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.

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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