After her six-year-old son went missing in January 2017, Sarika Ingole, a homemaker, scoured every corner of her village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra to find him. But when Krishna, a class one student, was found 18 hours later, she chose not to look at him. The boy’s mutilated corpse was left only a few metres from his home. His clothes were torn, his belongings missing and his eyes had dozens of marks from needle piercings under them.

“They had slit his throat with a knife,” says Gouraba, 45, Krishna’s father. “And they had made a hole in the back of his head, as if with a drill machine. When we found him, we couldn’t believe someone could put a child through such barbarity – more astoundingly, why.”

Police investigations found the crime had been perpetrated at the behest of Krishna’s 40-year-old paternal aunt, Draupadi Pol. The accused, a tantric or holy man, had kidnapped the boy from near his home, stuffed a cloth ball into his mouth, bundled him into a jute sack, and a few hours later, slit his throat. The murder was an act of human sacrifice – committed to gain the favour of a goddess.

“Draupadi had approached a tantric passing by her village. She told him her home had been robbed of peace since her husband would often fight with her. He advised that if she could hack a young boy, and offer his blood and flesh to the goddess, the deity would be pleased, and harmony would be restored,” says Kiran Sagar, 53, a professor and social activist in Maharashtra’s Osmanabad district, where Krishna lived.

A few feet from the boy’s body, investigators found ingredients gathered for the sacrifice ritual – human skulls, bones, pictures of the Hindu goddess Kali, sandalwood paste, incense sticks and ghee. They also found a pit dug in the ground, where Krishna was to be buried.

“Draupadi had been digging that hole for a week before my son went missing,” says Sarika, 30, “When I asked her what it was for, she said she was building a temple. I’d helped her with the work. I didn’t know I was digging my own son’s grave.”

Draupadi, the tantric, and their four accomplices are facing trial for Krishna’s murder under the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act of 2013.

In the four years since the publication of this first criminal legislation against human sacrifice in the country, Maharashtra has registered at least seven murders connected to the practice. Eight other attempted sacrifices were prevented in this time.

According to Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, India is home to thousands of practising tantrics who perform the ritual.

“There’s not one Indian state devoid of the crime. The practice is most prevalent in the eastern part of India – West Bengal, Jharkhand, east Bihar, and eastern Uttar Pradesh – where rituals connected with sacrifice were integral to culture in medieval times. Meanwhile, southern India, which has seen more reformist movements against superstitions over centuries, has a lesser frequency.”

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), an office attached to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, started collecting data on human sacrifices in 2014, and reported that 51 such murders took place in 14 of 29 Indian states between 2014 and 2016. The highest numbers were reported in Uttar Pradesh (nine) and Jharkhand (eight), while Maharashtra, during the same period, reported two.

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“The figures are understated,” says Hamid Dabholkar, son of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, a pivotal figure behind the legislation in Maharashtra who was assassinated in 2013. “Between the end of 2013 and 2016, our organisation, Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Mans) has recorded at least seven murders related to human sacrifices – as opposed to two recorded by NCRB. This discrepancy is because the motive of sacrifice hardly gets identified unless the murders are perpetrated under extremely suspicious circumstances, say, internal organs of the victim were removed, or ritual ingredients were found on the spot.”

According to Avinash Patil, president of Mans, recent cases in Maharashtra were perpetrated to gain the favour of goddesses to bring peace upon homes, locate hidden treasures, ward off the “evil eye”, and facilitate “showers of gold”. He says the practice of human sacrifices is largely associated with the cult of Tantrism, a spiritual movement which originated in medieval India. Abraham Eraly, in his 2011 book, The First Spring: The Golden Age of India, noted that the cult enjoyed its widest popularity in 8th century India, and many tantric rites involved blood sacrifice, human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism.

“Human flesh is considered as maha prasad (great oblation) in Tantrism. Kalika-purana, a Tantric text of from the 12th century, has an entire chapter on the procedure of human sacrifice, and it states that the sacrifice of a man would keep the goddess Kali pleased for a thousand years. Devotees subject their victims to a lingering death, preferably under prolonged torture, as by this means the flesh, blood and bones are believed to be properly confected.”

Deepak Sarma, professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, however, argues that references to human sacrifices were made much earlier in the Rigveda, one of the oldest Indian religious texts, likely penned between 1,500 and 1,000BC. “In the Rigveda, a cosmic man is sacrificed in order to generate the universe, and the social and caste systems,” he says, adding that contemporary tantrics who perpetrate human sacrifices, are “antinomian elements”, and have misinterpreted the tantric tradition.

