“Gole mein rahiye.” Stay in the circle.
“Chalte rahiye.” Keep walking.
Look up for the thermal scanner. Look down for the sanitiser.
Walk. Stop. Sanitise your hands again.
Every step to Baba Vishwanath, the presiding deity of Kashi, is lined with stern instructions by security guards who were more numerous than devotees on the morning of June 11 when the temple opened darshan after two-and-a-half months of lockdown.
One of the 12 holiest Shiva temples, famous for its crushingly-packed queues, the sparseness of devotees that morning hadn’t changed its most essential feature: the blink-and-you-miss-it darshan.
Many people live in the city precisely for this fleeting glimpse of Vishwanath, literally the Lord of the Universe, every single morning.
V Vijayalakshmi, 72, is one of them.
She hobbled past the security guards around 7 am, her hunchback inviting swift deference. When she emerged from the temple and walked further down the road, a policeman stepped aside and allowed her access to a lane barred for visitors. All she said from behind her face mask was: “Dhundi Ganapati ka darshan karna hai.” I am here for the darshan of Dhundi Ganapati.
Inside the labyrinth of lanes, Vijayalakshmi spent 20 minutes walking from one small temple to another, crossing her ears, bending her knees, doing half sit-ups in front of every deity.
For the first time since March 25, the day the nationwide lockdown had started, she had emerged from her hibernation and returned to her perambulations, starting with snan in the river Ganga, and ending with buying flowers to take back to her room.
“I am a widow,” she said. “I live alone in my room.”
She had moved to Varanasi in 2015 with her husband, a retired central government official from Hyderabad. They bought a room in a building for the elderly because “dying in Kashi frees you from the cycle of birth.” Her husband died two years ago. Her two daughters and son asked her to move back home but she refused.
Even the coronavirus epidemic – and the fact that the elderly were most at risk – had not changed her mind. Holed up inside, she kept up her daily routine of reading the Lalitha Sahasranama and the Vishnu Sahasranama, with a short break to watch the mythological TV show Krishna in the company of her neighbour Janaki, another Telugu-speaking retiree.
“This body belongs to Vishwanath,” she said. “What is to fear?”
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, emerge from two months of lockdown.
One of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, integral to the sacred geography of the Indian subcontinent, Kashi is uniquely cosmopolitan: Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, every community occupies a niche, with its own dharamshalas or hostels to accommodate the steady stream of visitors who come looking for darshan, dhyaan (meditation), gyaan (scholarship), mundan and pind daan (birth and death ceremonies).
Their search for salvation is sustained by the labour of the poor of eastern Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Bihar. An economy that the lockdown disrupted, with the effects felt far away as the business of tour operators ground to a halt.
Closer to Varanasi, 15 km from the city, a resident of Bairwan village, Prakash Patel threw away a golden harvest.
Patel grows marigold flowers and strings them into maalas which are sold on the highway to pilgrims travelling to Banaras city. It takes the labour of his entire family of five to produce 100 maalas over two days, which are sold for Rs 2,500. Nearly half of this is spent on watering and tending the plants. “One tank of pesticides cost Rs 500,” said Patel. “And pumping water costs Rs 60 an hour.”
The lockdown ended sales but not the costs. The flowers were dumped but the plants had to be kept alive on borrowed money.
Patel’s family survived on free government food rations and the Rs 500 monthly cash assistance sent to his wife’s Jan Dhan account.
In June, when the lockdown eased up, he was back on the highway, but the maalas that fetched Rs 25 were now going for Rs 5.
“Until all religious places open,” he said, “our life won’t get back on track.”
On the ghats of Banaras, the lockdown not only put the panda or ritual priests out of business, but also those who exist in a symbiotic relationship with them: the nau or barbers. No birth and death ceremony is complete without the shaving of the head.
Three generations of Raju Thakur’s family have left behind their wives and children in Gopalganj, Bihar, to occupy the same perch outside Assi Ghat, with a small wooden box packed with the tools of the trade. Over time, Thakur and his brothers have diversified, setting up a small open-air salon, made up of a single chair.
