Indian rope trick
The Indian rope trick is stage magic said to have been performed in and around India during the 19th century. Sometimes described as "the world’s greatest illusion", it reputedly involved a magician, a length of rope, and one or more boy assistants.
In the 1990s the trick was said by some western magicians to be a hoax perpetrated in 1890 by John Wilkie of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. It was claimed there were no known references to the trick predating 1890, and later stage magic performances of the trick were inspired by Wilkie's account. But this claim redefines what the Indian rope trick is. For many decades, previous commentators had accepted that accounts from the 9th century (by Adi Shankara), the 14th century (Ibn Battuta), and the 17th century (Mughal Emperor Jahangir), were versions of the trick, but this was now being denied. See explanation below.
Although diverse accounts of the trick have appeared in print it remains essentially the same. There are three basic variants, which differ in the degree of theatricality displayed by the magician and his helper:
- In the simplest version, a long piece of rope would be left in a basket and placed in an open field, usually by a fakir. The rope would levitate, with no external support. His boy assistant, a jamoora, would climb the rope and then descend.
- A more elaborate version would find the magician (or his assistant) disappearing after reaching the top of the rope, then reappearing at ground level.
- The "classic" version, however, was much more detailed: the rope would seem to rise high into the skies, disappearing from view. The boy would climb the rope and be lost to view. The magician would call back his boy assistant, and, on getting no response, become furious. The magician would then arm himself with a knife or sword, climb the rope, and vanish as well. An argument would be heard, and then limbs would start falling, presumably cut from the assistant by the magician. When all the parts of the body, including the torso, landed on the ground, the magician would climb down the rope. He would collect the limbs and put them in a basket, or collect the limbs in one place and cover them with a cape or blanket. Soon the boy would appear, restored.
Lt Col Elliot of the London Magic Circle, when offering a substantial reward in the 1930s for an outdoor performance, found it necessary to define the trick. He demanded that "the rope must be thrown into the air and defy the force of gravity, while someone climbs it and disappears."
In his commentary on Gaudapada's explanation of the Mandukya Upanishad, the 9th-century Hindu teacher Adi Shankara, illustrating a philosophical point, wrote of a juggler who throws a thread up into the sky; he climbs up it carrying arms and goes out of sight; he engages in a battle in which he is cut into pieces, which fall down; finally he arises again. A few words further on Shankara referred to the principle underlying the trick, saying that the juggler who ascends is different from the real juggler who stands unseen, "veiled magically", on the ground. In Shankara's commentary on the Vedanta Sutra (also called the Brahma Sutra) he mentioned that the juggler who climbs up the rope to the sky is illusory, and so is only fancied to be different from the real juggler, who is hidden on the ground. The fact that Shankara referred to the trick's method was pointed out in 1934 in a discussion of the Indian rope trick in the Indian press. These Sanskrit texts of Shankara are the basis for the claim that the trick is of great antiquity in India.
Edward Melton, an Anglo-Dutch traveler, described a performance he saw in Batavia about 1670 by a troupe of Chinese jugglers. Grasping one end of a ball of cord in his hand, a juggler threw up the ball which went out of sight, then swiftly climbed the vertical cord until he, too, was out of sight. Body pieces fell and were placed in a basket. Finally the basket was upturned, the body pieces fell out topsy turvy, and Melton "saw all those limbs creep together again," the man being restored to life. A detailed engraved illustration accompanied this account.
Pu Songling records a version in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (1740) which he claims to have witnessed personally. In his account, a request by a mandarin that a wandering magician produce a peach in the dead of winter results in the trick's performance, on the pretence of getting a peach from the Gardens of Heaven. The magician's son climbs the rope, vanishes from sight, and then (supposedly) tosses down a peach, before being "caught by the Garden's guards" and "killed", with his dismembered body falling from above in the traditional manner. (Interestingly enough, in this version the magician himself never climbs the rope.) After placing the parts in a basket, the magician gives the mandarin the peach and requests payment. As soon as he is paid, his son emerges alive from the basket. Songling claims the trick was a favorite of the White Lotus society and that the magician must have learnt it from them (or they from him), though he gives no indication where (or how) he learnt this.
