by Jim McKeague
As a magic historian, Australian Jim McKeague is known for his research into the so-called “cups and balls” tomb painting at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt. His photographs and detailed research notes appeared in the US magazine, “MAGIC” (March 1997 issue) and prompted the later visit to the tomb by Penn and Teller.
His research into the origins of the Indian rope trick has benefited from his 27 year fascination with the philosophy of Shankara, whose references to the rope trick are clearly explained for the very first time in this article.
Part 1 : Who’s Hoaxing Whom?
I feel a little mean writing this article. I have been reading a delightful book, “The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick - How a Spectacular Hoax became History,” by Peter Lamont (the paperback 2005 edition). I can recommend the book as highly entertaining. You must read it. But I have a problem with some of its content. I don’t like to spoil the author’s fun, but what I say here has to be said.
Dr Peter Lamont is a parapsychologist, a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, a magician, a former president of the Edinburgh Magic Circle, a lecturer, a writer, and an historian. In his book he claims that “previous histories of the Indian rope trick have continually failed to check the evidence properly, and that has resulted in some blatant errors which this history seeks to correct” (page xviii). However, I contend that it is quite difficult at times to pinpoint just what the book is saying about the trick. It will say one thing on one page and the opposite thing on another. For instance, on pages 156-7, regarding writings in the 1870s and 1880s in The Times and in two different books, it states “none of them referred to the Indian rope trick at all, and neither did contemporary writers on Indian magic …. Indeed, every book in which you might expect to find a mention of the legendary trick is silent. And it is not only books, for Victorian newspapers often discussed Indian juggling, and none of them mentioned the Indian rope trick before 1890.” But on page 91-2 there is already a quote from Harry Kellar’s book, “A Magician’s Tour,” published in 1886, which said of Indian jugglers: “The writers who declare that they have seen such impossible feats performed, as throwing a ball of twine in the air to form a sort of Jack-and-the-bean-stalk, up which the juggler climbed out of sight, pulling the string after him, and that the pistol shot of a companion conjurer brought the aerial climber to the earth in fragments, which, when brought together, became a living, uninjured man again, must have had their brains steeped in hasheesh.”
This is a real problem because Kellar’s book is well-known amongst magicians. Lamont attempts to wriggle out of this difficulty by saying: “the form of Kellar’s story suggests that this is where Wilkie’s idea of a trick with a ‘ball of twine’ came from” (p. 92). However, this ignores the fact that it is not Kellar’s story but one he specifically states other writers declared. Who are these writers? Lamont does not say, but I will tell you of at least some of them.
Such inaccuracies are disconcerting because Lamont’s writings and talks since the mid-1990s have had an enormous influence on magic historians discussing the Indian rope trick, for they have believed his claim that he is writing an accurate history. The general perception Lamont generates is that the legend of the Indian rope trick is a western construction resulting from a journalist’s hoax in 1890, and that the trick was unknown before then. Any reference to a pre-1890 source is rejected by Lamont as not referring to the “legendary” rope trick of the 20th century.
Lamont seems to demand that it must be called “THE Indian rope trick.” He denies (pages 165-6) that there could have been a legendary Indian rope trick pre-1890 simply because that title was used in some 19th century magicians’ advertisements for the rope-tie release as performed by the Davenport brothers. The Emperor Johangir’s memoirs, he asserts on the same page, only contain a “chain trick,” and Ibn Battuta’s a “thong trick.” This is akin to saying that the French have never performed the cups and balls because they call it “the Game of Cups” (le Jeu des Gobelets); and that the cups and balls when done with coconut shells or bicycle bells is not “THE Cups and Balls” because the trick uses no cups.
In an author’s note at the beginning of the book, Lamont tells us that we really shouldn’t trust historians, and encourages us to check his sources. I was sceptical of his claims and so I did check the sources. The results were surprising!
