Looking down into the giant well-like wooden structure, the mere thought of riding a bike along its wall, parallel to the ground, is terrifying. But four performers – three men and a woman – enter at the bottom of the well, kickstart bikes that have no silencers, and to the amazement of those gathered around the top of the well, they ride to the top edge of the well within seconds.
And that’s not all. They take their hands off the handlebars, stand up on their bikes with arms stretched out, shake hands and hug each other, and even take tips from the audience, as they ride on the wall. If this is enough to give you chills down the spine, they do the same thing with cars as well.
Death Well, or Well of Death, as the show is called, is famous the world over and one Indian group that performs the stunt, Shah Amusement Park, was camped in the city recently. There are six riders in the team, while others take care of setting up the well and the electric work. The group has performed all over the country and has even gone abroad.
Overtaking one another in the well and riding shoulder-to-shoulder, all need perfect coordination among them. But Saleem Khan (23), who has been riding in the Death Well for six years, says not all stunts are pre-planned. “Each one rides on his or her own in the well and adjusts to the others just like people riding on the roads do. We just coordinate with each other,” he says. Saleem Khan is from Delhi and his father was also involved in the circus industry.
The cars and the bikes they use in the well are like any vehicles you see on the road. “Our bikes have no silencers because we want to attract the audience with the loud noise the bikes make. And there are no front brakes as applying them even by mistake can be fatal. The cars we use are the ones that we drive to the next camp,” says Adarsha, the owner of the well. Adarsha is from Kerala and owns three such wells and a few other pieces of circus equipment. According to him, there are about 15 death wells in Kerala alone and the biggest of them can accommodate five cars and 10 bikes at one time. The one he has brought to Chennai is 40 feet high and 40 feet wide at the mouth and cost Adarsha a hefty 20 lakh rupees.
The riders perform the risky stunts without any safety measures – there are no helmets – and if the light goes off for a second, the consequences are too dangerous to imagine. “We take precautionary steps like checking the vehicles for oil leaks and punctures and checking that the brakes are in perfect condition. But there is always the chance of an accident. We just pin all our hopes on god,” says Adarsha, who is planning to get his riders an insurance cover soon.
No wonder it’s called a Death Well.