This stunning set of portraits by Brooklyn-based photographer Joey L of India's Holy Men puts us face to face with religious ascetics who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of spiritual liberation.
Starting in Northern Ethiopia, Joey has traveled the world searching for wandering monks and spiritualists. The latest installment of his Holy Men series features holy men, or sadhus, living in Varanasi, India. All of the world’s faiths have their own forms of ascetics, but the ascetics of the Hindu faith are known for sometimes extreme acts of self-denial, such as keeping a single arm aloft for months or even years.
Most of the portraits focuses on aghori, a sect known for engaging in postmortem rituals such as covering themselves in human ashes, meditating on corpses or crafting jewelry from human bones.
“The Aghori have a profound connection with the dead. Death is not a fearsome concept, but a passing from the world of illusion,” says the photographer. Joey’s travel companion, filmmaker Cale Glendening, also managed to capture enough behind-the-scenes footage to turn it into a beautiful documentary film called “Beyond,” which you can see below.
Left: The Aghori have a profound connection with the dead. Death is not a fearsome concept, but a passing from the world of illusion. Varanasi, India Right: When he was young, Lal Baba’s parents arranged a marriage for him. Uncertain about his future, he ran away from home in Bihar Siwan and took up the lifelong task of becoming a sadhu. Varanasi, India
Aghori sadhus cover themselves with human ash, which is the last rite of the material body. Varanasi, India
Lal Baba has dreadlocks (jatas) several meters long, which have been growing for over 40 years. To sadhus, dreadlocks are a sign of renunciation and a life dedicated to spirituality. Varanasi, India
Vijay Nund performing morning rituals in the Ganges River, the most sacred river in Hinduism. Varanasi, India
Batuk Students, Varanasi, India
Right: Baba Mooni conducting Aghori Puja in Varanasi, India
Baba Vijay Nund on the steps of Chet Singh Ghat on the banks of the Ganges River. Varanasi, India
Right: Magesh left a well paid job as an IT computer consultant to pursue to path of Aghora. After years of practice, he finds no temptation to return to his old life. Varanasi, India
Ram Das beside boat wreckage in Varanasi, India.
Left: Baba Mooni conducting Aghori Puja in Varanasi, India
Aba Yohannis monastery – 74 years old ”I came from my village, from the countryside to learn. I didn’t go home. I preferred to stay here. I’ve been here for 43 years.”
Right: “Perhaps I will live even longer than 101, maybe 101 years more. I know a monk who is 80 years old, but he acts very old. He is not like me.”
Ascetic priest Baba Vijay Nund rows a boat along the Ganges River. Varanasi, India