'Sorcerer's Apprentice' is the story of the author's quest for, and initiation into, the brotherhood of Indian godmen. Learning along the way from sadhus, sages, avatars and sorcerers - it's a journey which took him from Calcutta to Madras, from Bangalore to Bombay, in search of the miraculous. As a child of Afghan parents in rural England, Tahir Shah first witnessed magic at age 11, when an Indian Pashtun named Hafiz Jan visited. He learned the first secrets of illusion from this magician. More than two decades later - on Hafiz's instructions - he set out in search of this conjurer - one of India's greatest practitioners, a mysterious fellow named Hakim Feroze. He was the ancestral guardian of Shah's great grandfather's tomb. Feroze subjected his new apprentice to tortuous physical and mental exercises before casting him out into the streets to make note of whatever oddities he encounters. This tyrannical master of illusion, who set out to crush his student's spirit through grueling physical trials put him through his sorcery 'boot camp', which involved strange drills such as digging a deep hole with a dessert spoon, left-handed; separating dried rice and lentils blindfolded; and catching a dozen cockroaches at once in a small tin mug. Eventually, his pupil's skin bruised and raw and his temper strained, the magician unlocked the door to his secret laboratory. The miracles of India's godmen are at last revealed one by one: how to swallow stones, to stop one's pulse, turn water into wine, and many more. Next, as a cryptic test, Shah is sent to ferret out the secrets of Calcutta's Underworld - gaining the confidence of the city's aging hangman, its baby-renters, and skeleton dealers. Then, just as Shah is making headway, Feroze announces that he's to pack his bags and set out at once, on a ‘Journey of Observation‘. Shah learned trade secrets of hangmen and gold scroungers, eats in a restaurant that serves dishes prepared from refuse, visits a skeleton-processing factory, watches a psychic surgeon "operate." Then, accompanied by a 12-year-old scam artist he describes as "a walking crime wave," he travelled through India meeting sages, sorcerers, astrologers, mystics, healers, miracle workers and other brokers of the supernatural, including a medium who reads fortunes in eyeballs, a chemist who turns drinking water into petrol and a guru named Sri Gobind who causes Easter eggs to emerge from his ear, candles to ignite spontaneously and flowers to bow to him. Unlike most magicians, Shah reveals the secrets chemicals, props, sleight-of-hand and dozens of tricks e.g., Sri Gobind's flowers perform thanks to chloroform and his symbols of "new life and purity" are Safeway's expired chocolate Easter eggs. The Journey of Observation leads him to a cornucopia of characters. Illusionists all, some are immune to snake venom, others speak through oracles, and this lifts the veil on the East's most puzzling miracles. Along the way Shah witnesses a ‘duel of miracles‘, crosses paths with an impoverished billionaire, and even meets a part-time god. Revealing confidence tricks and ingenious scams, Sorcerer's Apprentice exposes a side of India that most writers never imagine to exist. India is famed as a land of miracles (supposed miracles), where godmen and mystics mesmerise audiences with wondrous feats of magic. In great cities and remote villages alike, these mortal incarnations of the divine turn rods into snakes, drink acid, eat glass, hibernate and even (appear to) levitate. Some live as kings, their devotees numbering hundreds of thousands; while others - virtually destitute - wander from village to village pledging to cure the sick, or bring rain in times of drought. Shah reveals a few professional secrets. For one, the Indian rope trick, that classic of conjuring, is effected not by legerdemain, but by the use of hallucinogenic smoke. And as to snake charming, well, 90 percent of India's snakes are non venomous, and it's easy enough to find a nonfatal variety that looks like one of the killer breeds. READ MORE ABOUT THE MIRACLES

India's brotherhood of Godmen are experts of the miraculous:-

How to Turn a Rod into a Snake
Regarded as perhaps the first stage illusion ever developed, the rod-to-snake deception dates back to the Bible’s Old Testament. It is commonly performed across India by godmen. The sorcerer casts his staff to the floor. As the audience watches aghast, it turns into a serpent and slithers away. The secret of the rod-to-snake illusion is that there is no rod.

The harmless serpent is pulled straight by the conjurer, who applies strong pressure to the centre of its head. The reptile goes into shock - rigid as a rod - only reviving once it is cast to the ground.

How to Eat Glass
Miracle workers prove their powers by performing superhuman feats. What better way to do this than to eat glass? A shard of glass from a crushed (transparent) lightbulb is placed on the tongue, chewed up and swallowed. The secret of eating glass is banana. Before the magician begins, he eats an ordinary banana. When the ground-up glass is swallowed, it embeds itself in the banana, and passes harmlessly through the digestive tract.

