Around 1 pm on June 3, there was hushed silence in the lane leading to Harishchandra ghat in Banaras.

Two men clad in white stood solemnly next to a bedecked corpse lying on a wooden stretcher. They were not priests, but hospital workers wearing PPE or personal protective equipment. They had accompanied the corpse of a coronavirus patient for cremation at the gas-powered crematorium near Harishchandra ghat. This was the fifth confirmed coronavirus-related death in Varanasi.

Keeping safe distance were the doms, who conduct the traditional wood-fired cremations on the ghat. They have long resented the government-run crematorium. But for now, they are relieved they do not have to deal with the bodies of the coronavirus-dead.

What happens when a new virus enters one of India’s oldest cities and poorest regions? We bring you a week of dispatches from eastern Uttar Pradesh, as Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi, finally emerge from two months of lockdown.

Nothing can be more cliched than starting the story of Banaras from the Harishchandra ghat. Its burning funeral pyres set against the backdrop of the river Ganga have for centuries drawn travellers in a kind of morbid fascination, with writer after writer returning with florid descriptions of the smell of burning flesh, the embers leaping into the night, the ash flying in the air, the dance of life and death.

But how do you ignore the irony of one of the most hallowed funeral sites in the world falling silent while a pandemic sweeps country after country, killing 300,000 people?

How do you ignore the irony of the doms, the men who crack the skulls of the dead after consigning them to flames every single day, running scared when a corpse arrives?

A funeral pyre smoulders on the Harishchandra ghat in Banaras.

“When the first corona body arrived on April 3, everyone fled,” recounted Pawan Chaudhary, 36, a young man from the dom community who runs a shop selling shrouds, ladders, sandalwood, camphor, and everything else that is needed for the last rites on the ghat. “There was extreme fear.”

Approximately 800 doms live right next to the Harishchandra ghat in a colony called Pitambar Nagar. Behind the shopfronts in the main lane are tiny homes stacked in columns. When the administration began to bring the corpses of coronavirus patients to the gas crematorium, many in the community were scared the smoke rising from the chimney would bring the virus into their homes and infect them. Others like Pawan, one of the few doms with high-school education, knew this was not possible, but still fretted over traces of virus being left on the ground.

Pawan wrote to the municipal corporation on behalf of the Kashi Mokshadayini Seva Samiti, the non-profit organisation that he heads, asking them to sanitise the area after every coronavirus-related cremation. “They did it once, only once,” he said.

Bahadur Chaudhary, the vice-president of the dom community in Banaras, said the administration did not care for them. “Bas ghad ghad kar ke le aate hai body,” he said. “They bring the [coronavirus] body without any warning. When the body is taken out of the vehicle, that’s when we see it is packed, and we notice the men wearing [PPE] kits. That’s when everyone starts to run.”

Such was the fear, he said, that they did not charge any money for the material they supplied for the last rites of coronavirus patients. “What if there is corona in the money?” he said. “The family must have touched the body. With the same hands if they give us money, we take the money, who knows we might get infected.”

Pawan Chaudhary runs a shop near the Harishchandra ghat. He is the national president of a non-profit organisation that organises welfare for the doms.

But the virus is invisible and poses an abstract threat. More tangible is what can be seen and counted: the number of corpses arriving at the ghats for daily cremations. And this number has fallen steeply, with disastrous consequences for the doms.

“About 30-50 bodies used to arrive every day,” said Sikander Chaudhary, a middle-aged dom. “Now, there are only seven or eight.”

The number of arrivals at Manikarnika ghat, the other ghat where funeral pyres were lit, had also plummeted, said Bahadur Chaudhary. “Instead of 80-100 bodies every day, only 30 bodies are arriving.”

There was no way to check the numbers. Neither ghat maintains an official death registry. But on June 3, only three corpses had arrived at Harishchandra ghat until 3 pm.

“Murda aayega to kamaiyi hai, nahi aayega to nahi hai,” said Vishal Chaudhary, 22, nonchalantly. “If corpses come, we earn, otherwise we don’t.” One of the four men on the 24-hour shift at the ghat that day, he was piling up logs of wood to prepare the funeral bed for a corpse that was expected to arrive soon – the family had called a shopkeeper at the ghat in advance.

Workers like Vishal are at the bottom of the dom hierarchy. While a few prominent families hold rights to the sacred flame, which they supply at Rs 1,300 per corpse, workers who actually handle the cremations earn much less. They are strictly bound to a family-based rotational shift system called “paari”, which restricts their working days and limits their earnings.

Vishal was on the “paari” that day. Since morning, he had only cremated one corpse, earning Rs 650. “On a normal day, I would have cremated six-eight, even 10 corpses, by now.”