The earliest source which is usually regarded as relating to the Indian rope trick comes from the Suruci-Jataka. The Jatakas, written in Pali about the 5th century AD but deriving from more ancient sources, are stories about the previous births of the Buddha. A tale is told of entertainers trying to make King Suruci’s son laugh:
“Then came two clever jugglers, Bhandu-kanna and Pandu-kanna, Crop-ear and Yellow-ear, and say they, ‘We will make the prince laugh.’ Bhandu-kanna made a great mango tree, which he called Sanspariel, grow before the palace door: then he threw up a ball of string, and made it catch on a branch of the tree, and then up he climbed into the Mango Sanspariel. Now the Mango Sanspariel they say is Vassavana’s Mango. And the slaves of Vassavana took him, as usual, chopt him up limb-meal and threw down the bits. The other jugglers joined the pieces together, and poured water upon them. The man donned upper and under garments of flowers, and rose up and began dancing again. Even the sight of this did not make the prince laugh” (Rouse, page 204).
Even though in this story a string has been thrown up and caught in the branch of a magically produced tree, the magician has climbed up, come down in pieces, then has been restored by his fellow jugglers, Lamont is unwilling to accept a relationship to the legendary trick. He says: “It is worth pointing out that this story is not about a rope magically rising into the air, and does not mention anybody disappearing” (page 251, note 19).
Other early Indian sources of our legend are to be found in the writings of the 8th and 9th century Hindu philosopher, Shankara (whose traditional birth year is 788 AD, but there are scholars who think he lived before the time of Christ). In his commentary on the Vedanta Sutra, Shankara wrote: “even as the illusory juggler who climbs up the rope and disappears differs from the real juggler who stands on the ground.” But this same passage is rendered by another translator: “As the magician who in reality remains upon the earth is different from the magician who with sword and shield climbs up the rope.” (I will give a third translation later.)
Two correspondents to the Indian press (one definitely didn’t know Sanskrit, and each adopted a different translator) argued in 1934 as to whether or not Shankara said the juggler “disappeared.” This little dispute, plus the fact that the reference was not an obvious eyewitness account, was enough for Lamont to dismiss this reference from his consideration.
However, Shankara has more to say elsewhere. In his commentary on the Karika of Gaudapada concerning the Mandukya Upanishad, Shankara wrote: “Indeed, the spectators who see a juggler throw up a thread into the sky, ascend it himself duly armed, go out of sight, engage himself in a fight resulting in his body being cut into pieces which fall down, and rise up again, do not show any interest in thinking of the reality of the performance of the juggler. Exactly the same as the spreading of the thread into the sky by the juggler, is the manifestation of deep sleep, dream etc. and Prajna, Taijasa and the rest in the (respective) states too are the same as the juggler who ascended the thread. Different from the thread and the juggler who ascended it, there stands the real juggler. Just as he stands on the ground, unseen on account of being veiled magically, so too, is the supreme Reality called Turiya” (Panoli, page 325).
Confusing? Yes, but later I will explain how this text shows that Shankara knew how the trick was done! Here Shankara is not a magician explaining the method. He is a philosopher discussing the nature of illusion and reality. Prajna means the one who experiences deep sleep. Taijasa means the one who experiences the dreaming state. Turiya means the reality which lies behind the three states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, these three being illusory in Shankara’s opinion.
To my mind, no one who reads this passage can doubt that it is clear evidence of knowledge of our legendary trick in India in Shankara’s era. But Lamont dismisses it with the statement: “only those who read Sanskrit would have been aware of it …. It was, after all, only one sentence” (page 166). His view is that these ancient Pali and Sanskrit texts have nothing to do with the rope trick story becoming “famous.” His claim that the Indian rope trick did not exist before 1890, was unknown, was never performed, he conveniently puts aside at this stage.
Very early in his book (page 8) Lamont tells us that early European visitors to India “did not know of an Indian rope trick …. though they reported many other wonders.” Of all these early wonders, the one that attracted most attention, says Peter, was the mango tree growth. On pages 9 and 11 he quotes from J. Ovington’s “A Voyage to Surat in the year 1689”: “raise a Mango-Tree, with ripe Fruit upon its Branches, in the space of one or two Hours.” And again: “a Gentleman who had pluckt (sic) one of these Mangoes, fell sick upon it, and was never well as long as he kept it.”
What Lamont does not say (and this really surprised me) is that in the same paragraph containing these two quotes, Ovington says this: “Among the Men, whose Imployment (sic) it is to divert Spectators with amazing Shows and Sights, some, they say, will take in their Hands a Clew of Thread, and throw it upwards in the Air till it all unravels, and then climbing up themselves by this tender Thread to the top of it, presently fall down piecemeal upon the Ground; and when all is dropt, unite again the parted Members.” (Ovington, page 258. In the 1929 edition of Ovington quoted by Lamont, this is on page 153.)
