Indian Rope Trick
A legendary illusion said to have been witnessed by travelers
in India and other Oriental countries. As classically described,
the demonstration starts with the magician throwing a rope
high into the air. The rope stays vertical and a boy assistant of
the magician climbs up the rope and disappears from sight.
The magician calls to the boy in apparent anger, demanding
his return, then puts a sharp knife in his teeth and also climbs
the rope and disappears high into the air. There is then the
sound of a fierce quarrel; the dismembered limbs of the boy,
followed by his bleeding trunk and head, are thrown down to
the ground. The magician comes down the rope, kicks the
limbs, throws a cloth over them or puts them in a basket, and
in a moment the boy reappears whole, none the worse for the
experience.
Travelers’ tales often included the detail that a photographer
took a picture, which proved blank on developing the
negative, or alternatively showed only the magician sitting on
the ground without a rope, suggesting that the whole exhibition
was a collective hallucination induced by the magician.
An early account of the illusion is that of the great Moslem
traveler Ibn Batuta (1304–1378), who claimed to witness it in
Hang-chow, China. Two centuries later a wandering juggler
demonstrated a version of the trick in Germany. Pu Sing Ling,
a seventeenth-century Chinese author, wrote that he saw the
trick at Delhi, India, in 1630, but it was performed using a 75-
foot chain instead of a rope. Edward Melton, a British sailor,
saw the trick performed at Batavia by Chinese conjurers about
1670. Since then there have been several reports and numerous
rumors of the trick by British travelers and residents in
India, continuing until modern times. The British newspaper
the Daily Mail carried several firsthand accounts of different
versions of the trick (beginning on January 8, 1919) and even
ran a photograph.
The various reports by people who have actually witnessed
the trick suggest that it is an illusion accomplished by a combination
of concealed wires, special lighting assisted by a sun low
in the sky at the end of the day, and a dissected monkey whose
parts can be thrown from the air. Given modern devices there
are other methods that could be used to assist in the illusion.
One version of the trick was demonstrated in India by the
American illusionist John Keel, who used carefully suspended
wires invisible to the spectators, over which a rope was thrown
and secured by a hook. Keel claimed that he learned the trick
from an Indian holy man who was no longer interested in illusions.
However, there are still some feats of Indian fakirs that have
not been explained by simple illusion. These include various
acts of levitation done in the round, with prying eyes at every
angle. Some have suggested that such events argue for the existence
of a rare but genuinely occult power.
According to traditional Hindu yoga teachings, levitation
and other supernormal powers are possible at a certain stage
of yogic development. The material world itself is regarded as
maya (illusion), an inferior reality that may be transcended by
advanced yogis. The great Hindu religious teacher Shankaracharya
(b. eighth century C.E.) cites the classic form of the Indian
rope trick in his commentary on the scripture Mandukya
Upanishad, using this as an example of the illusory nature of
empirical reality. He points out that although the spectators
appear to witness the marvels of the trick, in reality the magician
is simply seated on the ground veiled by his own magic.
This discussion suggests that Shankaracharya had seen the
trick performed and that he thought it to be achieved by the
magician’s transcending empirical reality and communicating
an illusory demonstration to the spectators. In modern terms
Shankaracharya is suggesting that what today would be thought
of as a collective hallucination achieved by the supernormal
powers of an occultist.
Sources
Gould, Rupert T. The Stargazer Talks. Reprinted as More
Oddities and Enigmas. New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books,
1973.
Keel, John A. Jadoo. London, 1958.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit Gale Research,
1993.