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The Temple of Karni Mata: Holy Rats!

The Temple of Karni Mata: Holy Rats!

It is a ten-minute walk from Deshnok Railway Station to the Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan. The sun had just risen when we – Mamma, Nana (maternal grandfather), and I – reached outside the temple. There were umpteen, colourful shops selling a variety of items for visitors to offer inside. Perhaps for the embarrassment of going empty-handed to seek blessings, one usually enters the temple only after they have purchased sweets and garlands. After amassing the offerings, we began to head inside.

Oh, rats!

I hadn’t ever thought a great deal while taking my shoes off before entering a temple until then. While baring my feet, I could see thousands of rats running rampant in the courtyard, sprinting out of tiny holes, scurrying right and left in full force. In a usual setting, I would jump out of my skin at the sight of a small rat scuttling across the floor, but the temple’s intrigue made me walk forth, though exceptionally hesitantly. Nana, dressed in his white kurta-pyjama, taking notice of my discernible disquiet told me that the rats were harmless and that I should drag my feet across the temple floor so as not to squish a rat under my feet. Nevertheless, I did keep jumping sporadically whenever a rat ran across my feet, making the experience all too overwhelming for me.

However, the temple’s genuine intrigue is that the rats never leave even though the doors are always open. Do you smell a rat here?

History

While rat-worship in India dates back to the 15th century, the Karni Mata Temple in its current form was built in the 1900s by Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner. Across the doorway, there are silver doors with panels portraying legends of the Goddess. Karni Mata, also known as “dadhi wali dokri” or Dadhali (“beard bearing old lady”), was a Hindu warrior sage born in the Charan caste. According to tradition, she was married to Depa ji Charan, a member of the Sathika village. After expressing her unwillingness to consummate their marriage, she arranged for him to marry her younger sister Gulab. Karni Mata lived a life of asceticism and celibacy. 

On 21st March 1538, she travelled back to Deshok with Gulab bai’s son Poonjar, and a few other followers. They were near Gadiyala and Girirajsar of the Kolayat tehsil (an administrative division of the town Kolayat in Bikaner, Rajasthan) when she asked the caravan driver to stop for water. Mysteriously, she was never seen again. The most famous of her temples, the Rat Temple, was built following her mysterious disappearance at 151 years.

The Legend

The legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s stepson, drowned in Kapil Sarovar while attempting to quench his thirst. Yielding to her ardent prayers, Yama (the God of Death) resuscitated Laxman and reincarnated all her other stepsons as rats.

Around 600 families of the Charan clan claim to be Karni Mata’s descendants and believe that they, too, will be reincarnated as rats. The rats, they think, are their ancestors, their family. The temple houses approximately 25,000 rats known as “Kaabas.” Out of these, there only four or five white rats which are considered to be especially holy. If one can spot a white rat, the myth supposes them to receive a special blessing. It is an endearing sight to see visitors sink their teeth into the task of spotting white rats.

The Rituals

The temple’s doors open to the public at 4 a.m. The Charan priests perform aarti (prayers) and offer bhog (special food) to the deity. The rats are fed grains, milk and sweets from large metal bowls; they are free to eat anything (even chillies if they so wish), believe it or not, even in the temple’s kitchen! Shoes are not allowed in the temple (as is the case in any other Hindu temple), and it’s considered auspicious for a rat to run over your feet. According to the temple laws, if someone accidentally squishes a rat under their feet, they must offer a rat made of silver at the temple.

One might encounter a long queue of people at the main gate waiting their turn to make a wish in the lion’s ears before they leave the temple complex. To see the temple in full glory, visit the temple during the Karni Mata Mela held twice a year from March-April, then from September-October.

This temple may appear to be unimaginable to the foreign gaze, a forage for filth and disease. One can call it madness, but it is unwavering faith of the worshippers that they hold the rats sacred. One can call it madness, but if you find the temple floors littered with rat excrement, it is, after all, just holy sh*t. 

Experience Further:  Released in 2016, Die Antwoord’s ‘Rats Rule’ is the perfect song to communicate my uncanny encounter with 25,000 rats! In the Temple of Karni Mata, it is indeed the rats who rule.

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Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

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