Figure 1. Ovington’s description from his first edition.
Notice that nothing in this paragraph purports to be an eyewitness account. But Dr Lamont cannot seriously mean to tell us that he accepts the two quotes as references to the mango tree trick, but that the trick described immediately before has nothing to do with the Indian rope trick. It seems unlikely that Lamont was unaware of this entire paragraph.
He seems to swing to and fro about the accuracy of his claims in his author’s note at the beginning of his book. He says that as historians we “all have our agendas, our biases and prejudices, none of us is objective. This history is intended, first and foremost, to be an entertaining story.” But then: “it is a true story nevertheless …. not the whole truth …. (but) the most accurate and complete history of the legend of the Indian rope trick to date.” In light of what I have found, I don’t think that is fair comment.
By the second half of his book, Lamont’s difficulties in covering up pre-1890 references to the trick lead him to claim that it is fame that matters to the historian: “That is why the question of the origins of the legend is best directed to when the Indian rope trick rose to fame, for until it had entered the popular imagination, the legend had not yet been born” (page 164). His efforts are directed at convincing his readers that that fame was a result of just one hoax story, written (anonymously) by one John Wilkie, and published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on 9 August 1890.
However, Lamont’s claim (page 156-7) that books and newspapers of the Victorian era pre-1890 never mention the trick is demonstrably untrue. Here are two more examples to accompany the Kellar 1886 book already quoted. These examples show not only that the trick was mentioned, but that it was famous.
A story on “Indian Jugglery,” which, it is stated, originally appeared earlier in the New York Times, appeared in The South Australian Advertiser on Monday 13 June 1881, page 3. The story is sceptical in tone, and makes it clear that the trick is a doubtful “traveller’s tale,” but it is also clear that the trick is famous:
“People have often asked why some enterprising theatrical manager does not bring one of the wonderful jugglers of India to Europe or to this country …. Everybody has heard of the amazing miracles performed almost daily in India. The stories of the juggler who throws a ball of cord into the air, where it remains long enough for him to climb up by it until he disappears from sight; or of the juggler who carves a boy as he might carve a chicken, and then reconstructs the boy out of a heap of disjointed limbs and miscellaneous organs, are familiar to us all.”
You may have to go back up to a year, perhaps more, in the New York Times to find the original story, as the colonies had to wait for ships to bring American and European newspapers to their shores. But the fact that this story was reprinted in the remote colony of South Australia certainly smacks of fame to me! Note that “everybody has heard” of these miracles, which are “familiar to us all.”
The second example comes from the book, “Glimpses in the Twilight,” by the Rev Frederick George Lee, DD, published by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, in 1885. The book is still available as a facsimile of the original 1885 edition from Kessinger Legacy Reprints. The Reverend Fred was not pleased by the rise of modern science, and wrote a great deal on matters which he supposed were supernatural. He was a well-known author, and his accounts of Indian jugglery and magic came to him from churchmen and military officers in India who witnessed these things. In this 1885 book (pages 371-2) he gives this eyewitness account from an unnamed contact who watched a magician performing with a “long, thin, silk rope”:
“Taking it in his right hand, yet holding one end in his left, and with a vigorous shout and great bodily exertion, he threw it perpendicularly into the air. It fell. He threw it again. Each time it went higher, though it fell several times. All the while he kept muttering, gesticulating, whining, imploring, expostulating, crying. At length – warning the spectators, who were crowding upon him, to keep the circle around as wide and broad as at the outset – he gathered the rope once more into circular coils in his right hand, and with a supreme effort and a wild shriek, threw it up a great height toward the sky. He then all of a sudden pulled it with the greatest violence two or three times. It fell not, however, but on the contrary seemed tightly fastened. With a yell of triumph, half laughing and then shrieking, he at once climbed up the rope, first with one hand then with the other, his legs equally agitated and acting, he rose higher and higher, and then - actually vanished out of sight in the air.”
