In June 2017, a joint undercover operation conducted by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) blew the lid off the illegal trade in hatha jodi, a ‘sacred plant root' that is, well, something else entirely. Jose Louies and Prerna Panwar, members of the investigative team, present this cocktail of superstition, cruelty and barefaced fakery, served with a side order of just deserts.
When our undercover team first visited Acharya Kalki Krishna's* office in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, in late June, the former customs official was busy with another customer. Preeti (not her real name), a WTI investigator posing as an aspiring astrologer, and her companion, an undercover WCCB constable, were directed to the Acharya's wife.
The Acharyas' occult business was clearly buzzing. Scattered around his office were several telecallers fervently working the phones, processing orders. There were a few young people on computers as well, keeping the self-styled spiritualist's website purring, pushing the online sales of various tantric items.
Mrs. Krishna offered to examine Preeti's kundli (birth chart) until her husband was free, but Preeti was all business. She was only there, she told the lady firmly, to evaluate the quality of the hatha jodi, siyar singhi and indrajaal - powerful charms and totems that any occultist-in-training would want in her arsenal.
Photo: Riddhi Mukherjee/entry-Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2015.
A short while later the Acharya himself obliged, taking Preeti and the constable up to his warehouse on the third floor, revealing his treasure trove of ‘miracle products. He also showed off his aura machine - a piece of electronic chicanery with two L-shaped arms that rotate through 180 degrees if ones ‘aura is charged. He demonstrated how Preetis depleted aura was enhanced to its maximum once she was handed the hatha jodi he was peddling. Finally, bringing his knowledge as a former customs officer to the fore, he told her how the products on sale should be shipped, which courier companies should be preferred and what she should write on the packages to allay suspicion.
Twenty-four hours later, the Acharya's own aura went decidedly limp.
A team of officials from the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department raided his office and arrested him. There were pieces of hatha jodi, siyar singhi, indrajaal and several other banned wildlife items in his office at the time. Documents indicating serious tax and identity fraud were also recovered.
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Magical items like siyaar singhi (‘jackal horn, a boney protruberence that can occasionally sprout on the skulls of golden jackals) and indrajaal (variously described as a ‘sea fan or a ‘rare treeroot), when purified and spiritually charged by a qualified tantric practitioner, can ward off the evil eye, activate the flow of positive energy, and bring you success and abundance and prosperity. (Or so the credulous believe.)
And then there's hatha jodi. Also known as hath jor, literally translating to ‘clasped hands, this is a rare plant root, a truly powerful and sacred totem resembling two hands clasped together in prayer.
Except none of that is true. Well, hatha jodi can resemble clasped hands the way a cloud can resemble a fluffy bunny, but it has no magical powers whatsoever, and it certainly isn't the root of a plant.
Its the uprooted penis of a lizard. The forked penis, also known as a hemipenis, of any of four monitor lizard species found in India, to be precise.
The team first heard about hatha jodi over a year ago. One of Joses informants, a seasoned covert operative, pushed a strange forked object across the table during one of their meetings.
“Do you know what this is?" he asked. Jose suspected it to be an animal product, but gave up after multiple wrong guesses.
“It's the dried penis of a monitor lizard," the informant said casually. “Type ‘hatha jodi into your browser and search for it.
That's how we learned that the trade in this banned wildlife product is rampant across the country and internationally. Later investigations would reveal that in its guise as a rare root, hatha jodi was being sold openly on prominent e-commerce websites such as Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal, IndiaMart and Locanto. There were also (and still are) several websites set up with the express purpose of peddling this ‘miracle product, some of them providing intricate descriptions of rituals and mantras required to ‘energise it so that it will have its full magical effect. There are still numerous YouTube videos that feature so-called holy men eulogising hatha jodi, doubtless leading desperate buyers to purchase it, unaware of its true nature.
So how does hatha jodi come to be? The informant told Jose that both male and female monitors are picked up indiscriminately from the wild - both sexes are useful for their meat, fat and skin after all - even though the males hemipenises are the sought after items.
Hunters seek out the lizards in jungles, where they trap them in their burrows or chase them into the hands of others waiting with nets, spears or traps. The monitors are usually not killed at capture; they are immobilised, their legs tied tightly together, their claws removed and their long tails entwined, noose-like, around their necks. They are then dumped in gunny bags.
Later, once the male lizards have been separated, they are picked up one at a time. The area around the hemipenis is burned while the monitor is still alive so that the organ protrudes further. The penis is excised with a sharp knife, cleaned and sun-dried.
The dealers know exactly what they are receiving from their supply chain; the creative spin that turns a hemipenis into a sacred root is entirely for the customers benefit. For this is not an item that is being consumed to boost libido, like tiger penis or rhino horn. It is intended to be a sacred object of worship.
It bears consideration: would people still buy hatha jodi if they knew that what they were placing in their shrines and worshipping was a lizard penis? Would they believe that the product of such cruelty, torture and pain could ever bring good fortune to its possessor?
Monitor lizards are protected under Schedule - I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and their trade is restricted under Appendix I of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.)
