All the eunuchs or Khwaja Siras walk into the arena called the Maut ka Kuwaan or ‘the well of death’. With vibrantly painted faces, blow-dried hair and brightly coloured shalwar kameez, the eunuchs dance in the well as the daredevil rides around the flimsily put together wooden wall on a motorbike.
The daredevil, Muneer Ahmad, doesn’t fit my definition of a stuntman — since I would imagine a stuntman to look like the character played by Nicolas Cage in the Hollywood thriller, The Ghost Rider. He isn’t anything like the riders that take up dangerous feats on AXN either. Ahmad is skinny to the point of appearing emaciated. His face shows signs of aging — a probable side effect of smoking hashish. He wears his silky black hair like Waheed Murad, the iconic Pakistani film actor from the ‘70s. He has a thick, short beard and wears a greyish, baggy shalwar kameez as he enters through the well’s tiny door in a stoop. His unbuttoned shirt demonstrates his manliness. He carries a lit cigarette in his mouth and I think to myself that he must enter with one each time to appear dramatic. He doesn’t smoke Marlboros but is the quintessential Marlboro man, an inspiration for the crowd.
The audience stands on a circular platform built on the outer-wall of the well. A blue tent covers them from the not so comfortable mid-April sun. There is not a single woman in the crowd, except my photographer friend Maryam Altaf. The rest are teenagers flirting with the eunuchs. The Khwaja Siras, with their bold overtures, provocative dressing, and with half their black brassieres visible through their low necklines, provide the young village men with the only time in their lives when their obnoxious sexual remarks are met with an appreciative response — if not a much more flirtatious answer and gesture. These young men throw in notes of five and 10 rupees to these dancing actors who clumsily place them in their cleavages. They often wink at their admirer, blow him a flying kiss and sometimes even gesture for him to meet them outside after the performance, while sexually provocative Punjabi songs blare from speakers placed atop the bamboo that supports the canopy. Like Ahmad, our Malboro man, the eunuchs too perform this act a dozen times throughout the day. By the time we reached it was 3 pm and one could sense the exhaustion in their steps.
This is the annual festival of Vaisakhi, arranged at the village of Ram Thamman, in April. On our way here ,we stop at a small stall selling one-liner stickers. ‘Haran de, rasta le,’ ‘Ma ki dua, jannat ki hawa,’ ‘Jalne wale, tera mun kala,’ read a few of them. The road from the neighbouring village of Kala Kharu to Ram Thamman is covered with various stalls on both sides. Posters of Shahid Afridi, Kareeena Kapoor, and Ajay Devgan are displayed on the stalls along with other Bollywood and Pakistani cricketing stars.
Meanwhile, Ahmad the daredevil picks up his mountain motorbike resting on the well’s wall — both their meagre weights crucial for the balance of the centripetal and centrifugal forces. The bike doesn’t start immediately. A man who looks like a junkie with a shaved head and unshaved beard offers to push it. At first Ahmad rebukes him, gesturing for him to go away. But the man is persistent and keeps on assisting.
With a slight push, the bike starts; the engine begins to roar and a cloud of grey smoke momentarily hides the stuntman. Before you know it, the entire structure begins to vibrate with the movement of the bike, which Ahmad rides vertically up and around the pit’s wall. Ahmad takes his hands off the handle and the bike continues to revolve uniformly. My jaw drops. A man extends a 10 rupee note from the crowd. Ahmad tries to grab it but fails. His bike dips a little, so he puts his hands back on the handle and is back in control. His third attempt results in success as he clutches the note, puts it in his mouth and lets go of the handles as his bike performs a victory lap. He then throws his collection into the air, and the junkie collects it at the bottom. Another man next to me extends a 10 rupee note which Ahmad manages to catch on his first attempt. The bike’s wheel misses the edge of the wall by about a foot. I wonder what direction Ahmad and the bike would take if they were to escape from the well.
The Maut ka Kuwaan, with its barely cloaked femininity — and the masculinity of the daredevil — is an essential feature of any village festival. Other must-haves are jumping pads, swings, ferris wheel and a pirate ship.
Spirituality plays an important role in South-Asian festivals and it sells. Babas calling themselves ‘Master of the Universe’, and ‘Curers of all diseases’ sit on roadsides, offering rings with different stones to sufferers. They also hang various lockets in a black thread, some read religious messages such as ‘Ya Ali’, while others are more secular like ‘Love’.
13th of April coincides with the 1st Vaisakh of the ‘Hindu’ Bikramjeet calendar. This marks the harvest season. The entire community celebrates what is popularly known as the Vaisakhi festival before the actual cutting begins. It is a time to mark the end of a successful farming season and the beginning of a new one. Pre-1947, there were many cities and villages where the Vaisakhi festival was celebrated on a large scale and Ram Thamman was one of them. According to the Intelligence Reports of Police found in the archive of Punjab Secretariat, about 35,000 people attended this festival in the year 1946, which was perhaps the last time this festival was celebrated at such a grand scale.
Munawar Bibi was an old woman from the village in her 70s whom I met in 2010 and who has since passed away. She had told me that before Partition, there used to be so many people attending the festival that some would stock up on their food and lock themselves in for three days to avoid the crowded streets. Ghulam Hussain, 85, used to visit this festival from Ferozpur District nearby. His grandfather, a Muslim, was a Sadhu at the temple of Ram Thamman. After partition he moved in with him, settling inside the temple. He told me that people from all over the country — including what is now India — used to come here to celebrate Vaisakhi. There used to be kabadi, traditional wrestling, and nautanki, folk theatre, full of music and dance. There were many more stalls in those days. “It was understood that if somebody was lost in the mela (festival), there was no point in looking for him/her,” he told me, while I interviewed him inside the smadh of Ram Thamman. He wore a red cloth with golden embroidery around his forehead. “We would already have this talk beforehand that if anyone of us got lost, we should meet up at a particular spot,” he added.
In the famous folk story of Punjab Heer-Waris — while describing the Barat of Heer — the author says: “Jevein log nigahein te raatan thaman dhol marde te rang lawande.” The mention of Thamman in the Heer-Waris portrays the significance of this festival in Punjab.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 3rd, 2011.