The little skulls on his necklace click together like rolling dice. He sucks a plume of chillum smoke through his clenched fist, turns to the camera and says: “Sure, no problem. Relax, relax”.
This is Babu. Babu belongs to a small and relatively secretive sect of Hindu Sadhus called the Aghori. The stony white powder that covers him head to toe is the ash of human remains, salvaged from a nearby cremation site. Like his skull necklace, it’s a means to signify the Aghori relationship with death. To Babu, death is a taboo to be confronted fearlessly and relentlessly. A dead human body is just… matter. The human frailties of craving, anger, jealousy, fear, shame – all impermanent, all can be overcome. Life is an illusion.
Today, though, Babu’s concerns are more immediate. Moments earlier, an emotional confrontation had erupted between his ashram and the local police. His larger companion, Madeshva, was pacing and shouting wildly to a slowly gathering crowd.
The curious foreigner did not go unnoticed; I was handed a shot glass-sized cup of chai and urged to sit with them, to understand and not just to observe. There’s a mutual novelty to the encounter, and the intimidation melts as it becomes clear that Babu and his fellow Aghoris are gentle, inquisitive men who dislike confrontation and just desperately want someone to listen to them.
They don’t speak much English, but each in turn add a few words and a picture begins to build. They feel their small ashram is denied rights, that the local police are corrupt and unsupportive. They’re upset about a spate of local crimes. There’s friction with a neighbouring ashram. They lack essential sanitary facilities. They are not monsters – they are men seeking happiness.
After another cup of chai I ask Babu if I can take his photo. He pauses and reaches for his chillum. The fear is just an illusion.