It’s 3 a.m. on the cremation grounds in India’s holy city of Varanasi. For the last four hours, six bodies have been burning, one after the other, on a platform in front of the Ganges river. A man with long hair, dressed in full black, recites a mantra as he watches the fire. He belongs to the Aghori, a cult that eats human flesh for specific rituals and uses human skulls and bones for ceremonies and jewelry.
The Aghori believe themselves to be the masters of many spiritual powers; able to cure mental and physical illnesses, saving lives. The man approaches a pile of ashes on the ground, and spreads them over his body and face. “Holy ash is the last and purest state of everything. We spread human ashes all over, to let the body be as pure as ashes,” says Baba Ram Magesh, a 40-year-old holy man who has belonged to the Aghori cult for over fifteen years.
Since the 5th century B.C., the Aghoris have followed the path of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. They believe he resides in the cremation grounds, known as shmashana. Aghoris immerse themselves in environments where death is a part of their daily routine. They live and perform their rituals in the shmashana, chanting mantras and making offerings to the sacred fire and the gods.
Aghoris see beauty and brightness in all things That is why, adherents say, they do not feel fear, hate or disgust. Instead, they follow the path of non-discrimination. With the consumption of human flesh, they prove that nothing is profane or separate from God, because for them a corpse lacks the soul it once had. “Why should we differentiate things, if we are all part of nature?” says Baba Ram Mahesh. A true Aghor will keep himself away from killing, he says. Despite their extreme practices and lifestyle, they will never hurt another person.