There had long been scepticism regarding the trick. In 1934 the Occult Committee of The Magic Circle, convinced the trick did not exist, offered five hundred guineas to anyone who could perform it. A man named Karachi (real name Arthur Claude Darby), a British performer based in Plymouth, endeavoured to perform the trick with his son, Kyder, on 7 January 1935 on a field in Wheathampstead, north of Hatfield, Hertfordshire, after being granted four days to prepare the site. The presentation was filmed by Gaumont British Films. His son could climb the rope but did not disappear, and Karachi was not paid. The Occult Committee demanded the trick must include the disappearance of the boy.
In 1935, Karachi sent a challenge to the sceptics, for 200 guineas to be deposited with a neutral party who would decide if the rope trick was performed satisfactorily. His terms were that the rope shall rise up through his hands while in a sitting posture, to a height of ten feet, his son Kyder would then climb the rope and remain at the top for a minimum of 30 seconds and be photographed. The rope shall be an ordinary rope supplied by a well known manufacturer and shall be examined. The place could be any open area chosen by the neutral party and agreed to by the conjurers and the spectators could be anywhere in front of the carpet Karachi would be seated on. However the conjurers of the Occult Committee refused to accept Karachi's challenge.
In 1996, Nature published "Unraveling the Indian rope trick", by Richard Wiseman and Peter Lamont. Wiseman found at least 50 eyewitness accounts of the trick performed during the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and variations included:
- The magician's assistant climbs the rope and the magic ends.
- The assistant climbs the rope, vanishes, and then again appears.
- The assistant vanishes, and appears from some other place.
- The assistant vanishes, and reappears from a place which had remained in full view of the audience.
- The boy vanishes, and does not return.
Accounts collected by Wiseman did not have any single account describing severing of the limbs of the magician's assistant. Perhaps more importantly, he found the more spectacular accounts were only given when the incident lay decades in the past. It is conceivable that in the witnesses' memory the rope trick merged with the basket trick.
Citing their work, historian Mike Dash wrote in 2000:
- Ranking their cases in order of impressiveness, Wiseman and Lamont discovered that the average lapse of time between the event and witness's report of the event was a mere four years in the least notable examples, but a remarkable forty-one years in the case of the most complex and striking accounts. This suggests that the witnesses embroidered their stories over the years, perhaps in telling and retelling their experiences. After several decades, what might have originally been a simple trick had become a highly elaborate performance in their minds ... How, though, did these witnesses come to elaborate their tales in such a consistent way? One answer would be that they already knew, or subsequently discovered, how the full-blown Indian rope trick was supposed to look, and drew on this knowledge when embroidering their accounts.
There are various explanations of the trick as stage magic.
In his book on the topic, Peter Lamont claimed the story of the trick resulted from a hoax created by John Elbert Wilkie while working at the Chicago Tribune. Under the name "Fred S. Ellmore" ("Fred Sell More") Wilkie wrote of the trick in 1890, gaining the Tribune wide publicity. About four months later, the Tribune printed a retraction and proclaimed the story a hoax. However, the retraction received little attention, and in the following years many claimed to remember having seen the trick as far back as the 1870s. According to Lamont, none of these stories proved credible, but with every repetition the story became more ingrained and was really only a myth.
Lamont also claimed that no mention appears in writings before the 1890 article. He argued that Ibn Battuta did report a magic trick with a thong, and Jahangir with a chain, not a rope, and the tricks they described are different from the "classic" Indian rope trick. He said that the descriptions of the trick in Yule's editions (1870s) of Marco Polo's book are not in the body of the work, but in a footnote by Yule, and only refer to these non-classic accounts.
Lamont's popular but controversial work dismissed important accounts such as Shankara's and Melton's as irrelevant to his theme. This is because his book is not really about the trick itself, but about what he called the 20th-century legend of it being Indian, the fame of the trick, which peaked in the 1930s. It is this fame, chapter 8 of his book claimed, which originated from Wilkie's hoax.