Such examples make it clear that the theory of Wilkie’s hoax of 1890 being the origin of the legend of the Indian rope trick is false. And, as I will show, it was branded as false at a very early date. The following newspaper article shows that this theory had evidently been put about shortly after the retraction by the Chicago Daily Tribune in December 1890 of the earlier Wilkie story. Someone named A. Long found it necessary to pooh-pooh the idea that Wilkie’s 1890 hoax started the legend and put together a collection of pre-1890 references to the trick. The article ends with “ - A. Long, in Longman’s Magazine” but no date is given for the magazine. The article itself is from the Windsor and Richmond Gazette (New South Wales, Australia) for Saturday 26 December 1891, page 5. It is headed “Marvels of Oriental Conjuring” and reads:
“Extract from a letter from R.B. Shaw (the first English traveller to reach Kashgar), dated Lahore, December 1, 1875 :-
‘…. Apropos of magic, a Manchu, long resident at Ila, described to me, amongst other feats of conjuring which he had seen, the rope-trick, by which a man and boy are said to ascend out of sight towards the sky, whence the severed limbs of the boy are afterwards thrown down. The man was himself a conjurer of some reputation, but did not pretend to be able to perform the trick. But it would seem that the tradition of it remains in those regions.’”
The article continues, mentioning the stories in Lee’s “Glimpses in the Twilight” and Ovington’s “Voyage to Surat in the year 1689.” Don’t get confused - we are still in this Australian newspaper article as it quotes a second paper (The Weekly Dispatch), which in turn quotes a third paper (The Times of India):
“The Weekly Dispatch of September 15, 1889, under the heading ‘An Indian Juggling Story,’ begins :-
‘There would appear’ (says the Times of India) ‘to be a fine field of unworked romance in the annals of Indian jugglery. One Siddeshur Mitter, writing to the Calcutta paper, gives a thrilling account of a conjurer’s feat which he witnessed recently in one of the villages of the Hooghly district. This is a repetition of the rope-trick, except that a long bamboo is substituted for the rope, and the boy who ascends disappears at the top of the bamboo.’”
Two things stand out from this Australian newspaper article: firstly, pre-1890 newspapers around the world were reporting each others’ stories of the famous rope-trick from India; and secondly, the legend was famous before the time of Wilkie’s hoax, and the writer A. Long desired to make that clear. (Is it possible that A. Long is a misprint for Andrew Lang, who is known to have written on the rope trick for Longman’s Magazine?)
At the very end of his book Lamont describes his memory of the famous performance of the Indian rope trick by Ishamuddin at Udupi, Karnataka, in 1997: “and when he reaches the top, the boy disappears.”
Around 25,000 people were on the beach that afternoon, including Lamont and myself, and we know that that did not occur. Apparently, reviewers of the first hard-cover edition of Lamont’s book were vocal about that ending. Lamont has an interesting comment about this in the later paperback edition (note 4, page 258): “This is entirely in line with the tradition of exaggeration surrounding the legend …. I thought it was quite a clever idea”. But being clever and being accurate are two different things. In writing about the Indian rope trick, is Lamont an historian or an illusionist? I have not asked Dr Lamont this question, but I think someone should!
Figure 2. Jim McKeague with Ishamuddin and the boy who climbed the rope but did not disappear. Malpe Beach, Udupi, Karnataka, India, 23 November 1997.
Part 2 : The Eyewitness Evidence
The 1996 analysis of eyewitness reports of the Indian rope trick by Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman is now well known. Their findings were that the longer the period between the witnessing of the performance and the reporting of it, the more impressive was the description. According to their figures, the correlation between the delay in the reporting and the impressiveness of the description meant that the odds of the two not being linked are approximately one in two thousand (Lamont, page 205).
All this science, they say, tells us that people exaggerate tales of wonder, and tall tales grow taller over time. Most magicians can quote examples of that from their own audiences. But I say there is more than that going on here. The Lamont-Wiseman figures can be interpreted in more than one way.
In the early 20th century there was a quite savage denial by the Occult Committee of the London Magic Circle of the very existence of the Indian rope trick. Their tactic was to denigrate and discredit all eyewitnesses who came forward. As well, in 1934 they offered a 500 guinea prize to anyone who would perform the trick as defined by the Committee. In his book, Peter Lamont well describes the great entertainment had by the public as the newspapers juxtaposed the tales of eyewitnesses with the denials of the Committee.
