Ramola Talwar Badam, Canadian Press
Published: Thursday, October 27, 2005
MUMBAI, India (AP) – A new Indian documentary seeks to shed light on a secretive sect of Hindu ascetics who allegedly eat human corpses, believing it will make them ageless and give them supernatural powers.
The 10-minute movie Feeding on the Dead delves into the little-known world of the 1,000-year-old Aghori sect, whose sadhus, or holy men, purportedly pull bodies from Hinduism's holy river, the Ganges, in northern India. The sect has been written about, but rarely filmed performing its rituals. Cannibalism is illegal in India.
Director Sandeep Singh said it took him more than three months to gain an Aghori sadhu's trust and persuade him to be filmed while performing a cannibalistic ritual.
"When we first met the sadhu, he said: 'Rubbish, we don't do this,' " Singh said in an interview. "It took months before he admitted to the rituals."
There are about 70 Aghori sadhus at a given time, Singh said. They remain with the sect for 12 years, and can then return to their families, he said.
Unlike other Hindu holy men, most of whom are vegetarians and teetotallers, the Aghoris also drink alcohol.
But it is their consumption of human flesh – a practice whose origins remain a mystery – which has earned them the condemnation of other Hindus and relegated most of them to living around crematoriums in the hills around the northern holy city of Varanasi, where the documentary was made.
While filming, Singh and three cameramen waited with an Aghori holy man – whose name is not mentioned in the film – for 10 days in June before the sadhu found a corpse floating in the Ganges.
Hindus generally cremate the dead, but sometimes ceremonially dispose of bodies in the Ganges.
"The body was decomposed and bluish in colour, but the sadhu was not afraid about falling sick," Singh said. "He sat on the corpse, prayed to a goddess of crematoriums and offered some flesh to the goddess before eating it."
Singh said the sadhu ate part of the corpse's elbow, believing the flesh would stop him from aging and give him special powers, like the ability to levitate or control the weather.
The filmmaker said he did not see any such powers displayed, and plans to continue his research into the sect by filming ascetics at various intervals during their 12 years as Aghoris.
"It's a fascinating life and I want to know more," he said.
Singh said the documentary would be screened at the Asian Festival of First Films to be held in Singapore Nov. 23-30.
© The Canadian Press 2005