Every child grows up to stories of flying carpets and levitating sorcerers. The most common form of levitation in India - where an outstretched
magician rises from the ground - relies on a pair of ordinary walking sticks. Covering his body with a dark cloth, the conjurer conceals a round-ended walking stick beside each leg. With his neck tilted backwards, he raises his head and the sticks slowly, parallel to the ground. The curved ends of the sticks give the impression of feet. As the sticks rise it appears that the magician is levitating.

How to Hibernate

In the 183os, a man named Haridas came to the attention of the Maharajah of Lahore, claiming that he could be buried beneath the ground for forty days. These days most of the hibernations commonly performed by Indian godmen are much shorter than that, usually no longer than a few hours.

The favourite method of hibernation is for the anchorite to stand upside-down with his head buried in the ground. First, his head is wrapped in
loosely-woven gauze. A hole is dug in the ground, and the magician places his head in it. Then an assistant fills in the hole. Careful inspection invariably reveals that dry, fine sand is used to fill in around the guru’s head. With practice, virtually anyone can learn to breathe through such sand.

How to Plunge an Arm into Boiling Oil

Godmen purporting to have divine powers believe that overcoming pain proves their divinity. One simple way to do this is to withstand plunging one’s arm in an urn of boiling oil. As usual, there’s a secret involved. It is lime juice. Before the oil is heated, a cup of lime juice is poured into it. Long before the oil is hot, the juice boils, sending bubbles cascading to the surface - giving the impression that it’s actually the oil which is boiling.


Tahir Shah has a rare talent for interpreting - giving the feel of - India, distilling its uniqueness. Sorcerer's Apprentice nourishes a realistic hope
that when all other countries have lost their identities India will remain unhomogenised by globalisation. This book is not sentimental, or romantic, or condemning or condescending - just perceiving.

Tahir Shah's Sorcerer's Apprentice is surely the liveliest account to be written about an area of India so few of us have had the good fortune to visit.‘

‘Sorcerer's Apprentice is a truly fantastic journey into the million facets of magical India... This book is a hymn to man's imagination.’

‘This is a most engaging book, and a very funny one. Tahir Shah has a genius for surreal travelling, finding - or creating - situations and people.
The India described here is not to be found by any tourist, though tourists may usefully read this book to help them interpret baffling events. This India does not resemble anything I have read or seen on television. The other great bonus is the author’s exposure of "magic" and miracles. Every sort of scam or trick or illusion is explained here, as he travels from guru to avatar to magician. People who like being amazed by the arcane should avoid this book. Magicians are not going to thank Tahir Shah, but then they are probably safe, since people so badly want to believe. There is an incident here where a particularly meretricious holy man performing tricks, seen as miracles, is exposed as a fraudster, but the audience continue to gasp and marvel as if the exposure had never happened. Houdini’s feats are explained too. Is nothing sacred? No. I do most heartily recommend this book, informative as well as so attractive and entertaining. A page turner if there ever was one.’

Another great journey of discovery by Tahir Shah which has produced a fascinating book, getting right to the heart of India.‘

As I have pointed out already in numerous connections,  all the collected techniques of attracting and exploiting followers in the guru and godman tradition in India have been handed on through millennia to successors. Probably to a greater extent than any other priesthood in human history, the Vedic tradition and its many subsequent branches and departures is the first doctrine leading to methods of control and manipulation, subjugation to gods, doctrines, gurus and so on. Whatever the actual beliefs and dogma involved, Indoctrinating and manipulating the perceptions of seekers, spiritual aspirants and followers through supposed 'miracles' or 'leelas' runs throughout this religious tradition (as others too), in this case starting from the fantastic mythology of the ancient scriptures and texts like the Ramayana, the Srimad Bhagavata and the Mahabharata. There are most diverse and subtle variants on the behavioural methods and psychic techniques of of dominating others and providing clever rationalizations for all untoward events or other anomalies that crop up (see some links at the foot of this page). So sophisticated is this culture of deceiving appearances, deceptions and clever but outright criminality that even well-educated and scientifically-trained persons are quite easily hoodwinked, not seldom to the extent of giving over their entire life earnings and themselves to the service of these religious sects, cults and their impostors.  Need I mention who also throve on all this! There are many studies analyzing the sectarian cults and their practices, but few which go to the heart of the matter on the basis of inside experience of a most exacting kind. In the following collected and culled review materials on a most revealing book. In it one can read of predecessors who performed some of the most the famous alleged miracles of Sathya Sai Baba - the changing of water into petrol, psychic surgery, and not least the lingodbhava (i.e. swallowed lingam or egg-shaped object). His investigations led him far off the beaten track even of most spiritual seekers to discover aspects of life hidden within India that are even unparalleled in the fascinating exposure of India's underbelly by Gregory David Roberts in his now famous (but somewhat fictionalized) 'Shantaram'.