Inside the 'Well of Death' at the Pushkar Camel Fair
In Pushkar, on the outskirts of the Great Indian Desert, when evening turns to night and the camel traders gather around their campfires to share stories of the day’s business, the riders of the ‘maut ka kuan’ prepare to stun the gathering crowds with their death-defying stunts. The Well of Death is the arena in which they will perform. A deep cylindrical pit made of salvaged wood, measuring around 10 meters in diameter and 15 meters in height, along whose near- vertical walls they will ride in cars and motorbikes at breakneck speed, without any safety gear, in an exhilarating display of daredevilry.
Under the blaring neon lights, in the shadow of giant posters advertising their exploits that wrap around the outside of the Well of Death, the riders begin to assemble. Sitting and standing on a purpose-built platform, they appear like listless miniature versions of themselves. Beneath them, the younger drivers are revving up the engines of their perfectly-tuned Yamaha RX100, bidding the crowd to buy a ticket and squeeze up the metal staircase that zigzags around the wooden cylinder, to the viewing platform at the top of the ‘maut ka kuan’.
Derived from board track racing, a sport popular in the United States at the start of the last century, the ‘maut ka kuan’ (also known as the ‘Wall of Death’ or ‘Death Pit’) came to India around 40 years ago, where it became a common attraction at fairs across Indian villages. It is now almost totally extinct but in Pushkar, during the Camel fair, it is still possible to see it. What’s more, where it has survived, the ‘maut ka kuan’ is no longer the exclusive terrain of men. Young women now ride motorbikes alongside their male counterparts, providing the audience, who comprises mostly of villagers from conservative rural areas, with an extra layer of thrill.
On the viewing gallery that crowns the Well, the spectators begin to grow restless. Men, women and children crowd around the metal rails to gaze into the pit. Below them, the riders stride to and fro their vehicles, like toreros inside a claustrophobic bullring. Outside, microphone in hand, the manager, doubling as ticket seller, is giving it all he’s got: “Last chance! Last chance!” A few late comers, a group of teenagers in tight jeans and starched shirts, hurry up the staircase and set about finding a gap from which to peer into the arena; the circle of people around the metal rail shore up their position, flattening their bodies forward until they form a continuous, intensely coloured, ring.
Behind them, to the side, two police women in green uniform make themselves tall to survey the crowd. Suddenly, a loud ‘VROOOM’ bursts from deep inside the death barrel; then another and immediately after, a third and a fourth. Two Yamahas and two Maruti 800 cars are beginning to circle the Well. Gradually, at first awkwardly, the vehicles start to climb. We can see the drivers, three men and one woman, looking at each other, jostling for position at different heights of the barrel. It looks dangerous and must be one heck of an adrenalin rush for the riders who have to keep accelerating to rise up the Well.
Viewed from above, the banking angle of the wooden planks that line the pit is almost unimaginably steep. The bikes are at full throttle now, climbing higher and higher in ever faster circles at speeds of up to 80Km per hour. The Marutis follow them. Soon, both are almost level with the platform on which we’re standing. The noise is deafening and the vibrations reverberate from our feet to our cameras.
Incredibly, one of the car drivers starts to lean outside of his open window, further and further, until half of his body is completely outside the vehicle; then he crosses his arms, lifts up his head and starts circling the rim of the well faster than before, his eyes scanning the crowd at close range.
As he descends to a lower, invisible, circle, the motorbikes climb up to take his place. One of the drivers is a woman; to our disbelief, she is riding almost parallel to the ground, swooping past us, her thick black pony tail fluttering horizontally behind her, emphasising her speed. When she puts out her hand and – without ever taking her eyes off the Well – grabs the notes offered her by the spectators, she looks graceful and unafraid. Then, in an instant, she’s gone, spiralling down the well, racing the other vehicles in a dangerous cross play of ever decreasing circles, until she touches the ground once again.
Just as quickly as it began, the noise dies down and the vibrations stop. The riders of the ‘maut ka kuan’ have been ‘in the air’ for nearly 12 minutes. Back on the sand of the arena, as they bow to the crowd above, they look at once drained and euphoric: they’ve survived the Well of Death once more and somehow, it feels like we’ve been riding with them.
Our eyes linger on the arena below and when we look up again, the ring of people around us has dissolved and there’s only us, cameras in hand. It’s been an exhilarating ride –12 minutes of pure, deafening, adrenaline; tracking multiple moving objects in low light conditions requires the person behind the lens to be as focused – if, thankfully, not as courageous – as the person behind the wheel and we decide that it is time to head back to our base.
Later, as we run through the images on our computer screens, we are, as ever, stunned and intrigued by how each of us ‘saw’ the show. Somebody suggests returning to the Well with a fisheye lens (and a pair of earplugs): it sounds good. After all, the night is still young and the next show is just about to start. So we walk out, through the narrow lanes and on to the crowded main street, past the make-shift bangle stalls and the sweets’ vendors. Everyone seems to be heading in the same direction, to the fair ground at the edge of town.
Behind the fluorescent neons, the roaring of the maut ka kuan, the four seater merry-go-round, the manually operated ‘giant wheel’ and the screeching toy train, wrapped in the darkness of night, the camels and their traders are sound asleep.
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