The Magical Tale of Hoshruba, a Dastangoi Classic

By Musharraf Ali Farooqi

The tales of the mythical adventurer-warrior Amir Hamza, based on Prophet Muhammad's uncle of the same name, have been narrated in the Islamic world since the seventh century CE. The tales gained popularity in India in the sixteenth century under the patronage of Mughal Emperor Akbar who took an active interest in the legend. From that time onward, the legend of Amir Hamza took root in India and evolved in the particular oral narrative dastan genre developed by the Indo-Islamic culture.

Amir Hamza's adventures take him to all corners of the world, and to the mythical land of Qaf populated by jinns (genies) and devs (demons). Sometime in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, a group of Indian dastan narrators began reworking Amir Hamza's legend. In building the tale of Hoshruba, the first and the longest magical fantasy epic, the dastans used some familiar figures from Amir Hamza’s legend, but gave them more fantastic shapes and characteristics. As the story developed, the fantasy elements completely took over. In the new version by the storytellers, Amir Hamza's adventures brought to Hoshruba a magical world or "tilism".

The tilism of Hoshruba was conjured by sorcerers in defiance of God and the laws of the physical world. The dastans created dazzling illusions in Hoshruba, transferred spirits between bodies, transmuted matter, while configuring and exploiting earthly and cosmic forces to create extraordinary marvels. However, being a creation of magic, Hoshruba is not a permanent world. At the moment of its creation a person was named who would unravel this magical world at an appointed time using the tilism key.

With the passage of time, the story goes, the whereabouts of the tilism key were forgotten, and the usurper Afrasiyab became the Master of the Tilism and Emperor of Sorcerers. Afrasiyab and his sorceress Empress Heyrat ruled over Hoshruba’sthree regions named Zahir the Manifest, Batin the Hidden, and Zulmat the Dark, which contained countless dominions and smaller tilisms governed by sorcerer kings and sorceress queens, and where the dreaded Seven Monsters of the Grotto lurked.

Emperor Afrasiyab was among the seven immortal sorcerers of Hoshruba who could not be killed while their counterparts lived. His fortune came to reveal itself on the palms of his hands. His left hand warned him of inauspicious moments and the right hand revealed auspicious ones. Whenever anyone called out his name in the tilism, Afrasiyab magic alerted him to the call. He possessed the Book of Sameri that contained an account of every event inside and outside the tilism. Afrasiyab had a magic mirror which projected his body into his court during his absence, and many magic doubles who replaced him when he was in imminent danger. Besides sorcerers and sorceresses, the emperor also commanded magic slaves and magic slave girls who fought at his command and performed any and all tasks assigned them.

As Hoshruba’slife neared its end, Emperor Afrasiyab resolved to defend his empire and tilism, and foil the conqueror of the tilism when he appeared. The story of Hoshruba opens where the false god Laqa—an eighty-five-foot-tall, pitch-black giant – and one of Amir Hamza’s foremost enemies – is in flight after suffering a fresh defeat at Amir Hamza’s hands. He and his supporters arrive near Hoshruba and solicit the aid of the Emperor of Sorcerers.

Before long, Amir Hamza’s armies pursuing Laqa find themselves at war with Afrasiyab and his army of sorcerers. When hostilities break out Amir Hamza’s grandson, Prince Asad, is the designated conqueror of the tilism of Hoshruba.

Prince Asad sets out at the head of a magnificent army to conquer Hoshruba. With him are five matchless tricksters headed by the prince of tricksters, the incomparable Amar Ayyar, whose native wit, and wondrous talents are a match for the most powerful sorcerer’s spells.

Upon learning of Prince Asad’s entry into the tilism with his army, Afrasiyab dispatches a number of sorcerers and five beautiful trickster girls to foil his mission. When the trickster girls kidnap the prince, Amar Ayyar and his band of misfits continue the mission of the conqueror of the tilism with the help of a powerful sorceress of the tilism.

The tale of Hoshrubawas published in Urdu between 1883-1893 in a voluminous compilation spread over eight thousand pages by two of Urdu’s greatest prose writers, Muhammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar. The first translation into English has been recently completed in a projected 24-volume series by the author, novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi who also translated The Adventure of Amir Hamza. The first book of the Hoshruba series, Hoshruba: The Land and the Tilism, has been recently released by Random House India.