At a cremation ground on the banks of the Ganges river in Ballia, a district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, head priest Pappu Pandey says he’s never experienced anything like the last few weeks.

One of his jobs is to keep a count of bodies. As a vicious combination of extreme heat and punishing pre-monsoon humidity blanketed the region, the ground became choked with pyres. Pandey says deaths doubled to nearly 50 a day at the peak of the heat wave in mid-June — numbers he has not seen in 20 years at the site outside the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was like a divine curse,” Pandey said, describing the deadly spell of heat.