The December issue of Out of Print features an excerpt from the Tilism-e-Hoshruba translated and retold by Shanhnaz Aijazuddin. The origins of the tale are story in themselves, and we are pleased to feature a piece by Shahnaz contextualising Hoshruba here on the Out of Print blog:
Tilism-e-Hoshruba – A Summary
Outlines of Hamza Nama
The Dastan of Tilism-e-Hoshruba is the continuation of the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, the adventures of the legendary hero Amir Hamza. Although the Tilism is a narrative complete in itself, it helps to be familiar with the outlines of the earlier Hamza story to which there are frequent references in the text of the Tilism.
According to the Hamza Nama, the legendary Persian monarch Nausherwan had a troubling dream. He consulted his gifted astrologer Vizier Buzurchmeher, who interpreted the dream as indicating that Nausherwan would lose his kingdom to a rival for several years, and that it would be restored to him by a young Arab to be born in Mecca at the auspicious moment of the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. That child was to be Amir Hamza, which is why Hamza was later known as Sahib-qiran or Lord of the Conjunction.
Nausherwan sends his vizier Buzurchmeher to Mecca (then part of the Persian empire) to identify the baby and to ensure that he is reared as a ward of the Persian court. Hamza’s father is identified in the narrative as Abu Muttalib, the leader of the Hashemite clan. The choice of the name Abul Muttalib who was the grandfather of the Holy Prophet Muhammad was not accidental, for it used him – a real figure – as a corner-stone character into an essentially fictional text.
Hamza grows up to become a warrior of formidable strength and intelligence. Hamza, being blessed, receives gifts that have supernatural powers. He is also given the Great Name (legendary unknown name of God) that prevails over all forms of magic. His childhood friends - the wily trickster Amar and the loyal archer Muqbil - are also blessed with divine gifts and remain his companions during his numerous adventures.
In time, Nausherwan uses Hamza to fight on his behalf, but in his heart he fears him. His Vizier Bakhtak fuels Nausherwan’s insecurities and plots against Hamza. Amar shields Hamza against Bakhtak’s fiendish schemes. Hamza and the beautiful Meher Nigar, daughter to Nausherwan, fall in love and Nausherwan reluctantly consents to the marriage. Just before the wedding Hamza is wounded in battle and rescued by Jinni-king Shahpal’s vizier.
In return for the kindness Hamza promises the Jinni king that he will vanquish the defiant devs who have taken over his kingdom. Hamza is trapped in Koh Kaf (land of Jinni and fairies) for 18 years due to the machinations of the Jinni king’s daughter Aasman Pari who is besotted with him. Eventually, Hamza returns to Persia and marries his beloved Meher Nigar who has loyally waited for him.
The last part of Hamza’s story involves his return to Mecca. Here, the fictional Hamza becomes the real Hamza bin Abu Muttalib, who defends his nephew the Holy Prophet Muhammad against the Kaffirs of Mecca and is subsequently martyred at the Battle of Uhud.
Amir Hamza re-appears as a hero in the Tilism-e-Hoshruba. The literal meaning of the word Tilism is enchantment. Hoshruba is an empire of enchantments that contains many other magic-bound realms within it. The Tilisms are deemed to have been created by an ancient pantheon of gods such as Samri, Jamshed, Laat and Manaat who have been long dead but whose magic remains alive through their creations. The realm of Hoshruba itself consists of the Visible and the Invisible Tilisms (divided by the River of Blood) and a mysterious place of the darkest magic best described as the Veil of Darkness. These Tilisms are populated by wizards and witches whose names reflect the kind of magic they practice. Witches are as powerful as wizards; they rule kingdoms; they lead armies, and they are given equal importance in the narrative. .
Tilism-e-Hoshruba recounts the adventures of Amir Hamza and his sons and grandsons - all of them (like their illustrious forebear) brave, chivalrous and stunningly handsome.
The Tilism-dastans usually involve a quest for the Lauh-e-Tilism - the magic tablet or keystone that is closely guarded by the ruler of the Tilism. The keystone is so designed that only the person destined to vanquish the Tilism, known as the Tilism Kusha, is able to reach it. The keystone requires some sort of sacrifice, usually of blood before it reveals its secrets to the Tilism Kusha and guides him.
