The Cannibals of Kashi



“The first time I saw an aghori eating flesh at a midnight ritual on a ghatin Varanasi,” said Bala to me over the phone, “I felt disgusted. But then I got used to it.”

Bala is the rocking noir Tamil filmmaker whose much-awaited film, Naan Kadavul (I Am God) was released last Friday in Tamil Nadu.

Bala is the rocking noir Tamil filmmaker

Bala is the rocking noir Tamil filmmaker

The Telugu  release will happen any day now. It was filmed over three years at Varanasi and stars Arya. The ‘hero’is a Tamil boy left in Kashi by his father for astrological reasons. Years later when the father goes to retrieve him, he finds his son is now an aghori sadhu and king of a beggar mafia.

Bala smartly took 500 ’saamiyaars’ (religiously-garbed beggars) to Varanasi for shooting the crowd scenes.

Bala smartly took 500 ’saamiyaars’ (religiously-garbed beggars) to Varanasi for shooting the crowd scenes.

Mindblown friends in Madras have been calling me to say it’s beyond words, a stinging social satire and noir like never in India.

Aghoris are a very ancient Tantrik sect of Shaivas who eat dead human flesh at burning grounds as part of their ritual. They have been around forever but since they don’t eat living people, nobody has messed with them yet. In any case, they are a highly secretive lot. As to which, the Irulas (snake-catchers of Tamil Nadu) eat rats. I once asked Kutty Revathi what rats tasted like. She’s a poet and a sociologist at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) who has lived with the Irulas for her field studies (they also eat geckos). Kutty Revathi answered quite clinically in Tamil, Konjam kozha-kozha (a little mushy).
[flv:http://images.blogs.hindustantimes.com/she-baba/post/naan-kadavul.flv 320 240]
What I’m trying to say is there’s a whole world out there beyond butter chicken (which itself is hideously revolting to vegetarians), so it’s a matter of degree, you have to keep an open mind about what people like to eat. “There are about a 100 aghoris in Varanasi. Two of them are in my film. I can’t tell you any more because it will become a problem for them” said Bala.

He smartly took 500 saamiyaars (religiously-garbed beggars) to Varanasi for shooting the crowd scenes. Madras had a pretty good holiday from them, though they’re all back now! Nobody bothered him one bit in the holy city, says Bala, an intriguing thought when you consider how Deepa Mehta was chased away by Bajrangis for wanting to make a film in Varanasi on Hindu widows (Water).
[flv:http://images.blogs.hindustantimes.com/she-baba/post/naan-kadavul-slideshow.flv 320 240]

Hear the Naan Kadavul songs (myoosik by Ilayaraja!) and see the trailer on YouTube. I must have called Bala and Co six times between Wednesday and now for a hi-res trailer and song for you to taste here, but they sent just these stills. No prizes for guessing who’s Bala and who’s Arya-the Aghori!

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  • pradeep rao

    Thank you for this wonderful piece Renukaji, or should i call you Akka? I have been fascinated by the Aghorpanthis because I believe that they have actually sprung from that strange but persistent thread of Indian agnostic thought through the ages, which has always struck a deep chord in me, and which I believe to be the reason for my rationalism, (not Western Darwinism or Astrophysics). After all, what better argument for rationalism than to underline that every belief is a subjective interpretation and reality is beyond it . And what better way to break subjective taboos or mental limitations than by sampling a little Shamshani kabab?

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  • http://deleted renuka

    Wow, you got it straight, where I’m coming from, I mean. You, sir, clearly possess a deep mind with a wellspring of mirth!

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  • Anusha

    I’m speechless!
    Ya Renuka, there’s a whole world out there beyond butter chicken.

