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.
Afrasiyab recited a spell and struck his hands.A pitch-black, ungainly and ill-fated sorcerer presented himself. Afrasiyab ordered him, saying, “O sorcerer Kamil, the rebels are camped at Mount Quartz. Bring me all of them captive.” The sorcerer departed at Afrasiyab’s orders. Then Afrasiyab said to another sorcerer, “Go and tell the trickster girls to depart for Mount Quartz and safeguard sorcerer Kamil.”
The sorcerer dispatched by Afrasiyab with the message to the trickster girls conveyed the emperor’s orders to them and they left on their mission.
Now Afrasiyab said to Heyrat, “I will hold a fair at the Emerald Well in celebration of the rebels’ capture and destroy all of them. You should return to your camp and await my orders.” The empress departed and arrived at her camp.
Meanwhile, sorcerer Kamil arrived beside Mount Quartz and cried, “Hear O ingrates, there is nowhere you can run now!” He recited a spell on a magic coconut and threw it toward Mahrukh’s camp. It burst and released forty magic slaves. They shouted, “O REBELS, YOUR DEATH BROUGHT YOU HERE!”
Bahar recited a spell and answered, “Who do you call a rebel? We are the believers of Sameri, Zardhasht and Jamshed, and the loyal subjects of Emperor Afrasiyab.” Kamil replied, “You are liars, you ingrates. Were you loyal, this calamity would not have struck you.” With these words, he signalled to the magic slaves, who surrounded Mahrukh and her army.
Sorcerer Kamil then threw a second magic coconut and it caused both Mahrukh and Bahar to sink up to their waists into the ground. They recited counterspells but to no avail. The magic slaves chained all of them with one chain and led them onward.
Sorceress Mehshar Lightning-Bolt and Raad, who had slept by the banks of a spring far from Mahrukh and her companions, escaped being imprisoned. When they woke up and returned to where Mahrukh and others had camped they found no one there. They flew in search of them and saw a sorcerer leading them away as prisoners tied with one chain. Seeing this, Raad sank into the ground and emerged beside sorcerer Kamil, who was taken unawares. When Raad screamed, Kamil fell unconscious from the deafening blast. Immediately, sorceress Mehshar struck from the heavens, cleaving Kamil in two, and sinking into the ground.
A terrible roar arose: “I WAS KILLED, SORCERER KAMIL WAS MY NAME!” All forty magic slaves created by Kamil’s magic were destroyed at his death. The links of the magic chain fell open and all the prisoners were released.
In the meanwhile, the collar of the morning was rent to reveal the world-illuminating sun. Mahrukh and her companions saw the path back to their camp. They headed toward it in a procession but the tricksters separated and took a separate path so that they might help them in time of need.
Sorceress Chashmak Zan Lightning-Bolt
While Mahrukh and her warriors departed for their camp, Afrasiyab’s magic slave girls alerted him that sorcerer Kamil had been killed. He immediately sent for sorceress Chashmak Zan Lightning-Bolt and said to her, “Go and kill every single rebel. Bring me their heads. If you fail or do otherwise, I will punish you severely.” In a raging fury Sorceress Chashmak Zan immediately flew away on her mission.
But the trickster girls, who had departed earlier to safeguard Kamil, arrived there first and saw Mahrukh and her army on the way to their camp. They quickly disguised themselves as the tricksters and mingled among the commanders. While they made small talk with Princess Bahar and others, they kept blowing drug powder into the air. Mahrukh’s commanders inhaled it, sneezed and fell unconscious.
The trickster girls spread out their trickster mantles and tied up as many as they could carry. Then they hid the others in the bushes to come back for them later, and headed toward Heyrat’s court. Sorceress Chashmak Zan arrived there only after they were gone and did not find Mahrukh and her companions. Chashmak Zan’s rage and fury against the rebels only increased. She struck a mountain in anger and burned it to its core.
Now Burq the Frank was in the vicinity of that mountain. He saw a sorceress with gold and silver locks hit a mountain with a lightning bolt. Burq decided to kill her and disguised himself as a sorcerer. He tied idols from elbow to shoulder, hung a sorcerer’s bag around his neck and wrapped a snake made of pasteboard around his waist. In that guise he went before sorceress Chashmak Zan and said, “O Princess, is anything the matter? Why do you show such anger?”
Taking Burq for a sorcerer, Chashmak Zan narrated the whole account to him and said, “I feel totally powerless. I will now return and tell the emperor that Mahrukh and the others escaped. If he orders me, I will capture them from their own camp.” Burq answered, “Indeed, you are as powerful as you describe, but as you have come from afar, do take some rest first. I have some dry fruit that I can offer you should you wish.” The sorceress thought a moment then said, “There’s no harm in that. We are both as one. There are no formalities between sorcerers.” Burq took out drug-laced almonds, raisins and pistachios from his sorcerer’s bag and put them before the sorceress.