“Tantrism involves initiations that concern the purification of body through body mortifications, internalisations, and mantras. There are accounts of tantrics who eat human flesh, but this is mainly at funeral pyres – no one is killed in the process. Contemporary tantrics, who kill people as sacrifice, are psychopaths, who are portraying themselves incorrectly,” he says.

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Patil says victims of human sacrifices are usually poor, disabled or belong to weaker sections of society – people whose disappearances are more likely to go unnoticed. There is a preference for boys, aged three to 12 years; but tantrics also take girls who have just started menstruating, and children who were breech babies.

“When these children are sacrificed, they’re usually mutilated. Their ears and nose are sliced off to unleash streams of blood, which is collected in vessels and offered to the goddess. In Krishna’s case, a hole was drilled into his head to facilitate this. Several tantrics are known to drink the blood during the ritual, which is usually performed on new moon and full moon nights. There have also been cases where the accused savoured mutilated organs after boiling them.”

Although Maharashtra is the only Indian state with legislation against human sacrifices, advocate Ranjana Gavande, who has been working to create awareness against the practice in Maharashtra’s Sangamner district, says the prevalence of the crime continues. Many are unaware of the relatively new law.

She says awareness is poor among law enforcement agencies, and often such cases are met with “shoddy” investigations.

Gavande cites the example of Rupesh Mule, 9, who was killed as a sacrifice in November 2014, by a tantric wanting to locate a hidden treasure in Maharashtra. Nine people were accused of kidnapping the boy, removing his kidneys and heart and dismembering him. Tantrics allegedly consumed the organs while chanting mantras. A court acquitted the group in 2017.

“I saw my son’s body,” says Rupesh’s father, Hiramand, 32, “They had carved his organs out with the precision of surgeons and butchers. But despite the evidence, including confessions of the accused, the case didn’t stand in court. All these people, who killed my child, were let off. I’ve filed an appeal in a higher court, but I’m not very hopeful.”

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Gavande says that although the state government enacted the law four years ago, there are no specialised police officers to implement the legislation, and the on-ground staff lacks knowledge about religious beliefs and resultant crimes.

“Policemen don’t know that superstition oriented crimes like human sacrifices exist, and are reluctant to probe the angle when we insist. In Mule’s case, for example, they assumed the case was that of organ theft until activists intervened, and the accused confessed.”

Hamid says: “Although India is now a rapidly emerging global economy, religious faith makes for a large portion of its social fabric. To exploit these beliefs, thousands of tantrics and self-styled ‘godmen’ have set up shop in every city and village here. These men claim to possess supernatural powers, convince others that they are divine reincarnates through bogus magic tricks, and dupe scores of people every day. In fact, public faith in these con men is so strong that resistance has grave repercussions – my father was shot dead.”

Mumbai-based sociologist Nandini Sardesai agrees. “Blind adherence to godmen is integral to our cultural ethos. We’ve been brought up to think they’re messengers of God, and crimes perpetrated by them hence have religious sanction. That’s why, even today, people all over India fall for their claims, and end up as victims or criminals.”

Edamaruku of the National Science Centre in New Delhi, says the prevalence of human sacrifices in India can be gauged from the number of missing children in the country.

According to the latest figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, 55,625 minors were missing in India as of 2016, 34,814 of whom were girls. “Many of the missing children are eventually found murdered and mutilated. And the crime goes beyond the urban-rural, rich-poor and literate-illiterate divides. All sections of society are known to have participated in the practice.

“The solution here isn’t just education; it’s building of scientific temper,” he said.

Even as activists clamour to raise awareness about human sacrifices, Satish Mathur, the director general of police for Maharashtra, feels there is little need for change.

“The Indian law makes it extremely clear that murder is a crime. Why do you need to specifically tell people that murders for sacrifice are illegal too?”

Hamid, however, feels there’s a “pressing need” for a national anti-black magic law, modelled on the Maharashtra Act, as evidence for such heinous crimes mounts.

Sanjay Bhondve, 35, lost his son Sanjot, 4, to human sacrifice in Maharashtra in 2016. Bhondve says that on the morning of April 4, Sanjot left with a neighbour, Sachin Pingle, 38, and never returned. Pingle is on trial for the boy’s murder.

“We found my son’s body in the water tanker in his home. Before my boy was murdered, Pingle would keep telling me that sacrificing children could please gods, that it could make homes prosper, and bless generations of the devotee’s family with the riches of a king. I never believed he was serious – not until I got down into that tank, and discovered my son’s lifeless body.”