The Well of Death

Friday November 30, 2018 Written by James Shackell with photography by Ken Hermann

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Carnival night in Solapur, India. It’s hot and humid, as it always is. Sweat and grit forms on your forehead like a second skin, trickles slowly down your spine, sticks to your T-shirt. The city officials have staked out an area on the outskirts of town: a flat and dusty fairground surrounded by pomegranate fields, now covered in multi-coloured tents, carts hawking gulab jamun, giant Meccano-like Ferris wheels and jackal-eyed carnies.

On the whole, Indian fairs are pretty much like fairs everywhere. Been there, done that, bought the sari. But there’s one building here that stands out as wholly and completely unique. It looks like a low-budget Colosseum, about six storeys high, built from rough timber planks with a metal gantry running around the top. Hundreds of steel girders sprout from the sides and anchor into the earth, like the structure is putting down roots, and there are stairways leading to the upper levels. From inside comes the angry buzz of a thousand mechanical hornets.  

Welcome to the Well of Death, one of the most dangerous and popular fairground attractions in India.

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Think of it like an enormous barrel. At the bottom, down on the ground, are several motorcycles and beaten-up Maruti Suzukis. They start driving in a circle, gaining speed, then ease up onto the Well’s sides, eventually roaring around a vertical wall, parallel to the ground, racing anti-clockwise at 100 kilometres an hour, held aloft by the Newtonian power of centrifugal force.

One of the daredevil riders tonight is Radha. She’s been performing in the Well of Death since she was just 13. “The Well visited my city, and I felt an urge to learn it,” she says. “I asked the man in charge, but he said, ‘It’s not your cup of tea.’ I asked him to give me a chance. He said, ‘Okay, bring your mother and father. I want it in writing. Tomorrow, if something happens, I’m not responsible.’ I agreed.”

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That was 20 years ago. Radha is married now with two kids, and follows the fair all over the country. “My husband drives an auto rickshaw,” she says. “At first he was scared watching me in the Well. But after my first show, when he saw the crowd applauding and cheering, he told me to keep riding. In Hindustan, there aren’t many girls doing this. By watching me, other women have gained confidence and courage, and that’s a good thing. Even my little girl wants to learn it now. I told her to study first and we’ll see.”

Riding the Well has benefits beyond the self-confidence boosts and easy access to adrenaline. For starters, it’s one of the few workplaces on Earth where the gender pay gap is reversed. Female drivers can earn twice as much as their male colleagues. It’s simple supply and demand; with only a handful of women drivers in India, their presence adds to the spectacle.

For the people ringing the gantry, the experience is intense. The rickety walls shake as the cars roar past. Fumes hang in the soupy air. Engine noise chainsaws into your eardrum: the high-frequency rat-a-tat-rng-dng-dng-dng of a dozen ramshackle engines. Before entering the arena, riders remove the mufflers from their bikes and cars, and drill holes in the exhaust pipes. It would be thunderous enough anyway, but the added buzzing reverberates and echoes around the Well. As Radha zooms by on an old Enfield, she snatches rupees from her fans’ outstretched fingers, one hand steadying the handlebars.

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“When the Well is full, and the public applauds me, I feel courageous,” she says. “I feel at peace. That’s what fuels my passion.”

The Well of Death isn’t a new phenomenon. Its antecedent can be found in the American motordromes and silodromes of the early 20th century, particularly on Coney Island. By the 1930s there were more than 100 ‘board tracks’ touring the U.S., but their numbers dwindled as carnival operators looked for attractions that required less maintenance. The motordrome enjoyed a relatively long life in India, but its days there might be numbered, too – a victim of cautious bureaucracy. The act has already been banned in Delhi, and state authorities are looking to stamp it out elsewhere. Radha and her troupe travel from city to city, securing council permits, making a little money where they can. Often they don’t know where they’ll be in two weeks’ time.

For most riders, the Well of Death is a day job. They’re on tour 11 months a year, performing 15-minute shows up to 20 times a day. Their office walls might be concave, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t boredom and routine. Days tend to go round and round. Between shows you’ll find them hanging out behind the Well, catching some sleep or smoking crumpled packs of beedis. They’re Evel Knievels with a 9-to-5.

But on carnival night, beneath a canopy of green neon, with the crowd screaming and rupees raining down, Radha comes alive. She guns the throttle and gives a wave. It’s show time.  

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This article was first published in Smith Journal volume 28. Grab a copy here. For more of Ken Hermann's amazing photography, head here.