“Nahi hamein dar nahi lagta. Waha chalane ke liye jigar chahiye aur balance. Marne ko to hum sadak pe phi mar sakte hai (No I am not afraid. To be able to ride there you need courage and balance. If I am to die I may even die while on the street )”, says a confident young Md Shamil Ansari, manager and rider at the Guria Maruti Circus’ Well of Death, as he relaxes in a makeshift tent behind the silodrome before the start of the evening show in Kandra, a small industrial town in Jharkhand, India.
The Well of Death, known in India as Maut ka Kuan has been the centre of attraction of Indian fairs for many decades. Guria Maruti Circus is one of the oldest companies running the show night after night with riders and stuntmen showing their jaw-dropping skills as they speed around the almost-vertical walls of the barrel-shaped wooden cylinder.
Once a very popular sport, it is now almost on the verge of dying. People have moved on to cinema and the internet to quench their thirst for breathtaking stunts leaving the galleries in these silodromes almost empty and the riders and stuntmen struggling to make ends meet. The only thing that drives them inspite of all the obstacles is the thrill and the rush they get from performing the act itself and the cheers of the spectators.
Many riders have left the sport to look for better means of livelihood. However, many still continue as it is their only passion in life. The wooden boards of the walls have cracked up in most places but it doesn’t stop them from gearing up for the next show to appease the crowd with impossible stunts.
Md Shamil Ansari, manager and rider at the Guria Maruti Circus, performing a stunt by getting off his motorcycle while at full speed on the vertical wooden walls of the Well of Death.
Taufiq Ansari rides his motorcycle as he is followed by a car running on the vertical wooden planks while the crowd watches in wonder.
People from the nearby villages come to witness the spectacle with their family
Loknath Sahu drives a car on the wooden walls defying gravity while sitting on the window
The spectators enjoy as the riders rush past them along the cracked wooden walls
Maqbool Ansari from Sisai, rides the motorcycle, a modified Yamaha RX 100, during the show. He says he enjoys the thrill of it while riding at high speeds.
Taufiq Ansari, an 18 year old rider from Lohardaga in Jharkhand rides the motorcycle while performing some impossible stunts at high speed. He joined the team as a mechanic and slowly got trained to be a rider. He has had multiple accidents in the past but still continues to ride the risk out of his passion for biking.
A motorcycle kick lever lies in the arena. The motocycles used in the show are modified for better balance. The kick levers are removed so that they don't touch the sides of the vertical wall which might cause accidents at high speed. A common kick lever is used to start all the bikes.
Loknath Sahu is from Sisai, Jharkhand. He has been driving the car for the last ten years and wants to continue doing it in the future as well inspite of the life risks it involves.
A torn cloth covering the silodrome from the rains to keep the wooden planks of the wall dry before the show
Apart from the four riders the team has four members who are in the training period and are incharge of miscellaneous duties such as maintaining the vehicles, checking the sound systems for announcements and constructing the silodrome which takes several days sometimes almost a week.
A trainee checks the car before the show
The Well of Death lights up the dark evening surroundings of the village for a show where bikers defy gravity
A member of the Guria Maruti Circus waits for people to come and watch the show. Due to the low turn-out of people the riders and their team are hardly able to sustain themselves with the income from it but are still doing it to keep the sport alive.
People come from distant villages especially for this show. However, inspite of the high risks which the riders take every night the number of people coming to the shows has seen a steep decline in the last few years with the youth mostly watching stunts in the movies and on the internet.
Maqbool Ansari, a rider, doubles up as an announcer trying to lure the audience to watch the show with his funny and quirky announcements interspersed with old popular hindi songs.
An enthusiatic young boy waits to get his ticket for the first show of the night. Tickets are priced as low as Rs.30 ($0.42) and entry for kids below 5yrs is free to make it affordable for people from every economic background.
A woman buys four tickets to the show. The Well of Death is quite popular amongst the women folk who enjoy the stunts and the risks that the riders take while speeding along the wooden cylindrical arena. A number of women riders have also started performing stunts in many parts of the country and people flock to those shows to witness the spectacle.
Taufiq gets ready to enter the arena with his ride for the night
Kids peek over the railings of the gallery to get a closer look at the riders as they get ready to climb the walls on their wheels.
Deb Mohanty from Kandra waits for the show to start. He is an avid biker and has been coming to these shows since he was a small child. He loves the stunts which the bikers perform while circling in the silodrome and waits for the show to happen every year.
Loknath waits for his turn to drive the car as he watches his team-mates circling past the crowds
Loknath raises his hands to the crowd to mark the end of the show and yet another tryst with death
He rushes to the gate minutes after the end of a deathly show to collect the tickets from the spectators of the next show for the night. Many riders have left the business looking for other jobs owning to the meagre income from it. As a result they have to double-up as riders as well as ticket collectors and announcers to run the show smoothly.
Taufiq sits and waits for the next set of spectators to fill the gallery. He says he will be quitting the business at the end of this season as the risk involved is too high for the monetary returns which is hardly Rs.300-350 a day (around $4.50/day). He says he would like to get married and look for a safer and more stable job as no one in his family supports such a high risking life.
All photos and text by Abhirup Dasgupta