In Varanasi, COVID haunts the living, denies salvation to the departed

The pandemic has hit everyone in the city hard, from those who cremate the dead to those who depend on pilgrims and tourists.

In Varanasi, it is death that gives one that sense of normalcy. The rising flames from the pyres at Manikarnika Ghat on the banks of the Ganga are as much a sign of the city’s spiritual legacy for all Indians, as they are that life and times in this holy city are as ordained. When the flames die, as they have died now, it indicates that something has gone very wrong.

The common sight not so long ago, on the stretch from Lahura Beer crossing to Maidagin, of a corpse wrapped in shiny shroud atop a vehicle, has become a rare sighting these days. As many as 100 such impromptu hearses used to roll through that stretch in Varanasi every day till the last week of March.

Manoj Chaudhry’s home overlooks Manikarnika Ghat, which wears a deserted look these days. Manoj, 42, is a “dom”, a Hindu sub caste that cremates the dead. These days, he spends his time sitting idle on the steps that lead to the river. “Earlier I was busy round the clock, but because of the lockdown, the highways leading to Varanasi have been sealed,” said Manoj. “People can’t bring bodies here for cremation. Only five-six bodies are being cremated at the ghat daily these days.”

According to Manoj, some 100 local families make their living by cremating the dead. With their income drying up, they are all facing hard times.

Even the colourful and popular evening Ganga aarti ritual at the Dashashwamedha Ghat ritual is a symbolic affair today, performed by just one priest instead of the usual seven and lasts only a few minutes.

The first COVID-19 case came to light in Varanasi on March 21st. A person who had returned from Dubai tested positive. He was hospitalised and was successfully treated.

A 55-year-old man died on April 3rd, the first casualty of the disease in the city. Since then, the number of positive cases in the city rose rapidly. As of May 2nd, positive cases stood at 60, with 52 of them undergoing treatment while the rest have been discharged. The number of city hotspots increased from four to 25 till the same date.

The positive included a 35-year-old woman scientist posted at a COVID-19 testing lab in Varanasi. In fact, on May 2nd, administrative and police officials conducted a flag march in hotspot areas to raise awareness about the virus and prevent its spread.

Livelihoods hit

For Hindus, Varanasi represents much more than just a place where the Ganges can wash away the sins of the dead. It is home to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the most sacred of Shiva temples, which pilgrims from India and abroad throng round the year. On any given day, some 10,000 devotees visit the temple. The three narrow lanes lined with small shops that lead to the temple are totally deserted as the temple was closed to devotees even before the lockdown. Ardent devotees however can get a quick darshan from a fast-moving queue outside the sanctum.

Arun Pathak, who owns a shop selling ornaments in one of the lanes, is feeling the pinch of lost business. “The temple remained open almost 24 hours a day and people would start queuing up from as early as 4 am,” said Pathak. “Now the temple complex is deserted save for the security personnel”. The livelihood of thousands of families depended on the devotees, he said. “‘For the shopkeepers, their source of income has dried up because of the lockdown.

Not just the shops. The sudden absence of pilgrims has hit the city’s hospitality industry hard. Dotted with hundreds of hotels big and small, guest houses and eateries, the lockdown has dealt them all a severe blow. “The summer months used to see a big increase in visitors to the city,” said Kamalkant Tiwari who runs a hotel at Chausatthi Ghat. “My income is zero. How will I pay my staff? And things will not immediately look up even when the lockdown is lifted”.

Varanasi’s most notable feature is the continuous stretch of 80 ghats lining the banks of the Ganges. These ghats used to pulsate with life from 4 am to 11 pm, enabling thousands of boatmen, vendors and others to make a living. But all the ghats are empty now except for stray dogs and cows.

No different for the poor anywhere

Benares, Kashi or Varanasi as it is now named, which American writer Mark Twain described as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” is today also a political heavyweight as the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who won from here in 2014 and 2019. With a population of about 35 lakh, it is the biggest city of eastern Uttar Pradesh.

“People in Varanasi are facing a shortage of food,” said Roshan Jaiswal, a journalist who has been covering the city for years now. “Though Modi represents Varanasi in parliament, the condition of its people is no better when compared to people of other cities”.

He said earlier the shops had opened for a few hours in the morning and people were able to buy their essential food items and medicines. ‘But due to the rise in the number of COVID-19 patients, the district administration towards the end of May ordered the closure of shops. Shops have been provided passes to provide essentials to people at home, but the home delivery system is yet to become smooth. People are facing acute shortage of essentials,” Jaiswal said.

Saurabh Singh, an environment activist and a native of Varanasi, started helping people who did not have food following imposition of lockdown. He runs a non-profit named Inner Voice Foundation. Singh said the families of migrant labourers and daily wage earners were facing starvation after a couple of days of the lockdown coming into force.

“Families of people who work at construction sites or pull cycle-rickshaws soon ran out of money and ration,” said Saurabh. “Every family does not have a ration card. And food packets that the government was distributing were not reaching them.” Saurabh Singh has been providing basic essentials to such people for the past one month. He has also given money to the migrant labourers and helped arrange buses for stranded pilgrims to return home.

2000 stranded pilgrims in city

“Thousands of pilgrims, especially from the southern states, were held up here as trains came to a halt. Many of them were elderly and on medication. Their stock of medicines had dried up. They also needed food. Many do not know Hindi and hence were unable to ask for help”.

His organisation saw to it that pilgrims were sheltered in the lodges run by charities. “We started providing them food and medicines. The district administration arranged for buses to send them back. At least 2000 pilgrims are still stranded in Varanasi,” he said.  Singh said many non-profits were providing relief material to those in need.

Kaushal Raj Sharma, Varanasi district magistrate, told Citizen Matters that the situation is serious but not alarming. “We are prepared to deal with the crisis,” said Sharma. “the governments in Lucknow and New Delhi are reviewing the situation every day”.

While on the ground, the city has deployed an ‘anti-COVID-19 robot’ designed by Vishal Patel, a third year engineering student of mechanical engineering at the Ashoka Institute in Varanasi, to keep a check on lockdown violators.

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