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Premeditated Madness: Urban Cliff Diving in Jodhpur
I’m standing on the edge of Toorji Ka Jhalra in Jodhpur, looking 20 metres down at the square of black water that looks way too small. My body is buzzing with adrenaline and my mind is telling me I can’t do it, but there’s a huge crowd waiting for me to dive into the water. I can’t back out now. Just as I’m ready to jump, I hear a sharp whistle from the crowd- must be the police.
Jodhpur is built like a bowl, spilling down from a rocky hill capped by a muscular fort. The city is famous for its blue houses, but deserves just as much love for the elaborate stepwells built to capture rainwater as it trickled down the bowl. Unlike other architectural wonders, stepwells go down rather than up and so appear without warning from the jigsaw of motos, autos, momos, Tatas, and other items that pack the street. They are impressively massive: Chand Baori, the grandest one of all, is where they shot the “Without the Rope” scene from Dark Knight Rises.
The finest stepwell in Jodhpur is Toorji Ka Jhalra (Toorji’s Stepwell). As recently as 2014, it was a garbage dump like many other stepwells made obsolete by modern water projects. Then an urban regeneration project, inspired by a mysterious old man from Ireland who was cleaning up the city’s smaller stepwells, marshalled government support to pump out the muck, sand-blast the stone, clean it up, and bring in clean water. By 2015, Toorji’s Stepwell had come alive again. It’s truly majestic, with 7 symmetrical layers of pink sandstone stairs leading 20 metres to the water, presided over by a large Mughal-style arch. People flocked to the restored Toorji’s: the engagement photoshoots and bro selfies began, aspiring artists starting painting it, autowallas set up a fixed-price stand next to it, JDH put up hotels and cafes around it, and nearby landlords built rooftop platforms to see it better.
As far as I can tell, swimming was allowed in 2015. Toorji’s became a well-known place for local kids to swim; and for the more daring among them to jump in. Some foreigners who visited the place also swam, and jumped in, and blogged about it. By 2017, these blogs started talking about a swimming ban, of police rounding up kids swimming and kicking them out. More recent blogs indicate a strengthening crackdown, fines, vigilance.
In late 2019 my friend Will and I found ourselves in Jodhpur, and wandered down to Toorji’s Stepwell.
Bustling Marketplace in Jodhpur
We hung out for a while, and then noticed some teenage guys who were starting to take their shoes off. The air got a little bit more electric, and everyone around the stepwell started watching as the guys jumped in from the low stairs around the water and swam. One guy even climbed partway up the front face of the stepwell, to one of the small dome-covered windows, and jumped in from about 5 metres up after much encouragement from friends.
One of these guys must have seen me watching and started heckling me to get in. I didn’t need much encouragement. I did the stairs jump and the window jump, and participated in a couple of races that they blatantly let me win (true hospitality). We were having a great time.
Then the whistling started from the top of the stepwell. The famed Jodhpur stepwell police had arrived! We all rushed out of the water, and I wasn’t sure what was happening, but heard the word “fine” at least once so quickly grabbed my phone and shoes, left the rest with Will, and started running up the stepwell with the other guys. The police came around to cut us off at the top of the well, but we were a little too fast, turned tail and ran back down and out the other side. I disappeared into a pre-scouted alleyway to disappear into, which I did, thinking that I had escaped cleanly.
One of the guys caught up to me and told me that we had not escaped yet. He told me the police are serious now, and I would be easily caught as a soaking-wet white man wearing shorts in the winter. He told me that he could get me out of trouble, though; so I put all my trust in my newfound friend. His name was Gaurav.
He gave me a very tight bright green hoodie to wear (hood up) and walked me into a series of alleys far from the stepwell, borrowing my phone every 2 minutes to call his friends and get a status update from the stepwell.
The calls proceeded as follows: Gaurav grabs my phone. He smashes the call button and immediately starts shouting “Hello.” After 10 or so hellos, it seems his friend has picked up, and he barks out a two-syllable question. A second later he immediately hangs up and starts walking away quickly. I catch up and grab the phone back. Repeat. Repeat. Apparently the police were still there, looking unhappy. Will was trapped there, with most of my stuff, and I hoped the police wouldn’t connect him to me.
But after several calls Gaurav relaxed a little. At some point he became satisfied enough with our safety to take the hoody back and call up his friends for a full round of selfies. We high-fived. We shook hands. We took more selfies.
Once Gaurav had the key selfies on his phone, he led me back to Toorji’s and introduced me to a crew of older guys. They wanted to see if I wanted to buy something special from them, and I wanted to see if they knew anything about diving into Toorji’s.
“You want it?”