Penn & Teller followed Lamont's work and examined the trick while filming their three-part CBC mini-series, Penn & Teller's Magic and Mystery Tour. According to that miniseries, the tour travelled the world investigating historical tricks, and while in India they travelled to Agra where they recreated the trick.
Penn and Teller invited two British tourists shopping nearby to see what they claimed was a fakir performing the trick. As they walked back, an assistant ran up and claimed the fakir was in the midst of the trick, so they rushed the rest of the way so they wouldn't miss it. As the witnesses neared the room they dropped a thick rope from a balcony. The witnesses saw what they thought was the end of the trick, the rope falling as if it had been in mid-air seconds before. A sheet was then removed from a boy with fake blood at his neck and shoulders, hinting that his limbs and head had been reattached to his torso. According to their account, the rumour that a British couple had witnessed the trick was heard a few weeks later in England.
Fraser and Champneys suggested that the rising of the rope could be achieved by fast vibration of its origin due to the effect of parametric excitation (or parametric resonance). The effect is similar to the vibro-levitation in soft materials, such as liquid droplets, cornstarch, and to the stabilization of an inverted pendulum with vibration foundation (the Kapitza's pendulum), where small fast oscillations can be substituted by an effective "levitation" force.
Analyzing old eyewitness reports, Jim McKeague explained how poor, itinerant conjuring troupes could have performed the trick using known magical techniques. If a ball of cord is thrown upwards, one end being retained in the hand, the ball rapidly decreases in size as it rises. As it unwinds completely the illusion of the ball disappearing into the sky is striking, especially if the pale cord is similar in color to any overcast cloud. Before the cord has time to fall the climber leaps up, pretending to climb, but really being lifted by a companion. Skilled acrobats could make this quick "climb" look very effective until the climber's feet are at or even above the lifter's head. Then a noisy distraction from other members of the troupe is the misdirection needed which allows the climber to drop unseen to the ground and hide. This type of "vanishing by misdirection" is reported as having been used very effectively by a performer of the basket trick in the 1870s. The lifter continues to look upwards and holds a conversation with the "climber" using ventriloquism to create the illusion that a person is still high in the air and is just passing out of sight. By now there is no cord or climber in the air, only an illusory climber as Shankara described (see above under "accounts"). Ventriloquism is quite capable of producing this remarkable effect, and a report from near Darjeeling by a school headmaster who witnessed the trick states specifically that ventriloquism was used. As to the falling of the pieces of the climber, according to an Indian Barrister-at-Law who saw a performance about 1875 which included this feature, it appears to have been produced very largely by acting and sound effects. When a magician acts out the visible catch of an imaginary deck of cards thrown by a spectator, or throws a ball in the air where it vanishes, the appearance or disappearance really occurs at the location of the magician's hand, but to most spectators (two out of three in actual testing) the magic appears to occur in mid-air. McKeague explained the falling body parts as being produced by much the same acting technique. He explained Melton's account of seeing the limbs "creep together again" (see above under "accounts") as being the result of contortionists' techniques.
It has always been the outdoor disappearance of the climber, away from trees and structures, which has led to claims the illusion is "humanly impossible". McKeague's explanation not only solves the mystery of the mid-air disappearance but also provides an alternative explanation for the Wiseman-Lamont observation discussed above that eyewitness reports were more impressive when much time had elapsed. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the fame of the trick increased performers would have had increasing difficulty in puzzling audiences with it, until finally the disappearance of the climber ceased to be a feature and the rare witness who had seen it spoke of a time long before. This is because misdirection of attention is extremely unlikely to be effective when the audience is expecting the disappearance, a fact which also explains why no one could claim any reward for a performance where it was specified the disappearance must be included. The increasing fame of the rope trick and the basket trick ended the possibility of using "vanishing by misdirection" in the methodologies for both tricks.