When the sorceress looked at the dry fruit with her magic gaze, it informed her that she must not eat them because they were drugged. Upon learning this, she angrily caught Burq in her magic claw and flew away and took him to Afrasiyab in the Apple Garden. Chashmak Zan said, “I could find no other, except this trickster.”
Afrasiyab reckoned that Chashmak Zan considered herself too delicate and precious and therefore did not search for the rebels, since there was no possibility that she had been unable to find them. He knew they were on their way to their camp. How could they have arrived at their camp before Chashmak Zan could reach them? Afrasiyab waxed wroth with her and said, “O whore, I did not order you to bring me one trickster and not search for your tribe. Get out of my sight and take this trickster to Empress Heyrat!”
Chashmak Zan was petrified by Afrasiyab’s censure and took Burq before Heyrat. The empress greeted her, gave her a seat in her court and asked her the reason for her visit. Before Chashmak Zan could answer, a sorcerer presented himself and said, “The trickster girls have arrived carrying bundles.” Heyrat asked her sorceress-aide Zamarrud to go to Sarsar’s pavilion and inquire who they had brought.
Zamarrud went and returned with the news that the trickster girls had captured Mahrukh and her commanders. When sorceress Chashmak Zan heard this she said to Heyrat, “The emperor is angry with me for not arresting the rebels. If you could ask Sarsar to give them into my custody I will take them before the emperor, receive forgiveness and kill all of the rebels in the emperor’s presence.” Heyrat said, “You may take them into your custody. I see no harm in that.”
From there, Chashmak Zan went to Sarsar and said to her, “Give the prisoners into my custody so that I can take them before the Emperor of the Tilism.” Sarsar replied, “You are an example of the crow that eats the fruits of the ringdove’s labors.141 There is no question of your taking the rebels before the emperor. We will take them because we caught them.”
The sorceress was angered by Sarsar’s reply and began cursing and abusing her. Sarsar signalled to Saba Raftar, who hit Chashmak Zan with an egg of oblivion and she crashed unconscious to the ground.
Sarsar bundled her up and took her before Heyrat and stated the facts. Heyrat became furious with Sarsar and said, “How dare you insult a princess of the tilism? Restore her to consciousness this instant!” Sarsar brought Chashmak Zan to consciousness.
The moment Chashmak Zan regained consciousness she shouted, “O Sarsar, I will flash and strike you momentarily and cut you in two.” Heyrat angrily censured, “Yes, kill the trickster girls who risk their lives night and day to protect yours and mine!” Chashmak Zan said, “O Heyrat, ever since you ascended the throne, blinds have fallen over your eyes. You have forgotten your humble days. I have no desire to stay a moment longer in this court.”
Sorceress Chashmak Zan quietly removed her spell from Burq the Frank and said to Sarsar before flying away, “I will report your deed to the emperor. Wait till he hears of it.”
Hearing these words, Sarsar became frightened and fell at Heyrat’s feet to seek her protection. She raised Sarsar and embraced her, saying, “Have no worries. Our heads will fall together.”
Now, Heyrat turned toward Burq the Frank and said to him, “Tell me now, what should be your reward?” Burq felt that his body did not feel oppressed but light and realized he was no longer under the magic spell. He answered, “O Empress, since I was brought here it means a few of you must die.” Heyrat shouted, “What nonsense you do talk, O wretch.” Burq replied, “I speak the very truth. Wherever we tricksters go we are not satisfied until we have plundered many and severed scores of heads.”
A furious Heyrat reached for a magic citron with which to hit Burq but he leapt, whacked Sarsar and ran away. The trickster girl ran in pursuit and immediately a hue and cry rose from the camp.
As Burq ran he kept shouting, “Run my friends, the enemy army has attacked.” Upon hearing that, Heyrat’s whole camp was thrown into turmoil. The sellers began packing their goods. The goldsmiths shouted, “They will have to kill us before they touch our money,” and lay down on top of their gold and coins. The women embraced their men, screaming, “For Lord’s sake, do not step out of the tent.” The men answered, “We will fight if anyone attacks us here. There’s no use going out.” In short, a great commotion held Heyrat’s camp in its grip.
Burq ran into the wilderness where he was finally cornered by Sarsar and they exchanged sword blows. Burq hit Sarsar’s wrist with the flat of his sword so as not to sever her arm. The rings on Sarsar’s fingers fell off from the expert blow. As Sarsar bent down to pick them up, she got entangled in the snare rope that Burq threw. But at that very moment, Heyrat arrived and, seeing Sarsar caught in the snare rope, flashed and swooped down in the form of a magic claw to save the trickster girl. As Heyrat was out of sorts herself, she did not follow Burq as he ran to escape but instead carried away Sarsar across the River of Flowing Blood into the region of Batin.
