In India’s remote northern villages it feels as if little has changed. The communities remain forgotten and woefully undeveloped, with low literacy and abject poverty.
They are conditions that for decades have bred superstition and a deep-rooted belief in the occult.
The village of Barha in the state of Uttar Pradesh is only a three-hour car drive from the capital Delhi. Yet here evil medieval practices have made their ugly presence known.
Lured with sweets
I was led by locals to a house that is kept under lock and key. They refuse to enter it.
Peering through the window bars you can see the eerie dark room inside, with peeling posters of Hindu gods adorning the walls and bundles of discarded bed clothes.
In one corner is the evidence we had come to find: blood-splattered walls and stained bricks.
It is the place where a little boy’s life was ritually sacrificed.
Those who tortured and killed Akash Singh did so in a depraved belief – that the boy’s death would offer them a better life.
“The woman who did this was crazed,” the villagers say. “Akash was friends with all our children… We still cannot believe what happened here.”
Akash’s distraught mother discovered her son’s mutilated body. The family was told he was lured away with sweets and begged his captors to set him free.
“First they cut out his tongue,” his grandmother Harpyari told me. “Then they cut off his nose, then his ears. They chopped off his fingers. They killed him slowly.”
‘Profiting from fear’
The woman who abducted Akash lived just a few doors away. She claimed to be suffering from terrible nightmares and visions.
It was then she turned for guidance to a tantric, or holy man. It was under his instruction that she brutally sacrificed the boy – offering his blood and remains to the Hindu goddess of destruction.
There are temples across India that are devoted to the goddess. Childless couples, the impoverished and sick visit to pray that she can cure them.
Animal sacrifice is central to worship – but humans have not been temple victims since ancient times.
We were met with a hostile reception at the temple in Meerut. The high priest did not want us to see the ritual slaughter.
Tantrics like him clearly have an overwhelming grip on their followers. Often they are profiting from people’s fears. In extreme cases others have instructed their followers to kill.
S Raju is a journalist for the Hindustan Times and has been reporting on child sacrifice cases since 1997 in western Uttar Pradesh. He has reported on 38 similar cases.
In one incident he says a tantric told a young man that if he hanged and killed a small boy and lit a fire at his feet the smoke from the ritual could be used to lure the pretty village girl he had his eye on.
He has been campaigning for a crackdown on the practice of tantrics, alarmed at what he has seen.
“The masses need to be educated and dissuaded from following these men,” he said. “They play on people’s fears and superstitions – it is crazy.”
We visited the jail where those accused of murdering Akash were being held.
The prison warden told us of over 200 cases of child sacrifice in these parts over the last seven years.
He admitted many of the cases go unreported because the police are reluctant to tarnish the image of their state. He told us incidents of child sacrifice are often covered up.
Many of those killers are behind bars – but, chillingly, others poisoned by the same sinister beliefs remain at large.