Then in 1942, an Indian official and amateur conjurer, H. L. Varma, published “The Indian Rope Trick,” which was chiefly a collection of articles about the illusion which had appeared in the press in 1934 and 1935. His hope was that an analysis of eyewitness accounts would lead to recognition of the methods used. One impressive comment, from eyewitness G. Annaji Rao, serves as a striking counterpoint to the Occult Committee’s accusation of lying by witnesses. Rao described the trick as he remembered seeing it in the early 1890s, then said:
“If I now take up the pen to tell your readers that the feat is a fact and a wonderful fact, if I venture to come forth with this lengthy narration at the risk of being frankly disbelieved by perfectly well-meaning people, it is because the juggler deserves the praise that is so justly his due. And I, who could not throw him my mite then can give him this humble tribute at least now, by giving my living testimony to his wonderful feat. For to deny the truth of the wonderful feat is to deny the Indian juggler the credit that is his due.” (Varma, pages 41-2)
Examination of the Varma collection and of other accounts published over many years does indeed reveal the likely techniques that itinerant street magicians did use. Do be aware that the eyewitnesses do not describe what happened. They describe what the magician by his skill made them think happened. That subtle difference is what made it easy for the Occult Committee to confuse and confound the witnesses under intense questioning.
In analysing the eyewitness accounts we are faced with two basic mysteries: (i) the open-air levitation of the string or rope in such a way that it will support the weight of the climber; and (ii) the vanish of the climber. We cannot hope to explain everything described by the eyewitnesses, but I think we can solve these two puzzles. It seems the earliest versions of the illusion used a ball of string, variously described as thread, cord, twine, etc. For example:
“a ball of string …. about the size of a billiard ball - he threw it high in the air, retaining the free end of the string in his hand. Up and up and up went the ball, growing smaller and smaller the higher it travelled, until it disappeared from sight altogether. To all appearances it had sailed up until it reached the nearest stratum of clouds, and disappeared behind it.” - Kalgoorlie Western Argus (Western Australia), Tuesday 30 April 1901, page 39.
Try this : Take a 10 ft length of smooth, white string or cord. (Some old eyewitness accounts say silk cord, or cotton cord; modern synthetic fibre strings work well.) Wrap it around the tip of your finger to form it into a small ball. Outdoors, out of the wind, hold the end of the string in one hand, and with the other hand throw the ball straight upwards. The unwinding ball diminishes in size as it rises, and if you use a white string against a white, overcast sky, as the ball completes its unwinding there is a peculiar optical effect of the white ball vanishing into the white sky. It may not work for you on the first throw, but keep trying, you will quickly get the knack of it. The first time I experimented with this, it was purely by chance that the sky was overcast and white, and the illusion of the ball vanishing into the cloud was unexpected, and greatly startled me.
Of course, the string will immediately fall down again. But the performers do not wait for that to happen. The vanishing ball is a momentary but powerful image in the spectator’s mind. The next thing the spectator sees is the boy leaping upwards, apparently climbing the cord.
“I could not see the top of the rope, which had gone out of sight in the mist, but the other end hung down on the ground. Then it seemed that the boy came forward and climbed the rope; he went up very quickly and was soon lost in the mist.” - The Advertiser (Adelaide, South Australia), Friday 4 May 1934, page 20.
“The trick is done so quickly that the onlookers really imagine that the boy has gone up the rope.” - The Advertiser (Adelaide, South Australia), Tuesday 3 July 1934, page 10.
To create this illusion of the boy climbing the string would be easy for performers who are skilled acrobats. The string does not support the weight of the boy. The magician standing on the ground takes the boy’s weight. Once the ball has unwound in the air, the boy leaps up and grasps the upper end of the string before it falls too far. The conjurer grasps the boy and lifts him as he leaps. The boy needs a short length of stiffened string (a thin wire in the centre would stiffen it) only about 18 inches long. This is easily concealed with one end in his left armpit and the other at his fingertips, hidden between his arm and his body. As he leaps, his right hand grasps the falling end of the string in the air, but this same hand also grasps one end of the stiff piece and holds it vertically above him. If his left hand travels in short moves up and down the stiff piece of string as his entire body is lifted higher and higher by the conjurer, the illusion is created that he is climbing the string as the string itself rises higher and higher. Two practised acrobats could continue this lift until the boy is standing with one foot on the conjurer’s raised hand well above the conjurer’s head. As he “climbs” the boy looks up at the top of the stiff piece of string. The audience sees a cord rising higher above him as the boy climbs higher. All this, too, is a momentary image, but it is striking to the mind, and is described:
“in proportion as he climbed up, it seemed as if the rope was lengthening out indefinitely above him and disappearing beneath him, for he kept on climbing till he was fairly out of sight” - The Register (Adelaide, South Australia), Friday 5 July 1907, page 6.
