Indian Rope Trick
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.
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.