    Hindu widows(Water), involves religion(a prestigious one) and women(more prestigious, supposed to be oppressed and suppressed), and that too widows(most pretigious, the sinners) … you know what I mean, I mean ya, it’s kinda intriguing. …. ….ya

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    renuka Reply:

    Good point, Anusha. The rules ARE different for the Boys’ Club. Even in this. Especially in this! Didn’t think of that ancient reason in this case while writing, though I’m always throwing hissy fits about it….There’s a blind girl in the film, played by Pooja, she’s part of one beggar gang and taken away from it to service another lot..She confronts the aghori and what happens to her doesn’t sound pretty. My Madras pals are still numb with shock.
    The underbelly of India is our own living Holocaust.
    I admire Bala for questioning things. I told him his film sounds like it plunges the viewer into the world’s most ancient gutter – Kashi is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, with Damascus – and the viewer emerges covered in slime with two dead bandicoots hanging from his years like bizarre jimikis (jhumkas)… hope Bala will get around to subtitling it in Hindi and English (there are characters who speak in HIndi naturally, in Varanasi).

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  • http://www.anindianmuslim.com Indscribe

    Wonderful article. Have heard so much about them but never read a good piece. Thanks for writing such a post. Your blogging is really going great guns. In fact, not many journos are able to blog but you have just make us addicted.

    Please keep writing.

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    renuka Reply:

    Thanks for making my day! Will go grind the God-chakki today for the Faith Page in HT with new energy. Baba, blogging takes getting used to, though…

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    renuka Reply:

    You mentioned ‘Chirkeen’ on Mayank’s blog as the lord of his genre. Pls tell more, sounded interesting

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    pradeep rao Reply:

    Did he mean ChirKhi Ustad – very funny obscene shairi, common to both Hindus and Muslims in North India, often using religious figures. The nauchandi mela in Western UP even has shows of Qawwals singing obscene verses. To quote a milder, Hindu example, ” Ram naam sab karat hain, Dasrath karey na koi, (Par )Dasrath kasrat na karen, to ram kahaan se hoye?”

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    pradeep rao Reply:

    Or if you want to get grossed out, a Chirkhi classic that almost every (North) Indian schoolboy knows, about the foot-stones of the Indian pit toilet: ” Bade kismatwalle hotey hain voh pai-khaney ke pathar…jinhoney husn ko be-naqaab dekha hai” ….sorry for the scatology :-) but I think these subversive verses represented pressure-cooker laughter vents for an otherwise very repressive purdah society.( Including both Hindus & Muslim Hindustanis of course).

    renuka Reply:

    !!! I am NOT laughing because I don’t want to encourage Serious Filth on my blog. Sociology! Linguistics!! That’s what this is. Sociology. And Linguistics. And let us piously invoke Aunty Diana Vreeland, the late, legendary Editor of Vogue magazine, who said, “A little bad taste is like a dash of paprika.”

    Indscribe Reply:

    Mir Baqar Ali ‘Chirkeen’ who was fed up with the kind of poetry that was in vogue then, took to a differnt style of poetry.

    However, his poetry was not just about such things. Sadly, only the ’so-called dirty’ couplets that resonate in school campuses mong kids, have survived in public memory. His divan is now available on internet at the marvellous digital library website dli.iiit.ac.in

  • Shalini

    very interesting piece of article……..or blog !!!!

    the Aghoris have always been rather intriguing and as u said secretive lot and hence not much is said and spoken about them. would love more info on them thou !!!!

    Keep them coming !!!

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    renuka Reply:

    thanks, Shalini. Wondering whether this has totally grossed out the public…

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    Alok Reply:

    No, I think that lies with the Pee men of Delhi blog by Mayank. :P

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    renuka Reply:

    :)

  • Samar Halarnkar

    Great stuff Renuka. I’ve been quite rivetted

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    renuka Reply:

    thanks..alas, it reduced the joy of eggs for megha…

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  • Vincent Van Ross

    The first time I heard of Aghoris was when The Week magazine carried a cover story on them in the 1990s. Rupa has brought out two books on Aghoris since then.
    The Week coverage was complete with a graphic account of their lifestyle and their ultimate meditation called Shav Sadhana which is performed by 1,3,5 or 7 Aghoris sitting on the dead body. The ritual begins at midnight in the aghori dwelling. Poor lighting and smoke from incence sticks add to the fear factor of those who are attending the ritual for the first time. These rituals can be viewed only by a select few. Some Aghoris are also known to maintain water graves where they stock dead bodies fished out from the river.

