They called him Billy Charcoal: Tough, big-built and free-spirited, the Kuku-Yalanji aboriginal roamed the Palmer River basin in the late nineteenth century, engaged in a one-man war with the settlers arriving in the region to pillage its goldfields, and steal his peoples’ land. “Little Chinamen, he could pick ’em up, tie their hands together and put ’em up in a tree,” recalled Norman Mitchell in an oral history. “And then he’d come back and then put a spear through ’em. Pull ’em down, and cook ’em.”
Local authorities, EG Heap records, wondered why the revenge-cannibalism of the aboriginals of the Palmer River region targeted Chinese shopkeepers and tenant-farmers—instead of the White settlers who had been exterminating aboriginal women, children and men like vermin, to seize their lands.
Taste, came the simple answer, ironic or otherwise: “Too much salt. Like bacon.”
For much of this week, India has been transfixed by the strange story of occult-inspired sexual fetishism and cannibalism emerging from the quiet Kerala village of Elanthoor. There is a larger question though, that remains largely unexplored. Each year, multiple similar cases are reported. Few make to the inside pages of newspapers, leave alone Netflix—like the 2018 mass suicide of eleven Delhi residents.
The evidence we do have is enough to ask if occult-inspired killing isn’t a distinct Indian criminal typology—like the American serial killer, or narco-culture cults in Mexico.
Every kind of ritualised killing teaches us something important about the conflicts and neurosis of a society. The recurrent themes in Indian occult-killing cases—anxieties over marriage, the driving desire for children, economic uncertainties—are depressingly familiar. Like the pornographer, the occult-inspired psychopath puts the spotlight on secret inner torments we would much rather had remained hidden.
The National Crime Records Bureau maintains no data for occult-inspired killings, recording them together with other murders. Even the last six months, though, have seen at least a dozen lurid stories emerge. Agra occultist Hukum Singh is alleged to have ritually dismembered a two-year-old, to renew his Tantrik powers. In Amroha, police allege, Saroj Devi killed and dismembered her eighteen month-old nephew in a Tantrik-inspired fertility rite. A Gujarat teenager thought to be possessed was starved to death.
From court records, too, it is clear that occult-inspired murders have been a routine feature of India’s criminal-justice landscape.
Early in 1973, the Rajasthan High Court sentenced occultist Sardara Ram Dakot to death, for the murder of five-year-old Naresh Periwal, and his four-year-old sister Sarita. The children were slaughtered in front an idol of the Goddess Kali, trial records state, and their blood rubbed on the belly of Tulsi Ram, a local woman who was seeking to have a child.
Kathiresan Samiar, an occultist convicted in 2010, told a family who consulted him that in order to be able to build a home, “they must give human sacrifice and that too, an eldest boy of a family within six to 10 years old and it should be done on the next full moon day.” The advice was implemented.
Last year, the Odisha High Court acquitted Ganeswar Patabandha of the ritual sacrifice of two-year-old Anirudha Dhal—whose body was found in the village well, his tongue and a finger severed. The court, however, noted the only evidence against Ganeswar was a legally-inadmissible confession he made before the village Panchayat, admitting to “human sacrifice before Kali Mata.”
Forensic examiners were unable to establish that burned human bones found at Ganeswar’s home belonged to Anirudha, and no post-mortem examination was carried out. The case remains unsolved.
Even though violence involving occult practitioners is frequently reported, it continues to be embedded within communities. Tantrik Raghu Nath, one sexual assault prosecution in Delhi reveals, persuaded a couple that their “unmarried girl should perform puja in darkness or at cremation ground or at bank of river Yamuna.” A Rajasthan rape case involving the occultist Ganpat Lal, similarly, centred around a fertility ritual—involving, among other things, an aloe-vera rub—arranged by the husband of a woman unable to have a child.
Kerala itself has had a succession of occult-linked killings—among them, the 2019 murder of the village black-magician Krishnankutty, slaughtered with his family by the sorcerer’s own apprentice. And in spite of the killings, occult temples are entwined with the state’s other religious traditions—attracting thousands of devotees.
