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.
Sorceress Khumar crossed over the Bridge of Magic Fairies and arrived near Baran’s camp.She found Amar in the wilderness disguised as a wizard and called out to him, “O wizard, stop awhile and tell me how you fare.” When Amar saw Khumar and heard her words, he realized she had recognized him. He immediately put on the cape of invisibility and disappeared. Sorceress Khumar looked all around for him but could not find him.
Finally, she headed for sorcerer Baran’s pavilion. He welcomed Khumar and offered her a seat of honor with great deference. Then he asked the reason for her visit. Khumar told him she had come in search of Amar and said, “Now I will invoke my magic and no matter where Amar is hiding, by its power, he will arrive here by himself. But do send a sandalwood seat for me on which I can sit and prepare the spell.” Baran ordered his servants to provide Khumar with a sandalwood seat. Khumar occupied herself with her preparations and with washing and bathing herself.
Amar Ayyar, who had disappeared from Khumar’s sight by putting on the cape of invisibility, finally removed it after he saw the sorceress discontinue her search.
He saw a macebearer come out of Baran’s camp. Amar approached him in a sorcerer’s disguise and said, “Where are you headed, my dear friend?” The macebearer said, “I was deputed at the entrance of sorcerer Baran’s pavilion. My shift is now over. I am going home.” Amar took out a fruit from his pocket and offered it to the macebearer, saying, “This fruit is hanging from the trees in the forest in the thousands; have a bite. You will never have eaten a better tasting fruit.” When the macebearer heard such praise of the fruit, he accepted, ate it, and fell unconscious. Amar hid him in a cave, removed the macebearer’s clothes, dressed himself in them, and put on his disguise.
Then Amar went and stood at the entrance of Baran’s pavilion. At that very moment a sorcerer came out. The false macebearer asked, “Are there any orders for me?” The sorcerer replied, “Our master requires a sandalwood seat for sorceress Khumar. She will sit on it and invoke her magic.” The false macebearer looked on as two sorcerers brought a sandalwood seat. When the sorcerer sent by Baran took the chair inside, Amar put on the cape of invisibility and followed.
Sorceress Khumar finished bathing, put on a waistcloth and sat down on the sandalwood seat with all the apparatus for making spells lying before her: swallow wort, thorn apples, sweet marjoram leaves, balsam, fumigation agents, mustard seeds, cotton seeds, black kite, and a fork-tailed shrike. She made a worship fire and, after making offerings of wine and swine, began reciting spells.
Amar sat on the sandalwood seat behind her wearing the cape of invisibility. As Khumar’s spell was meant to summon Amar and he was already there and invisible, those gathered to witness the power of Khumar’s spells saw they showed no results. Khumar learned nothing about Amar with her magic. Because she could not see Amar she thought her magic had failed her when it told her that he was there. In the end, Khumar said to Baran with great frustration, “I can’t find any trace of Amar Ayyar.” He answered, “He is no ordinary mortal who can be summoned by your spells. He is consummate in his art. Even Lord Sameri praised him in the Book of Sameri.”
While they were having this conversation, the macebearer whom Amar had drugged unconscious regained his senses. He recalled that before losing consciousness he had felt a tingling sensation as if his soul were departing his body. He reckoned that he had died and had now been resurrected as people believed, but that it was his dead body, not he who lay there.
He tried to move his limbs and, seeing he could exercise them, he stepped out of the cave in great anxiety – and completely naked because Amar had taken away his clothes. The macebearer headed in the direction of the camp, looking all around him with eyes of wonder. But then it occurred to him that dead men do not walk and he quickly lay down on the ground.
After some time, he reasoned with himself that, now that he had control over his senses, he must not keep lying on the ground. He started again. When he arrived near Baran’s camp he came across one of his friends, who asked, “Brother, why are you walking around naked?” The macebearer only then realized that he was naked and appeared thus to other people, but he remembered being fully dressed when he lost consciousness. He said to himself, Indeed, I have died. And certain it is that I was not buried in a winding-sheet but thrown naked into a hole.