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    renuka Reply:

    tks vincent. But the big point to note about the aghoris is that they don’t catch and kill people to eat their flesh for pleasure. That goes against their moral law. It is to show their utter disdain for little, boxy ideas about God, the world and narrow, sectarian notions of religion that they (sickly, to us), instituted eating a piece of a corpse as their stark ritual, a rite of doing the ‘un-doable’ to show, as Pradeep Rao wrote above, that reality lay beyond what we think it is. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to have begun.
    I’m quite spooked by how this blog coincided coincided with the Nithari judgment, which is about criminal acts and not aghori.

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    Vincent Van Ross Reply:

    Renuka, That is right. Aghoris do not kill people. They eat from dead bodies sometimes pulling away a leg from a burning pyre and nobody objects. But, for some reason they are feared.

    My understanding is that they eat corpses as a self-effacing measure. They also eat human excreta for the same reason–to destroy ego.

    I hear that the son of former governor Bhanu Pratap Singh has also renounced the world and become an Aghori.

    Your blog may have coincided with the Nithari judgement but I am a little skeptical about its final verdict.

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    Rahul Reply:

    If this Mr. Bhanu Pratap Singh was the governor of Goa, then you are right. his son did renounce-but not this world but his old and inherent “sanskars”. that was way back in early 1980s. Today if you meet Him, and you are clear from within, you cant help but feel an immediate sense of calm and peace inside you. He is the present head of the Aghoreshwar Bhagwan Ram Kusht Sevaashram at padaao in Varanasi(near Rajghat bridge).

  • Rahul

    Dear Renuka,
    Its strange how we form opinions about things without going to their depths. We wont say anything about blackholes and similar things coz we feel that we dont know enough. But when it comes to social aspects we feel as if we have a free run! On one hand we say that aghoris are a scretive sect and on the other we form an opinion based on precious little. While in kaashi, did any one take any view points from the two cornerstones of the aghor tradition in modern times-the Avadhoot Bhagwaan Kushth Sevaashram-which boasts of a guiness record of treating the most number of leprosy patients in the world-and Kinaram Sthal-a centuries old seat of Aghor tradition? May be those who say they want to know more about this panth, ought to visit these 2 places. And its not all about eating flesh (which incidentally is not so perceived by them-their take is when their is no life in the dead body, how is it any different from just another organic matter?) but about erasing one’s preconceived notions and inherent viewpoints about certian things being better/purer/more beautiful etc. than others Theirs is the epitomee of Abhed or Adwait line of thought. Another way of learning about them may be by learning about the most famous of Indian saints who have ben aghoris including Vashisth, Dattatrey to name a few. Its a little known fact that Alarkalam guided Buddh only in his early period of wandering. It was an avadhutin(female accomplished aghori)who showed him the final path and it was an aghori again who guided Ramakrishna Paramhans to a level beyond plain idol worship. To conclude, we ought to restrain our free flowing thoughts about things we dont know much about and instead, if serious enough, try to look at those things free of our prejudices.

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    renuka Reply:

    Great that you shared this. I knew about Ramkeshto and the aghori. And just yesterday, someone else pointed out that ‘aghori’ is a superlative of Sanskrit ghora/ghoram (dreadful)…ghori, aghori, atighori (like Soorpanakha).

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    Rahul Reply:

    At the end of the day, these are just names that we give them. there are various other names too-aughar( originally “audhar”), avadhut etc. names have no meaning for them.

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    pradeep rao Reply:

    Wow, to look at the Aghorpanthis flesh-eating as a way of not only triggering release from subjectivity, but as a final act of accepting the Advaitic-Vedantic concept of the all-encompassing universal divinity of “creation” is a fascinating perspective. Thanks for sharing Rahul

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    Rahul Reply:

    a few things that i’d like to say-1. its not a final act, 2. aghoris are not concerned about vedas so there is no effort on their part to accept vedantic concepts. they do what ever is needed to get them to their ultimate goal, the same as Buddh or any other serious monk wishes for – to realise the Truth. its just that theirs is the shortest path.

