Would you climb a wooden well’s 20-metre slope and drive around it in a car while rocketing around it in circles for 40 bucks? Probably not right? Well, there’s a certain sect of Indians that do exactly that. As their profession.
The Maut Ka Kuan, or “Well of Death”, is a fairly well-known carnival show and has been going on for generations. So what exactly is the Maut Ka Kuan? The stunt predominantly involves a combination of both motorcycles and small cars running on what almost looks like a giant wooden barrel. In most cases, the walls are set up at an angle of almost 90 degrees, making the stunt extremely dangerous. Inside the cylinder, a motorcyclist (or a driver with any other automobile, like a car, rides along the vertical wall of the cylinder and performs various stunts while doing so.
The stunt is said to have originated from American motordome racing in the early 1900s when the event dominated carnivals and fairs. Eventually, the spectacle is believed to have made its way to India, where it was readily adopted by mela performers. Stunts in cars were not always the centre of attention though. Initially, the performers used manual bicycles to ride around the silodromes. The danger level has only gone up over the years. Today, performers up the danger of the event by grabbing money from the outstretched hand of spectators, holding hands with fellow riders or switching from cars to motorcycles and back again, all while driving around the wall.
For once, the physics behind the stunt is also pretty interesting. Vehicles are not pinned to the wall but held in place by a centripetal force which allows objects to follow a curved path, similar to a loop-the-loop in a rollercoaster.
So what makes the exhibition work so well in India? For starters, it differs in one key aspect from its American or European versions. The main difference is that safety isn’t an issue. The riders of the vehicles don’t wear helmets. Sometimes, the wells—constructed out of wooden planks and measuring some 30 or 50 feet across—are missing pieces of wood, creating a precarious surface for cars and motorcycles reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour.
It is basically a version of a roundabout circus, meant for entertainment. The group visits a city, takes about a week to set up and then carries on the stunt for 10 days, attracting large crowds. The sounds of revving engines, the thrill of flirting with death, the spectacle of cars defying gravity are what attracts the people to the spectacle, especially in the small towns of the country. After that, the troupe takes the entire structure down again, moving on to their next destination. It's basically an old traditional circus and members of the group live on the road for 11 months of the year.
However, the historic tradition is slowly becoming more of a thing of the past, with various reasons contributing to its obsolescence. Some states have started to ban them. They can't run in Delhi anymore it's just a matter of time until they’re banned throughout the whole country, owing to safety concerns. Not only this, but the unorganized nature of the whole spectacle also acts as a deterrent. It's not a properly advertised event as the young men are usually from pretty impoverished homes and just 'put up' the show where and when they can.
While the entire activity certainly has its risks and safety hazards, it is India’s own version of a carnival group. It’s really disheartening to see it die down this way and it’ll be great to see “The Death Well” do what it does best and entertain people across the country again!