jumped to escape its coils but her head bumped into tree branches and she fell down. Amar tied her up and drew his dagger to slit her throat. Sarsar looked into Amar’s eyes and said meekly, “Yes, O Amar, indeed you have every right to kill me.” As Amar was besotted with her, his eyes welled up with tears at her words and he asked, “Tell me, O Sarsar, what happened to Mahrukh?”
Before Sarsar could answer, one of Afrasiyab’s subjects, a sorcerer named Naqus the Trumpeter appeared on the scene from the nearby mountain pass. Seeing Amar, he recited a spell, arrested him, and released Sarsar, whom he recognized as the emperor’s trickster girl. Sarsar escaped and ran for two miles in fear for her life. When she stopped to rest she heard someone call, “There’s nowhere you can run from me.” When Sarsar turned to look she saw Qiran the Ethiope coming after her, wielding his cleaver. Sarsar again ran. But Qiran stopped in his tracks and did not follow her when he saw sorcerer Naqus the Trumpeter arrive there, leading Amar a prisoner.
Qiran quickly disguised himself as a sorcerer and called out to him, “Who are you? Why have you entered this land, which is under my writ?” Naqus the Trumpeter said, “Do not become upset my brother. I am taking the emperor’s fugitive, Amar Ayyar, a prisoner to his court.” The false sorcerer approached Naqus and said, “That may be, but who is that other sorcerer behind you?” As Naqus turned to look, Qiran struck with his cleaver, shattering Naqus’s skull to pieces. His magic spirits cried and made a tumult and Amar was released.
As Amar made his way back through the wilderness, he saw Burq the Frank exchanging sword blows with Saba Raftar while Mahrukh Magic-Eye lay tied in a bundle on the ground.
It so happened that Saba Raftar passed the place in the wilderness where Mahrukh lay unconscious. Saba Raftar tied her up in a bundle and headed for her camp. In the meanwhile, Burq arrived there and challenged her. Now, seeing Amar arrive, Saba Raftar became unnerved. As her attention was diverted toward Amar, Burq found a chance to make her unconscious with an egg of oblivion. She fell down and Burq made her into a bundle. He then restored Mahrukh to consciousness and said, “You may now safely return to the camp but do not be duped in this manner in future.”
After Mahrukh Magic-Eye returned to her camp, the tricksters disguised themselves – Amar as Saba Raftar and Burq the Frank as Mahrukh. The false Saba Raftar made a bundle of the false Mahrukh and, carrying her across his shoulders, entered Surat Nigar’s pavilion and put the bundle before the sorceress, saying, “I present Mahrukh Magic-Eye before you as a prisoner.” Surat Nigar was delighted to hear this. She richly rewarded the false Saba Raftar. When Surat Nigar ordered that Mahrukh be restored to consciousness, Amar signalled to Burq to become conscious.
In the meanwhile, Surat Nigar stepped out to attend the call of nature. To her pavilion’s right was a staircase where seven magic slave girls made by Empress Heyrat were deputed. They came down from the staircase. One of them said, “SURAT NIGAR SEEMS VERY HAPPY TODAY.” Another said, “SHE IS HAPPY BECAUSE SABA RAFTAR BROUGHT HER MAHRUKH A PRISONER.” The third said, “IT IS NOT SOMETHING TO BE HAPPY ABOUT.” The fourth magic slave girl said, “SHALL I REVEAL THE SECRET?” The fifth said, “I WILL TELL YOU THE WHOLE STORY.” The sixth one said, “WHAT WOULD YOU TELL?” The seventh magic slave girl said, “STOP TALKING NONSENSE, O WRETCHES. WHAT WAS DESTINED TO HAPPEN CAME TO PASS. IT IS NEITHER SABA RAFTAR NOR IS IT MAHRUKH. IT IS AMAR AYYAR DISGUISED AS SABA RAFTAR WHO BROUGHT BURQ THE FRANK DISGUISED AS MAHRUKH.” When Surat Nigar heard this she quickly attended to the call of nature and returned to her pavilion.
Now, Amar too, had been listening to the conversation of the magic slave girls. He quickly disguised himself as Sarsar. As Surat Nigar entered the pavilion, Amar signalled to Burq to get up and run out. The false Sarsar called out, “O Queen, I am Sarsar. When I arrived Amar ran away at the sight of me. Now Burq too escapes. Catch him!” Surat Nigar ran after Burq and Amar followed her disguised as Sarsar. When Surat Nigar was far from her camp Amar made her unconscious with an egg of oblivion, quickly bundled her up and brought her into Mahrukh’s court.
Mahrukh ordered all her sorcerer commanders to gather and kill Surat Nigar with a hail of magic arrows. The commanders began gathering at her orders.
In the meanwhile, Sarsar entered Surat Nigar’s pavilion and learned that someone had kidnapped the sorceress. Sarsar immediately set out and entered Mahrukh’s camp in an attendant’s disguise. While Mahrukh’s commanders made preparations to kill Surat Nigar, Sarsar approached the sorceress, who lay bundled up, and hit her in the face with an egg of awareness.
