The Land and Tilism of Hoshruba

In the 11 century CE collection Kathasaritsagara is recounted how King Patruka with a miraculous staff—which he had stolen—sketched out on the ground the outlines a city for his beloved Princess Patali. The staff had the power to materialize anything written with it. Once drawn out with the staff, a whole city, together with its citizens, and furnished with an army of infantry, cavalry, archers and elephants, sprang up by magic. Named after a beloved and raised on occult foundations, Pataliputra was likely the first magical kingdom conceived of in literature. It was an instance of magical foundations supporting a geographical world: Pataliputra was the historic name of the city today known as Patna.

Some seven centuries later there arose in literature a far more resplendent kingdom named Hoshruba. Draped in layers of enchanted architecture, it was a tilism or magical world, created by a group of sorcerers.

We encounter this world in the world’s first magical fantasy epic Tilism-e Hoshruba (1883-1893). Written in Urdu and spanning over 8000 pages it was composed from its various oral traditions by two Indian storytellers, Muahammad Husain Jah and Ahmed Husain Qamar in Lucknow, India. It was a part of the 46-volume Dastan-e Amir Hamza cycle, its fifth book.

A glimpse into Hoshruba’s magical underpinnings reveal that inanimate matter infused with planetary and cosmic forces was employed to raise its edifice. Powers that defied the laws of God and the physical world could be exercised within its precincts. It housed beautiful and grotesque illusions and exhibited extraordinary marvels, which were produced by configuring and exploiting the planet’s inherent physical forces.

Hoshruba’s three regions: Zahir the Manifest, Batin the Hidden, and Zulmat the Dark were also tilisms, and contained countless dominions and smaller tilisms filled with thousands of buildings, enclosures, and palaces; and governed by sorcerer princes and sorceress princesses.

Ordinary citizens of Hoshruba lived in the region of Zahir the Manifest. The royalty and the nobility made their abode in Batin the Hidden. Zulmat the Dark inhabited by powerful sorceresses was a secluded region of Hoshruba to which few had access.

An enchanted river called the River of Flowing Blood divided the regions of Zahir and Batin. A bridge made of smoke and guarded by two smoke lions which was called the Bridge of the Magic Fairies stretched over it. From this bridge a three-tiered tower rose to the skies. On the lowest tier of this tower, magic fairies stood alert, holding trumpets and clarions to their lips. From the second tier, another group of magic fairies constantly tossed pearls into the river to the fish that swam there, carrying them in their mouths. On the topmost tier, gigantic Abyssinians arrayed in double rows skirmished together with swords. The blood that flowed from their wounds poured into the water below, and gave the River of Flowing Blood its name.

There was no dominion that could equal Hoshruba’s grandeur and majesty, nor anyone who could match the splendor and stateliness of the Master of Hoshruba, Afrasiyab, the Emperor of Sorcerers, who ruled over the tilism with the Sorceress Empress Heyrat.

Afrasiyab moved freely between the three regions of Hoshruba. Whenever anyone called out his name in the tilism, Afrasiyab’s magic alerted him to the call. He possessed the Book of Sameri, which contained an account of every event inside and outside the tilism. And he had a magic mirror that projected his body into his court during his absence.

But the many layers of Hoshruba, its seemingly endless space, and the marvelous powers of its master, were all enclosed in finitude. No tilism can be created without a key inscribed with the directions for its unraveling and the name of the one who would destroy it, and Hoshruba was no exception. Like human life, the tilism was a formula set to finite existence.

Tilism-e Hoshruba makes it abundantly clear that nothing a mortal creates could dare compete with the Creator’s work or have any attributes of eternal existence. As with the man so with his work: both must disintegrate at the end of their term.

Over the years, the whereabouts of Hoshruba’s key were forgotten. The thought that the illusion would one day disappear itself became inconceivable. Afrasiyab, a usurper who had deposed Hoshruba’s legitimate ruler Lachin, now endeavored to perpetuate his empire and the tilism by foiling the tilism’s destroyer when he appeared.

But Hoshruba is in turmoil even as the story opens. And as the narrative proceeds, cycles of warfare wash away the defenses of Hoshruba. The narrative of rivalries, betrayals and love undermine the tilism and its ruler’s hold as the destroyer of the tilism enters Hoshruba in search of the magical key.

Hoshruba is a wholly fictional entity and its furniture is entirely made up of the fabric of imagination. But within this magical world the conventions of social code, from the idiom, food, dress and etiquette, to the poetic metaphors employed in describing its exaggerated beauty, down to the social prejudices and the definition of gender roles, are all borrowed from nineteenth century India.

If magical foundations supported a geographical world in the case of Pataliputra, Hoshruba was the example of a cultural world enclosed within a magical universe. Despite the finitude of the tilism itself, the Tilism-e Hoshruba is considered a living repository of the nineteenth century Indo-Islamic culture.