On the other side of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, lies a white sand beach, where Aghors perform rituals during the new moon. Baba Ram Mahesh, on the left, and his disciple Pandi are performing the Puja, a ritual based on chanting mantras and offering alcohol and cannabis to the sacred fire, as their god, Shiva, used to do. (Tamara Merino)

Baba Anil enjoys a peaceful moment in the Harishchandra ghat cremation ground in Varanasi, India. For Aghors, the cremation ground is a pure and peaceful place, were they can meditate with the flames of the funeral pyres. (Tamara Merino)

These people eat human flesh.

That is all that some need to know about the Aghor religion of India to brand its followers as deranged. Other critics focus on the practice by the religion’s believers of smearing human ashes all over their bodies. Or the occasional consumption of their own excrement.

But when freelance photographer Tamara Merino heard about this small sect of Hinduism, whose notoriety has far outgrown its size, she wanted to create a portrait of the believers that looked deeper than its extreme practices. She ended up spending one month with them in the holy city of Varanasi. She photographed them at their temple and at the ghats on the shores, to which many Hindus travel to die. Merino created the images in late 2016.

“They are people that have so much love and respect for people, animals and nature … it’s just as beautiful as any other religion is,” she said. They worship and hold rituals for their god Shiva, the god of destruction that dwells in the cremation grounds.

The traditions of the Aghor stem from the belief that everything is beautiful and a creation of the gods. So they rail against discrimination and the remnants of the caste system, which historically separated Indians into rigid social strata. Eating human flesh and excrement are also meant to prove that nothing is base.

As for photographing an Aghor eating another person’s flesh, Merino never captured it. Although she spent time with Aghor adherents who had been asked to eat human flesh on camera by TV producers, she was told that the practice is so sacred that a true Aghor would not agree to it.

The Aghor get the flesh from corpses floating down the river (never directly off a burning pyre at a ghat), which family members push into the Ganges River if they don’t have enough money for cremation. And under the privacy of the new moon, they chant mantras, make offerings to Shiva, and consume it.

The body of a Hindu man is burned at the Harishchandra ghat cremation ground. This ghat, home of the Aghors, is one of the two cremation grounds in Varanasi, which runs 24/7 year-round, and burns around 100 bodies a day. (Tamara Merino)

A body is carried into the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, to be washed and purified by its holy power. The body was then to be placed on a wood pyre for the cremation ceremony. Aghors live and perform their rituals and ceremonies in this place. (Tamara Merino)

Baba Chintaharan picks up ashes from a body that was burned at a cremation ground in Varanasi, India. He would later spread the ashes all over his face and body to be purified and protected by them. (Tamara Merino)

Aghors perform their ceremonies with wood that burned on the funeral pyres because it helps them connect with their god Shiva. Here, Pandi carries wood in Varanasi, India, from the pyres to the beach on the other side of the Ganges where he performs specific rituals and ceremonies during the new moon. (Tamara Merino)

Aghor adherents are more active during the nighttime, when they perform their rituals and ceremonies. Here Pandi looks at the funeral pyres at 3 a.m. in Varanasi, India, after a ritual in a temple of Kali, the protector goddess of the cremation ground. (Tamara Merino)

Baba Bambam is performing an exorcism on a man possessed by an evil spirit. An Aghor is said to be a master of many spiritual powers, able to cure and save people from mental and physical illnesses. (Tamara Merino)

Aghor adherents carry a human skull, or kapala. It is used as a bowl to eat, drink and perform rituals. It reminds them that everything is beautiful and pure, because the god Shiva is present in everything. (Tamara Merino)

Baba Bambam rubs his eyes with the skull figures on his necklace as part of his daily spiritual routine in Varanasi, India. The desire for spiritual research is the primary reason people choose to follow the Aghor path. (Tamara Merino)

A statue of Kali, one of the goddesses of the Hindu religion and protector of the cremation grounds, in Varanasi, India. Kali is responsible for liberation, or cutting the link between life and death and ending the cycle of reincarnation. (Tamara Merino)

Baba Ram Mahesh, left, and his disciple Pandi rest in Kali’s temple after a long night of performing rituals in Varanasi, India. They chanted mantras and made offers to the gods and sacred fire. (Tamara Merino)

Baba Chintaharan has belonged to the Aghor sect for over 20 years, teaching and passing the philosophy to new members. Here he takes part in a ritual in Varanasi, India, in Kali’s temple and gives his blessing to everyone who reaches it. (Tamara Merino)

Baba Ram Mahesh prepares a fire in Varanasi, India, to honor and worship Kali, the goddess of the cremation ground. He has lived and performed his rituals here for five years. (Tamara Merino)

To become an Aghor, each member of the sect has to spend at least 12 years learning and practicing from his personal guru. Baba Ram Mahesh, on the left, is the guru of Pandi, who has been learning from him for almost five years. (Tamara Merino)

See more of Tamara Merino’s work, previously featured on In Sight: “Inside the world of Australian opal miners who live underground.” 

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