“Kashi is mukti ka sthaan,” explained Bahadur Chaudhary, the community leader. The belief that those cremated at Kashi attain moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death brings corpses from far and wide. “Even from America,” he claimed. “Bodies are flown down in coffins.”

Such exceptions apart, it was fairly regular from corpses to be brought to Kashi from six states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bengal. But the lockdown had changed that.

“The state borders were sealed,” said Sikandar Chaudhary. “Because of corona, the administration did not even allow bodies to be brought into the city from within Varanasi district.”

Pawan Chaudhary, the shopkeeper, pointed out that not only had the number of corpses come down, families were skimping on funeral expenditure. “It is a big deal that they even managed to bring the body here during the lockdown,” he said. Navigating the police-manned streets and the prohibitive transport costs wasn’t easy. “People have anyway been earning less in this time. Some perhaps even had to borrow money for the cremation.”

Sikandar Chaudhary glumly summed it up: “Our prosperity is over. We are in dire straits.”

A bereaved family brings a corpse for cremation at the Harishchandra ghat on June 3.

As the afternoon faded into evening, a group of dom women sat on the ledge of a house in their colony, catching up on the local news. In the morning, they had collected their regular quota of subsidised foodgrains from the government ration shop. Unlike some states which had distributed all food rations for free during the lockdown period, Uttar Pradesh had waived off payments in April for only 1.65 crore people, mostly those with Antyodaya Anna Yojana cards. Nearly 12 crore people enrolled in the public distribution system were expected to pay for their rations at the regular rates, even though their earnings had been wiped out.

The dom, who should have ideally possessed Antyodaya Anna Yojana cards, meant for the poorest of the poor, had paid for their monthly rations.

All that had been distributed for free, said Nandini Devi, was 5 kg of rice per person and 1 kg of chana per family – the additional provision sent by the central government under the coronavirus-relief package.

“But we have not got the Modi ration kit,” she quickly added, referring to the cartons she had seen on TV which carried Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photo and contained 5 kg flour, 2 kg rice, one kg dal, oil, masala, soap, among other things.

This was a common complaint across the city, among communities as diverse as the boatmen, the weavers, the street vendors. Everybody wanted the Modi kit, few had received it.

Bahadur Chaudhary, the dom community leader, complained that no one in his colony had received the kits, despite the fact that his cousin, Jagdish Chaudhary, the dom raja, was one of the four prominent citizens of Varanasi who signed on Modi’s re-election papers in the 2019 elections. “Modi ji is fulfilling his duties, he is sending the kits,” he said. “But our ward leader has made sure we don’t get them because he thinks we did not vote for him.”

The food distress was acute – and unprecedented.

“Kashi mein ann-daan bahut mahatvapuran hai,” said Raj Babu Chaudhary, a young man who was on the funeral shift that day. “Kashi has a tradition of donating food. Jajman log [patrons] who come to cremate the dead often donate wheat and rice to us, doms.”

But the donations had dried up. So had the income. In panic, his extended family of 30 members had purchased food stocks worth Rs 35,000 from the local grocer on loan. “We got scared,” he said. “What if the lockdown was extended indefinitely. Where we needed one kilo, out of fear, we bought ten.”

Women and children gather inside the dom locality near the Harishchandra ghat.

Fear had seeped into a community that thrived on fearlessness.

“From the good to bad, all kinds of bodies come here,” said Vishal Chaudhary, who had been burning corpses since he was 12. “Some don’t have legs, some don’t have arms, others don’t have heads. We have seen it all. But corona is different. It is a chua-choot ki bimari. It is a disease that spreads through touch. It can stick to us.”

Raj Chaudhary added: “And if you get infected then you are banished to a hospital where your family can’t see you. If you die, your family cannot touch you.”

Young men like Vishal and Raj were keenly aware that they could inadvertently come in contact with a coronavirus-infected corpse. “Not everyone is being tested, we know,” said Raj. “Those who are tested are taken to the bijli ghar [gas crematorium]. But those who died untested are brought here to the ghat.”

“Usko yahan la kar phuk de rahe hai,” he said, “hum waise hi phuk de rahe hai, kya karenge.” The corpses are brought here casually, we too burn them casually, what to do.

Neither of the two young men were wearing masks and gloves, or any other protective equipment.

“Yahan pe aag ka lapat lagta hai. The flames leap up here,” Vishal smiled sheepishly. “The gloves could melt and stick to the hand. And the mask might block my view and make it harder to breathe.”

Raj retorted: “When we don’t have enough to buy food, how can we spend on protective equipment? Can’t the government supply it to us?”