The following accounts are true, and there is no fiction or hyperbole present. It may be hard to believe. It may be hard to understand. But, even though it’s been almost two years, I still remember everything as clear as if it were just yesterday.
Before I begin my story, let me provide some context. The Aghori are a very specific sub-sect of Hindu priests. They worship Shiva, the god who plays the role of “the destroyer” in Hindu mythology.
They look absolutely terrifying, smoke massive amounts of pot, live far away from cities, ritually consume human flesh, and bathe in human ashes. As a result, they are feared by the rest of society for their cannibalistic activity, and are considered extremely dangerous due to their constant state of being stoned.
Many people also believe them to be practitioners of black magic, which only adds to the terrifying air of mystery and unknown that shrouds the Aghori. Nobody dares try to interrupt their (sometimes very illegal) practices – neither the people they offend nor the police.
He had heard about an interesting structure, a large, ancient gateway running along the top of a cliff almost 500 meters high. In ancient times, this used to be the gateway to the plateau we were situated on. My friend (who will now be referred to as V) loved to go explore abandoned monuments scattered all over the state, and I was more than ready to go photograph buildings in disrepair.
We left the city in central India early the next morning, since we only had a vague idea of where it was located. We figured we’d have to do some driving around to find it. Around three hours later, after driving for miles on tiny dirt paths along the cliff with absolutely no cell reception, we got to the gateway. We were sorely disappointed.
It had been ‘restored’ poorly. They had clearly cut corners and basically just slapped ugly, graffitied plaster and cement on top of the beautiful old stone that was originally the surface. Sadly enough, this kind of ‘restoration’ is getting more and more common with Indian monuments.
We could see what looked like the ruins of a small, long-abandoned fort. We couldn’t figure out the actual route to drive up to the fort. Luckily, we saw a man walking along the street who probably lived around there.
V pulled down his window and asked the local for directions to the fort. Before he answered, the local hesitated for a minute, and then finally asked us why we would want to visit such a godforsaken place. We were very puzzled. We chalked it up to “superstitious rural bullshit,” laughed it off, and coerced him into pointing us to the right path.
We drove up closer, parked the car about half a mile from the fort where the dirt path ended, and walked over. The doorway to the fort was pretty imposing. It was a massive brass-lined behemoth with nasty looking spikes protruding from it. Since the door looked too heavy and tall for us to move it, we opted to climb over one of the corners that was now just a pile of rubble.
The inside of the fort was almost completely bare, save a few patches of shrubbery and one solitary, tiny free-standing room right in the center. The room had a closed door on it that looked recently installed, which prompted me and V to exchange a look of slight discomfort.
We wordlessly decided to steer clear of the room, and distracted ourselves by walking to the other end of the fort to give it a look. All of a sudden, we caught a whiff of a scent that is all too familiar to anyone who has spent the night in a college dorm – it absolutely reeked of weed.
We looked around, and stumbled upon a rather large crop of weed hidden between the shrubbery. This discovery along with the local’s earlier warning and the lack of cell reception had me and V understandably panicked. We decided to head back to the car and get as far away from this spooky fort as possible.
As we were heading back, we crossed the closed door again. To our surprise, it was now open. From the darkness of the room, a menacingly tall, lean man ambled out and looked towards us, confused.
At this point in time, we didn’t know that he was an Aghori, we just saw a man in a loincloth with matted hair and a huge beard glaring at us. He broke the tension by smiling, and told us not to be scared. He told us he was a “holy man,” and that we had no reason to worry. This did nothing to ease our fear. We managed to mumble a vague greeting. He responded by inviting us into his hovel for a cup of tea. We tried to refuse, but he was having none of it.
Culturally, hospitality is a big deal in India; it would be offensive to refuse someone’s hospitality. He got slightly angry, and asked us if we were really planning on refusing a holy man’s hospitality.
Since the car was at least half a mile away and we seemed to have run out of options, we had no choice but to follow him in. A strange sight greeted us inside. There was an altar with a trident sticking out of it. We were terrified, and we didn’t know what fate awaited us.
Once inside, he took his spot on a pile of rags on one side of the altar, and gestured towards another pile of rags on the other side for us to sit on. There was no further mention of tea. Instead, he procured a chillum (pipe) that looked like it was made from bone, and started filling it up with from two neat little piles. One looked like pot and the other is still a mystery to me.
It was then that we finally understood that this man was an Aghori. Considering the horrible rumors prevalent about them in India, we were even more terrified. He took a deep draw from the chillum, and wordlessly handed it to V.
V looked uncertain, so the Aghori told us that it wasn’t an option to refuse an offering to his god. He looked at V with a stern glint in his eye, so V gulped and slowly took the chillum from him. He lit a match, took a small draw, and then started coughing violently. The Aghori seemed to find this funny, and laughed.
He gestured to V to hand the chillum to me. With shaking hands, I pretended to take a draw and faked a cough. He seemed to believe my ruse, and took the chillum from me. At this point, me and V were so far past petrified that we were instilled with a false sense of calm, and we decided to make the most of the situation.
What we heard was very surprising – one would assume that a person wouldn’t just choose to become an Aghori. It would be the result of being born into it, or having a very hard childhood and being left with no other options.
What the Aghori told us as he sipped on a glass of water was that he was born into a perfectly normal family. He was in school through middle school like a normal child, but in his teen years, he realized that this was his true calling in life.
He thought he had come into contact with a higher power, albeit through no real critical spiritual experience. He rejected his family and his old way of life to become an Aghori. He ran away from home, searched far and wide for an Aghori, and followed him around until the Aghori accepted him as his apprentice and trained him.
As he was taking his next draw from the chillum, he heard my camera’s soft click. He took a purposefully long, slow draw, all the while glaring straight at me accusingly. Once he finished, he paused for a second, and vehemently asked me whether I had been secretly photographing him.
As I stuttered, he slowly started laughing, told me he was just joking, and it was perfectly alright. He even posed for me while twirling his mustache. A few minutes later, he seemed to have been overcome with whatever he was smoking, and he lay down seemingly in a trance. V and I took this chance to quietly slip out, and hurry back to our car.
Neither of us said a word to each other during the three hour drive back home.
I understand that this story might seem pointless. But this was my first real experience with such deep religious spirituality that it converted me from an atheist to agnostic. As a photographer, this is the story behind some of my favorite shots, a story that I have never before shared with anyone in its entirety.