“What do you mean, it?” I know exactly what they mean.
“You know, Shiva.” They know I know.
I change the subject and point to the stepwell: “Anyone ever jump from the top?”
They nod. Once guy pulls out his phone and shows me a video of his friend doing it. He’s in the air for a long time- the jump is higher than I thought. I grab Will, and we go back to the guesthouse, having achieved our dose of adventure for the day.
As we left, though, the idea of completing the full 20-metre jump stuck in my head. Could it still be done, even with the increased policing? A cliff-diver would have to do it quickly, with little warm-up to avoid alerting anyone to their plans. But it would be hard to do the full jump without doing any smaller jumps first. And how could the jump be recorded for posterity, without getting the photographer in trouble? That night, I tossed and turned.
The next day was a Monday. Will and I were taking advantage of our office being closed for renovations, and had one more day in Jodhpur before bussing back to Delhi. We set up in a cafe near the Stepwell to get some work done, but I couldn’t focus. The idea of the jump was still roiling in my mind. As the sun started setting, and our departure from Jodhpur approached, I told Will that I needed to do the big jump. And we made a plan.
We would walk to the stepwell, separately. I would wear several layers of clothes so that I could change after the jump, to avoid police identification. Will would set himself up directly across from the vertical side of the well, with his camera and his phone. He would set up the phone to record the jump zone automatically, and would hold the camera and try to snap some shots during the jump. While he was doing this, I would look over the edge, stretch my legs a little, and make sure that I was ready to go for it. Upon a signal from Will that he was ready, I would then strip down at the top of the stepwell and jump in. I would immediately swim out, dress, and go back to the cafe through back alleys. Will would stay around a little, posing as an unconnected tourist. We would then meet back at the cafe, change clothes, get in an auto, head to the bus station, and leave Jodhpur.
Easy. We were ready. I changed in the cafe bathroom and we set the plan in motion.
We walked together to the last alley before the stepwell, and then Will went ahead. I followed a minute later. It struck me quickly just how many people there were around the well, at sunset: ice-cream vendors doing a good business, local goondas looking shifty, couples holding hands, foreigners from around the world and old men who’d lived their whole lives in Jodhpur enjoying the place. I went to the top of the well and looked down. It was far and my heart started pounding. I walked through the crowd a little, doing some deep breathing, trying to forget about what I was going to do.
I was feeling some of the pure, physical adrenaline that I’ve felt walking to the ring before boxing matches; forearms buzzing, locking in, completely different than the cold panic that sometimes sets in on bad days at work. This is the buzz that we go for when we do adventure sports. This is what it’s all about.
After an eternity of waiting, Will gave me the signal. Go time. I went to the lip of the well. There was one guy there as well. In a last clutch for company in my craziness, I asked him if he would also jump; he just laughed at me. I was alone. I started undressing. Plaid shirt, hoodie. Shoes. Shirt. Long pants. I heard the crowd begin to mutter as they realized what was happening. My heart was pounding like crazy. I climbed over the protective stone fence and onto the lip of the well itself. I was too far to turn back now: by climbing the lip, I had ensured that I would jump, because the embarrassment of backing out would be worse than the fear of the plunge.
I looked at Will. I looked down. People were yelling.The water looked black, very far away, and very small. I grew jumping off cliffs on Canadian lakes, and sometimes these jumps were sketchy in one way or another, but this one was really high and the target was small. I braced myself.
And then a loud whistle came from the crowd. Must be the cops. I was shook. But I looked over, and through my tunnel vision couldn’t see them, and so I decided to go for it. Will told me later that someone in front of him was whispering “don’t do it” again and again. Young guys were shouting.
Memory of moments like this is different from other types of memory, so it’s hard to describe. But I know I was in the air for a long time. I got my arms in before water impact but forgot to point my toes, and bruised the soles of my feet on the water. I was under, deep, and fought my way up through the adrenaline and cold shock of the plunge. I broke the surface and people were still yelling.
It was time to move out, fast.
I swam to the water’s edge and got out. I was too buzzing to act logically, so I started going up the wrong way and had to come back down and get to the right set of stairs to get back to my clothes. A group of guys had formed at the clothes, and we exchanged some excited words (understood by neither side) as I haphazardly pulled on my new jacket, realizing how little disguise this actually gave me. An old man came up and, in the weirdest and perhaps most deserved part of the whole experience, asked me when I had had my last bath. I ran away.
Will and I met back in the cafe, and hid out for a bit, and then got on the bus, and made it back to Delhi. It had been a peak of existence, a moment at the very limit. And I was alive to tell the tale. And to look for a chance to create the next adventure.