Burq returned and picked up Sarsar’s rings. He disguised himself as a sorcerer and followed Heyrat across the river. When he arrived at the Bridge of Magic Fairies, the path opened up because of Sarsar’s special ring but a guardian of the river ran after Burq shouting, “O TRICKSTER, HAND ME THE RING THE EMPEROR HAS GIVEN SARSAR OR I WILL SURELY KILL YOU.” Burq took off the ring whose jewel was engraved with Afrasiyab’s name and threw it away. But when he took a step forward flames began rising from the river, horrible noises filled the air, and he found his path blocked. Helpless, Burq turned back. He decided that he should help secure the release of his commanders now as he had already heard that Sarsar had brought them captive to Heyrat’s camp.
Burq changed his disguise to Sarsar’s and entered the trickster girls’ pavilion where Saba Raftar sat guarding the bundles made of Mahrukh and her commanders. Saba Raftar witnessed the false Sarsar enter, panting and sweating in a state of great disarray. Her short sword was badly serrated from combat and the bosses on the shield were broken. Seeing her in that condition, Saba Raftar asked, “What happened to you?” The false Sarsar answered, “Did you not hear? I had a fierce sword combat with Burq. Give me the bundles now so that I can take them before Heyrat.” With these words, the false Sarsar quickly moved to open the bundles and gave restoratives to Mahrukh, Bahar and others.
When Saba Raftar saw the sorceresses regain consciousness she ran to escape. Mahrukh and a handful of her sorcerers attacked Heyrat’s camp with magic citrons and magic limes. In the meanwhile, those of Mahrukh’s companions whom the trickster girls had left lying unconscious, regained their senses and arrived in the vicinity as well. Seeing Mahrukh and her companions battling Heyrat’s camp, they too charged, wielding their tridents, pentadents and magic devices. Heyrat’s camp had already been unnerved by Burq’s false rumors earlier. Now, when they found the battle upon them, they fled in utter panic. But the courageous ones among Heyrat’s warriors, and Afrasiyab’s illustrious sorcerers, fought back bravely.
In fierce skirmishes, swords flashed like lightning. A river of blood flowed in which torsos writhed and heads floated away like bubbles. A rain of fire fell. The magic spirits screeched. Raad Thunder-Clap rose from the earth to shatter the enemy warriors’ skulls with his screams. Mehshar Lightning-Bolt flashed and struck, wreaking havoc. A great calamity unfurled itself in Heyrat’s camp as noisily as doomsday. The fire of sword blows scorched alive both young and old. In the pitched battle, all distinctions were erased.
On their steeds the fierce lions of battle emerged
Holding aloft their victory-incarnate standards
From the tolling of bells and the beating of drums
The breath was knotted in the world’s breast
Like the wind stirs the water surface
The hatred of the foe stirred the warriors’ ranks
Like screaming thunder, the relentless army
Killed the foe with its lightning blades
Finished with the carnage in the arena
The braves looted and pillaged the foe
The champions trussed up the booty
And with gold and silver rich became
Mahrukh’s remaining army, which lay dispersed in the mountain passes and hills, also joined the fight when the commotion of battle reached their ears.
Finally, Heyrat’s camp was defeated and they started to retreat. Mahrukh and her army took possession of the tents and pavilions they had lost in the earlier fight with sorcerer Baran the Rain-Master, and which were now in Heyrat’s possession. Afterwards, they returned to their campsite. The queen’s lofty pavilion rose as of old, the bazaar was established, shops opened up, the vigils made their rounds and the administrators of the camp took charge.
Mahrukh’s noble commanders entered her pavilion. The queen ascended her throne with great majesty and glory. The court had returned to its usual bustle and revels were planned. Fairy-faced dancers presented themselves and began performing. Houri-cheeked cupbearers carrying cups of rose wine circulated among the drinkers to regale and intoxicate them. The tricksters presented themselves and received robes of honor from Queen Mahrukh. Then everyone raised their hands and prayed for Amar Ayyar’s release from the clutches of sorceress Khumar.
At that moment, Burq said, “I wished to go across the Bridge of Magic Fairies but I returned to help secure your release. Now I shall resume my mission to secure Amar’s.” Saying that, Burq departed and the other tricksters also left.
