Knowing one's ropes

MAGIC HAS a hoary tradition in India. The most famous of Indian magic is the Great Indian Rope Trick. Here are a few historical and famous rope tricks that have been performed down the ages.

It will come as a surprise to most readers that China, not India, was the scene of the first recorded story about the rope trick, and it is said that no rope was used.

For this trick, the magician tossed a wooden ball, to which several leather thongs were attached, skywards, and the ball suddenly went out of sight. The magician then commanded one of his assistants to climb up a leather thong and go after the ball.

When the boy was out of sight, the magician called out to him in vain to return.

When the second and third commands to return were also ignored, the magician grasped a knife and went up the thong himself. Soon severed hands, legs, arms, a torso, and a head fell to the ground. The magician is then said to have slid back down into view, his clothes thick with blood.

He kissed the earth, spoke several magic words, then heaped together the dismembered pieces of his assistant's body, and gave them a kick. Instantly the boy jumped up, fully restored and seemingly unharmed.

Emperor Jehangir has described another version of the rope trick which took place in his court some time between 1605 and 1627.

Again, it is said, no rope was used. A member of a Bengal troupe threw one end of a 50-cubit length of chain in the air, where it remained standing erect.

A dog ran up the chain and vanished. It was followed by a hog, a panther, a lion, and a tiger, which were all swallowed up in space. At the end of the trick, the performers took down the chain, coiled it up in a bag, bowed and left, leaving their spectators dumbfounded. An even more fascinating rope trick was reported in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1550, according to the accounts of Johann Weir.

A magician hurled a cord upwards, and his pony ascended it. The magician is said to have followed holding the pony's tail. His wife tagged after him, followed by her maid. At this point in Weir's tale, a curious passer-by joined the wide-eyed spectators and asked why everyone was looking skyward. When informed about the mysterious vanishing, the passer-by told the crowd it had been deceived for he had just seen the wizard down the road going into a tavern.


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