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Posted at: Aug 14, 2016, 2:34 AM; last updated: Aug 14, 2016, 2:34 AM (IST)

Tryst with torture in Prague

More than 60 contraptions from all over Europe, developed to inflict maximum pain on the captives, are on display in this museum of pain

Salil Desai

The historic Charles Bridge is the pride of Prague with hundreds of tourists spending hours on or around it. Some gaze at the Vltava flowing serenely below while others admire the magnificent Prague castle at a distance. Some visitors haggle with the caricaturists, musicians, handicraftsmen and artists, who display their wares, while others enjoy beer at the many open-air restaurants just beyond the bridge.

But not all tourists yearn only for beauty. There are those whose souls also seek bizarre, unusual attractions. Such sightseers are delighted when they discover that located just near the entrance to the Charles Bridge is a small museum, which can whet their appetite for sights that most people avoid. This place is the sensational sounding Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments in which more than 60 contraptions from all over Europe, developed specifically to inflict maximum pain on other human beings in captivity, are on display.

Indeed, when you gaze at the grotesque sophistication and attention to detail of the various torture equipments in the museum collection, you might be forgiven for believing that torture and punishment were highly developed art forms during medieval times. How else, for example would you explain, why someone designed a throne of spikes, known as the iron chair, on which hapless victims were strapped naked and grilled for hours to extract whatever confessions their interrogators insisted on. The spikes pierced their bare flesh, without puncturing any vital organs — keeping them alive, but in terrible pain and bleeding, because every little movement of the body meant a fresh jab of agony.

Or think of the sheer perversity in conceiving an instrument called the Judas Cradle, an arrow-shaped metal monstrosity, on to which prisoners were lowered from above using ropes, so that the pointed arrow-head would penetrate into either the anus, in case of men, or the vagina, in case of women. Additionally, weights were attached to their limbs, condemning them to slow impalement. It shocks one to imagine the kind of excruciating pain victims must have suffered, as their private parts were repeatedly subject to this ghastly torture. And one wonders, how their tormentors could bring themselves do this to prisoners without feeling any pity.

What strikes one is the methodical creativity deployed in devising cruelty — as if effectiveness and sadistic enjoyment were integral to the making of each and every instrument displayed — the breaking wheel, the head crusher, the breast ripper, the male and female chastity belts, the dreaded torture rack, the iron shoe and so on. It also suggests an excellent understanding of the human anatomy and a firm belief in the power of brutality to punish, discipline and suppress. 

It wasn’t as if only criminals were tortured. Astounding as it may sound, people were punished mercilessly for even minor transgressions like singing badly or arguing, and even nagging a husband was an offence. Minor offenders were meted out punishments like wearing frocks of penance for a certain number of days, which were coarse robes that brushed savagely against their skin, making it scratchy, sore and full of painful rashes. Others were forced to wear grisly and heavy iron masks of infamy that not just publicly shamed them but caused painful injuries.

But nothing symbolises medieval torture more than the rack — a device meant to literally stretch the human body beyond endurance, ripping apart muscle, cartilage, bones, joints and organs with indescribable agony. One can’t help shudder at the mere thought of being tied to one of the racks on display at Prague. Indeed, these medieval instruments are obsolete, but unfortunately torture remains in vogue everywhere, even today. 

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