SUJABAD, India — Two weeks ago, as dawn broke over the Ganges river in this waterfront community, someone noticed several bodies in the shallows, the first of hundreds that would be found floating or buried in the sand as deaths from India’s coronavirus surge broke records.
Darsan Nishad, a 35-year-old man who works for an environmental program, was part of a crew sent to drag eight sodden corpses out of the water that day, then bind them for transport to be examined and later cremated, the formal last rite observed by India’s majority Hindu populace.
“We had no idea where they had come from. We had no idea if they had been sick,” he recounted this week, pointing out a bend in the river where they had carried out their grim task.
Shaken by the experience, Nishad drew on his faith in the Ganges, which Hindus revere as a sacred source of purity and protection.
“This water is sacred for all of us. We believe that if you dip it even once, you are protected for life,” he said, standing just a few feet from several charred and smoldering pits in the sand, where bits of wood, bamboo and cloth from recent cremations bobbed at the water’s edge. “She is our goddess.”
The mystery surrounding the bodies has not been solved, nor is it known how many were infected with the coronavirus. But many believe that families resorted to extreme measures because they could not afford to have their relatives cremated — a rite that once cost about $70 here but has skyrocketed to $400 since late last month, locals say, when a second wave of the virus struck India like a thunderbolt.
In Sujabad, a community of dirt alleys and tarp-covered huts that depends on the Ganges for its livelihood, many people are now out of work. Boatmen who once carried pilgrims and tourists along the river have been grounded by a pandemic lockdown. Fishermen are worried about their catch becoming contaminated. The only booming business, people said, is among the woodsellers who supply the essential ingredient of funeral pyres.
As India struggles to contain a protracted resurgence of coronavirus cases, the sheer number of deaths — around 4,000 on many days since late April and surpassing 4,500 this week — has overwhelmed communities and hollowed out their economies. Like the bodies found in the Ganges, whether they died of COVID-19, heart attacks or old age, the inhabitants of these communities are victims of the virus, too.
The horrifying images of floating and half-buried corpses spurred government officials to action. Patrol boats have been sent up and down the Ganges, which meanders for 1,500 miles across northern India. Local and state authorities have established networks of free cremation sites, where firewood and priests are available to grieving families at no charge.
Several such sites are operating in Varanasi, a historic riverfront city 15 miles from Sujabad that features majestic stone steps to the Ganges called ghats. Normally, the ghats are crowded with Hindus who come to bathe, baptize their children and scatter the ashes of their dead. Now the ghats are nearly empty, but the public crematoriums are busy round-the-clock.
At one cremation site this week, a cluster of men watched sadly as a Hindu priest lit a pyre of wood and bamboo on an iron platform and chanted a prayer for their elderly mother, who had died that morning in a hospital. She was not a coronavirus patient, but her sons said they could not afford to pay the exorbitant prices for wood and other expenses.
The priest, Satindra Kumar, seemed worn out from long days leading funeral rites.
“I have done this 15 times in the last two days, mostly corona cases from the hospital, but other people are coming here, too,” Kumar said. “This pandemic has been devastating. The government is not doing enough to help rural areas. People are scared and suffering. Some say the virus is more powerful than God. I can’t stop it, but I will keep performing my prayers and hope it brings families some peace.”
In downtown Varanasi, a city of about 1 million, officials have set up a coronavirus command center, with banks of workers taking calls from the public, checking on isolated patients, ordering ambulances for those needing hospitalization and arranging cremations. A large screen on the wall shows constantly updated information on available beds, oxygen supplies and clusters of new virus cases.
But in rural areas, villagers whose loved ones die of the coronavirus or other causes must make do without such services.
Despite the extra costs, many still make the trip to the ghats for a proper Hindu blessing of the dead, saying the economic burden must be borne to follow ancestral traditions.
One morning this week, a group of village men, mourning the deaths of three female relatives, arrived at one of the city’s oldest ghats and prepared an offering of dough balls and spices, wrapped in large leaves, under the watchful eye of a priest. After he had blessed them, the men descended the stone steps, set the offerings afloat and scattered the ashes.
Then the group of farmers — who had already paid for three cremations — returned to pay for the waterside ceremony. They counted their pooled rupee notes nervously, adding up the costs including a barber, photographer, fees and gifts. The priest pocketed the notes, and the villagers started back for home, resigned to the steeper costs of fulfilling their religious duty at a time of uncertainty, death and fear of an invisible, lethal force.
“For generations our people have been coming here for last rites, which is sacred to us,” said Lakshmi Singh, a farmer in his 60s. “We have not seen many cases of corona, because we are isolated in our forests. But we have no fear of it. We make our offerings at the Ganges, as our ancestors did, and it keeps us safe.”