NEW DELHI • On a recent Thursday, an emotional family reunion played out in a Delhi courtroom. A weeping 32-year-old woman finally embraced the sister she had barely seen in 14 years.
The meeting, as recalled by the older sibling, was an emotional high point in an unfolding investigation into a secretive religious sect that has shocked India.
At least 48 underage girls have been rescued in police raids on the sect's ashrams (retreats) in New Delhi since Dec 19. Officials say they have found women and girls kept in jail-like conditions, behind barbed wire and multiple locked gates - and there are hundreds more such properties and potentially thousands more captives.
The sect, Adhyatmik Vishwa Vidyalaya (AVV), preaches that its leader is an incarnation of various Hindu gods and has descended to earth to unite people of all faiths and transform them into deities.
A sign outside the sect's headquarters reads, "God Fatherly Spiritual University", a loose English translation of the sect's name.
Little is known about the sect's origins or its leader, Virendra Dev Dixit, but followers say it is an offshoot of Brahma Kumaris - a large, global sect with over three dozen centres in the United States and millions of followers worldwide.
Brahma Kumaris distanced itself and denounced Dixit's organisation decades ago. AVV came under scrutiny after three families filed a case in Delhi's High Court saying that their female relatives had vanished after joining the sect.
The 32-year-old, who is from one of those families, said she was raped by Dixit at the sect's headquarters in June 2000 while taking a religion course as a teenager.
Then, three years later, she said, her parents "surrendered" her youngest sister to the sect.
Since then, the woman has tried repeatedly to contact her sister, now 25, and have her released.
"I would never have told anyone all this if my sister wasn't in there," she said. The 32-year-old's identity is shielded by Indian law protecting rape victims.
The sect issued a statement saying the probe was part of a "defamatory campaign". It says "no activity detrimental to female devotees or to any other members of the society is conducted in the Vidyalaya".
Ms Swati Maliwal, chair of Delhi's government agency for women's affairs, said investigators found 200 women and girls in miserable conditions, adding that the ashrams have been running "illegal activities".
Investigators also found dizzyness-inducing substances and unprescribed medicines which may have been used to drug and pacify women, along with religious texts instructing women to "surrender" their bodies to Dixit, she added.
Accompanying police during a raid, she described the ashram as a "fortress", with locked gates and barbed wire enclosing residents.
The authorities removed 41 minors from the facility. Court documents say that at least 168 adult women remain at the site, and 25 adult men live in an annexe.
Court documents say the women lived in "animal-like conditions" and many were in poor health and appeared to be under the influence of narcotics.
Ms Maliwal said ashram workers told investigators the women had chosen to stay on the properties.
The AVV case comes months after the rape conviction of another popular guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
The sect's existence for more than a decade, despite at least 10 complaints to police over the years, illustrates the unaccountability of holy men in India, where religious leaders have huge financial and political power.
The inquiry into AVV offers hope to hundreds of families whose relatives are currently in the sect.
Police across northern India are raiding other ashrams associated with Dixit.
In Delhi, Ms Maliwal said, five of at least eight ashrams have been searched by the authorities.
But many of the sect's ashrams are in still unknown locations.