Because he considered himself dead, he did not answer his friend, thinking that the dead did not speak. As he tried to turn away, his friend held him by his wrist and said, “Why do you walk away without answering?” The macebearer asked, “Do you see me?” His friend replied, “Very clearly. You stand before me completely naked. Do you take me for a blind man?” The macebearer said, “My brother, I am dead. You are my friend and I do not wish to hurt you, otherwise I would have killed you by now.”
When his friend heard these words he ran away in terror, realizing that thousands of people had been killed in the tilism and there was a good chance the macebearer had become a ghost. Seeing his friend run in terror, the macebearer became fully convinced that he was the ghost of a dead man.
From there he headed for sorcerer Baran’s pavilion. The sorcerer was incensed to see him barge naked into his pavilion. The sorceresses present there also screamed and rose to avoid the embarrassing scene. Baran shouted, “O insolent clown, what is the meaning of this?” The macebearer asked, “First, tell me whether I am alive or dead.” Baran laughed when he heard him say that. The sorcerer’s companions too, rolled about in ecstasies of mirth and made even more fun of the macebearer.
Baran the Rain-Master said to them, “He appears to be suffering the results of exercising his powers of imagination to the limits. The doctors have said that imagination is a creative faculty and engenders nightmares. Gradually, one begins to lose consciousness and can start biting. Sometimes this is the result of an imagined grief or excessive joy and happiness. Sometimes it is engendered by the passion of love and overwhelming desire that suffers the heart to become heated. In this case, it appears it was grief that caused his symptoms.”
Baran asked the macebearer to approach. He offered him words of consolation and comfort, and asked, “Tell me, how do you pass your days? Did you recently meet with some accident?” The macebearer replied, “I met a man along the way who offered me some fruit and I died after eating it.”
Baran turned to Khumar and said, “Witness this, O Khumar. Amar Ayyar only made him unconscious but it was his doubt that made him believe he was dead. But it is a wonder that Amar was close by and did not come when you cast spells and summoned him by your magic. It must be ineffectual magic that you deployed.”
Khumar was greatly embarrassed at these words from Baran.
Baran diagnosed the macebearer’s imagination to be suffering from some setback. In order to dispel the thought from the macebearer’s mind and cast away his anxiety, he ordered that the macebearer be executed.
When the executioner arrived with his shining blade, the macebearer said to himself, Had I been dead I would have disappeared from the eyes of people. They could not have ordered me killed. Therefore, I must be alive. I will lose my life for nothing now; I should plead for mercy. He immediately began importuning Baran for mercy.
Baran said to all assembled there, “Regard that when exposed to danger his intellectual faculty overcame his imaginative powers and he became well again.” Baran’s companions praised him highly. Baran gave some money to the macebearer and told him that he had been drugged by a trickster. When he heard these words the macebearer became fully recovered and left.
Amar also left, wearing his cape of invisibility and went into the wilderness.
A humiliated Khumar now invoked a spell that caused a cloud of magic smoke to appear. Khumar said to it, “O magic smoke, bring me Amar Ayyar wherever you find him!” The magic smoke departed at her orders.
Because Amar had taken off the cape of invisibility upon entering the wilderness, the magic smoke found him. It wrapped itself around Amar and took him away twisting like a whirlwind and brought him before sorceress Khumar in Baran’s pavilion. She said to him, “O Amar, you have killed thousands of sorcerers and have shaved my head as well. Now tell me yourself, what should be your reward?”
Amar answered, “My work is indeed what you just described, and the person who pays my price will have my utmost fidelity. My current master, Hamza, sent me into the tilism to cause death and destruction among its inhabitants. If you hire me instead, I will perform the same services for you with equal vigor.” Khumar said, “O sly thief, don’t imagine that you can fool me with these words. Now I will take you to Afrasiyab, who will invite Lord Laqa’s devil designate to behead you.”
Amar was unnerved upon hearing this but he steeled his heart and said, “Jabber all you like, O whore! For all I know, Afrasiyab’s death is near since you are taking me to see him. Last time I only shaved your head. This time I will slice your nose, too.” Enraged, Khumar hurled a stone at Amar and he fell down unconscious. Khumar bundled him up in a sheet, took her leave of sorcerer Baran, and headed for Afrasiyab’s court.
The tricksters in Baran’s camp had heard the news of Amar’s capture from the soldiers. When they saw the sorceress carrying away a bundle, Burq the Frank and Qiran the Ethiope followed her from different paths.