Surat Nigar came to her senses and, reciting a spell on a magic ball, hurled it at Mahrukh. Then Surat Nigar flashed like lightning and struck Mahrukh’s throne. Mahrukh dove into the ground to foil her attack and her son, sorcerer Shakeel, hit Surat Nigar with a magic citron. It injured Surat Nigar’s foot but she still managed to fly away carrying Sarsar in her magic claw.
As Surat Nigar entered her pavilion, she found Empress Heyrat had recently returned from the Dome of Light. Surat Nigar said to her, “Since you left, the tricksters have shown no let up in attacks. If Sarsar hadn’t risked her life to save me, I would have died.” Heyrat conferred a resplendent robe of honor on Sarsar and listened to the account of the tricksters.
Sorcerer Baran the Rain-Master
At that moment, a magic slave arrived and handed Heyrat a message that informed her that the Emperor of Hoshruba was approaching. The empress made preparations and went out to greet him.
After a moment, Afrasiyab’s conveyance arrived with great pomp and majesty. Everyone present paid him their respects. Afrasiyab entered the pavilion and sat on the throne. After he heard a complete account of the tricksters’ attacks, he said to Surat Nigar, “You put yourself to all this trouble for no reason. Now you may rest and watch.”
Afrasiyab recited a spell and struck his hands. Immediately, a sorcerer emerged from the earth and bowed before Afrasiyab, who said to him, “O sorcerer Baran the Rain-Master, go and destroy Mahrukh’s camp, but take Princess Khubsurat to the magic Ferris wheel beside the banks of the River of Salt and incarcerate her there.” After giving these orders Afrasiyab remained there a little while longer, then mounted his conveyance and departed for the Apple Garden.
In the meanwhile, a separate pavilion was provided for sorcerer Baran, who mustered his army. After he made his preparations, he barged into the court of Mahrukh Magic-Eye and occupied a vacant seat. He addressed the court thus: “O group of ingrates, I have come to punish you for you rebelled against the emperor’s authority.”
When Amar heard these words he threw his snare rope at Baran. But the sorcerer took the form of a cloud and escaped out of the loops of Amar’s snare rope. Then he thundered and struck, carrying away Princess Khubsurat the Beauty.
Mahrukh’s sorcerers threw magic citrons and magic coconuts but they could not stop Baran. He flew away with Khubsurat to the banks of the River of Salt and put the princess on the magic Ferris wheel, imprisoning her there as before.
Prince Shakeel was beside himself with grief at Khubsurat’s capture. He made plaints, cried, wept, and recited love verses. Amar comforted him and asked Mahrukh, “What is the special magic of Baran the Rain-Master?” She replied, “He causes showers. Anyone on whom even a single drop of his rain falls turns into a tree. Baran was once under the authority of sorcerer Raad Thunder-Clap and his mother, sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt. They were his commanders. Had they not been imprisoned, Baran wouldn’t have dared to show his face here.” Amar said, “I will now go to free Raad and Mehshar. If possible, I will also secure Khubsurat’s release.”
With these words, Amar left. Once out of the camp, he blew his trickster’s whistle and all the tricksters presented themselves. Amar enjoined all of them to search for Raad Thunder-Clap and sorceress Mehshar, and the tricksters left in search of them.
Sorcerer Baran the Rain-Master returned to his pavilion from the River of Salt and began preparations for battle. When Sun’s spring flowed into the River of the West and the luminous brook of the Milky Way began coursing through the sky, the blast of Turkic flutes and war bugles rose from sorcerer Baran’s camp. The noise reached the august ears of Queen Mahrukh Magic-Eye, who ordered that the call to war be answered from her camp. The timbales of war now rumbled in both camps. The warriors burnished their weapons; sorcerers invoked spells, made sacrifices to magic spirits, and lit the worship fires. For four watches of the night the two camps remained gripped by similar commotion.
When the Hindu of the Skies performed its worship and left the dome of heavens, and the Idol Worshipper of the East, carrying its golden disk, entered the idol house of the skies,139
The sky put on the bright veil of the sun
The bride of the sky revealed its brightest jewel
The umbrella of the night folded up
And dawn conquered the night
In the morning, the two sanguinary, blood-thirsty armies filed into the arena with great majesty and grandeur. Queen Mahrukh and sorcerer Baran positioned themselves in the center of their respective armies. The battle drums beat constantly. After the battle arrays were formed, a sorcerer came out from sorcerer Baran’s ranks and sought combat.
Sorceress Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane emerged from the other side to answer his challenge and hurled a steel magic ball that shot through the enemy sorcerer’s chest. Before long, Mahrukh’s sorcerers and sorceresses had killed several of Baran’s army commanders.
