Can you imagine walking among thousands of rats without freaking out? I couldn’t, but I did, anyway.
When I was reading my guidebook it sounded exciting, exotic if you like: visiting a rat temple — a place where thousands of rats can eat, sleep and multiply without having to fear for their lives. So I put the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok on my list of sites to visit when traveling through Rajasthan, one of India’s most popular tourist destinations.
I’ve come across quite a few intriguing forms of worship in India but worshipping a goddess through rodents? I wonder if anything can match this extreme. After my visit I was told that if you kill one of these rats by accident, you have to offer the temple a rat statue in gold. I wish I had known this detail beforehand, so I could have checked how many statues there were. It might have distracted me a bit. You see, it’s not unthinkable to step on a rat in this temple.
The Legend of the Karni Mata’s Rat Temple
Deshnok is probably the only city in India without a rat problem. These gnawing rodents don’t need the town’s houses and streets because they live in their own five-star hotel, the Karni Mata Temple — with some twenty thousand relatives.
There are differences in the legends about the rat temple. This is the version one of the local people shared with me:
“Karni Mata lived around 1500. She was a mystic, believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Durga. When a child of a famous storyteller died, Karni Mata tried to bring him back to life, but Yama – the God of Death – had already claimed him. Karni Mata decided that from then on all storytellers would reincarnate as rats so Yama would no longer be able to have their souls.”
In Your Bucket Because…
- Visiting a rat temple is a unique experience.
- You like rats.
- This form of worship intrigues you.
- Good for anybody who is interested in learning about exotic religious practices — as long as you can deal with rats running about without freaking out.
Visiting the Rat Temple without Losing your Cool
So there you have it: A rat’s utopia. From the outside you have no clue as to what you’re getting into if you happen to be unfamiliar with the story of this temple. It’s an ordinary-looking temple: Red walls with an entrance of white marble and yellow sandstone with intricate carvings.
Since it is a Hindu temple, my partner Coen and I had to follow the custom of taking off our shoes before entering. Fortunately, we had arrived during the afternoon, which is siesta time for many of the rats. We were told that visiting the temple during late night or early morning hours is a more challenging experience for the uninitiated.
I wished I had learned to meditate, or to keep my cool like Buddhist monks can -– to remain undisturbed, no matter what your surroundings. It took the utmost discipline for me not to scream, yell or misbehave in any other way. This is, after all, a place of worship, so we had to show respect. Nevertheless, I did become unusually jumpy with so many large mice-sized creatures running about, never mind that a rat running across your foot is supposed to bring luck. The rodents were all over the place and, obviously, the floor was unpleasantly sticky. Fortunately, there are washbasins outside.
Life of a Rat in a Temple
When my heartbeat returned to its normal pace, I could look around with different eyes, and smiled at what I saw: Rats were sleeping on the narrowest fences with their bodies wrapped around the poles, some delicately kept their balance on the edge of metal bowls while they fed themselves on grain or milk, others peacefully nibbled on whatever was strewn on the ground. They were all busy with their own lives and didn’t seem to care that worshippers and onlookers intruded into their territory.
If the idea of having a rat running over your foot doesn’t appeal to you, you may try something else to attract good luck: Spotting a white rat, of which there are supposedly a couple, is highly auspicious. We didn’t see one but it was the least of my worries. I have my share of luck in life.
The temple may be inhabited by rats, but devotees come there to pay their respects to Karni Mata. She has her own shrine, surrounded by beautifully carved silver sculptures and is guarded by silver lions. Another auspicious action is to go to the inner temple but as the entrance is reached via a narrow, unlit alley crawling with rats, I chickened out. Coen, my partner, put on his poker face, “They don’t do anything,” he said and did his rounds. He was right, of course.
- Bikaner, in Rajasthan, is the most practical town from which to visit Deshnok (some 30 kms). There are buses, you can take a taxi, or rent a car with driver in Bikaner. The nearest airport is in Jodhpur.
- The temple is open every day.
- Bikaner itself is worth a visit too. Check out the Junagarh Fort, the Shivbari Temple, or the Gajner Palace (now a heritage hotel).