The fact that hatha jodi is a monitor lizard hemipenis is now beyond dispute. The WCCB had samples tested by the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad for confirmation. Once the results were in, we presented them to WCCB Additional Director Tilotama Varma. She was quick to respond: “Since the product in question is derived from monitor lizards, we should crack down on the trade immediately."
Now the game was a foot. A WCCB inspector (name suppressed) was appointed to lead the team. Together we began exploring the various websites that were selling hatha jodi and other ‘miraculous wildlife items. As we got down to identifying the major dealers, it became clear that we were looking at a well-established market based around the occult, animal cruelty and deception.
Getting some face-time with these dealers was proving difficult though. The responses were standard: “Buy the product online, well ship it to your doorstep. If you're not satisfied well initiate a refund." No one was ready to meet in person.
Except when Preeti began calling. All of these deeply spiritual miracle peddlers, these “saffron-robed, baba-looking, totally-samarpit-to-god individuals" as Preeti describes them, seemed to respond differently to a young woman's voice for some reason: “Of course, madam, you can come down and examine the goods for yourself!"
The team, with Preeti posing as an aspiring astrologer looking to ship occult items to the U.K., began setting up meetings. One of these took us to Ajmer, Rajasthan, from where Manish Jain ran his online trade in tantric products. Preeti, the WCCB inspector and another WTI colleague posing as Preetis driver met Jain in his tiny shop in a crowded local market.
Jain, a young man probably in his late 20s, tattoos running up both arms, was sitting on the floor when we arrived, browsing Facebook on an iPhone smuggled in from China. (Bought for just Rs. 3,000 he boasted, promising Preeti a similar deal.) A framed photograph of his grandfather with an indrajaal smiled down from the wall above him, amidst similarly benevolent images of various gods. Packages with tantric items ready to be shipped across the country and to international markets took up most of the space in the shop.
“I can't show so many hatha jodis here; let's go to the car," Jain said nervously. Preeti was having none of it: “Have them brought here," she said; “I'm not going to run around in this heat."
“One of my major suppliers from Madhya Pradesh was arrested a few days back for selling hatha jodi and he is still in custody," Jain confessed. “This item is banned in some countries and some enforcement people have created problems in the recent past."
Of course, the team knew exactly which ‘enforcement people had created problems for Jains supplier. “I am not here to waste time," Preeti declared, feigning impatience.
Reluctantly, Jain signalled to another young man standing near the door. He disappeared, returning a few minutes later with a small box. Inside were 25 to 30 hatha jodis.
Jain carefully placed them on the table: “Madam, see, this one is straight, with a nice shape at the head level and bigger in size. My products are genuine you see, and they are of the best quality."
‘Genuine sacred roots indeed. The team could barely keep a straight face at his sales pitch.
“You should send them by post, declaring them as gift items,"Jain continued confidently as the conversation turned to shipping. “Cover them in vermillion powder with camphor mixed in it. This will ensure that no one will touch them. Many of these westerners are very fearful about tantric products, they dont want to do any close examination. If someone is carrying them in person, just keep them in multiple bags and no one will look twice. I have customers all over the world and Ive been sending these items to them for a long time."
The team fixed a date for delivery and left the shop with the promise that a boy would be sent to collect the goods soon. An hour later, we were sitting across the Divisional Forest Officer, briefing him about the product and the trader.
Our work done, we visited the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, seeking blessings for our crackdown on the unscrupulous trade in occult items sourced from animal products.
Everyone, you see, has something to pray for.
Hatha Jodi. Photo courtesy: IFAW-WTI.
Following our investigation, the WCCB issued a national level alert to all Chief Wildlife Wardens and state Forest Departments across India. Several seizures have resulted and the Union Minister for Environment has taken cognisance, asking the WCCB to provide regular updates on the hatha jodi trade.
There is, however, an urgent need to forge a closer collaboration between law enforcement agencies and prominent e-commerce and social media platforms to ensure that prolific and repeat offenders are targeted in a coordinated and effective manner. As things stand the consistent and wide-scale monitoring of illegal activity on such websites is largely absent and remains a challenge for law enforcement.
Given the scale of this problem at an international level, IFAW and WTI encourage a dedicated forum at a global and regional level with social networking bodies, e-commerce websites, governments, intergovernmental bodies and NGO partners. This would serve as a platform where specific issues and solutions concerning the regulation of the illegal wildlife trade currently being conducted through such avenues could be considered, including how efforts by different parties can be strengthened and synchronised.
For now, while well-known e-commerce platforms in India have acted by taking down and blocking the offending listings, a simple Google search will reveal that there are still several websites openly touting the miracles of hatha jodi, claiming that it is a plant-based product. The very nature of the trade, unorganised and hydra-headed, makes it difficult to stamp out entirely.
Until we effectively throttle the demand and educate people as to the true nature of hatha jodi and similar products, the supply lines will not be severed. The desperate will continue to be preyed upon by the duplicitous, and monitor lizards will continue to be tortured and killed.
* Acharya Kalki Krishna was later acquitted by the lower court. According to the authors, the UP Forest Department may be working on an appeal in this case.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Sanctuary Asia, the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, or its Editors.