Baran the Rain-Master became enraged at the slaughter of his commanders. He rode into the arena, recited a spell and blew it skywards. Suddenly, dark clouds rose from the mountainside and rain clouds flew in from all corners and covered Mahrukh’s army. Then it started raining on Mahrukh’s camp. Everyone on whom a drop of rain fell turned into a tree and sprouted leaves. Renowned sorcerers of Mahrukh’s camp recited counterspells but they proved ineffectual.
At that moment, Princess Bahar came forward carrying a bouquet of flowers. Baran realized that if he allowed Bahar an opportunity to invoke her magic she would make him frenzied with her spells. He flew toward Bahar and sprinkled her with some soil from the grave of Jamshed that he carried with him. Princess Bahar fell unconscious.
Now Baran recited a spell and struck his hands and the rain came down more heavily. Mahrukh’s warriors began turning into trees in greater numbers. A stampede began and a great majority of them retreated to save themselves from such a fate.
In the meanwhile, Baran led his army back to its camp to the notes of triumph and victory. As Baran was certain that the tricksters would attack him in his camp before long, he did not stay there. He headed for a spot near the region of Batin where he made a magic pond and hid himself at the bottom.
When the tricksters saw the plight of their camp they decided that instead of going in search of Raad and sorceress Mehshar, they should first find and kill Baran the Rain-Master. They immediately set out on their mission.
Previously, it has been mentioned that Burq and Amar left Saba Raftar unconscious and tied up in a bundle in the wilderness to arrest Surat Nigar in her disguise. When she regained consciousness, she called out to passersby to release her and told them that thieves had left her tied up there. Finally, a man released Saba Raftar and she headed back to the camp. On the way, she encountered the group of tricksters going on their mission to kill Baran.
The tricksters were preoccupied and avoided her but Burq the Frank threw his snare rope at Saba Raftar and she fell down entangled. However, even as she fell, Saba Raftar hit Burq with an egg of oblivion and he became unconscious. After some time Burq regained consciousness and noticed that the loops of his snare rope had become knotted around Saba Raftar’s neck. Afraid that she might die of strangulation, Burq began untying them out of consideration that Saba Raftar was Qiran’s beloved. After he had untied the knots, Saba Raftar cried, “Ah my arm is broken!” In panic, Burq released her and Saba Raftar took one leap and escaped.
Now Burq too, headed out to kill Baran. But the first to reach the place where Baran was hiding was Zargham. Seeing the trickster arrive, Baran began reciting a spell. When Zargham saw this he ran to escape but Baran caught him by magic and brought him to the pond to kill him. Before he could carry out his plans, however, a magic slave arrived to give him Afrasiyab’s message. It read:
“O Baran, bring the people you have arrested, including Mahrukh and the others, to the banks of the River of Flowing Blood. Amar Ayyar will come there in an attempt to release them and I will arrest him as well. I will then send for the devil designate of Lord Laqa, Bakhtiarak, to come to the tilism and kill Amar with his own hands. I had invited Lord Laqa’s devil designate once before but suffered great embarrassment. Now I want satisfaction for that occasion.”
When Baran read the letter, he got out of the pond and returned to his camp with Zargham. He ordered his camp to march and loaded Mahrukh’s soldiers, who had been transformed into trees, onto carts and brought them along under strict guard.
When Baran arrived at the banks of the River of Flowing Blood he set up his pavilion by the riverside and ordered the prisoners be unloaded and placed within sight of his pavilion. He threw Zargham too, among the prisoners. Then Baran sat down in his pavilion in great comfort and luxury.
The other tricksters tracking Baran followed his army and arrived at his camp. Jansoz entered his pavilion in a sorcerer’s disguise but the moment he entered Baran recognized him and put him under the same magic incarceration as Zargham. Then Baran wrote a message to Afrasiyab, which read:
“As ordered by My Lord and Master, this humble servant has arrived at the banks of the River of Flowing Blood with the emperor’s prisoners.”
When Afrasiyab received the message he said to sorceress Khumar, “O Princess, all the rebels have been arrested by the grace of Lord Sameri. Only Amar Ayyar and a couple of tricksters are still at large. You already know Amar from the time he shaved your head. Find him and bring him a prisoner by any means possible. You suffered great humiliation on account of him when you went to Lord Laqa’s court to bring the devil designate, Bakhtiarak, here. Now, if you can capture Amar, our shame will be washed away.” Khumar answered, “Very well, I now go in search of him and will bring him to you a prisoner.” Afrasiyab now turned toward Khumar’s sister, Makhmur Crimson-Eye, and said to her, “You too, should go along to help your sister.”
It was previously reported that both sisters were Afrasiyab’s beloveds, but the fear of Empress Heyrat had kept them from giving in to his advances. The sorceresses left after receiving their orders and went in different directions to look for Amar.
139. the Hindu of the Skies performed its worship and left the dome of heavens and the Idol Worshipper of the East carrying its golden disk: an allusion to the planet Saturn and the sun.