Burq was challenged by the trickster girls Sarsar, Saba Raftar and Tez Nigah, who surrounded him. He fought with them but he was outnumbered. Sarsar hit him in the face with an egg of oblivion and tied him up. Suddenly, a magic claw came down like lightning and carried away the trickster girls along with Burq.
The next moment, the trickster girls found themselves in sorceress Surat Nigar’s pavilion. They saluted her and asked, “Why did you send for us?” She replied, “O Sarsar, ever since you secured my release from the tricksters by risking your life, I commissioned a magic claw to accompany you and carry you away whenever you are challenged by Amar and his tricksters.”
Sarsar replied, “There is no denying the great kindness the queen of the world has shown with her consideration. But we are tricksters. You do not know of our plans and strategies. If the magic claw were to carry us away in this manner we would be unable to perform our duties. We request you keep the magic claw from doing so or else we must excuse ourselves from your service.”
Surat Nigar was embarrassed to hear Sarsar’s words and stopped the magic claw from accompanying the trickster girls. Then she rebuked and lambasted Burq the Frank. Afterwards, she recited a spell whereupon sorcerer Zalim Black-Face approached flying. Surat Nigar said to him, “O Zalim Black-Face, take this trickster into your custody and imprison him, along with sorceress Mehshar and Raad.”
Sorcerer Zalim flew away carrying Burq and passed over Baran’s camp where trickster Qiran saw him and followed him clandestinely. After traveling some distance, he saw the trickster girls coming. Qiran said to himself, I must not accost them on this occasion lest I am also captured as I am the only trickster left free. He changed his direction and followed sorcerer Zalim Black-Face from another path. Sarsar saw him and said to her companions, “Qiran never avoided us until this day. It is best that we leave him to his own devices.” They continued on their way.
Qiran kept following Zalim, who arrived in a desolate and terrible wilderness in which a palatial dome stood. The sorcerer recited a spell and struck his hands. A window appeared in the dome, Zalim went inside carrying Burq and the window closed behind him.
Left standing outside, Qiran soon thought of some trickery. He tied a waistcloth, smeared himself in dust and, eating a clod of earth, arrived before the dome and started shouting like a madman. “A pigeon sits on the dome. A deer swallows it. A camel is in the deer’s tail. The horse eats the elephant. The eagle carries it away. A donkey sits on my head. Here! Take this! This pearl! Look here now! Bravo, O wretch! Look at you dance! The whole house inside the ear! Eat the bed on the head! The season of the wind fills up! Death gives a litter! The night lays an egg! The morning couples with the lizard!”
Perplexed at hearing someone shout such nonsense, sorcerer Zalim came out to investigate and saw a raggedly dressed man in a frenzied state standing there. Zalim approached Qiran and said, “What are you shouting? You scream to no purpose.” Qiran replied, “If you were not blind you would see why I shout. Eat this clod of earth and your eyes will open up.”
Zalim reckoned that the man must be one of the Lord’s favored ones and he must not refuse what is offered. Zalim took a bite from the clod of earth, which Qiran had mixed with a sweet drug. Discovering the sweet taste of the clod, Zalim became convinced that the madman was indeed one of his Lord’s favored creatures. Zalim Black-Face ate up the entire thing and soon fell unconscious.
Qiran immediately beheaded him. The dome crashed into pieces and disappeared. Qiran saw Raad Thunder-Clap, sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt, Princess Almas Fairy-Face and Burq the Frank lying unconscious on the ground. He sprinkled their faces with water and they regained consciousness. All of them asked Qiran how he had secured their release. Qiran told them about his killing sorcerer Zalim Black-Face and also gave them the news of their camp. He told them that sorcerer Baran had arrested all of their companions and the whole camp lay destroyed and ruined.
Sorceress Mehshar said furiously, “How cunning of Afrasiyab to send Baran to attack after we were captured. And that wretch Baran also styles himself a great sorcerer now! He gives himself a lot of airs. But now he has asked for his death. He exists because of us and from our strength. Now I shall encounter him and see what that bastard can do. If I do not kill him instantly I will renounce my name.” Thus speaking, Mehshar Lightning-Bolt left with Raad.
