Having heard there was a temple dedicated to the rat population of India I had to go…obviously! I was staying in a city called Bikaner, a lively place in Rajasthan with the usual assortment of colourful local markets sprawled over train tracks and ornately dilapidated buildings.
I have to say, my error of the day was to choose the cheaper option and take a 45 minute tuk tuk ride in the blazing heat. By the time I arrived I was covered in bug carcases and my face was burnt within an inch of its life like I had crawled out from the Gobi Desert.
However, the Hindu Temple Karni Mata is one of those wonderful travel moments that needs to be seen to be believed. The marble floors are awash with a sea of brown fur and spindly tails and locals can be found praying, resting and sleeping on the floor whilst rats run around them. It may sound like a London Underground nightmare and it is strange day out, but also strangely alluring.
The 20,000-odd rats are called kabbas, and greatly respected by people who travel from miles around to visit them. In Hinduism, so many of their important deities take animal form.
So how did it come to pass that there was a temple where rats are celebrated? Legend has it a mystic matriarch from the 14th century, was an incarnation of Durga, the goddess of victory and power. After one of her clansmen died and having attempted to revive the child, she was informed by Yama, the god of death, that he had already been reincarnated. Karni Mata made a deal with Yama that all of her people would be reborn as rats until they could be born back into the clan.
The thing I love about Hinduism is death is only the end of one chapter and the start of another, the cycle being called samsara and is precisely why Karni Mata’s rats are treated like royalty.
For the average traveller it’s an interesting place to visit with some great photo opportunities, but scratch below the surface and you lift the veil on religious beliefs, legends and a glimpse into an India that isn’t always visible when passing through on . That is after all what travel is really about, experience foreign places through different eyes and with a different mind-set.
Unlike myself, make sure you don’t wear flip flops and more importantly, be careful where you walk to avoid stepping on a rat as it is seen as a sign of terrible misfortune.