As the second wave of COVID-19 spreads to rural areas with minimal healthcare, villages across the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh have been conducting a 21-day puja to ward off the virus. The puja involves worshipping and invoking the protection of local patron saints, collectively referred to as Dih Baba, and pacifying goddesses associated with epidemics, such as Sheetala Mata. “Hospitals are in terrible condition and there are no medicines, beds or oxygen available,” Pravin Pal, a resident of Pishor village in Varanasi, told me on 9 May. “The government has failed completely. Now who can they rely on except God?” The belief, according to the villagers, is that the pandemic is a result of the ancestral gods’ anger and the only way to ensure the safety of the village is to mollify the gods.
According to residents across at least ten villages in Varanasi, prayers and offerings are being conducted twice daily, at morning and evening, for three weeks, at the end of which there will be a “kadhai.” Kadhai literally translates to frying pan and signifies the making of a meal that is consumed after a ritual offering to the gods. The puja is being predominantly performed by the women, and by most accounts started sometime in the last week of April. All the villagers said that not just their village but almost every village in Varanasi was holding these pujas and giving offerings. The sudden popularity of the puja can be traced to a video from Kamauli village, shot on 24 April, which shows some priests and villagers conducting a ritual. The video was widely shared on WhatsApp and Facebook and the puja has now been adopted in villages across the district.
While the state government has consistently insisted that there is no shortage of tests, beds, medicines, oxygen and hospitals, ground reports contradict this narrative. The Varanasi district has a population of 40 lakh and is the constituency represented by the prime minister Narendra Modi—according to news reports, it has just 2,392 beds and 269 ventilators. Every villager I spoke to said that no one trusted the government to be of any help. They said that the rise in the number of sudden deaths had led to absolute panic and dread in the villages.
“First of all, it’s impossible to find admission in hospitals. Now, people think that if you go to the hospital you will die,” Priyanka Sonkar, a resident of Varanasi’s Taktakpur village, told me. In addition, some of them said that misinformation about the virus was adding to superstitious beliefs and practices. “They have no one to turn to. To save themselves from corona, people are now looking for solutions on their own. This is one of them—worship of Sheetala Mata and Dih Baba,” Pal told me.
The puja being conducted to ward off COVID-19 is similar to some existing rituals surrounding goddesses associated with health and protector gods. In Varanasi, almost every village has its own Dih Baba, who is the ancestral god, the protector and provider, among other roles. Pal, who is a student at Banaras Hindu University, told me, “There is a traditional ritual worship done in Banaras called karaha. This is held during a natural disaster or an epidemic. It is a worship of goddesses. During this, water and milk are mixed in seven big pots, and placed over a fire. There is one acolyte who wears a garland.” Pal explained, “The acolyte bathes in the mixture, which is given as an offering, and once the puja is done, the acolyte gives a prophecy.”