For nau like them, the bread comes from Banaras residents, but the butter comes from the pilgrims. Both disappeared during the lockdown.
Despite the longevity of their stay, the Thakurs were migrants without ration cards. But they were lucky they knew a ward-level leader who organised ration kits for them. “Humare biradar hai,” said Raju Thakur. He is our caste brother.
In the first week of June, as the lockdown eased, there was no sign of the pilgrims. But the regular customers were back. None of them had any money, though.
Raju was handling his second customer one morning when I asked him about the state of business. The first customer was a boatman who did not pay, he said. “Aur inka bharosa nahi hai,” he added, gesturing at the man seated in his chair, his face angled for a shave. “And I can’t say what he will do.”
The customer, an e-rickshaw driver, smiled. Raju said: “Bana rahe hai, paisa kabhi to milega.” I am doing my work on credit, in the hope of future payment.
His brother, Dhurendhra Thakur, quipped: “Atmanirbhar Banaras, just like Atmanirbhar Bharat” – a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest catchphrase.
There was no credit system for chai. Srinath Yadav, 65, was charging the usual Rs 5 for a mini-cup of tea at his stall near the Godowlia chowk.
Business wasn’t the same – evident from the fact that he bought only 50 purvas from a man who had trudged 10 km, pushing a handcart loaded with the earthen cups. “I would have normally bought 200, but what to do, sales are down,” said Yadav, apologetically. His supplier grumbled about how coming to the city was no longer worth the effort.
“Unlock,” said Yadav, the tea seller, referring to the government’s terminology for the easing of the lockdown, didn’t mean a return to normalcy.
“Sarkar ne dhakela, hum chalne lage,” he said. The government pushed us, we started walking again. “Atmanirbhar to pehle hi the.” We were self-reliant even earlier.
He was nursing anger over the Atmanirbhar Bharat economic package of the Modi government. When it was announced in mid-May, Yadav was, for a while, impressed. The package included Rs 10,000-worth loans for street vendors.
He promptly went to the bank to enquire about the loan. “They said no such form has come yet,” he said. He checked with another bank. They, too, turned him away. “Now I work from 5 am to midnight,” he said. “I have no time to keep running around banks.”
“There are at least 15 lakh street vendors like us, who live on day-to-day earnings,” he continued. “No government thinks about us.”
In the lanes around Kashi Vishwanath temple, Dilip Singh sat at the entrance of his shop bedecked with Banarsi sarees. He had opened the shop on May 21. Nearly three weeks later, he hadn’t sold a single saree. “Boni tak nahi hui,” he said. There hasn’t even been an initial sale.
Yet, he was opening the shop every alternate day. “Asha pe duniya tiki hai.” The world lives on hope.
In Varanasi, hope verged on hubris: nearly no one seemed to be wearing face masks, even though coronavirus cases were rising with the return of migrant workers. “Banarasi akhad hota hai,” Singh laughed. Banarasis are overconfident. “They think baba is watching over them.”
A few shops down, Sharavan Kumar had kept his face mask in his shirt pocket. “Until the pilgrims return, we don’t face any risk,” he said. His store stocks rudraksha malas, mini-shiva lingas and other puja material. “Baba ka aisa kripa hai, boni to ho jaa raha hai,” he said. With the blessing of Baba, we are making some sales. The pilgrims may not have returned to the city, but residents cannot go without puja material, he quipped.
Banarasis cannot go without paans either, said Ankit Chaurasia, rolling one for a customer. He had sold paans worth Rs 200 by 7 am in the morning, the day the Kashi Vishwanath temple opened for darshan. He wore a face mask and claimed he wasn’t allowing customers to linger around the shop.
As the shopkeepers returned to the area, Soni Devi, a sanitation worker, wasn’t sure she was pleased to have to deal with them again. “We were the only ones working through the lockdown, apart from the police,” she said. Those were days of peace and quiet. No one was around to shout at her as she swept her broom, kicking up a cloud of dust.
In an ancient city, the epidemic seems to have come as a reminder that nothing stays, other than dust.