Indian Rope Trick

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The Indian rope trick is stage magic said to have been performed in and around India about the 1800s. Sometimes described as "the world’s greatest illusion", it involved a magician, a length of rope, and one or more boy assistants.

Contents

The trick

There are different accounts of how the trick

  • In the simplest version, the magician would hurl a rope into the air. The rope would stand erect. His boy assistant 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 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 hearing no response, become furious. The magician then armed himself with a knife or sword and climbed the rope and disappeared. 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.

The accounts

It is commonly (though erroneously) believed that Marco Polo (1254-1324), a Venetian trader and explorer who gained fame for his worldwide travels, witnessed the rope trick in India and China;

Ibn Batuta, when recounting his travels through Hangzhou, China in 1346, describes a trick similar to the Indian rope trick.

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 pretense 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, though he gives no indication where (or how) he learnt this.

The legend states that similar tricks were performed during the Mughal Empire (16th-19th centuries) in the Indian subcontinent from Peshawar to Dhaka, and at important centers of Mughal powers, including Murshidabad, Patna, Agra, and Delhi.

During the British Raj, accounts report the rope trick during 1850 and 1900. The Chicago Tribune, in 1890, published an account compiled by Fred S. Ellmore, and the story was repeated in several newspapers.

Skepticism

There had long been skepticism regarding the trick. Once The Magic Circle, convinced the trick did not exist, offered hundred guineas to anyone who could perform it. A man named Karachi, a British performer based in Plymouth, endeavored to perform the trick with his son, Kyder. Reportedly, his son could climb the rope but did not disappear, and Karachi was not paid. The incident was also filmed near Hatfield in Hertfordshire in 1936.

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 late 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 important, 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.

Penn and Teller examined the trick while filming their three-part CBC mini-series, Penn & Teller's Magic and Mystery Tour. The tour traveled the world investigating historical tricks, and while in India they traveled to Calcutta where watched a recreation the trick.


References

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