For the magic to work, the killing had to be done just right. If the goddess were to grant Khudu Karmakar the awesome powers he expected from a virgin's death, the victim had to be willing, had to know what was happening, watch the knife, and not stop it. But even tranquilizers couldn't lull 15-year-old Manju Kumari to her fate. In his police confession, Karmakar says his wife, daughter and three accomplices had to gag Manju and pin her down on the earthen floor before the shrine. In ritual order, Karmakar wafted incense over her, tore off her blue skirt and pink T shirt, shaved her, sprinkled her with holy water from the Ganges and rubbed her with cooking fat. Then chanting mantras to the "mother" goddess Kali, he sawed off Manju's hands, breasts and left foot, placing the body parts in front of a photograph of a blood-soaked Kali idol. Police say the arcs of blood on the walls suggest Manju bled to death in minutes.
Human sacrifice has always been an anomaly in India. Even 200 years ago, when a boy was killed every day at a Kali temple in Calcutta, blood cults were at odds with a benign Hindu spiritualism that celebrates abstinence and vegetarianism. But Kali is different. A ferocious slayer of evil in Hindu mythology, the goddess is said to have an insatiable appetite for blood. With the law on killing people more strictly enforced today, ersatz substitutes now stand in for humans when sacrifice is required. Most Kali temples have settled on large pumpkins to represent a human body; other followers slit the throats of two-meter-tall human effigies made of flour, or of animals such as goats.
In secret ceremonies, however, the grizzly practice lives on. Quite simply, say the faithful—known as tantrics—Kali looks after those who look after her, bringing riches to the poor, revenge to the oppressed and newborn joy to the childless. So far this year, police have recorded at least one case of ritual killing a month. In January, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, a 24-year-old woman hacked her three-year-old son to death after a tantric sorcerer supposedly promised unlimited earthly riches. In February, two men in the eastern state of Tripura beheaded a woman on the instructions of a deity they said appeared in their dreams promising hidden treasures. Karmakar killed Manju in Atapur village in Jharkhand state in April. The following month, police dug up the remains of two sisters, aged 18 and 13, in Bihar, dismembered with a ceremonial sword and offered to Kali by their father. Last week on the outskirts of Bombay, maize seller Anil Lakshmikant Singh, 33, beheaded his neighbor's nine-year-old son to save his marriage on the advice of a tantric. Said Singh: "He promised that a human sacrifice would end all my miseries."
Far from ancient barbarisms that refuse to die, sacrifice and sorcery are making a comeback. Sociologists explain the millions who now throng the two main Kali centers in eastern India, at Kamakhya and Tarapith, as what happens when the rat race that is India's future meets the superstitions of its past. Sociologist Ashis Nandy says: "You see your neighbor doing well, above his caste and position, and someone tells you to get a child and do a secret ritual and you can catch up." Adds mysticism expert Ipsita Roy Chakaraverti: "It's got nothing to do with real mysticism or with spiritualism. It comes down to pure and simple greed." Tarapith in particular is a giant building site of new hotels, restaurants and stalls selling plastic swords and postcards of Kali's severed feet. Judging by the visitors here, Kali appeals to both rich and poor: the rows of SUVs parked outside four-star hotels belong to the ranks of businessmen and politicians lining up with their goats behind penniless pilgrims. ("The blood never dries at Tarapith," whispers one villager.)
There are no human sacrifices at the temple these days. But the mystique of ritual killing is so powerful that even those who actually don't perform it claim to do so. In their camp in the cremation grounds beside the temple, a throng of tantrics tout for business by competing to be as spooky as possible, lining their mud-walled temples with human skulls and telling tall tales of human sacrifice. "I cut off her head," says 64-year-old Baba Swami Vivekanand of a girl he says he raised from birth. "We buried the body and brought the head back, cooked it and ate it." He pauses to demand a $2 donation. "Good story, no?" While most of this is innocent, some followers, like Karmakar, are inevitably emboldened to take their quest for power to the extreme. Karmakar, like many others, was caught. But in the dust-bowl villages of India, where superstition reigns and blood has a dark authority, the question is how many other "holy men" have found that ultimate power still rests in the murderous magic of a virgin sacrifice.