Villagers in Varanasi turn to Dih Baba, goddesses and rituals to ward off COVID-19

In an attempt to ward off the COVID-19 virus, a woman prays at a neem tree in the yard of her house, in Varanasi’s Meera Sona Talaab locality, on 10 May 2021. As the pandemic takes a heavy toll in rural Uttar Pradesh, villagers have turned to local deities for protection in the absence of adequate healthcare infrastructure. Vijay Vineet
19 May, 2021

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.”

The video from Kamauli, which seems to have sparked off the pujas, had similar rituals and at the end, the acolyte in the puja said that to be safe from corona, Dih Baba and Sheetala Mata have to be worshipped for 21 days and after that kadhai has to be done. “After that, corona will run away from our houses,” the voiceover in the video said. Santoshi Singh, a resident of Phulwaria, told me, “The offerings that they are giving is called dhaar—a gush of liquid—and it’s a mix of water and neem or milk or several other things that you get from the market.”

Sheetala Mata is a goddess associated with epidemics and diseases like small pox, and is worshipped in various forms in several parts of the country. Wikimedia Commons

Several villagers told me that Sheetala Mata is usually invoked during epidemics and such calamities.  Manish Singh, who is a resident of Dinapur, said, “Earlier, when there would be cases of chicken pox or cholera, then too Sheetala Mata would be worshipped.” He explained, “If you look at the idol of Sheetala Mata, she has a broom in one hand and a jar of water in another, which is supposed to have something medicinal in it and is supposed to save people from dangerous and serious diseases. This is also why women are worshipping Sheetala Mata.” Santoshi also told me that “this dhaar is offered at the time of any kind of ill-luck or epidemic. If someone in the house becomes seriously ill, then too, this dhaar is given.”

The puja is not just restricted to Sheetala Mata and Dih Baba—the myths behind it are as varied as the number of places where they are being held. Manish told me that when he asked his aunt, who lives in Salarpur, about the puja, “she told me that there are nine goddesses. They are sisters and the youngest among them is called Dulara Devi, who holds great anger. And every time she gets angry, there is such an outbreak.” Manish said that according to his father, “whenever an epidemic strikes, Dih Baba is worshipped and the puja is always held outside the village.” Manish said that he had seen the maximum crowds for this puja at the Mangraha Bir Baba, in Salarpur and at the Kameshwar Mahadev temple.

Same is the case with the emphasis on Dih Baba. Shivendra Yadav is a resident of Karaundi, and a lawyer in the Banaras district court. He told me that he saw the puja for the first time in his area on 28 April. “The women believe that the disease is spreading via the air and that Dih Baba sits as a protector on the borders of the village. Nothing can enter without his permission.” He said that when he asked around, he was told that “whenever there is an epidemic like smallpox or chicken pox, water and neem leaves are offered to please the goddess. Patashe”—variety of sugar candy—“and fox nuts are mixed together, lamps are lit and all of this is placed at the entry to the village and then the dhaar is offered there, so that the disease cannot gain entry to the village and is turned aside.” He said that “This is an old and entrenched belief.”

The one common factor though, across villages, was the belief that the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of the gods getting angry and only the gods can end it. The puja is meant to pacify the gods and goddesses and vanquish the disease. Sonkar teaches sociology at Kunwar RC Mahila Degree College in Mainpuri. She told me that five people in her family have died from COVID-19 in the last 25 days— her maternal uncle, paternal aunt’s husband, paternal uncle and his son and her grandmother. “In my locality, at least five more people have died in the past 25 days and the neighbourhood is not very big,” she said. “The speed at which the deaths are happening, people have never seen this here before.” She said that this was the reason why they think that the pandemic could be nothing but “god’s wrath.” In addition, ever since the people have come to know that the disease is airborne, the fear has increased significantly, she said. “Trust in their gods is their last resort.”

