Karni Mata--Temple of Rats
Updated: Dec 26, 2019
It's festival time and the small Indian town of Deshnok in Rajasthan, India is awash in colour as pilgrims, dressed in their finest saris and salwar kameezes, flood the streets to celebrate and seek the blessing of the Goddess, Karni Mata. Devotees jostle at small stands to buy gifts of grain, seeds and sweets of the revered inhabitants of the Karni Mata Temple — better known as the Temple of Rats.
Rat worship in Indian dates to the 15th century and the Charan caste believe Karni Mata to be the incarnation of the God Durga. When the God of Death, Yoma, refused Karni Mata's request to reincarnate her beloved son she promised to reincarnate all members of the caste as rats. After living out their rat lives they would once more be reincarnated, this time as humans, and reunited with their Charan caste members.
Shoes are forbidden inside temples, but the Temple of Rats is the first time we’re told to take off our socks as well. We stuff them into our shoes with trepidation; it’s considered lucky if a rat runs over your bare feet. We consider it lucky if one does not.
As we enter, rats scurry from one place to another. Eating, pooping, mating, playing and building homes in every nook, cranny and hole they can find. Thankfully, musophobia doesn’t run in the family.
An estimated 20,000 rats call the temple home, leaving the floor crunchy with a mix of rat droppings, seeds, grains and sweets. In the hot humid weather everything sticks to our feet as we walk the temple grounds, although we’re told there’ve been no recorded cases of disease transmission from the rats to humans at the temple. Fingers crossed the record holds.
Bowls of milk, fresh fruit and vegetables and coconut shells are placed throughout the temple by live-in rat followers and daily volunteers. Devotees, glowing with joy, gently coax the rats to eat from their hands and eat what the rats don’t —it’s believed eating the rats' leftovers and drinking the same water as the rats will bring good fortune. We skip the shared meal.
Seeing a white rat is considered especially fortuitous, but the crowds of pilgrims make for challenging spotting.
Interestingly, the rats have a sweet tooth and the abundance of sweets has led to stomach disorders and a proliferation of diabetes. Crowded conditions also make them prone to epidemics, which decimate the rat population every few years.
The main shrine contains an image of Karni Mata and a line of fervent believers wait to pray for blessings. We skip the massive queue and opt for a glimpse of the goddess from the sidelines. A crown on her head is engulfed by a mass of flower garlands left by pilgrims.
By the time we leave our feet are a sticky mess, but there is nowhere to wash up, so we scrap them off as best we can on the cement surface outside before putting our socks and shoes on. Our feet and socks will wash, but the memory of our extraordinary, unimaginable, astonishing visit to the Temple of Rats will always remain with us.