Human skull I found on the banks of the Ganges river. Currently housed on their temple in Varanasi, India.
Part three of a three part series on the Cremation grounds of Varanasi written together with Jordan De Lupis. For part one about Varanasi itself, click this link. For part two about the cremation grounds of Varanasi, click here.
On the cremation grounds of Varanasi you'll find strange creatures. Men with long beards, covered in human ashes who drink from human skulls, do naked yoga at the cremation grounds, and do strange rituals with human bodies that include cannibalism. The locals tell tales of the holy men that dress up like shiva, yet seem to surpass him in their consumption of weed and alcohol. Day and night they meditate into the fire that consumes an entire human body to ashes in 20 minutes. They also subsequently smear the human ashes onto their skin.
Who are these cannibal monks?
From november-december 2022 and may 2023 I've had the rather unique chance to live amongst these fascinating people for an extended period of time, winning their trust by drinking whiskey from a human skull as well as accepting them as humans. I slept next to the fire for days at end, living like one of them.
The Aghori are a mystic Hindu sect that are known for their extreme practices, which include cannibalism and consuming human remains. They believe that everything in the universe is a manifestation of the divine, including the human body, which is seen as a temporary vessel for the soul.
We went to the other side of the river - regarded as holy place for them, to gather sand for a funeral ritual. Thats where I stumbled upon the human skull from the cover picture.
After I had taken photos of it, my new friend 'baba richi' said "Oh neat! It will become part of our collection", and took the smelly skull into his hands and onto the boat.
A few of their many cults. Their temple is right at the burning ghat of Manikarnika. Where dozens of bodies get burned every single day.
To an outside the temple may look scary with real human skulls and 'dark' rituals - but the people showed kindness and community.
They live of donations, some members have begging bowls made from human skulls
Alcohol is consumed at an alarming rate, but the aghori believe any intoxicating substances help to get close into a spiritual state of Shiva. Shiva also smoked extensively.
A member preparing a ritual before an animal sacrifice
One Aghori, known as Baba Trilok, has been coming to the Ghat for many years. He is known for his practice of eating human remains, which he claims helps him to achieve a higher state of consciousness. "When I eat human flesh, I feel closer to the divine," he said in Hindi when I approached him..
Hash is smoken religiously around the clock in so called Chillums
Some members had desciples. This Russian girl was attracted to the power she felt from him "Can't you feel it - I also want that, Aghori means 'No fear', and we will have no fear". She slept next to him at the cremation ground like a true devotee.
While their practices may seem shocking to outsiders, the Aghori see themselves as spiritual warriors on a quest for enlightenment. For them, the Manikarnika Ghat is a place of great significance, where they can pursue their spiritual journeys and connect with the divine.
However, many Hindus view the Aghori with skepticism and even disgust. "Their practices are not in line with our cultural and religious traditions," said one local resident who wished to remain anonymous. "We don't condone their behavior, and we don't want them at the Ghat."
On an earlier trip to Varanassi in 2020 encountered an Aghori who calls himself ‘Flower baba’ practicing yoga nakedly at the cremation grounds. I could understand why the mourning locals wouldn’t appreciate that.
Despite the controversy, the Aghori remain a presence at the Manikarnika Ghat, clinging to their unorthodox practices and their belief in the power of the divine. As Baba Rishi put it, "We are not afraid of death. We are not afraid of anything. We only fear separation from the divine."
Humans are eaten religiously, as they believe themselves to be wanting to act like shiva and as everyting in the world is shiva - they make no distinction between dog poop, steak, cake, human flesh or rice. Another religious practice is the cutting up of the human body in 95 small parts that 95 aghori's will consume. They believe its good for both them and the person that has passed away. I've seen aghori's nibble on leftover flesh from the cremation ground, but they didn't want to be photographed at that time.
The Ganges river is holy to them, they not only dump the bodies of the fallen priests into the river, but rely on it for washing [off the human ashes] as well as drinking. Believing it is so pure and holy no bacteria can live in it. I have no doubt its possible that no bacteria lives in it, but that may be due to other reasons.
The villagers are mostly just scared of them, and only approach them if they REALLY need help - as they believe the Aghoris pocess the power of black magic.
The cannibals may be outcasts of society, but they didn't lose their humanity. Having created a community amongst themselves and anyone that wishes to join - sharing tea, rice, cigarettes, weed and other drugs amongst themselves as well as a place in their temple and on the cremation ground. No matter if you had money or not. I witnessed a penny less Russian sadhu student join us for talks at the fire. And although he wasn't required to do so, at the end he left a few rupees as a donation, which were probably given to a member to get tea for the entire country. We all had a few drops of tea, including myself. They fully trusted on the gods and the community to take care of them and didn't worry about a single thing "sometimes when we have money we buy weed and we smoke-smoke, today we have no money and we only smoke bidis". [Bidi: a cheap handmade cigarette smoked by the Indian poor and working class]
And to answer a much-asked question - "No, I'm not tasty enough to get eaten"