January 05, 2016

Wall of Death at Mahim Fair

I heard the first roar around five in the evening as I walked in from a small stretch of polluted beach toward the Wall of Death rising among stalls and amusement rides in the fairground across the street from St. Michael’s Church and a short distance from the Dargah in Mahim.

The Sun settled on my back, warm and comforting. Walking through a short lane channeling visitors to the small stretch of beach housing a fishing jetty, I emerged by the Wall of Death or Maut Ka Kuaa (Well of Death) as it is better known in India.

Unmistakable sounds of a motorbike revving up floated out from behind the large cylindrical drum held in place by supports painted yellow and topped by a two-tier viewing gallery that ran along the circumference of the well.
Behind me the Bandra-Worli sealink stretched a long way, hazy in the Sun bearing down on faces turned seaward.

Fishing boats bobbed in silence ashore, their flags fluttering in the breeze. The sea seemed quiet.

The beach itself was small, cluttered, and filthy from litter and open defecation. Detritus washed ashore included a bone among other things. The atmosphere however was cheerful.   

Vendors were setting up their stalls and one boy was doing back-flips from the sloping ramp of the fishing jetty, landing on his feet in the sand. His younger friend was constant company, no doubt learning the trick from the “master”.

Others sat still, some by themselves, some in groups, looking out to sea.

A group of children frolicked in the waters off the polluted beach, waters I wouldn’t dare step in. Later they emerged from the sea, and got into their clothes.

There was laughter and animated conversation, cheerful youth in Muslim prayer caps and without, Muslim women some in black, others in colour. There were children galore everywhere you looked.

The crowd was overwhelmingly Muslim and the ten-day long annual Mahim Fair commemorating Hazrat Makhdum Fakih Ali Mahimi’s (Makhdoom Shah Baba) death anniversary (“Urs”) was an annual pilgrimage to most of them.

The celebrations in honour of the Sufi were underway at the Dargah a short distance away and the fair was where many headed after paying respects to the Sufi.


I had arrived at the annual Mahim Fair a little after three in the afternoon. The fairground was just about beginning to stir to life then. Workers stretched out in the shade of the many amusement rides rose to work among the rides, preparing them for evening crowds.

“Now, no one will be around. Why would someone come here this early on a holiday (Jan 1), they would much rather rest at home,” a man, likely part of the troupe managing one of the rides, told me. “The crowd will pick up by evening.”

Makeshift eating places got busy preparing their menu. Gaming stalls and those selling toys and other knick knacks began to come to life. There was not much time to be wasted for, the duration of the fair promises opportunities not easily available elsewhere.
I broke my stride at the Wall of Death. The rumbles had grown persistent behind the high wall.

The observation deck (viewing gallery) could be reached by a flight of steps that ended on the circular boardwalk of the first viewing gallery. A short flight of steps led from the first tier to the second.  

The observation deck was enclosed by railing painted white on the outside, allowing air to circulate amidst the audience. It appeared to be raised separate from the Well of Death. Columns painted blue supported the two-tier observation deck.

The whole setup of the Well of Death seemed designed for easy assembly and dissembling once the show ended.

There was no one at the ticket counter so I meandered in the vicinity of the well. I wanted to catch the first act for the evening.

The sounds grew louder, the revving of the bike and the rattling of the hardboards turned heads of passers-by meandering among the stalls and amusement rides to their source behind the walls.

Having found its voice, the revving bike turned into a determined rumble, a beast growling, straining at the leash, screaming as it breaks free, roaring forward fiercely, then turning into a whine at the very moment it finds its stride, settling into a rhythm before easing back into a steady mix of pulsating rattling where the tyres meet the walls of the Wall of Death.

Like me, a few others were drawn to the well by the rumbling from within.

A middle-aged man sat on the steps that went up the Wall of Death, or Maut Ka Kuaa (Well of Death) as it’s better known in India. Two visitors to the fair got his attention, and pointing to the barrel-shaped wooden cylinder, motioned with their hands asking, “When does it start?”

“They’re practicing,” he replied.

“Will it take long?” I interjected.

“No. They’ll start shortly,” he replied.

He waved me on up the steps to take a look at the dare devil riders practice and photograph them. The Mauth ka Kuan (Well of Death) promised to be a spectacle.

The 30+ feet climb up the near vertical wall constructed with wooden planks was not too difficult to ascend.

A viewing deck (platform) ran along the circumference of the cylindrical construction. Five youth were already up on the deck, leaning against chest-high railing and looking down the well.

Three Maruti cars, most likely Maruti 800, with Gujarat registration plates were parked in the centre of the well. A motorcycle that sounded very like Yamaha RX 100 but looked different was parked on the floor beside the wall.

Two middle-aged men stood by the cars while two youth were by the motorbikes. It was a team of four.

The biker had just finished with making a run in the Well of Death. It seemed like they were exchanging notes.

A giant Ferris Wheel rose beyond the wall, lit golden by the setting Sun. Announcers hoping to draw visitors to their amusement rides could be heard over the hum of the fair. The fairground was buzzing.

A second tier for viewers rose above the one I stood on. I tried to imagine what it must be like for the rider zipping along the near vertical walls to have two tiers full of viewers gazing into the well, holding their breath as the dare devils worked up pace.

I expected the viewing gallery to begin filling up once ticketing commenced for the show. The riders weren’t done practicing yet. I leaned against the railing and looked down the well.

A ramp rose from the floor of the well at a gentler angle than the walls themselves. Riders use the ramp to begin their ascent and gain speed before transferring to the near vertical walls at which point they’re riding horizontal to the floor.