The story begins with Hamza as the commander-in chief of the Islamic army defeating a Persian ruler Laqa, who has been making false claims to divinity. Amir Hamza chases him out of the Tilism of a Thousand Faces into Kohistan. Laqa takes refuge in Kohistan because it shares a border with the Tilism-e-Hoshruba. The ruler of Hoshruba Afrasiab is the formidable King of Wizards who reveres Laqa and deputes his wizards to help Laqa fight Hamza.
Laqa’s allies include the sons of Naushervan, Hamza’s old patron and adversary from the days of the Dastan-e-Hamza. Laqa’a vizier is Bakhtiarak son of Bakhtak, the vizier who had schemed against Hamza and Amar in the earlier legends.
Hamza’s childhood companion Amar has a pivotal role in the later narrative. Because of his talent for disguises and trickery, Amar is known as king of Ayyari or tricksters. (Ayyari or the art of trickery is a profession with its own costumes, codes and sign language.) He has an army of over a hundred thousand other tricksters who acknowledge him as their leader and teacher. Amar uses divine gifts such as the cloak of invisibility and the magic pouch that contains many worlds to succeed in his tricks.
Hamza’s astrologers are the sons of the great Buzurchmeher, vizier to Nausherwan. At his behest, they cast an astrological chart and inform him that his grandson Asad is the Tilism Kusha of Hoshruba. Hamza sends Asad to invade Hoshruba with a large army. Amar and four other tricksters accompany this army. The invaders are beset by magical snares and enchantments at every step, but due to their superior moral authority and physical prowess, they manage to overcome all these hurdles.
Afrasiab, both the King of all Wizards and the emperor of Hoshruba, sends his lesser functionaries to combat Asad and the five tricksters. Afrasiab’s concern is accentuated when his own niece Mahjabeen falls in love with Asad and elopes with him. His consternation is absolute when Mahjabeen’s grandmother – the powerful sorceress Mahrukh – also defects to Asad’s side. Many powerful wizards of Afrasiab’s camp, disgruntled with their own ruler, join the Tilism Kusha Asad and Mahrukh. At this, Afrasiab sends his own wife Hairat along with his best people to confront the rebels, confident that they will be disposed of easily. Despite that, Afrasiab suffers defeats and humiliations at every turn. Eventually he conjures the deepest and darkest magic at his command but is consistently foiled by the cunning ploys used by Asad’s five tricksters.
Afrasiab however manages to capture Asad and Mahjabeen but finds that he cannot execute Asad as that would go against the constitution of the Tilism written by its ancient creators.
Despite the absence of their leader Asad, the rebels gain increasing strength, culminating in their securing the alliance of Kaukab, the powerful ruler of a neighbouring Tilism.
Once Asad is released, the rebels along with their allies help him in the quest for the Loah or keystone. Afrasiab, now desperate, turns to the ancient wizards surviving from the time the Tilism was created.
Eventually after fourteen years of conflict, the Tilism Kusha Asad kills Afrasiab. The land of enchantments is finally rid of all magical illusions. Hamza restores the throne to the former ruler of Hoshruba who had been deposed by Afrasiab and imprisoned by him. The living god Laqa escapes and is rescued and given refuge by another powerful wizard.
The History Of The Tilism
As the Tilism contains so many characters from the original Dastan of Hamza, it has a strong Persian and Arabian flavour. The Tilism dastans evolved in the days of the later Mughals when the kingdom of Awadh was in a decline. Although many of the idioms, language and culture are recognizably derived from courtly life at Lucknow, the Tilism belongs to a time and a space that is all its own. There are few oblique references to the 1857 War of Independence/Mutiny and the presence of the British. However, there is no direct mention of any specific places or towns, as we know them.
The seven daftars or volumes of Tilism-e-Hoshruba form one continuous narrative of prose, interspersed with poetry. Dastan narration was an intrinsic part of the court ritual. It enjoyed a common appeal that encouraged the narrators to tailor their stories to suit their audience.
In the late nineteenth century, the Naval Kishore Press in Lucknow commissioned dastan- narrators or known as dastan-gohs to compile the primarily oral tradition into written form. These were first published between 1883 and 1905.
My interest in the Tilism began as a child when I came across an abridged edition which I read with an almost insatiable appetite. It was written in highly Persianised Urdu but despite its archaic style the beauty and richness of the language and the sheer magic of the story has captivated me over the years. I realised though that for the Tilism to be appreciated by others, it needed to be translated into English while at the same time, its inordinate length – padded by lengthy often gratuitous passages of purple prose and poetry – had to be edited and re-interpreted into a readily intelligible idiom while retaining the flavour of the original.