Reverence for all living things is a special trait of Hinduism. But nothing prepares you for the freak show at this temple in Rajasthan overrun by thousands of overfed rats. There are more than 20,000 of them living within the temple precincts and people come from far and wide to pay them obeisance
Rodents have the run of the Karni Mata temple in Rajasthan. Devotees believe them to be reincarnated descendants of Karni Mata, herself a 14th century reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga.
The temple is located in village Deshnok, 30 kilometres from Bikaner on the Jodhpur-Bikaner Highway. It is called the Karni Mata temple after the resident deity, the progenitor of the rats.
There are perhaps as many legends about Karni Mata as they are rats, and like much of Hindu mythology the story changes with every narrator.
According to the temple priest, Karni Mata lived in this village in the 14th century and was one of the reincarnations of Goddess Durga. She was married but chose a celibate life and married off her husband to one of her younger sisters.
When a son of one of her sisters drowned in a pond, Karni Mata took his body to Yama, the Hindu god of death, and pleaded for his life. At first Yama refused, citing the inevitable law of nature, but eventually yielded and promised Karni Mata that her sister’s son would be reincarnated as a rat. The promise came true and after that all of Karni Mata’s relatives began to be reincarnated as rats.
The rats are reverentially known as kabas by local residents who consider them part of Karni Mata’s family and hence their ancestors. “We will be born again as kabas too, just like my forefathers,” says the priest pointing to the huddle of rats in the corridor.
As they are elsewhere, the temple rats are fiercely territorial. It is believed that a person who leads a pious life is born a rat within the sanctum sanctorum. The rest are born in other nooks and crannies in the temple compound.
“The areas are strictly demarcated. The kabas from the general temple compound side don’t enter the sanctum sanctorum and vice-versa”, says the priest.
As for the rats outside the temple, they dare not even scamper near the temple wall. The temple rats are quick to chase any intruder.
Pampered and fed to the hilt, the temple rats are quite unlike rats elsewhere. For one, they are indolent and second they have no fear of man.
Birds of prey, the ultimate enemies of the rats, are taken care of by covering the temple compound with a wire gauze canopy.
With all the feeding and with no one to run from, the rats’ movements are sluggish and you have to pick your way through them as they will not give way. If you stand long enough, they think nothing before clambering over your feet while crossing the aisle.
Local people are not squeamish at all and feel blessed if the rats make any physical contact with them. The temple’s holy offering or prasad is sought after by every devotee. The prasad is either in the form of sweetmeats freshly nibbled by the rats or milk sipped on languorously by two dozen or more of them.
The sweetmeats are placed at the altar where the pious rats throng and eat them at leisure. And the bowls full of milk are placed every day in different corners of the temple.
“The prasad is auspicious. No one has ever been reported ill with this offering. We live here in the temple and there has never been any disease,” says the temple priest.
But the most auspicious moment for any devotee is the sighting of the rare white rat. The devotees believe that if they see the white rat their prayers will surely be answered.
Most tourists are happy to witness the spectacle of these divine rats from far — standing with open mouths and zoom lenses at the temple threshhold where rats are scarce. Those that venture inside do so gingerly, wearing polyethylene over their feet to avoid any brush with the rats.
Because the rats are everywhere, the danger of them coming underfoot is very real. The temple has a rule therefore that should anyone crush any rat underfoot, they would have to offer a rat in gold to the temple as punishment.
About the author
Writer: Sanjay Austa