Remember, all this is happening quickly, and this second image follows rapidly upon the first; so some witnesses will later remember that the top of the string disappeared into the sky right at the beginning, while others will recall that they saw the end of the string rising just above the boy as he climbed higher.
According to other eyewitness accounts, some performers used a thicker rope. A slightly different technique could be employed if the rope was capable of being stiffened by some inner mechanism along all or part of its length:
“Lieut.-Commander R.T. Gould …. suggests that the rope is a series of short wooden cylinders threaded on a strong gut line, each having a blunt conical point at one end and a similar recess at the other, the whole being encased in a cloth cover stuffed to resemble the strands of a rope. With the gut slack such a rope could be coiled and, if it were cleverly jerked into the air so as to straighten out, the joints would lock. Up this a light boy could easily climb.” - The Advocate (Burnie, Tasmania), Wednesday 2 January 1935, page 2.
This might explain those eyewitness accounts which tell that the rope “stood upright without any visible support as if it were a lamp-post” (Varma, page 66-7). But the itinerant street workers were much more likely to use the simpler and more portable method, together with good showmanship. Mechanical ropes were a later development.
There were some performers who dispensed with the string or rope completely, and simply sent the boy up a bamboo pole to vanish at the top. Such an instance I quoted earlier from the Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Saturday 26 December 1891, page 5. Peter Lamont (page 206) quoted another instance of this dating from the 1870s.
So now, in the open air, we have a boy up a string or rope, his feet at or above the height of the conjurer’s head, and apparently still climbing. He is about to vanish. But where does he hide? How does he get there?
Logic tells us the answer. He cannot hide in the air. His hiding place has to be on the ground, where there are scattered props such as cloths, rugs, and undoubtedly a basket - all objects which are easily carried by the wandering troupe. Often he can just melt into the crowd. The boy drops from the cord, and goes straight to his cover on the ground, and he is NOT SEEN because of the masterly misdirection of the conjurer and the use of two other common magical techniques.
The Indian street performer is a wonderful actor and story teller. In performing the rope trick he would undoubtedly make sure his audience was swept up in the drama of it all. Some theorists have thought “hypnotism” was used, but it would be more correct to say “suggestion” played a big role. If an audience becomes fascinated by a dramatic tale, they are less inclined to be looking for how the special effects are produced. The drama and the suggestion are important elements of the magician’s misdirection.
Famously, Sir Ralph Pearson, a former Lieutenant Governor of the North West Frontier Province, described how he saw a version of the trick at Dondachia railway station in 1900. In this case there was no vanish of the boy, but Pearson described very clearly some of the misdirection used:
“After the necessary shouting and beating of his legs and chest, he threw up the rope some ten feet in the air, after which the boy swarmed to nearly the top …. another man then shouted down the platform and beat a drum which made him (Pearson) look around. On turning back again he found the boy on the ground as also the rope” (Varma, page 136).
For vanishing the boy the conjurer uses similar misdirection, but in addition he fiddles with the timing of the disappearance. At the moment of distraction, the boy jumps down and goes into (say) a basket. But the conjurer himself, still holding the cord, looks up into the sky above and continues talking to the boy, and the boy ANSWERS from above! This is pure ventriloquism, of course, but it is particularly effective in this case. The spectator has seen the boy climbing, looked away, looked back again, and is readily persuaded that the boy is still up there.
I once stood right beside the clever Australian ventriloquist, Cecil Parkee, as he made a voice seem to come from the high ceiling of a ballroom. His skill was uncanny - the illusion of the voice coming from the ceiling was perfect. And Cec did not have the advantage of having me see the “person” climbing up there. The Indian street magician does have that advantage. The spectator is swept up in the story-drama, and is convinced the boy is still up on high and is just becoming invisible. By now the cord is only up as high as the magician’s hands, but suggestion and ventriloquism combat that fact. For a few moments the boy exists only as an illusory performer in the spectator’s mind. This is the illusory juggler who climbs the rope, as described by Shankara centuries ago.
