So even 900 years ago optical illusions were a thing?

Optical illusions are the internet sensation of the moment. We can spend hours looking at the latest brain-twisters on TikTok and Instagram, and some of the best optical illusions rack up thousands of views. But although right now they’re the most popular thing online after Kyle Jenner, they’re hardly a new phenomenon. 

For decades artists and psychologists have played with images that can fool our brains or that can be interpreted in different ways. But none of the optical illusions we had seen so far date back as long ago as this one – which is so old that it’s carved in stone.

Airavatesvara Temple is a Hindu place of worship in Kumbakonam in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It’s a jewel of the Chola dynasty built close to 900 years ago. And among its stunning 12th century Dravidian architecture and carved ornamentations of chariots and avatars, there’s this beauty that would be at home in our pick of the best animal optical illusions. It shows what appears to be two conjoined creature with one head. But which animal do you see?

optical illusion with an elephant and bull carved into stone

(Image credit: KARTY JazZ Wikimedia)

If you focus on the creature on the right, you should see an elephant, while if you cover the body and legs of the elephant, the animal on the left is clearly a bull looking up towards the sky. The bull, Nandi, is the vehicle of the Lord Shiva in the Hindu faith, while Airavat, a mythological white elephant, is the vehicle of Indra, the king of heaven. The video below separates the two creatures in the Airavatesvara Temple optical illusion to show how they would each look alone.

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We’re impressed by many of the optical illusions we’ve seen created digitally using modern software, but the fact that so long ago artisans carved an optical illusion into stone is fascinating. It seems that even more than eight centuries ago, we humans liked to see images that trick our minds.

We thought we’d already found the oldest optical illusion in this 16th-century painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, but the Airavatesvara Temple optical illusion predates that by around 400 years. And it turns out that Indian temples are full of optical illusions, as @mamatarsingh points out on Twitter.

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Just as with many of our modern day optical illusions, this one has its own folk pyschology that’s grown up around it. In this case, the claim is that the animal you see first tells you about your personality. If you see the bull first, you’re supposed to be stubborn, ferocious and tough in difficult situations (although that bull looks remarkably meek to us). If you see the elephant first, it means you’re kind, thoughtful and loyal to friends and family.

If that holds weight for you, then you’ll love the optical illusions that are said to tell you your personality or supposedly reveal your secret dreams. Make sure you check out our pick of the best optical illusions of 2022 so far too. They might not tell you anything about your inner self, but they’re great to look at. You might even want to try making your own head spinners. See below for the best prices on Adobe’s suite of creative apps, which includes Photoshop and Illustrator.

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