This is a continuing post based on an earlier post I did about a fabulous and magical fantasy epic, Hoshruba, The Land and the Tilism, created by a collective of storytellers in Lucknow, India in the 19th century (and translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi). The goal of this epic was to create the false impression that it was part of a much older Persian epic, The Adventures of Amir Hamza -- a classic tale in the storyteller's repertoire -- but limiting because the Persians did not make sufficient use of all the fantastic elements available in Indian culture.
These storytellers were brilliant in ever so artfully combining the two epics in such a way as to obscure the scar of the grafting of one tale onto the other. And they accomplished this by using a "tilism." A tilism is a magically created illusion that appears as an object to serve the needs of a magician: for example, one tilism creates the illusion of a bird on a tree though its true function is a listening device for the magician. The tilisms traditionally are small objects -- and only the hero is able to penetrate the illusion of the tilism and thereby destroy it.
But the Lucknow storytellers took the tilism to a new level. The Adventures of Amir Hamza end with the triumph of Amir Hamza over his arch nemesis, the giant Laqa. When Lucknow storyteller Mir Ahmed Ali conceived of the idea of expropriating the Persian epic as the base of the Indian tale, he did so by creating a tilism that was not an object, but an entire world -- inhabited by smaller worlds that were also tilisms, all populated by sorcerers, fairies, giants, and fantastic animals. Laqa escapes into the tilism Hoshruba (ruled over by a single very powerful sorcerer) and Amir Hamza enters the tilism to give chase and conquer the tilism.
Almost immediately, Amir Hamza is out numbered and when his son is abducted, he must send his grandson Asad, aided by five tricksters and several armies to rescue the Prince. And even then, Asad is quickly separated from his armies and the tricksters, falls in love and elopes with the beautiful daughter of a sorceress he encounters in a fantastic garden, and finds himself on the run with his new love.
Leaving most wonderfully, the entire thrust of the heroic plot to the tricksters! Tricksters who possess all the occult knowledge of Indian magic, the necessarily bawdiness and cunning for exciting adventures, and a score of tricks up their sleeves. They are capable of all manner of physical transformations -- from male to female (where they are quite comfortable and adept as females, not merely males in drag), devious plots against hosts of seemingly unbeatable armies of sorcerers, able to dupe, kill, ravish, and seduce hardcore villains away from their wicked allegiances. The leader of the tricksters, Amar has a "zambil," a magical pouch in which he stores untold treasures, princesses and princes, gold coins, delectable food, capes of invisibility -- you name it. And in true trickster fashion, he is happiest when stuff goes into the zambil (almost like a portable stomach!) and very cantankerous when forced to disgorge anything from it.
The creation of the tilism with its multiple worlds embedded in a large mysterious world of infinite possibilities is governed by dark powers, lusty sorceresses and sorcerers (honestly, there is quite a bit of trying to take home disguised tricksters and "ravish them in the bedroom"), and jinns, fairies, and giants all living in fantastic environments. Hoshruba means "hosh=senses," ruba="ravishing, stealing" and it more than lives up to its name in the spectacular and sensual descriptions of the different worlds.
Here is an excellent article on the Symbolic Aspects of the Tilism by Suhail Amad Khan which gives a detailed explanation of the wide and varied use of the tilism in dastan storytelling genre in India. And you can find out more information on the Urdu project and the Hoshruba, and read an excerpt here. And you can find more of the beautiful art (as in the last image) from the 16th century illustrations of The Adventures of Amir Hamza on the Freer and Sackler Galleries exhibitions online. The image of the little Peri (female Persian fairy) was painted by F. Wolff.