Indian Rope Trick Part II

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick - Indian Chain TrickThis is a continuation of my article about The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. Check out Part I. This one deals with an actual effect, the Indian Chain Trick.

As promised, I am going to explain the Indian Chain Trick, the magical illusion that is most like the Indian Rope Trick, but which probably had nothing to do with the creation of the myth because John Elbert Wilkie probably knew nothing about it.

The Mogul Emperor Jahangir reported on the Indian Chain Trick some time around 1600. What he wrote was not translated into English until 1829, and what I quote here is Peter Lamont quoting from this English translation in his book, The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. It seems that the conjurers

produced a chain of 50 cubits in length [roughly 23 meters], and in my presence threw one end of it towards the sky, where it remained as if fastened to something in the air. A dog was then brought forward, and being placed at the lower end of the chain, immediately ran up, and reaching the outer end, immediately disappeared in the air. In the same manner a hog, a panther, a lion, and a tiger were successively sent up the chain and all equally disappeared at the upper end of the chain. At last they took down the chain and put it into a bag, no one ever discovering in what way the different animals were made to vanish into the air in the mysterious manner described.

This sounds amazing, but actually, Jahangir was not that impressed with this particular effect; the conjurers did much more amazing things like make fruit trees grow and produce ripe mangoes. But let’s forget the mango trick; it is well-know (to those in the know) and it’s secret can be learned from a variety of books. As far as I know, no one has explained the Indian Chain Trick. (And most likely, no one has cared.)

The biggest problem with explaining this trick is the hog. Regardless of how you look at it, hogs can’t climb up chains. The other animals — well, I could imagine they could be trained. But given that hogs can’t climb, I assume that none of the animals actually climbed up the chain. And yet, Jahangir claims they did. Leaving aside the fact that he was almost certainly wasted out of his mind on booze and opium, there are reasons to doubt his description of the effect.

The Problem with Eye-Witnesses

In my experience, when people describe magic tricks they have seen (without the help of booze and opium), they are not very accurate. For example, when someone sees the color changing deck, they will say, “The magician had me select a card from a blue deck of cards; then he fans out the deck and all the cards are red, except for the one I picked that is blue.” I don’t want to go into details here, but the trick started where it ended: with a red deck of cards and two blue cards.

What’s even more important is that magicians are liars. They talk and are generally entertaining and then they start their act. But… They already started it; during all that chitchat, they were doing the “trick”; in fact, in most cases, by the time the audience thinks the effect is starting, it is over from the magician’s standpoint. Ricki Jay’s Four Queen Routine is a good example of this, even though it may not be clear to the uninitiated — which is the whole point, after all. This isn’t always the case, of course; as an example, I would refer you to Daryl’s Rope Routine where he is doing straight sleight-of-hand throughout a six minute effect. But this is the exception, not the rule.

The Method

I can think of a few ways that the Indian Chain Trick could have been done. First the chain: most likely it was simply held up with thread — either from a single strand directly overhead, or two strands running off to each side (the way a tennis net is held up). Obviously, this would likely not even be strong enough to allow a rat to climb up the chain, so we move on to part two: the animal climb.

My guess is that the conjurers had a box that they performed the trick upon. It is from this box that the chain rose. On the top of this box was a trap door that allowed the hog (etc) to disappear into. But how would it do this without being seen? How would Jahangir (other than the drug effects) see the hog climb the chain? The answer is simpler than you would think: he didn’t see the hog climb the chain.

Instead, one of the conjurers would put the hog on top of the box. He would then obscure it from the audience with a screen. At this point, the hog would fall through the trap door, without Jahangir and the rest of the audience noticing — all would assume the hog was still behind the screen.

Now the conjurer would slowly raise this screen up to the top of the chain at the same time he said something along the lines of, “See how the hog climbs the chain!” And then, when at the top of the chain, the magician would pull away the screen and announce, “The hog has vanished!”

The emperor goes wild! No one remembers that they didn’t actually see the hog climb the chain. This is normally how people describe magic tricks they saw: they say they saw things that were only ever implied.

The Indian Chain Trick: Am I Right?

There are other possible methods of doing the Indian Chain Trick, but it was almost certainly something very similar to this. Magicians refer to “heat” in a magic trick. This is when the audience is paying a lot of attention. The point when the screen is removed to show the vanished pig has a lot of heat. But when the screen is first placed in front of the pig doesn’t have much heat because the audience isn’t aware that the trick has started.

Based upon the comment of Kenneth Wade Wilson below, I wonder if this description is unclear. If anyone has any questions, please ask me. It’s really very simple, and the concept is still widely used as in the die box.

6 thoughts on “Indian Rope Trick Part II

  1. You have the babble demon. It confuses words of explanation by experts, making them annoying to read or listen to. Your explanation disintegrated over three paragraphs from "My guess is …" to "…has vanished!" I cast thee out in the name of Jesus Christ, only son of Rebbe Hillel and the underaged last Hasmonian princess, Mary, he kept in a brick house at the temple compound. Amen, amen.

    • Is that a reference to that old comment or the article? I’m planning to write more about the Indian Rope Trick. It’s fascinating.

  2. Hi!
    I found an old book printed in 1919 in India. There is the rope trick also. It really goes much as you describe. The difference is that a boy climbs up the rope and really disappears. The boy stays up in there and then in the right moment runs far from the eyes of the audience. Faraway he climbs down. He comes back by the back of the audience. The boy then goes in a basket and helpers carry the basket near the magician where he can open it.
    In outside magician needs the help of the sun, so the audience has to be dazzled.

    • You should read the book I was writing about! There are many different versions of it. It’s been years since I read it, but it was a very fun book!

      I remember reading about the trick in magic books when I was kid. Lots of explanations were offered. It was good to find out that the trick never really existed because the “secrets” made no sense at all!

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