It is like a scene from a horror movie: you see them everywhere, scurrying to and fro, over your bare feet, naked tails shining in the light as they look for food and milk. Rats, thousands of them, and not just any rats that some would want to get rid of but sacred rats. These rats belong to the Temple of Karni Mata.
Photo: Jon Brew
Karni Mata was a sage who was considered to be the incarnation of the goddess Durga, the goddess of power and victory. The temple of Deshnoke as it is formally known was built after her disappearance aged 150 according to history.
Photo: Jon Brew
The temple itself is ornate with marble panels and silver and gold decorations. It was built in the early 1900s by Maharaja Ganga Singh, probably to get the goddess’s protection.
Photo: lily b
Hindus and tourists alike all travel to the temple to pay religious tribute or to get some of the blessings by having a rat run over their feet. In the temple itself, there are approximately 20,000 rats living freely. They are called kabbas and people pay their respects to them from all around the world.
Photo: Glenn M. Losack M.D
The legend says that back when she was alive, in the 1400s, one of her stepsons was killed. She begged Yama, the god of death, to bring him back to life but unfortunately he refused. After further begging from the distraught sage he agreed to reincarnate her tribes people as rats.
Photo: Madelon van de Water
Before you think “as a rat!”, in Hinduism death is not an end; it is a part of your soul’s journey in becoming one with the universe. And transmigrations as animals are a part of it. Admittedly, Hindus don’t normally worship rats and usually consider them a lot like the west sees rats, but exceptions are made for the temple rats.
Rachel Fell McDermott, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College in New York City said: “The main theological point is that there’s no dividing line between what forms gods or goddesses can use, there’s nothing to say they can’t take form as a fish, a bird, or even a rat.”
Not only do people want the blessing received when a rat runs over their feet, but eating or drinking food the rats have tried is a special blessing. Even more supreme is catching sight of one of the four or five white rats found in the colony of 20,000 as they are said to be the reincarnation of Karni Mata herself or her immediate family.
Believers are so devoted to these rats that if one is accidentally killed by being stepped on, a solid gold or silver rat must be bought and placed in the temple to atone for it.
This devotion to rats may seem absolutely bizarre to us but if you remember that they are the reincarnation of a whole people, it makes a lot more sense. Either way, we would suggest no squeals if you visit the temple and feel a rat scamper across your feet!
Photo: Glenn M. Losack M.D.
Written by Michele Collet