Once Empress Heyrat arrived in Batin carrying Sarsar she stopped and said to the trickster girl, “O Sarsar, I was so bewildered that instead of taking Burq captive I brought you here. Now I am headed for the emperor’s court to forestall sorceress Chashmak Zan from igniting his anger after the altercation with you. You should return to the camp.”
Sarsar did as she was ordered and Heyrat headed for the Apple Garden.
When the empress arrived, she looked around for Chashmak Zan Lightning-Bolt but did not find her there and reckoned that she must have returned to her land. Heyrat then narrated the entire account of Sarsar and Chashmak Zan’s dispute to Afrasiyab.
The emperor said, “I already knew all the details of this incident by magic. O Heyrat, infighting is the first sign of the downfall of an empire. It happens when reason becomes corrupted. What harm was there if Sarsar had given over the captives to Chashmak Zan when she asked for them? How would you like to hear that once you arrived here Burq the Frank restored the sorcerers of his camp to consciousness? Those rebels plundered your camp and now sit in great comfort as they did in theirs before. Not only did we lose our captives, we also have an irate Chashmak Zan on our hands, and the dead to mourn in your camp. All this happened because our dear Sarsar decided to show off her influence and authority. But why did you, being the administrator, allow it to happen and let a trickster girl persuade you against our greater interests? If our subjects were loyal to us they would have realized it was the same whether they or someone else conducted the captives to the court. The purpose of the whole exercise is to kill the enemy by any means possible, but nobody among you cares about that. Return now to your camp and gather together the dispersed army. I await sorceresses Khumar and Makhmur, who have gone to arrest Amar. Once they return with Amar I will send for the devil designate of Lord Laqa’s court to kill him because Amar is the hardiest, most recalcitrant rebel of the entire lot. Then I will take care of the others too.”
Heyrat was greatly embarrassed by Afrasiyab’s censure. Hearing of the destruction of her camp, she hurriedly returned and reassembled the dispersed army.
Heyrat’s pavilion was established on the same scale as before. The bazaars opened up and, to hide away the shame of her defeat, the empress ordered a musical assembly at her court. A dance recital began in her camp too.
Now hear of Sarsar. She knew that since Burq the Frank had been released, he would have freed his companions. She crossed the river engrossed in thoughts of returning to Mahrukh’s camp to perform some trickery. She made herself up in Amar’s likeness and carried on toward Mahrukh’s camp. But before she had gone far, she ran into a group of sorcerers. Seeing her in disguise, they reckoned that it must be one of the enemy tricksters and caught her by magic after reciting a spell. Sarsar protested that she was the trickster girl Sarsar and a servant of the Emperor of the Tilism but they did not believe her; one of them took her aside to behead her.
Burq the Frank, who had departed in search of Amar, happened upon that place and saw the sorcerer about to kill a trickster. When he approached he saw Amar’s face but upon looking closely he recognized Sarsar.
Burq said to himself, I should help her get released. She is, after all, my master’s beloved. He quickly disguised himself as a sorcerer and called out to the one holding Sarsar, “Well done, my friend! You performed a great deed by catching this sly thief. Quickly cut off his head.” Sarsar looked around perplexed to see which new enemy had arrived on the scene.
Burq approached and said to the sorcerer, “I will cut him into pieces and eat his flesh. He has killed thousands of sorcerers. To kill him and make a magic spirit of such a one would be wonderfully useful.”
As Burq came closer, he said softly to Sarsar, “My lady, if you wish I can save you. I am Burq the Frank.” Sarsar answered, “Who do you call your lady, O wretch? And what great favor do you wish to do me? I just have to utter the words, ‘He is a trickster like me,’ and you will instantly be killed too.”
Burq was unnerved when he heard this and cursed Sarsar for her ingratitude and threats. But since she was Amar’s beloved he felt duty bound to secure her release. He approached the sorcerer and engaged him in conversation. Then, finding an opportunity, he hit him in the face with an egg of oblivion and cut off his head. Immediately, a great noise rose as his magic spirits cried out and proclaimed his death.
Sarsar was released and ran to escape. Burq called out, “Either have your forehead engraved or your nose tip cut off so that people can differentiate between tricksters and trickster girls.” Sarsar answered, “O wretch deserving of beheading, you also dare to make fun of me. It is your ill fate that makes you say that.”
Burq said, “My lady, do not be angry now, and forgive me. But do tell me who captured and took away my master.” Sarsar answered, “It was sorceress Khumar who captured Amar and took him to the region of Batin. For Amar to be released from there is all but impossible.”
Burq answered, “God the True Master is all powerful.”
With these words the trickster girl Sarsar and the trickster Burq the Frank parted and went their separate ways.
End of Book 1
141. According to a folk belief, the crow eats the ringdove’s eggs and replaces them with its own for the ringdove to hatch them.