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Floating Yogis in the Fourteenth Century March 9, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Here is a text that has long got on Beachcombing’s nerves. A fourteenth-century Arab traveller finds himself invited to the court of an Indian sultan and there has an encounter with some local yogis.

*The Sultan sent for me once when I was with him at Delhi, and on entering I found him in a private apartment with some of his intimates and two of these yogis. They were wearing long cloaks and had their heads covered, because they remove all their hair with ashes as people generally remove the hair of the armpits. After the sultan had ordered me to sit down and I had done so, he said to them ‘This distinguished man comes from a far country, so show him something that he has not seen’, to which they replied, ‘Yes’.

One of them squatted on the ground, then rose from the ground into the air above our heads, still sitting. I was so astonished and frightened that I fell to the floor in a faint. The sultan gave orders to administer to me a potion that he had there and I revived and sat up.

Meantime, this man remained in his sitting posture. His companion then took a sandal from a sack he had with him, and beat it on the ground like one infuriated. The sandal rose in the air until it came above the neck of the sitting man and then began hitting him on the neck while he descended little by little until he sat down alongside us.

The sultan said to me, ‘The man sitting is the pupil of the owner of the sandal’. Then he said, ‘If I did not fear for your reason I would have ordered them to do still stranger things than this you have seen.’

I took my leave but was affected with palpitations and felt ill, until he ordered me to be given a draught which removed it all.

The sensible reaction on reading this would be: yes, yes, fantastical Arab text, scion of the 1001 Nights, feeding on Fakir-rope-trick tradition. Let’s move on…

Please believe Beachcombing when he says that there is nothing he would rather do. The problem is that this anecdote appears in a bona fide, five-star, ultra-reliable source. The author is no other than the great Ibn Battuta (obit 1369) a candidates for the most travelled medieval man. Ibn Battuta mooched from Marrakesch in the west, to Tanzania in the south, to Beijing in the east in the fourteenth century (many other posts, many other days).

Ibn Battuta Rihla are justly seen as one of the great works of world-travel literature and Ibn Battuta was no Cassanova let alone a Munchhausen: in other words he can be trusted.

So how, in all seriousness, do we deal with this episode? Beachcombing can think of other ‘strange’ episodes in the lives of reliable medieval witnesses. But other ‘strange’ episodes tend to be either second-hand or/and momentary or/and open to other interpretations – something especially true of, say, eye-witness accounts of miracles in the Christian world.

It is difficult, on the other hand, to understand how, in the name of heaven, this particular episode could be open to misinterpretation: Beachcombing tried to read the text as meaning the yogis jumped into the air, but it just doesn’t work… Indeed, there was such a strong visual impression that the admittedly nervy Ibn Battuta fainted.

Yes, Ibn Battuta was spiritually inclined and he frequently understood the world around him in terms of the invisible universe. For example, he came to believe that he was rescued by a saint in an episode just before he recounts the tale of the flying yogis. He too was often rather naïve about hundred-tongued Rumour. But again here there seems to have been precious little interpretation: Ibn Battuta was a simple eye witness and the experience was his own.

So what does the sceptic in Beachcombing do with this episode?

(i) Beachcombing’s Arab is not the best (ahem, = 0) there has been a mistranslation or a textual addition of the kind that anyone who has suffered under Marco Polo will know all too well. Ibn Juzzi edited Ibn Battuta’s text when the traveller dictated his memories: there is some potential for misunderstanding then and that old whore memory will have got in the way. Beachcombing must note though that Ibn Battuta is ‘in character’ in this passage.

(ii) The sultan, the dreadful Muhammad bin Tughluq (obit 1351), had a little phial put in Ibn Battuta’s drink or Ibn Battuta suffered from another form of temporary insanity.

(iii) Unbeknownst to modern scholars Ibn Battuta did, in fact, lie when the mood took him.

Any ideas? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. Beachcombing asks as he is particularly terrified of:

(iv) It really happened.

