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India’s forgotten magical history

A new book revisits the influence of magicians, conjurers and tricksters on India's social and political history

‘Fakirs’ and their prophetic powers make a telling appearance in the book. Photo: Alamy
‘Fakirs’ and their prophetic powers make a telling appearance in the book. Photo: Alamy

Sometime in the last decade—when I was still in school and the world was less hysterical—I happened to meet a “sun yogi". He was a fascinating man, swathed in white, with a long beard and an enviable figure. His face beamed, more or less on a permanent basis, and he endured cheerfully my stabs at polite conversation. Mr Uma Sankar, I was eventually told, meditated daily, staring straight at the sun. And from the sun, “like plants and trees", he absorbed energy in such adequate doses that since 1996, he had neither eaten, nor slept, nor tasted a drop of water. To be clear, I wasn’t prepared to digest such claims upfront, but the unwisdom of picking a public quarrel with a yogi was manifest—and so, having made mixed sounds in response, I excused myself to return to people of my own nutritional preferences.

Earlier this week, however, this odd little episode resurfaced in my memory as I read John Zubrzycki’s riveting Jadoowallahs, Jugglers And Jinns (Pan Macmillan India). For, in its pages, I was thrilled to find the words of a traveller called Abu Zayd al-Sirafi who, 1,000 years before my own encounter with the sun yogi, had come across another such consumer of extraterrestrial rays. He described seeing men who “stand upright all day facing the sun", one of whom he met after 16 years, still going strong, till the Persian wondered “how his eyes had not melted from the heat of the sun". There was, in consonance with my own sentiments, a degree of incredulity in his account, but what is fascinating is that a whole millennium after Abu Zayd’s contemporary was at it, there is still a yogi doing precisely the same thing, living up (apparently) to the very same sunny tradition.

Zubrzycki’s book (of which the British title, Empire Of Enchantment, is more appealing) is officially a history of Indian magic. But it is in some ways also a history of the subcontinent itself. The Harappans make an appearance, as do the Vedas, for instance. We meet P.C. Sorcar, and more than one Mughal emperor. And it isn’t only my personal memory that finds an echo in antiquity through Zubrzycki’s writing—in the 1940s, hearing that the British resident in princely Hyderabad had witnessed a fakir “slit his stomach open and spread his bowels on a tray", a comment was made that this was hardly “an appetising number" at a cocktail party. Emperor Gaozong in seventh-century China might have agreed, for he, too, once during “an evening feast", was horrified to find Brahmins cutting themselves open in an effort to entertain him.

Magic, for Zubrzycki, lies clustered around religion, ritual, science and performance. He does not investigate this idea itself as much as he ought to have, perhaps, but what he does present is a rich, meticulous assortment of tales, travellers’ accounts, and fascinating archival treasures that tell, in parts, the stories of marginalized (and sometimes criminalized groups), the global exchange of magical skills, and sometimes obscure anecdotes sharp with hilarious detail. So, despite the occasional slip (Abu Zayd, for instance, is placed in the ninth century, when he was in fact a 10th century figure), the book remains engaging. And though, towards the end, it moves towards a decided focus on the West’s embrace of Indian magic, Zubrzycki retains steam and continues to hold attention by the sheer wealth of information unearthed from multiple continents.

Some of these are pure gems. For instance, while there is reading on the Rig Veda and Indra as the master of magic (indrajal), there is also charming material on the Atharva Veda and its recommendations for penis enlargement and body hair removal. The Nujum al-Ulum, a 16th century text from Bijapur (with cow-headed angels, Tantric deities, and everything from horses to halwa), also makes a cameo, as does the concept of maya in Adi Sankara’s advaita philosophy. One of the best stories, traced through official paperwork, relates to Motilal Nehru’s desire to send “performers, musicians, acrobats and artizans" to the Paris Exhibition in 1900. While the protector of emigrants in Mumbai felt they should be categorized as manual labourers going abroad, the commissioner of customs disagreed. In the end, the viceroy, Lord Curzon, was left to determine the burning question of whether magic “executed by sleight of hand" counted as manual labour.

Matters of race, and other imperial anxieties, also feature in Zubrzycki’s pages. When, for instance, a “pure European child" was discovered with a group of jugglers in Hingoli in 1858, a minor panic was unleashed that whites were being abducted by itinerant natives. Such mobile groups had another sinister role to play as well—Zubrzycki notes Kautilya’s recommendation that magicians and fortune-tellers be used as spies, which reminds one of how, indeed, in the 18th century, puppeteers, sadhus and others often served as intelligence agents for Indian regimes. The role, for instance, of fakirs who descended on British cantonments on the eve of the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, prophesizing the imminent fall of colonial rule, is telling.

In sum, Zubrzycki’s book, featuring judicial apes in Orissa, goats that could tear down wild boars, emperors obsessed with necromancy, and Sufis and Buddhists, makes for a terrific read. There are some themes the author could have explored in greater depth, but this is a task he consciously leaves to scholars in the future. His chief lament, however, is one that rings true—the communities that practised magic on our streets are disappearing, and dying with them is a tremendous chunk of our cultural history. Whether this can be reversed is not clear, but by compiling so many of their tales, and doing it in such delectable style, Zubrzycki not only paints a vivid picture of their wonderful universe, but also makes his own contribution to help preserve their memory.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

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