A stuffy 45-minute bus ride south of the Rajasthani desert town of Bikaner lies the Karni Mata Temple, more colloquially known as the 'Internationally Famous' Rat Temple.
As you approach the Temple, the streets are lined with the usual smattering of stalls selling street snacks, floral arrangements, framed idols and traditional jewelry. I left my sandals with a shopkeeper (keeping my socks on for this one - to be disposed of later) and headed towards an elaborate carved marble gateway in front of a large pink building.
Elegant floral designs were carved into the marble, as well as various Hindu deities. But in addition to the normal Ganesh images were rows of marble sculpted rats making their way up the pillars. The elaborate silver doors were embossed with images of rats as well, and as I made my way into the temple, I saw a small rat scamper across the entrance.
Karni Mata, born in 1387, was the patron saint for the royal families of both Bikaner and Jodhpur. She was said to have performed many miracles during her lifetime, and still has a wide base of followers even today. She was believed to have lived for 151 years, when she mysteriously disappeared. Some say she was a reincarnation of the goddess Durga.
Karni Mata was married, but decided to take a vow of abstinence in line with her sainthood. She arranged for her husband to be married to her sister instead. One of their children, Poonjar, drowned while on a ritual visit to the holy lake at Pushkar (where I also visited), and Karni Mata revived him in her grief. She then declared that all of her offspring would be reincarnated as rats in place of dying.
And today, the Karni Mata Temple is full of these rats, who people claim are reincarnations of her descendants. After a few hours of wandering around the Temple photographing rats, I sat down to chat with one of the guards, whose job it was to sell 30 rupee camera passes to visitors. He claims to be a descendent of Karni Mata, and sees the rats in the Temple as his family. He says he eats and sleeps in the Temple, sharing his food and water with the rats, but never gets ill because these are sacred rats.
The Hindi word for rat is chooha, but these rats are called kabas, which translates as 'children of god'. He tells me that kabas that are reincarnated with good karma live inside the temple, and kabas with bad karma live in the courtyard. Kabas with terrible karma live outside the gate. He said there is a distinct difference between these kabas and common street rats. People visit the Temple from all over, touching and sharing food with the rats, but instead of catching diseases, they are cured from their illnesses. He believes that when he dies he will be reincarnated as one of these kabas, and that now he is already a reincarnated rat.
It’s not just the camera-pass selling guard. All around me, Indian women are dressed in their finest sarees, offering ladoos and salted chickpeas to scampering rats. The priests have placed large pots of milk around, and pilgrims are FaceTiming their families, giving everybody a glimpse of the holy rodents. I see a woman dip her finger in the rat milk, place a drop on her daughter’s forehead, and stick the rest into her daughter’s mouth.
I feel a nibble on my toe and scream, attracting attention from the many pilgrims. I kick the rat away - a major faux pas. If someone steps on one of the holy rats, they are obligated to donate a solid silver rat sculpture to the Temple. Luckily the guard has assured me that these rats bring only good luck, not disease. There are no other foreigners here. I’m alone with the rats and their reincarnated family members.
The elusive white rat - thought to bring good luck to those who see it
As I’m on my way out of the Temple, there is a big commotion. Somebody has spotted the elusive white rat. Seeing it is thought to be very auspicious, bringing great luck to those who see it. Crowds gathered. They pushed open a locked gate and flooded into a cordoned-off area, where they crouched under metal platforms in all of the rat dirt, trying to get a glimpse of it. I didn’t see anything, so I moved on. I was trying to get the perfect shot of a sleeping rat further along, when I looked down and saw the white rat right by my feet, just for me. With my auspicious white rat sighting complete, I headed back to Bikaner on a bus full of Rat Temple devotees (and probably also a few rats).
Some of these rats didn't look particularly 'without diseases' to me
Many Rajasthani women cover their faces with a veil when in public. These women specifically covered their faces more closely when they asked for a photo
This idol in the compound is worshipped by emptying a bag of salt around it
Each Hindu deity has a 'vehicle' which they are often pictured riding or sitting on. Ganesh's vehicle is a rat
This rat was not in fact dead but only having a nap
Once somebody spots the white rat, everybody wants to see it