- The Listener (London), Feb 13, 1935, p. 294
- Panoli, V. (tr.), Prasthanathraya vol. II, Mathrubhumi Printing and Publishing Co., Calicut, 2006, p. 325.
- Gambhirananda, Swami (tr.), Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya of Sankaracarya, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 1965, p. 70.
- Varma, H. L., The Indian Rope Trick, Society of Indian Magicians, Bombay, 1942, p. 56.
- Meltons, Eduward, Zeldzaame en Gedenkwaardige Zee- en Land- Reizen, Jan ten Hoorn, Amsterdam, 1681, p. 468 ff. For the English translation of Melton's account, see: Yule, Henry (tr. & ed.), The Book of Ser Marco Polo, vol. I, John Murray, London, 1871, pp. 281-2.
- Lee, Rev. Samuel, B.D. (translator), The Travels of Ibn Batuta, Oriental Translation Committee, London, 1829, p. 218.
- Pu Songling, (translated by Herbert A. Giles), Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, Vol. 2, Thos De La Rue, London, 1880, pp. 186-189.
- The Listener (London), May 16, 1934, p. 843.
- The Listener (London), January 16, 1935, p. 98.
- The Listener (London), February 13, 1935, p. 294.
- The Listener (London), January 30, 1935, p. 204.
- Life Magazine. (1941). India's Rope Trick is Faked in Pictures. 16 June. pp. 80-81
- Nature, 383, 1996, pp. 212-13.
- Dash, Mike. Borderlands: The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown. New York: Overlook Press, 2000, 321. ISBN 0-87951-724-7.
- Lamont, Peter, The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History, Abacus, London, 2005, ISBN 0 349 11824 8, pp. 80-95, 208.
- Lamont, Peter, The Rise ... &c., ISBN 0 349 11824 8, pp. 7-8, 86-88.
- Lamont, Peter, The Rise ... &c., ISBN 0 349 11824 8, pp. 86-88, 164-167
- W. B. Fraser and A. R. Champneys. "The ‘Indian rope trick’ for a parametrically excited flexible rod: nonlinear and subharmonic analysis". Proc. Royal Soc. A 458 (2022): 1353–1373.
- Rahul Ramachandran and Michael Nosonovsky. "Vibro-levitation and inverted pendulum: parametric resonance in vibrating droplets and soft materials". Soft Matter. DOI: 10.1039/C4SM00265B.
- McKeague, J., Indian Rope (2012) and Translating Melton (2014), http://theindianropetrick.com (retrieved October 11, 2014)
- The Argus, Melbourne, March 18, 1876, p. 5
- Varma, H.L., The Indian Rope Trick, Society of Indian Magicians, Bombay, 1942, p. 149
- Varma, H.L., The Indian Rope Trick, Society of Indian Magicians, Bombay, 1942, p. 55
- Olsen, J., Revealing the Psychology of Playing Card Magic, in the Scientific American, July 31, 2012, http://scientificamerican.com (retrieved October 12, 2014)
- Devant, David, A Magician's Secrets - II, in The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Australia, October 17, 1936, p. 22
- McKeague, J., Indian Rope, Part 2, http://theindianropetrick.com (retrieved October 11, 2014)
- Wiseman, R. & Lamont, P., Unravelling the rope trick. Nature, 383 (1996), 212-13.
- Lamont, P. & Wiseman, R. The rise and fall of the Indian rope trick. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 65 (2001), 175-93.
- Peter Lamont , The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became a History, 2005; ISBN 1-56025-661-3.
- Dr. Karl Shuker, The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide To The World's Natural And Paranormal Mysteries (Carlton: London, 1996; ISBN 1-85868-186-3).
- BBC video showing rope trick performed in daylight (viewable within UK only)
- The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick
- Indian rope trick (on Altered Dimensions)
- Indian rope trick - ABC audio clip
- Indian rope trick - The Straight Dope
- Peter Lamont's Homepage
- The rise and fall of the Indian rope trick (Lamont & Wiseman)
- Indian Magicians Web Site