Warning: Readers may find some images distressing.
There is a city in northern India called Varanasi that sits on the banks of the Ganges River. It’s a holy place – with around 2,000 temples lining its streets – where Hindu pilgrims come from far and wide to bathe in the river’s sacred waters and perform funeral rites on its white sand beaches. Many Hindus even travel to die there. Varanasi is also the central home of the Aghor – a tiny sect of Hinduism that has become known for its practice of eating human flesh. Moving between India and Nepal and living among cremation grounds, the Aghor are known as the nomadic 'cannibal cult' of India, and their notoriety has far outgrown their size.
In late 2016, photographer Tamara Merino spent a month with the Aghor, documenting their rites and rituals, as well as their quieter, everyday moments. Intrigued by their reputation as the 'most feared cannibal in all of India and Nepal' she sought them out while travelling through India. "After some time," she says, "I got the chance to meet Aghor guru Baba Ram Mahesh and it was through him that I gained my chance to document the intimate daily life of the cult. I made relationships with other Aghor and they allowed me to make my work securely and spend a few weeks with them in Varanasi."
Merino’s images of the cult are dramatic and beautiful – the theatre of their fire-filled ceremonies unfurling against deep pink sunset skies as night draws in. Some images are shocking; in one photograph we see a corpse swathed in fabrics slowly being engulfed by flames, and in others, we observe quiet, meditative moments. "It was an intense but beautiful experience," Merino remembers. "The Aghor live and perform their rituals during the night, so in order to document the cult I regularly had to stay awake all night in the cremation grounds with them."
Since the 5th century BC, the Aghor have followed the path of Shiva, the god of destruction in Hinduism, who resides in the cremation ground. "This is why," Merino explains, "they immerse themselves in environments where death surrounds them as a part of their daily routine. They eat human flesh for specific rituals and use human skulls and bones for ceremonies and jewellery. An Aghor is also a master of many spiritual powers, able to cure and save people’s lives from mental and physical illnesses." Aghor rituals are based largely around chanting mantras and offering alcohol and cannabis to the fire, a sacred element, as their god Shiva is believed to have done.
Merino explains that due to their controversial practices, the Aghor have faced extensive criticism and are regarded with grave suspicion, even in their own country. The reverence and honour with which they deal with their dead, she says, is ignored in favour of more sceptical analogies, with many documentaries and TV shows sensationalising their practices in order to sell a corrupt, demonised image of them to the world. In direct contrast, Merino wanted to spend her time getting to know the people behind the stories, and understanding their complex practices, which reach far beyond being a 'cannibal cult'. "I made this project to show how much misconception persists about the Aghor," she says. And what she found along the way was so far from what she had expected.
"The Aghor see beauty and light in everything, and they don’t feel fear, hate or disgust. They follow a path of non-discrimination," she says. "With the consumption of human flesh, they affirm that nothing is profane or separate from God, because for them a corpse lacks the soul it once had. Despite their extreme practices and lifestyle, a true Aghor will keep himself away from killing, and will never hurt or damage anybody." Merino says the most important part of the project was the opportunity to share mind-opening thoughts, philosophies and ideas about lifestyle with the people she encountered. "The Aghor are feared, but while documenting their daily life and rituals I discovered that, despite their extreme practices and beliefs, they are the furthest thing from terrifying. Instead I was struck by how very human it all was. They are people full of endless love and respect."
Merino was born and raised in Colombia to a German mother and a Chilean father. She bought her first camera in 2010 and began photographing life on the streets of Santiago. The idea that photography could be a way to access different groups of people was endlessly alluring, the camera allowing her a new proximity to strangers which she hadn’t had before. Early on, she says, "I realised I wanted to tell other people’s stories and I wanted to do it for the rest of my life."
In the years since, Merino has followed her nose deep into communities and countercultures all around the world, and has photographed issues such as female migration in Chile, an LGBT community in Mexico, and an underground commune of opal miners living deep beneath the desert of south Australia, which she only happened across after getting a flat tyre on a road trip. Anywhere she can find stories related to the human condition, identity, women’s issues and migration, Merino will travel. "My work is always related to intimacy and the human being, and the way in which different people live and coexist with their peers and their surroundings."
On the challenges she faces as a woman immersing herself in these environments, Merino says, "Endless stories have been told and documented for many years, but mostly through the eyes of men, leaving less room for women photographers in the field." Photography – specifically of the photojournalistic or social documentary ilk – has long been a boys’ club. As a result, Merino says, it’s incredibly important to carve out a space and a voice for yourself as a female photographer – to approach stories in your own way, and tell them differently. This means knowing when to use your position as a woman to your advantage. "Being a woman has perhaps allowed me to gain the trust of people more easily with the perception that I will approach stories in a more intimate and sensitive way, which I absolutely always try to do. For me it is extremely important to establish bonds of trust with the people I want to photograph and to be able to tell their testimonies with respect and honesty."
Of course, Merino attests, being a woman in some of the environments she has entered does carry an undeniable threat, the biggest being sexual aggression or assault. This is something she says she is "always aware of, but never lets the fear take over." As long as she stays attentive and keeps taking the emotional temperature of her environment, she feels in control, and able to make meaningful work without compromise.