Forgotten feats of Indian jugglers

Pran Nevile

THE most amazing and mind-boggling tricks and feats are said to have been performed by Indian jugglers. European accounts refer at length to their performances, including the famous rope trick, and other feats of legerdemain unknown in the West. Foreigners were so completely wonder-struck after seeing these that some of them attributed mysterious and supernatural powers to these jugglers.

Man showing levitation by John Gautz, C. 1820
Man showing levitation by John Gautz, C. 1820

The most controversial and mysterious of all has been the legendary Indian rope trick. It finds a mention in the Jatakas and also in the commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad. Shankaracharya speaks of “the magician, the mayavin who throws a cord up into the air, and armed, climbs up it, beyond the range of sight, to enter into battle and be dismembered; after his bodily parts have fallen to the ground, he is seen to rise up again and there is no concern over thinking about the reality of the magic trick that has been performed.”

A somewhat similar description of this miraculous feat is found in Sir Henry Yule’s account of Marco Polo who had heard or seen it. Another popular version of this trick is attributed to Ibn Batuta who witnessed it at Delhi in the 14th century. Then in the 17th century there is a graphic account of the rope trick in the memoirs of Jahangir who witnessed the performance at his court. By the end of the 19th century, newspapers in India and abroad carried reports by travellers who claimed to have witnessed the rope trick.


Morning Post,
London, carried the testimony of Sir Ralph Pearson Lt. Governer of the North-West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P.) who had seen the rope trick in West Khandesh district of Bombay. Lord Fredrick Hamilton who thought he had seen the trick, concluded that it was the result of many salaams that the magician executed and produced a drugged audience or mass hypnosis which helped the legend live. There were, however, many sceptics who dismissed it both as miracle and as a trick. Some others held that the trick was indeed performed, not just as a miracle but as an artful illusion.

Finally, the mystery of the trick is unraveled by A.C. Brown in his interesting book, The Ordinary Man’s India (1927). “The rope trick”, he writes, “is more talked about than seen. But nevertheless there is a certain amount of truth in the story of this Eastern magic.” He cites the evidence of three Europeans, all of whom had actually seen the trick with their own eyes. The first is Lady Waghorn who had seen it near Madras in 1892 and wrote about it in the The Daily Mail testifying to the genuineness of the rope trick. She describes how standing about 15 feet from the magician, she saw a fairly stout rope thrown up about 12 feet into the air. It became rigid, and a boy of about twelve climbed up and vanished at the top. A few minutes later he reappeared in the branches of a mango tree in the garden 100 yards away.

Juggler swallowing a sword blade by Capt Charles Gold, C.1790.
Juggler swallowing a sword blade by Capt Charles Gold, C.1790.

The second testimony was given to the author by Bodalin, a Dutchman living in Calcutta, who witnessed it on the maidan. His experience was similar to that described by Lady Waghorn, save only that after the boy had apparently ascended the rigid rope, the magician himself ran up the rope and shouted to the boy to come down. There was no reply, so the magician in a rage whipped out a knife and slashed it wildly above his head. When he slid down the rope, the knife in his hand was dripping with what appeared to be blood. Soon thereafter, the boy appeared forcing his way to the centre from the outskirts of the crowd.

Next, he relates the testimony of Colonel Bernard, Commissioner of Police in Calcutta, which really solves once and for all the mystery of the rope trick. The colonel was invited to attend a private performance of the rope trick in an Indian house. He asked another police officer to accompany him, and managed to take unobserved a small camera also. While the performance was going on the colonel managed to secure several snapshots of the proceedings. He saw the boy climb the rope and disappear, large as life, and stand again by the side of the conjurer.

He was frankly amazed, and said so; but when he developed these negatives he found the camera had not seen as much as its master. There was the boy and the conjurer, but the rope was on the ground at the very moment when the colonel had seen it in the air. And the boy also was on the ground—shown clearly on each negative. The author concludes that as the camera cannot lie, its evidence had to be believed, so the only explanation possible is that the whole affair was an optical illusion. Everybody knows what the rope trick is, they see what they expect and want to see, and are self-hypnotised.