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    pradeep rao Reply:

    Thanks Rahul, was trying to draw a theortical parallel, not infuse vedantic ideology into these serious monks, thanks for clarification.

  • Anusha

    how’s having excreta realted to destroying ego or erasing notions about beauty? I suppose ego n beauty exist at mental level.
    Guys, scientifically my body needs nutrients to grow and run on.

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    renuka Reply:

    Yay, the practical view! I feel kind of affronted when I see starving monks parading their ribcages. It’s such a negation of the gift of life, which – i think, anyway – is to repaid with nourishment…
    On the one hand, the cerebralisation of existence (a seductive game, the biggest turn-on in some ways), leading to all kinds of ‘excesses’. On the other, the sweaty hungry reality and the stark, non-negotiable truth that life needs FOOD. What, how much, etc etc: merely nuances (and culture-lifestyle-related). Sattvik, shmattvik….don’t think you get to sit on a higher cloud for that (so boring anyway).
    Tushar Gandhi (MKG’s great-grandson) once told me that Bapu, whom I think is nine feet tall, and way up there on my hero list, ate boiled gunk of ’sattvik’ veggies all mushed up. That’s criminal in some quarters. Guess Pop (of our nation) was into ‘tinda loving care’.

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    Rahul Reply:

    Anusha, your reply is in the question-rather the feeling that arose in your mind when you thought about “excreta” and may have formed a pic of it in your mind and felt it being repulsive! You are right that its at the mental level. But this begs the question how do you ingrain this feeling deeply enough as not to affect the perceptions about such things affect the way you look at the world. renuka talks about starving monks. She is right that its a negation of the gift of life. But, how does the Guru of that monk convince him about this? There are all types of people in the “monkhood line” if i may use this word. Some have very deep entrenched views about certain things and some not. An able Guru guides the disciple according to his(disciple’s)inner make up. As for we people who are talking about the fish in the pond without getting a first hand experience of it(and hence devoid of a 100% objective view), on seeing a fat, laden with gold wise man, we brand that person as a cheat! so neither an anorexic nor some one who’s well fed and is not allergic to showing off, is acceptable. The simple fact is we have our own pre-formed perceptions/views/ideas about how “nice wise sadhus/sanyaasis” ought to be and the way they should go about doing things/telling others to do things. and when this border is breached, we get uncomfortable.
    Come to think of it, the very fact that this discussion is being held signifies that something is there which we are not able to digest and “we” are nothing but a sum total of our beliefs etc that i’ve already mentioned above. Lets try to stop judging and just accept things which dont affect us directly.

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    renuka Reply:

    But if we didn’t have a place to talk about these things, how would we even begin to suss out stuff?

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    Rahul Reply:

    With all due respect, the only place to discuss such a things is the inner self!

    renuka Reply:

    Oh pooh. It was interesting to read what you shared. We’re not thought readers, it’s nice to share responses and ideas, discuss or react to things, even if it’s Yuck or Don’t Agree.

    Anusha Reply:

    Wow Rahul, you are a sorted soul already. Well, I’m still learning.

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    Rahul Reply:

    of course its nice to discuss and share responses and ideas. But as regards the topic in question(which i think is the behavior/appearance etc. of those on the path of spirituality), such sharing of ideas is only at the intellectual level and if one wishes to really know the hows and whys of things spiritual, such discussions will lead no where. thats where the “inner side” comes into play.

  • Anusha

    Thanks Renuka for posting this blog. It’s great to discuss stuffs especially on your blogs. you increase my knowledge every time.

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    renuka Reply:

    It’s great to hear your views Anusha! I’m learning bigtime from you all. It’s really interesting to get feedback, to know what you all think, pro, con, everything.
    Seriously, I’d love to know your views, people, if you think women’s mags are too pushy in their agenda like I wrote on the Woody Guthrie blog
    I used to style fashion shoots in another life, so it’s been a big transition from Babes to Babas. I felt crucified every time I saw a perfectly nice-looking Indian girl – or boy! – especially the duskier ones – start feeling depressed about their appearance after their periodic fix of glossy pages. Don’t know if I have it wrong…

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    Anusha Reply:

    big n beautiful transition honey :-) u turned right.

