The temple was swarming with rats. They crawled out of holes in the wall. They scurried along ledges. They huddled in crevices. And they climbed over a pyramid of ritual candies, nibbling to their hearts’ content.
These rodents were not the result of a lazy exterminator. They were supposed to be there. They were holy rats.
Their home was the Karni Mata temple in Deshnok, just outside the city of Bikaner. Many people had traveled great distances to see them, including me. It was good luck if they ran over your bare feet, and it was even better luck if you ate the sweets that they had licked.
Karni Mata, the temple’s namesake, was a female saint believed to be an incarnation of the warrior goddess Durga. In statues, Durga is depicted on top of a lion or tiger, brandishing deadly weapons in her numerous arms. Sometimes, one arm holds the bloody severed head of an enemy.
While Durga is known for killing, Karni Mata is known for restoring life. When her one of her sons died in an accident, she marched over to Yama, the god of death, and demanded that he bring the boy back. Yama told her that she herself had the power to reincarnate him as a rat. So she did. Then she declared that she would also be reincarnated as a rat, along with all of her descendants. And where would those rats eventually reside? The Karni Mata temple.
There are now more than 20,000 rats scuttling through the temple. Most are brown, but a rare few are white, supposedly the reincarnations of Karni Mata and her sons. Catching even a glimpse of these white rats is highly auspicious.
A temple full of rats seems gross from a Western perspective, but in India, it’s fairly run of the mill. To explain, let me tell you what else I experienced that day.
At four in the morning, I awoke to a light, warm touch across my face. I sprung out of bed and saw a black creature flapping around the room. A bat had found its way through the open window, because my low-budget guesthouse in Bikaner didn’t have any screens. Whipping my bed sheet in the bat’s direction, I managed to, well, bat it away. Then I closed the window and went back to sleep.
After sunrise, I took a walk through the old city of Bikaner. Each side of the street had a gutter with a stream of grey water. At one point, I looked to the left and saw a young boy defecating into the gutter. Then I looked to the right and saw a woman washing a pot in the opposite gutter. I assumed she would later cook food for her family in that pot. Who knows what had happened just upstream? I didn’t want to think about it.
As I continued down the street, I directed my attention towards the ground, carefully avoiding thick plops of cow dung. Some were wet and fresh, while others were dried out, run over, or stepped on. Once, I saw a cow sticking its nose in some dung, keeping it there for a few long seconds before eating from a pile of trash.
In the afternoon, I left Bikaner and caught a bus for Deshnok. Over the course of the ride, the vehicle filled far beyond capacity. There were three people for every two seats, and the aisle was so packed that it was impassable. I spent most of the trip with someone’s elbow in my side.
But that was nothing. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had come during the Navratri festival, held in honor of Durga. It was one of the busiest times of year at the Karni Mata temple, when thousands of worshippers came to pay their respects. I tried to find the entrance but got stuck in an orderless mob. People shoved one another indiscriminately, and women held babies above their heads to save them from getting crushed. At every moment, I was making uncomfortable physical contact with at least five other people, mostly older women. No one wanted to be in that mob. It was the most nightmarish religious occasion I had ever seen.
When I escaped, I discovered that the mob was only a precursor to the actual line, which zigzagged under a tent, continued past some buildings, and ended on an empty road, well out of sight from the temple. The wait would have taken hours, but fortunately I found an entrance for tourists who only wanted a brief glance.
Once I was inside, I did a quick walk-through, took some pictures, and left. None of the rats touched my feet, but if they had, I wouldn’t have cared. After everything I’d seen that day, a few mangy rats were the least of my worries.