Another very popular show reported from the 17th century onwards was the mango trick. Here, the juggler would plant a mango stone in the ground and show at brief intervals the plant rising above the ground and successively producing leaves, flowers and fruit as he continued with his incantations. Both Taverner and Bernier have given descriptions of this trick. So also, the Rev Ovington (1688) who believed that it was due to black magic, because a gentleman became ill after eating one of the mangoes, and did not recover until following a brahmin’s advice, he restored it to the juggler. An English chaplain on seeing the trick protested against Christians witnessing such shows which involved the display of non-Christian powers.

Another trick, considered an unprecedented one in the annals of jugglery by Europeans was the basket trick involving the mysterious disappearance of a girl. It was an instance of visual illusion and appeared to contain an element of the marvellous. The Rev. Caunter in his journal (1834) gives a vivid description of this trick. Under a wicker basket, the juggler placed a small girl, about eight years old. When she was properly secured, he asked her some questions, which she instantly answered; and the voice appeared to come so distinctly from the basket, that there was no deception. They held a conversation for some moments, when the juggler, seized a sword, and, plunged it through, withdrawing it several times and repeating the plunge with all the blind ferocity of an excited demon.

Rev Caunter writes: “The blood ran in streams from the basket; the child was heard to struggle under it; her groans fell horridly upon the ear; her struggles smote painfully upon the heart. The former were gradually subdued into a faint moan and the latter into a slight rustling sound; we seemed to hear the last convulsive gasp which was to set her innocent soul free from the gored body, when to our inexpressible astonishment and relief, after muttering a few cabalistic words, the juggler took up the basket, but no child was to be seen. The spot was indeed dyed with blood but there were no mortal remains, and after a few moments of undissembled wonder, we perceived the little object of our alarm coming towards us among the crowd. She advanced and saluted us, holding out her hand for our donations, which we bestowed with hearty good-will.

What rendered the deception the more extraordinary was that the man stood aloof from the crowd during the whole performance – there was not a person within several feet of him”. The French traveller, Louis Rousselet (1860s), who also witnessed the basket trick noted that it was one of the most curious tricks of the East.

Another amazing feat which bewildered spectators was the swallowing of a sword blade apparently at the risk of one’s life. It is described at great length by James Forbes in his Oriental Memoirs (1813). “Seating himself the juggler took the sword, which had a straight blade, about 26 inches in length and one in breadth, with edges and point blunted, and after oiling it, he introduced the point into his mouth and pushed it gently down his throat” until the hand of Forbes, who held the hilt, came in contact with his lips. “He then made a sign to me” says the narrator, “with one of his hands, to feel the point of sword between his breast and navel, which I could plainly do by bending him a little more backwards, and pressing my fingers on his stomach”. On withdrawing the blade, blood was seen on some parts of it. Sir Thomas Munro in his narrative (c. 1810) mentions that the juggler, after showing his skill with the sword blade, swallowed a complete horse’s tail about two feet long, introducing it into his mouth by the lower end, and gorging it to the very stump, without distorting a feature in his face, though the uneven hairs must have pricked his throat as they descended.

Levitation shows have also been recorded by many travellers. According to Thomas Frost, “the serial suspension was performed in 1820s at Madras by an old Brahmin Seshal, with no better apparatus than a piece of plank, which with four legs he formed into an oblong stool; and upon which, in a little brass socket, he placed in a perpendicular position, a hollow bamboo, from which projected a kind of crutch, covered with a piece of common hide, he was seen poised in the air about four feet from the ground in a sitting attitude, the outer end of one hand merely touching the crutch, with fingers deliberately counting beads, and the other hand and arm held up in an erect posture”. In 1875, Harry Keller, in the company of the Prince of Wales witnessed a levitation in the maidan of Calcutta. It was believed that some Indian yogis, through spiritual means, could defy physical laws.