That way madness lies…


9 March 2011: Beachcombing got this valuable email from JLB for which he is extremely grateful: ‘You left out a fourth option:  The Fakirs were Fakers. Okay, so without knowing the original Arabic, I don’t know if we can separate ‘fakir’ from ‘yogi’, but it was too much to pass up.  Forgive me. Regardless, there are a host of street magicians today that get people to believe a variety of things.  I’ve personally seen ‘levitation’ tricks that can be done with no wires.  Add wires, and you get other issues altogether. Was Tughluq trying to put on a ‘show’ for his visitor to impress him with the magical prowess of his subjects? Were the Yogis some sort of ‘religious magician’ using mundane means to cause Tughluq and others to better appreciate (or pay for) their holy teachings? Some other things occur to me as we read this account.  I remember watching an amateur Rajasthani magician back in December of this year. He was using a blanket quite effectively.  Despite reading the description of their ‘long cloaks’ the image that comes to mind is of two loincloth clad yogis performing these tricks with nowhere to hide anything.  However, with a ‘long cloak’, I could easily see that one might be able to make it appear as though you have risen, while remaining in a seated position.  The sandal, too, I could see working, in part, through the power of suggestion, misdirection, and using a cloak to hide from view those movements or items that would not be beneficial to the trick. Just a thought.  We often talk about how much more sophisticated technology was back then – why not magic tricks as well?’ Beachcombing now has his favourite explanation and will sleep easier, being a frequent victim to magic tricks though he has not the slightest idea how the tricks were carried out. Thanks JLB!

18 March 2011: Kandinsky builds on the magic trick theory: ‘Ibn Battuta’s account could be accurate in his perception of events. However, I’m wondering if the political overcame the metaphysical in this case? In this light, could it be possible that the great Sultan was Machiavellian and suspected that Ibn Battuta posed a risk to his ‘national security?’ The simple fact that he granted an audience suggests that he considered Battuta as someone of importance. Perhaps the Sultan erred on the side of caution and considered Batuta as a potential espionage agent? In the spirit of Sun Tsu, he may well have contrived a scene of supernatural power to deter Persian incursions. As recently as the 19th Century, Belgian forces in the Congo fired blanks at their own to show how powerful they were whilst killing the odd local with live rounds. No doubt the Sultan was party to a conjuring, ‘smoke and mirrors’ parlour trick that appeared to show people with the ability to float. With tongue in cheek, maybe Mr Battuta was in a darkened room whilst men in black clothes, against a black curtain, lifted the white-clad yogis and beat them with slippers? His apparent ‘faint’ and resuscitation reminds me of woeful melodrama. Of course, our scepticism could be misplaced and floating yogis were regularly beaten by Disneyesque slippers…’ Thanks Kandinsky!!

1 May 2011: Moonman kindly wrote in with an extract from Corliss’ Unfathomed Mind relating to the Indian Rope Trick (another post another day). Is this a muddled account of the extract given here? ‘Through another correspondent  of the Morning Post, Mr F.D. Logan, I was referred to an account of the trick in the journal of the great Moorish traveller, Ibn Battuta, who went to China in about 1345 and records how he there saw a juggler take a wooden ball with holes in which were long leather thongs and throw it in the air till it rose right out of sight – the audience were sitting in the Palace Court during the hot season – when nothing remained in his hand but a short piece of the cord (or thong). He then ordered an apprentice to go up the cord until he too disappeared from sight. The juggler called him three times without receiving any reply, so he took a knife and climbed up till he disappeared from sight. The juggler called him three times without receiving any reply, so he took a knife and climbed up till he disappeared as well. He then threw down the boy’s hands, feet and trunk and finally his head and then came down himself puffing and blowing and smeared with blood. After saluting Ibn Battuta’s host, an Emir, he placed the boy’s limbs touching one another and gave them a kick, when [the boy] rose as sound as ever. This so amazed Ibn Battuta that he got a palpitation of the heart, so they gave him a potion, and then a Cadi sitting next to him told him that there was no climbing or coming down or cutting up of the limbs at all, but that the whole thing was hocus-pocus.’ (p. 534) This must be another extract, but with equivalent problems? Then George Kenney writes in with his own levitation experience from younger days. ‘In short, when I was a kid, about sixteen, I was mad about something and mentally cursing for hours before going to sleep and then, for a very, very short time, became what one might call possessed. I didn’t levitate up, but my body slid horizontally about two feet down the bed I was laying on, and my body then arched up (out of my control), I loudly blurted out some words (which I immediately forgot), and slumped back onto the bed. Needless to say, it was a terrifying experience and for the rest of that night I was curled up praying that whatever it was that had happened wouldn’t happen anymore. And it’s not something I ever talked about for many, many years. Now I see it as more of a curiosity than a case of possession, but I firmly believe that in that incident my body did something totally out of my control, something that defied gravity. Strange old world, eh?’ Thanks to Moonman and George for their goodness in writing in!!

14 July 2011: Flying Rat writes in to say ‘the discussion of yogic levitation has been a very interesting one. I recently came across a video which provides some further ‘illumination’ of how such a thing might be achieved:  Quite clever!’ Thanks Flying Rat!!