I didn’t have to wait long before the Dare Devil rider, Anees as I would learn later, went back up the well and sped along the wall of death, his hair swept back as he circled the well, his bike gripping the wooden wall as he roared past in circles.

Centrifugal forces kept him from falling down so long as he maintained a minimum speed.  

His colleague had his phone up as he traced the rider speeding along the wall, recording a video of the ride. I’d be surprised if the rider didn’t already have recordings of his ride from earlier performances. Maybe this one sought to record his Mumbai stint.


A young viewer watching the act with his friend waved a ten rupee note at Anees, leaning over the railing, expecting Anees to snatch it from his hand.

I hoped his hand would not knock Anees from his perch on the speeding motorcycle, for, he was riding within reach of those of us on the boardwalk on the first tier.

Anees did not take the bait. This prompted the boy’s friend to point at the note and call out to Anees, “Arrey le na.” (Hey, take it).  

I waited to see if Anees would go for the note on his next pass. He didn’t. The youth called out to Anees over the din, pointing to the note, repeating, “Arrey, le na.” All eyes on the observation deck were on Anees and the hand waving the ten rupee note. [WATCH: Video]

And when Anees did snatch the note from the hand later, it happened quickly. The youth smiled. Now he had a story to take back home of how he had dared the rider to make the snatch.

After circling several times, Anees began to draw downward, descending the well before riding off the take-off ramp, and onto the floor of the well. His colleague walked over and they both got busy with the video of his ride.

People began trickling in just as the second rider prepared to begin his ride.

Some took to the second gallery. I stayed on the first so I could get a closer look at the riders as they came close to the outer edge of the well, within handshaking distance of viewers standing in the first tier.

The temperature was pleasant and anticipation was writ large on the faces. The second rider was the real deal.

He rode to dare and to please. Here was the well, his very own to do as he wished, never slacking off or taking it for granted as he swung his leg off the bike and rode with both legs sideways, facing downward. You’d think gravity would have him, but it didn’t.

Then he lifted his hands in the air and folded them across his chest. He was riding fast, both legs sideway and hands off the handlebars. I could sense the crowd tense.

The rider completed several rounds of the Wall of Death, thundering past me, within reach, riding along the very edge of the well. The boardwalk under my feet rattled. So did the railing supporting my hands as I peered into the well.

The crowd came alive seeing one of the three Maruti 800 cars enter the fray. It eased into the thick of action along the ramp before speeding up and taking centre stage. The motorcycle and the car zipped past, rattling the hardboards ever more.

I could fee the wind rush in the wake of the circling vehicles, a rush of adrenaline standing there and marvelling at the dare devilry.

Then, a second car eased onto the ramp and entered the fray. The Wall of Death would see two cars and a motorbike perform together.

In the second car Anees rode in the passenger seat. As it picked up speed trailing the car ahead and the motorcycle upfront, Anees leant out of the window, collecting the ten rupee baksheesh offered by the same youth who had dared him when he was riding the bike, alone at the very beginning.

The youth was running through his ten rupee notes. He looked happy giving them away, only ever expressing disappointment when he let go of one before the other rider, biker, could reach for it. The note took a log time to float to the ground.

I could feel the tremors from the well heralding the approaching motor vehicles, progressively building tension as tremors got stronger the nearer they approached. The Wall of Death took a pounding. 

As the three vehicles roared at speed along the   walls, viewers held their breath as planks rattled with increasing ferocity. [WATCH: Video]

It was mayhem at Wall of Death.

Behind me the Sun had sunk in the sea. They dying twilight had changed the shade of light mellow, fading out with the show the team had put out at the fairground. The Sufi, I reckoned, would’ve approved of it.

As the last car slowed down, easing off the ramp to join the two on the floor of the well, a viewer turned to me and said, “Yeh Hai Mehnat ka Paisa” (this earning is worthy of the labour earning it).

The Dare Devils had earned respect.

No sooner had the riders wound up their act they disappeared through a hatch in the Wall, emerging outside to advertise their second act for the day. Mike in hand, Anees took to the public address system exhorting visitors to the fair to step into “Maut Ka Kuaa” (Well of Death).

The tickets for the act were going at Rs. 50/- apiece.

Night had set in and the fairground was throbbing with life. Muslim families, women in burqa and without, crowded the attractions. And they were many, each vying for attention.

The ticketeers, a man and a woman, for the Well of Death, were busy. A small crowd had gathered around them. 

Many just stood and watched, likely making up their mind of buying the tickets. At Rs. 50/- a piece, it would cost a family of three, 150/-, a not inconsiderable sum to many among the visitors.

Anees’s voice was growing hoarse the more he exerted visitors to the fair to come see his gravity-defying team of riders perform in the Well of Death.

The barrel-shaped cylinder shone in the night. Coloured tubelights outlined its presence in the night.

A steady stream of curious visitors ascended the steps that led to the first tier for the second act of the night. Soon the galleries would be full and Anees would be back in action, hoping the night would stretch long.   

As the night deepened its hold on the fairground off the Mahim beach, a vendor adjusted a cheap portable lamp and set up his little shop in the shadows.


Anan said...

You brought back old memories. I once watched this in one of the melas. I was very small then. It is really amazing how these guys do it. They call it "maran koop" also..and I remember one of the riders shouting to the spectators@aa gaye mere maut Ka tamasha dekhne

Sangeeta Abhyankar said...

Superb!!! I experienced it through your words...