Oral tales had been told in India for thousands of years. Ultimately, every story tells of some event, but what storytellers choose to tell of the event and how they approach it is determined by the genre in which it is told. The Adventures of Amir Hamza was told in India in the dastan genre, which is of Persian origin. However, over hundreds of years, a distinctive Indo-Islamic dastan emerged in India that was informed by the cultural universe in which it developed.
In the nineteenth century, three hundred years after The Adventures of Amir Hamza found a foothold in the Mughal Empire, it was narrated in the Urdu language in two different dastan traditions. The first was a short legend, which recounted all the events preceding Amir Hamza’s birth: the adventures that made him a hero, the details of his eighteen-year-long stay in the mythical land of Mount Qaf, and the events that followed his return to Earth, and his martyrdom.
The second dastan tradition was much longer, loosely arranged and of a more complex nature. It not only included Amir Hamza’s adventures but also the exploits of his sons and grandsons. The martyrdom was postponed. Through telling and retelling, the storytellers enlarged the existing episodes and continuously added new details and adventures.
Meanwhile, a group of Lucknow storytellers had become disenchanted with the Amir Hamza legend and its regular fare of jinns (genies), giants, devs (demons), peris (fairies), and gao-sars (cow-headed creatures). Most of these elements were borrowed from Arabian and Persian folklore. The few token man-eaters and sorcerers thrown into the mix were found to be rather boring.
These storytellers strongly felt that the Amir Hamza story needed an injection of local talent – magic fauna and evil spirits, black magic, white magic, alpha sorcerers and sorceresses. All of them were in plentiful supply in India and would give the story the much needed boost. Moreover, some of these sorcerers had to be True Believers. Islamic history was chock-full of all kinds of occult arts and artists. A thousand camel loads of treatises had been written on the occult arts in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. Many renowned sorcerers were household names. It would be a shame to let that occult heritage go to waste.
But the storytellers were clear about one thing. The course had to be changed without rocking the boat. The proposed story had to remain a tale related to The Adventures of Amir Hamza – the brand that was their bread and butter. As long as the audience understood that the tale was a part of that famous cycle of tales, the storyteller would not lack an audience.
The godfather of this group of conspirators – and the likely mastermind of the planned hoax – was a Lucknow master storyteller, Mir Ahmed Ali. He sat down to prepare a fantasy tale that would have all of these ingredients, and more.
In the longer Amir Hamza cycle, every adventure began with a token mischief monger starting trouble in some place. Amir Hamza took it upon himself to fix it, and when he was finished, the mischief monger escaped elsewhere to create trouble anew. When one villain was defeated, another took his place. Amir Hamza dutifully followed and carried forward the storytellers’ oral franchise. The audience only needed the most basic information about Amir Hamza, his companions and the past events to enjoy a new episode.
Mir Ahmed Ali was well acquainted with this structure and decided to exploit it. When he looked around for a mischief monger to start his tale, his eyes fell upon one of Amir Hamza’s more celebrated enemies, Zamarrud Shah Bakhtari, alias Laqa. In fact, it would have been difficult to miss Laqa. He was a giant.