The famed Indian rope trick – a myth, a product of mass hypnosis, or was it really magic? The trick, involving a coil of rope that is magically extended skyward, has yet to be duplicated by modern day magicians despite centuries of exhaustive study by scholars and expert magicians.
An early account from India in the 14th century, tells of a magician using a coil of rope with a large wooden ball tied to one end. The magician tossed the wooden ball high into the air. Instead of returning to the ground, it rose higher and higher until the rope disappeared into the clouds. A small boy (the magician’s assistant) jumped to the rope and began climbing hand over hand until he too disappeared into the clouds. After a few minutes the magician called the boy – no reply. Impatiently, the magician grabbed his razor-edged sword and began climbing skyward. Moments later the crowd began hearing screams of pain and a small object fell to the ground. The crowd retreated in horror when they realized the object was the hand of a small boy. Moments later another hand fell, then a head, then a torso. Suddenly the magician reappeared, assembled the bloody body parts into the crude shape of a human, and gave the form a sharp kick. The boy, now miraculously restored, jumped to his feet with glee.
The trick continued to astound onlookers well into the early 1930’s. Ibn Batuta, when recounting his travels through Hangzhou, China in 1346, describes a trick broadly 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. And in 1890, the Chicago Tribune published an article describing the trick. Many of the world’s greatest magicians traveled to India in hopes of tracing the origin of the effect but to no avail. For a time it seemed that the trick was destined to remain eternally out of reach.
In 1955, a Indian guru named Sadju Vadramakrishna came forward and announced he had performed the trick himself. He claimed that the trick, when performed at night, owed much of its success to the blinding torches placed around the perimeter of the audience. The torches he explained, allowed the crowd to see no more than 15 feet into the sky. Beforehand, he had placed a thin wire, tied between 2 strong trees about 20 feet off of the ground. The wooden ball, fitted with a large hook, grappled the wire making the rope appear to be suspended in mid air. He and his assistant were both skilled acrobats who could easily remain perched atop the wire. The body parts? Concealed in his cloak were the remains of a dead monkey which he slowly tossed, piece by piece, to the ground. Upon returning to the ground, his assistant, also hidden under his cloak, would magically appear culminating this remarkable act of deception.
Although Vadramakrishna’s vague explanation served to satisfy most casual listeners, others had their doubts. What he failed to explain and what thousands of eyewitnesses reported, was how the trick was performed from the 14th century onward in broad daylight…