“story of a demonstration before an audience of 200 boys on the playing field at Victoria School, Kurseong, Darjeeling …. The headmaster of the school described the performance as ‘a wonderful exhibition of mass hypnotism and ventriloquism.’” (Varma, pages 148-9).
“the boy who was with him went up the thread. As he went up he was speaking loudly to the conjuror. His voice became less in pitch as he went up higher. In a few minutes it was inaudible.” (Varma, page 54).
“When he got to the top the boy disappeared. One seemed to be gradually aware that he had disappeared, but not able to fix the exact moment of disappearance.” (Lamont, page 97).
So the boy has inexplicably vanished by means of misdirection and ventriloquism. But there are always some members of an audience who are not distracted at the vital moment, and are likely to alert the crowd to the facts of the case. To cover this eventuality, the old-time performers used one more magician’s technique, which nowadays is called the principle of “multiple outs.”
We are talking of a time before the Indian rope trick was too famous. The audiences were not told that the climber was going to vanish at the top of the rope. They were told a dramatic story of how he was “going to heaven,” or “going to fight a battle in the sky,” or some such tale. The storyline was what was important, and the story was arranged so that no matter what the audience saw, it still fitted in with the tale. Those who, not distracted, saw the boy come down from the cord and enter the basket, simply saw a DIFFERENT TRICK! For them, a vanish occurred a little later when the basket, having been punctured with a sword, was found to be empty. This explains, to a great extent, the difference in stories between witnesses of the trick.
Thus it can be seen that it was fame that destroyed the original Indian rope trick. Once audiences were told that a climber was about to vanish at the top of a rope in the open air, no amount of misdirection could drag their eyes away from the figure up the rope. And that is why no one could claim the rewards that were offered for such a performance!
Should you think that this sort of “vanish by misdirection” is impractical, read this description of the basket trick as performed in the 1870s. Nowadays we think of the basket-vanish of a person as always being accomplished by the curling around of the person’s body in the bulging sides of the basket. In years gone by, that was not the only method used:
“The girl, bound hand and foot was forced into a shallow basket, into which she was compressed with difficulty. Then a lid was placed upon the basket, and Ghoodoo proceeded to inveigh against the girl in no measured terms, as if he were a counsel in the Divorce Court, and finally, in a rage, leaped on the basket lid and crushed it in, then trampled on it - mind, it rested on the floor - then, seizing a sword, thrust it down and through the basket again and again, and pretended to gloat over the blood on the blade. But a sharp-eyed lady, who did not permit her attention to be diverted for a moment, saw the girl glide like a shadow out of the basket when the eyes of the audience were turned on a little child, whom Ghoodoo seized among the crowd of natives, and pretended to behead with his sword for some complicity with the woman in bonds. At all events the trick was done so well that the spectators could scarcely credit their senses when they saw the basket was quite empty.” - The Argus (Melbourne, Australia), Saturday 18 March 1876, page 5.
Lee Siegel, in his “Net of Magic,” page 99, tells of the misdirection of the Indian street magician: “Whenever the magician needs to divert the attention of his spectators …. he has only to suddenly throw something else to his son …. Every eye in the audience, fearing that it will miss some bit of trickery, follows the object through the air without remembering that it has done so.” That remark reveals the power of good misdirection. The spectators do not remember they looked away!
Yet another way of showing that the boy is not under an upturned basket where he was seen a few moments before is revealed in this story:
“The young woman, who may have weighed seven stone, but more probably six, lay down, and her husband placed over her a shallow, flat basket, with a handle at the back, exactly resembling the baskets used for vegetables in East Anglia, and called a ‘frail.’ Then with a light and graceful gesture, he took up the basket, and laid it down two or three feet off. The woman had vanished, and the audible amazement seemed deeply to gratify the juggler. Unfortunately, I am essentially an awkward man; in stepping back I trod on the edge of the frail, and heard a little cry of pain. The whole thing had been a case of superb acting. The young woman had learned to hook herself with her fingers and prehensile toes into the strong matwork forming the top of the frail, and the husband, a slight but powerful man, had learned to lift her as if he were lifting nothing but the basket. Of course, I said nothing about my awkwardness. The juggler, after one savage glance, said nothing either, and only two years ago the case was quoted in the papers as one of those only seen in India, and which, owing to the total absence of machinery, could not be explained away.” - Australian Town and Country Journal (New South Wales), Wednesday 20 January 1904, page 39.