Qiran drugged Almas Fairy-Face unconscious and made her into a bundle. Then he and Burq went toward Baran’s camp.
In the meanwhile, Afrasiyab wrote to Baran asking him to bring all the prisoners across the River of Flowing Blood into the region of Batin so that they may be killed. Baran the Rain-Master prepared boats and ordered his sorcerers to load the belongings of the camp and the captives for the passage across.
As Baran stood at the River of Flowing Blood giving orders to his men, sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt and Raad Thunder-Clap arrived overhead. Baran the Rain-Master ran in terror when he saw Mehshar approach, flashing, and Raad come rumbling. Raad immediately sunk into the ground and the next instant rose beside Baran and screamed. Baran fell unconscious to the ground and sorceress Mehshar struck him, cleaving him in two, as she sank into the ground. A doomsday-like clamor rose. Thunderous noises and darkness spread far and wide at his dying.
Mahrukh, Bahar and other commanders of their camp who had turned into trees returned to human form and regained their senses. All of them were already armed with their magic devices and sorcerer’s bags as they had all fallen under Baran’s spell on the battlefield. They immediately attacked Baran’s camp.
Bahar threw a bouquet of flowers causing a spring spell. The trees in the wilderness bloomed and flowered. Vast gardens full of redolent herbs and plants and dark red tulips appeared on all sides. Flocks of birds crowded the tree branches. The captivating songs of the songbirds filled the air. Spring manifested itself, prancing and preening like a peacock, and everywhere myriad-colored flowers bloomed.
The sorcerers in Baran’s army fell under Bahar’s spell and forgot all about fighting and counterspells. They were showered with magic citrons, magic coconuts and magic limes by Mahrukh’s camp. Princess Nafarman targeted them with hails of arrows. Mahrukh hurled steel magic balls at them. In no time, another river of blood began flowing beside the River of Flowing Blood.
Bodies fell over each other. Corpses piled up. The magic swords struck and snuffed out lives and bathed their victims in gore and dust. A terrible calamity was unfolding for sorcerer Baran’s camp and death did not allow any one of them to escape.
In writing these lines here
My heart became clear of sorrow’s dust
Mahrukh set out like a flame
Galloping on her steed made from the wind
Like the hungry lion goes toward sheep
The army of tyrants their self-possession lost
With blood so full was her blade
It looked like a crescent on a gory night
In any which direction she galloped her steed
Ranks of champions she cut down in swathes
The eagle of death above her foe hovered
And souls out of bodies like birds flew
From the barrage of arrows that flew across the sky
The stars became wounded and bled
The earth became a swelling sea of blood
In which swords like raging waves flashed
One could not see the ground for blood
Unbloodied was left not a patch of ground
None was left alive in Baran’s camp. But as they were at the banks of the River of Flowing Blood and within easy reach of Afrasiyab’s renowned sorcerers on the other side of the river, Queen Mahrukh did not stay there long after the carnage and turned back to her encampment. Except for Amar, who was captured by sorceress Khumar, all other tricksters were freed and accompanied Mahrukh.
Sorcerer Guhar Bar the Pearl-Rainer and Sorceress Sadaf the Oyster
It was already night by the time they began their march. The luminous moon with its army of stars descended into the arena of the heavens and the great star hid its face from fear. After marching for some twenty miles, Mahrukh’s army realized they had lost their way. Mahrukh said, “It appears from the sights we see around us that we are in the region of Batin. Let us take another direction lest we are captured. It will be very difficult to escape if we are lost here.” Bahar answered, “You speak true. Let us hurry and leave.”
They changed direction and headed to their right. After they had marched another twenty miles, they saw a majestic palace that was lavishly appointed. It was draped with curtains of green, red and yellow Kashan velvet.140 Its doors were carved of sandalwood, and it had canopies of gold brocade and screens of pearl strings. Dew-catchers covered its roof while jewel-encrusted gold and silver water basins were installed outside. Many-colored glass lights, chandeliers, glass shades, lustres and crystal shades made in the shape of lotus flowers illuminated the palace. For miles on end, the expanse was decorated with colored crystal bowls potted with blossoming roses, tulips, narcissi, jasmines and poppies. Peacocks and pheasants preened themselves at the acclivity of the mountains that surrounded the place. Watercourses crisscrossed that most captivating and blossoming expanse and waterfalls cascaded down from the mountains in sheets.