Tempting though it is to see occult killing as an artefact of superstition and backwardness, the cases frequently involve educated individuals, from middle-class backgrounds. A deeper explanation is clearly called for.
Cults and civilisation
Twenty-two thousand feet above sea level, nested in the heart of the Andes, the body of Llullaillaco Maiden lay perfectly preserved where she was sacrificed five hundred years ago. The teenage girl’s hair had been intricately braided, and her face dyed in ritual red, before she was buried alive, together with three miniature figurines made of gold, silver and oyster-shells. Lightning Girl, aged six, was buried nearby. Llullaillaco Boy, aged seven, had been interred, among other things, with extra sandals.
For the Inca, capachucha—the sacrifice of male and female children, as well as young women of beauty and purity—was a blood covenant nature’s blessings. The children did not end their lives gently: Some were drugged before being entombed; others, despatched with a blow to the head.
The Aztec, David Carrasco has written, called the heart of the slain enemy warrior “a precious eagle cactus fruit:” To be eaten after consecration, with reverence and respect.
As the scholar Peter Whiteley notes, cannibalism became something of a dirty word somewhat late in the course of human social evolution. Anthropologists have suggested that human sacrifice helped establish social hierarchies in many premodern societies, only collapsing when groupings exceeded a 100,000 individuals.
Faith in the magical flourished even in societies where the religious establishment deemed it heretical. The genitals of the medieval crusader Jacques De Mailly, historian Christopher Tyerman writes, were cut off from his corpse and preserved, “so they might, if divine providence permitted it, beget an heir with similar valour.” To a medieval Inquisitor, the practice would have seemed like witchcraft.
The practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism in some eighteenth and nineteenth century societies—among others, parts of Africa, Fiji, New Guinea, in tribes of Sumatra, and in various tribes of North and South America—was seized on by European imperial powers to legitimise the colonial project. In a thoughtful essay, historian Crispin Bates has shown how exceedingly thin evidence of human sacrifice by Gond adivasis was seized on by colonial officials and missionaries.
The killer in us
Living in a culture that is profoundly—if subconsciously—influenced by Sigmund Freud, it’s tempting to conclude the Kerala occult killings, replete with group sex and ritual semen consumption, are about sexual deviance. Likely, sex is an important part of the story. Eve Bischoff’s majestic history of Friedrich Hartmann—the Hanover serial-killer executed in 1925 for killing and dismembering dozens of local homosexual men, possibly selling their body parts for meat—shows he killed to recover the masculinity lost during brutal prison rape.
Normal Mitchell’s telling of aboriginal-Chinese conflict, also involves sexual competition and anxiety. Immigrants from Kwantung used their wealth—as well as opium and rum—to acquire aboriginal mistresses. The wife of the revenge-cannibal Billy Charcoal, Mitchell recounts, had six children by a Chinese merchant. Through these relationships, Mitchell claimed, venereal diseases spread “a bush fire in the grass.”
But sexual anxiety and dysfunction aren’t the only story: Billy Charcoal’s story also involved revenge and colonialism. The criminal psychologist Katherine Ramsland has shown there is no one single element that binds together serial killers. Instead, their motives run the spectrum from shame, rage, sadism, profit, the need to express desire and to punish deviance. These are profoundly human impulses, not just of the murderer.
The one thing that separates us from the serial killer, philosopher Hanno Sauer speculates, is empathy. “Emotions play the same role for moral judgment that perceptions play for ordinary judgments about the external world”, he argues. The serial killer lacks the same emotional apparatus as the rest of us—and can thus act on religious beliefs or morals unfettered.
Lurid media accounts offer us colourful but ultimately useless detail: Where serial killers shopped, or what cannibals had for desert, contribute little to our knowledge and understanding of killers. Likely, rigorous study of Indian occult killers—like the profiling pursued by the Federal Bureau of Investigations over decades—will yield better detection of crime, and more effective prosecutions. But it may have one unexpected result: To help us understand ourselves just a bit better.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)