The Indian Rope Trick

The traveler Ibn Battuta visited north India in the early 1330s  to seek the employment of the sultan Mohammad Ibn Tughluq.  At some point during his residence in the city of Delhi, he had occasion to observe the practices of the Indian holy men, whom he called jugis (i.e., yogis).

These austere ascetics he credits with a variety of powers, including clairvoyance, levitation, and the ability to survive for long periods without food or drink.  “The people say that they make up pills, one of which they take for a given number of days or months, and during that time they require no food or drink.  They can also tell what is happening at a distance.  The sultan holds them in esteem and admits them into his company…it is obvious that they have so disciplined themselves in ascetic practices that they have no need of any of the goods or vanities of this world.”  There is a compelling passage in Ibn Battuta’s narrative of his travels, the Rihla (رحلة), that records an incredible event he witnessed.  We will let him tell the tale:

The sultan sent for me once when I was with him at Dilhi [Delhi], and on entering I found him in a private apartment with some of his intimates and two of these jugis.  They were wearing long cloaks and they had their heads covered, because they remove all their hair with ashes as people generally remove the hair of the armpits.  After the sultan had ordered me to sit down and I had done so, he said to them, “This distinguished man comes from a far country, so show him something that he has not seen,” to which they replied, “Yes.”  One of them squatted on the ground, then rose from the ground into the air above our heads, still sitting.  I was so astonished and frightened that I fell to the floor in a faint.

The sultan gave orders to administer to me a  potion that he had there and I revived and sat up.  Meantime this man remained in his sitting posture.  His companion then took a sandal from a sack he had with him, and beat it on the ground like one infuriated.  The sandal rose in the air until it came above the neck of the sitting man and then began hitting him on the neck while he descended little by little until he sat down alongside us.  The sultan said to me, “The man sitting is the pupil of the owner of the sandal.”  Then he said, “If I did not fear for your reason, I would have ordered them to do still stranger things than this you have seen.”  I took my leave but was affected with palpitation and fell ill, until he ordered me to be given a draught which removed it all. [1]

What are we to make of this strange anecdote?  By what artifice were the yogis able to perform such a feat of levitation?  Frustratingly, Ibn Battuta seems to have made no inquiries about it, and the sultan, doubtless amused by his guest’s distress, offered no explanation.  But something was certainly happening here; our traveler is generally a reliable witness when he recounts events that he personally experienced.  It is highly unlikely that he would have invented such a tale.  Clearly the yogis had developed some kind of illusionist skill that for them remained a closely-guarded secret.  Ibn Battuta was told nothing because, from the sultan’s perspective, he needed to know nothing.  Until recently the power of special knowledge was more appreciated in Asia’s secret societies than in the West; the West, with its insistence on the dissemination and propagation of scientific information, has forgotten the old Pythagorean insistence that certain secrets must not be shared with outsiders.

What he witnessed was what we would today call a magic trick.  Reading this account reminded me of stories I had heard about the mysterious and vaguely sinister “Indian rope trick.”  There are eyewitness accounts of the trick dating back to ancient and medieval times; but in the modern era, there are apparently no magicians capable of performing it.  For those unfamiliar with what I am speaking about, I will provide more detail.  The Indian rope trick has a number of variations, but the basic illusion is this.  A master magician appears with an assistant.  He takes out a coil of rope, and throws the end in the air; the rope then rises high above the heads of onlookers.  He orders the assistant to climb the rope, and the assistant does so, disappearing from view.  The magician then does the same.  Suddenly limbs fall from the top of the rope and scatter on the ground (or stage), presumably the body part of the assistant.  The magician climbs down from the rope, collects the limbs into a large basket, and covers it; the assistant then emerges, alive and unscathed.

This is the classic Indian rope trick.  It shares a key feature with the anecdote of Ibn Battuta:  the use of levitation.  There is something about this trick that has fascinated enthusiasts for centuries.  The controversy around it has only enhanced its mythic status.  Some writers believe that, despite anecdotal evidence, the trick is mostly a hoax; others are firmly convinced that the trick was actually performed, but that modern magicians have lost the skill required to duplicate it today.

I have tried to investigate the subject myself, and found an interesting article that appeared in the journal Nature in 1996.  The confident title of the study is Unravelling the Indian Rope Trick, and it was authored by Richard Wiseman and Peter Lamont.  The authors begin by acknowledging the long record of eyewitness accounts:  “[a]lthough many reports [of the trick] could be dismissed as travellers’ tales, others cannot be dismissed so easily.  In the late nineteenth century, the trick was frequently discussed in the Anglo-Indian and British press, and many individuals wrote claiming to have witnessed the trick (or a version of it) in India.  These accounts prompted many people to search extensively for the trick, often offering large sums of money to anybody able to perform it.  The searches proved fruitless and the offers remained unclaimed.”

The authors take a scientific approach to the study of the illusion, speculating that accounts of the trick had become exaggerated and embellished over time:  “one might expect a positive correlation between the impressiveness of the account and the length of time between performance and report.  To test this notion, we searched all the publications discussing the rope-trick, and located 48 eyewitness accounts.”  The authors establish various criteria for testing the reliability of the different accounts, yet never explain the basis for their assumption that the reliability of an account decreases with its age.  They simply assume that ancient or medieval accounts are inherently untrustworthy; and this is a condescending attitude I find among many who profess to be adherents of modern science.  Unsurprisingly, the authors take a dim view of the trick’s anecdotal pedigree, and conclude with the following:  “In short, the data suggest that witnesses saw an unimpressive trick (possibly the pole-balancing trick) and then added elements drawn from Indian street magic and/or mythical versions of the trick as time passed.”

But there is another possibility that Wiseman and Lamont seem to have neglected.  It may be that certain groups of yogis in India were in possession of illusionist knowledge that has been forgotten in modern times.  Perhaps the artistry needed to perform the trick successfully has been, like the special secrets of a medieval guild or an ancient mystery cult, been gradually covered up by the silt of time.  This is not as far-fetched as it may seem.  How often have we heard modern scientists say something like this:  “We know that ancient or medieval architects created such-and-such, but we have no records from the period, and so we are not sure exactly how to make such things today.”  The same could be said of armorers, artists, or many other fields of endeavor.

There are some things that our ancestors could do that we have lost the ability to do modernly.  They could build temples we cannot build today.  They could paint pictures we cannot paint today.  They could write books that could not be written today.  Is it such a stretch to believe, reader, that there are ancient magic tricks that, for whatever reason, we have lost the ability to perform today?  And I find it very revealing that the authors of a study claiming to “unravel” a feat of illusionist artistry never seem to have considered this possibility.

Would it not have been better to research the actual practices of the yogis, and see what special mental, physical, and illusionist powers they may have developed over the centuries?  My own belief is that the yogis of Ibn Battuta’s day were capable of physical feats of dexterity and discipline that are beyond the comprehension of modern man, and that they were in possession of specialized knowledge of the illusionist art that has not come down to us in complete form.  Knowledge does not aggregate indefinitely in the minds of men; it can be lost, degraded or destroyed.  There is much in this world that has been lost, and patiently awaits rediscovery.


[1] Travels of Ibn Battuta, Mackintosh-Smith, T., (ed.), London (2002), p. 291.

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