A wondrous palace whose doors
With gold brocade canopies were equipped
It was adorned with gold-threaded screens and curtains
And outdoors, spring humbly stood
The silver strings stretched through the palace
Like moonbeams across the sky
The screens like the eyelashes
Enmeshed and hindered the vision
The feet of desire were tempted
By the velvet carpet spread indoors
Where the redolent unguents burned
Perfuming night and day the mind
With a gold thread carpet the ground was covered
From the Earth to the sky it shone
Earth’s surface and the face of the sky
Like the gold and silver foils it made
All white were the doors and roofs
Every arch appeared the morn of hope
Both Earth and sky were made of light
Wherever one turned one’s gaze there was light
All of them stopped in that captivating and blooming expanse to revive their spirits with such pleasant sights. Suddenly, a voice called out, “O SORCERESS, WATCH WHERE YOU TRESPASS. THIS IS ONE OF THE PALACES USED BY THE EMPEROR OF HOSHRUBA FOR HIS EXCURSIONS. YOU MUST RETREAT INTO A NOOK IF YOU WISH TO REST HERE FOR THE NIGHT.”
Mahrukh said to sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt, “God knows what place this is and whose voice warned us. I never saw this palace in all my life. We are lost and must do all in our power to escape.”
Queen Mahrukh and others invoked their magic and rose into the air. They flew left for another twenty miles but no matter which direction they took they saw the same sights and mountains and tulip beds. Before long they had traversed a distance of three days march and yet they found themselves in the same expanse. Finally, they descended and Princess Bahar said to Mahrukh, “God’s will be done. We must spend the night here. In the morning we will find our way out. We should not fear anyone because we are no easy prey.”
While they conversed, a sorcerer appeared and said, “O Princesses, I recognize you and your friends. You are the ones who rebelled against Afrasiyab. But I have no enmity against you. You may rest here for the night and depart in the morning.” Mahrukh asked, “Can we get something to eat?” He answered, “Yes, everything will be provided.” After saying that, he left and returned momentarily with platters of food and wine. A carpet was spread on the floor at Mahrukh and Bahar’s orders and they sat down to eat and drink.
They asked the sorcerer, “What is your name and the name of this place?” He replied, “My name is Guhar Bar the Pearl-Rainer and I live in the environs. This is Mount Quartz – one of the areas where the Emperor of Hoshruba, Afrasiyab, comes for his excursions. For hundreds of miles the area between the regions of Zahir and Batin are similarly adorned. The River of Flowing Blood flows out of a pass in Mount Quartz. Where you have set camp is within the bounds of the Zahir region.”
The sorcerer Guhar Bar stayed with them until it grew late. Then he took his leave and went home and narrated the whole account of Mahrukh’s arrival to his mother, sorceress Sadaf the Oyster. She said to him, “My son, you must not allow them to rest here lest Afrasiyab should hear that we offered refuge to his enemies and makes us the target of his approbation.” Guhar Bar replied, “They will leave on their own accord in the morning. We have no issue with them and there is no witness to report anything to Afrasiyab.” His mother fell silent but later sent a message in secret to Empress Heyrat with a magic slave, containing an entire account of the events that had taken place.
Heyrat came to learn of them and said to her sorceress-aide, Zamarrud, “It appears that sorcerer Baran was killed. But all praise to the glory of Emperor Afrasiyab, we know that Mahrukh and his other enemies are now camped at Mount Quartz. There is nowhere they can run from there.” Both her sorceress-aides, Zamarrud and Yaqut answered, “May the calamities that mark you strike us instead. The Emperor of Hoshruba must have ordered his magic to encircle them.”
Heyrat mounted her magic peacock and departed for Afrasiyab’s court carrying sorceress Sadaf the Oyster’s letter. Upon arrival, she sat beside Afrasiyab and gave him sorceress Sadaf’s message. Afrasiyab read it and said, “I was also informed by the magic slaves that Baran had been killed and the prisoners set free. Now I have learned that they are camped at Mount Quartz. I will have them captured at once.”
140. Kashan: the name of a city in the province of Isfahan, Iran, famed for its velvet.