Sonkar added, “They think that there is a bad omen on the family or the village and that is why the disease is occuring. They are doing the pujas to ward off this bad omen—they give dhaar, light insence sticks, put flowers and pray. They think if we do the puja, the gods will be mollified and the disease will leave their families and village alone. ” Brahma Baba is the Dih Baba of Sonkar’s locality but she said that “the pujas aren’t restricted to the Dih Baba, they are praying at the riverside, the ghats and ponds, too. The deities that are revered in our locality—Sammo Mata, Brahma Baba—the women are going to all of them.” She added, “The women think that only their ancestors can save them from this sickness. It can only be cured by these prayers and offerings since going to hospitals is not helping.”  Sonkar said that she considered it a superstition but after the deaths in her family, “I have not been able to convince my mother otherwise. The women don't have any scientific reason or rationale behind this. They believe in ghosts and are influenced by superstition.”

Manish echoed Sonkar’s opinion. He explained that in his village, the pujas are being conducted to “literally drive the disease out of the village and that too towards the south—since the wind does not blow into the village from that direction, so, if you expel the disease via the south it won’t be able to come back.” He added, “Another belief has cropped up in my village that if you do not do the puja, the disease will surround your house and some or the other member of the family will keep falling ill—the wrath of the goddess will remain.”

Santoshi, of Phulwaria village said, “Several days ago some women of the locality told me that they were all giving offerings at the Mashini Bir Baba, in Varunapuri Colony. Those who are not able to go there are laying offerings under neem and peepal trees.” She said that she was told they are doing all this to drive away corona. “They believe that only Dih Baba can remove the virus. No one has as much power as Dih Baba, and without Dih Baba’s will, the virus will not be able to come inside their houses or villages.”

The Kamauli video first surfaced on social media around 25 April and within days, it spread all across Varanasi and the women started coming out to offer the prayers. Pal said that he had seen pujas in practically all “the temples of Dih Baba at the BHU campus, there are around 16 of them.” He added, “And then there is the Kashi Vishwanath temple. I saw women from Seer Govardhanpur, Chhittupur and Bhagwanpur doing the puja at the Vishwanath temple.” Pal’s sister lives in the village of Rohiniya Faridpur. “She told me that in some villages deaths have started coming down so people’s belief in the puja has strengthened.”

Yadav, from Karaundi, told me, “Dih Baba of our village is right in front of my house. He is referred to as the Panchakoshi Marg Dih Baba. I saw around 25 women gathered there in the evening on 28 April and worshiping. I wondered why so many women had come together in the middle of the pandemic. The former chief of the village was also with them.” Yadav added, “They do this every day now.”

Sunil Patel is from Madhavpur village. “Our Dih Baba, Makkerwal Bir Baba is slightly far from the village. So the women of my village, around 70 of them, offered the dhaar to Dih Baba in that direction after forming circles. This was on 4 May.” He said that two days later, “all the men and women of the village gathered together and performed a havan at the Chaura Mata temple. Then on 8 May, the women were told to hold the prayers in front of the neem trees in their houses or fields. After that, they all went and gave dhaars of milk all around the borders of the village, all the while raising victory chants to the goddess. This is not just my village, my maternal uncle’s village, all my friends’ villages—this is happening all over Banaras right now, all to get rid of corona.”

On 10 May, the chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, conducted a Rudrabhishek at his residence in Gorakhpur, to ostensibly combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Bisht is a monk, commonly referred to as Yogi Adityanath, and won the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituency for five consecutive terms before he became the chief minister. The Rudrabhishek is one of the highest sacred rituals in Vedic scriptures pertaining to the god Shiva, and involves a ritual bath of the Shiv ling. The ritual was held at the Shakti peeth in Bisht’s house. Shakti peeth translates as seat of Shakti, and is considered a scared place within the goddess-based tradition of Shaktism. Bisht offered a dhaar of 11 litres of milk mixed with five litres of herbed water, according to reports.

Subsequently, on 18 May, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the BJP’s parent organisation, organised a paath, or recital, of the Hanuman Chalisa, a devotional hymn in praise of the god Hanuman, in Varanasi, to drive COVID-19 away from the city. According to reports, the event was organised by the kutumb prabhodhan gatividhi, or family-monitoring cell of the RSS, and was billed as the largest mass recital of the hymn in the world. Local reports said that over 5.25 lakh such recitals took place in Varanasi.

Yadav, from Karaundi, said, “When a man is feeling helpless in every way, then these kinds of traditions increase. What will people do when you have no health facility? Their faith in God will increase further.”