Connect to share and comment

The Great Indian Rope Trick

How an Indian magician's quest for greatness trapped him in debt.

Ishamuddin, right, watches his brother climb a rope which apparently rose to his magical commands during a performance in New Delhi on July 24, 1995. The Great Indian Rope Trick, last executed successfully in the 14th century, involved Ishamuddin stroking the 10-feet-long rope and commanding it to rise. (Sunil Malhotra/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India —On the roof of his house in West Delhi's Kathputli Colony, Ishamuddin tells the story of his life.

Like most life stories, it's a story about a dream. It's a story about striving for greatness, about success, and, ultimately, about failure. It's also the story of one of India's and the magic world's greatest mysteries — an Orientalist fantasy of fakirs and opium smoke and snake charmers, or the most astounding illusion that the world has ever known. It's the story of the Great Indian Rope Trick.

“Forget the trick!” said Ishamuddin. “Just you show me that long rope, which will go from the earth to the sky. Which company was making that rope in the 14th century? And suppose the rope was there, how would the poor magician carry that long rope? It would take the area of all Delhi!”

Though every cartoon-watching school kid in America has seen it done by Bugs Bunny, Ishamuddin first heard about the rope trick when American author Lee Siegel came to stay with him to do research for a book called "Net of Magic." According to Ishamuddin, Siegel told him that the trick still commanded huge fascination abroad.

“At that time I didn't know how to read and write and speak English and all — but he showed us one page [and from] that we see the Indian rope trick and whoever will do the trick will get $10,000 from American Magic Circle and 20,000 pounds from British Magic Circle,” Ishamuddin said.

A seasoned huckster, Ishamuddin should have known better. But the prize money was more than he could hope to make in three or four years of performing. He was hooked. For the next six years, he dedicated his heart and soul to discovering the secret of the trick. And, eventually, he pulled it off. Almost.

Claimed by some to date back 700 years and more, when it was witnessed by travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta, the Indian rope trick is by all accounts a breathtaking illusion. With nothing but a basket on the roadside and the turban on his head, the magician makes a long length of rope slither into the sky like a serpent rising to the tune of snake charmer's flute, explains Peter Lamont, author of “The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick.”

Miraculously, his boy assistant climbs to the top of the rope and disappears. The magician calls for him to come back, but the boy refuses to return. Angry, the magician picks up a sword and climbs after him. At the top, he also disappears. Suddenly, the boy's severed limbs tumble to the ground in front of the audience, and the magician climbs down. Then he puts the body parts into the basket and produces the boy whole again.

It would be an amazing, impossible trick, a feat to top Siegfried and Roy, David Blaine, and even David Copperfield, who bamboozled Claudia Schiffer into a six-year engagement (six years!). The only trouble is that the Great Indian Rope Trick was a hoax, a myth of exotic India invented by a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, as Lamont discovered.

“It's a pity that no Indian has written about it. Everything was written by Europeans, and they made lots of mistakes,” said Ishamuddin, who says the rope trick was one of many legends spread so that magicians could scare pennypinching crowds to give them alms. “It was just a story that was used to attract people. But I found that it was a big attraction for the world, so I invented it.”