Consider this: the Lamont-Wiseman interpretation of the eyewitness accounts (that witnesses exaggerated their stories more and more over time) is valid only if the witnesses were lying. It is true there are always some tall tales. But suppose the witnesses very largely told the truth, and the vanish of the climber was accomplished by misdirection, ventriloquism and the multiple outs principle, as I have outlined. The trick must necessarily have become more and more difficult to deceive an audience with as the fame of the “vanish in the air” spread. So the Lamont-Wiseman figures would indicate only that magicians’ performances became less and less impressive over time.
In the end, the complete trick became so rare that witnesses were unjustly branded romancers and liars. Just as the earlier basket trick methods using misdirection have gone, leaving only the “bulging basket” technique in use, so the vanish at the top of the rope has gone, today’s magicians concentrating on developing mechanical ropes that will take the rope and the climber higher and higher.
But yes, once the fabled illusion did exist. A climber, seen ascending, then heard as a disembodied voice, then gone completely, bewildered audiences for centuries, going back to the time of Shankara. The version described by Shankara has the juggler who threw up the thread climb up it himself, but the principle behind his disappearance would be the same. A companion beside him could easily have taken his place at the foot of the thread to help. Shankara’s description also includes the battle in the sky and the falling of the pieces of the juggler. According to another description which includes these details (Varma, pages 54-5), it seems this could have been accomplished simply by theatrical drama, suggestion, and sound effects. After the incredible vanish, the audience will accept the drama of it all without much further thought.
Remember Shankara’s words? “Different from the thread and the juggler who ascended it, there stands the real juggler. Just as he stands on the ground, unseen on account of being veiled magically, so too, is the supreme Reality.” It is misdirection of attention that made the climber invisible, and the philosophy of Shankara holds that it is our misdirected attention towards the phenomenal world (creation) that makes Reality (God) invisible to us. That is what this Sanskrit passage is discussing. In order to use the trick as an example for this teaching, Shankara must have known how the trick was done.
This is confirmed by Shankara’s other use of the juggler’s trick, teaching a related lesson in the Vedanta Sutra: “God is different to be sure from the one imagined through ignorance to be embodied, the agent, the experiencer, and called the Self conditioned by the intellect, the difference being made in the same sense that the magician standing on the ground is fancied to be different from the magician holding sword and shield in hands and climbing up by a rope to the sky, though in reality the first is the very essence of the latter” (Gambhirananda, page 70).
Difficult? Not when you understand Shankara’s teaching about reality and illusion. He teaches that the only thing that really exists is Pure Being, Pure Consciousness. We only imagine, through ignorance, that we are separate, individual beings and that there are separate individual objects apart from us. As an illustration, he points to the illusory juggler who climbs the rope, a phantom produced by ventriloquism, suggestion, and the ignorance of the spectator. This phantom, and the real juggler who remains on the ground, are one and the same. It is a perfect illustration for his teaching, but, as far as I know, in his entire body of work Shankara used the trick only on these two occasions, probably because in order to understand this example his students would need to have seen the trick and understood how it was done.
Gambhirananda, Swami (tr.), BRAHMA SUTRA BHASYA OF SANKARACARYA, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 1965.
Kellar, Harry. A MAGICIAN’S TOUR, Donohue, Henneberry & Co, Chicago, 1886.
Lamont, Peter. THE RISE OF THE INDIAN ROPE TRICK, Abacus, London, (paperback) 2005.
Lee, Rev. F. G. GLIMPSES IN THE TWILIGHT, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh & London, 1885.
Ovington, J. A VOYAGE TO SURATT IN THE YEAR 1689, Jacob Tonson, London, 1696.
Panoli, V. (tr.) PRASTHANATHRAYA VOL II, Mathrubhumi Printing & Publishing Co, Calicut, 2006.
Rouse, W. H. D. (tr.), THE JATAKA VOL IV, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1901.
Siegel, Lee. NET OF MAGIC, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1991.
Varma, H. L. THE INDIAN ROPE TRICK, Society of Indian Magicians, Bombay, 1942.
All of the Australian newspapers quoted may be viewed online at the website of the National Library of Australia: http://trove.nla.gov.au