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  • http://joycreator.wordpress.com/ P Venkatesh

    She-Baba…great name for a blog…its got the Ardha-Nareeshwar feel!

    Maybe by eating flesh, the Aghoris flesh out a profound truth – ‘matter’ does not matter!!

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  • http://deleted renuka

    good one. marrow truth, with the qulaifier for regular folk that ‘ultimately’ it does not matter?

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  • http://deleted renuka

    good one. marrow truth, with the qualifier for regular folk that ‘ultimately’ it does not matter?

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  • K. Rahul

    Very interesting….

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  • lakshmi

    Nobody here seems to look at it froma perspective of truth. Even vegiotarians are eating a living thing. Just because you dont see blood in plants does not mean they dont live. Aghoris seem to be the true non- violent ones. what better way to be non violient than to give up on eating living being all together,,,!!!

    Now then i am sure there will be those questioniong about the millions of bacteria and living organisms that we may be kiling by taking breath etc, but i still believe that Aghoras are the true non violent ones– one step ahead of the JAINS as well

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  • Jyothi Maris

    Good One..
    Very Interesting…

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  • worldchat

    Most common perceptions about Aghora and Aghories are—-Aghori’s are supposed to Be One of The Most Powerful and Dangerous Saint’s In Indian Mythology. They Never Wear Any Clothes And Don’t Come Out Generally In Day Time. They Worship Human Dead Bodies And Drink And Eat Water And Food In Human Skull. They Don’t Speak To Anyone And Are So Powerful That Just With Their Eyes They Can Do Anything.**
    THIS IS TOTALLY WRONG PERCEPTION/ STUDY ABOUT AGHORA. DUE TO THIS TYPE OF WRONG INFORMATION ALWAYS CREATE CONFUSION AND MISCONCEPTION AMONG COMMON PEOPLE.
    I would like to clear (with my 15 years research and study) that Aghora OR Aghori is not concerned with particular kind of Religion OR dress code OR eating code. Most of the Research scholars say that—Aghora is related with Hindu religion, but it is not true. Aghora is symbolically represented by Lord Shiva, because it is believed that –*The Lord Shiva is the Creator & Destructor of this whole universe*. Father of modified form of Aghora is Baba Keenaram (Born in 1601 AD). According to devotees and scholars -*Baba Keenaram is incarnation of Lord Shiva himself *. The Place BABA KEENARAM STHAL- KRIM KUND, Varanasi -U.P., INDIA, is the Pilgrim and center of Aghora across world . You can visit this place and can check that there is no dress-code or eating habits visible.
    According to World fame one of the greatest Saints , of 20th century, Aghoreshwer Bhagwan Ram alias Avadhoot Bhagwan Ram alias Sarkar Babab — **Most of SO-CALLED SAINTS having human skulls, eating daed human flesh , drinking wine and showing magic (Like magicians) are not Aghories. They are just diverted follower after attaining some kind of spiritual power. He has described that *A true Aghori never show His/her spiritual power openly, but uses it very secretly towards human welfare in a very simple method*. Bhagwan Ram said that **Aghori is not the name of danger but the name of purification and having the nature of most kind human being with all powers of this Universe**.
    Aghori is not found everywhere but once in billions. An Aghori having all powers of this whole universe (Regarding creation or destruction). He or She is the supreme authority of this whole universe. Today, Head of Aghora, across world, is 39 Years old Baba Siddharth Gautam Ram (present Chief / Abbot , since 1978, of Baba Keenaram Sthal , Krim-Kund and main disciple of Aghoreshwer Bhagwan Ram ) . According to devotees and scholars -*Baba Siddharth Gautam Ram is reincarnation of Baba Keenaram himself *.
    After all – Aghora is the highest stage of spirituality and only once in a billion can achieve the stage of become an Aghori.

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  • keyloggers

    keyloggers…

    The Cannibals of Kashi : She Baba…