India is a unique, diverse country where you can visit an incredible variety of cultural destinations. One of the most interesting and unusual places you can see is the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok. Here in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan district, close to the Pakistani is the famed "Temple of Rats". A location where thousands of Hindu pilgrims come to worship Karni Mata and the approximately 25,000 black rats which serve her and inhabit her temple.
The Legends: Why Rats Are Worshipped at the Karni Mata Temple
Two legends are associated with furry creatures. In one, an army of 20,000 soldiers defected to the temple. The Temple spared them the mandatory death sentence but banished them to the Temple as pests because of their cowardice.
In the other legend, Karni Mata was born as a reincarnation of the goddess Durga. She was married young but revealed herself as a goddess to her husband. She then arranged for him to marry her sister Gulab. This marriage accomplished, she set out to live her life as a nomad.
When one of her sister's sons drowned, Karni Mata begged the god of death, Yama, to bring him back. Yama insisted this would interfere with the cycle of birth and death that all humans must experience. However, he agreed to reincarnate all the family's sons as rats. Karni Mata pledged they would serve her at her Temple in India forever, both as rodents and as human priests.
Karni Mata Temple:The Customs
The goddess Karni Mata holds spiritual importance as a protector and advocate of peaceful coexistence. Although the extended Depavats family comprising of Karni Mata's descendants care for the Temple in shifts determined by the lunar cycle, some family members live full-time at the Temple. They feed the furry reincarnated devotees milk, coconut shells, and grains. They also share the responsibility of sweeping the floors and cleaning up after the sacred rodents, known as "kabbas," or "little children."
When you enter the Temple as a pilgrim, you immediately hear the songs of the dholis, who tell of Karni Mata's story, including the miracles she performed. You are overcome by calm, despite being in the presence of so many tiny, furry "pests." The multitudinous rodents seem to take on an otherworldly presence within the Temple.
Because the Temple is a sacred space, you must remove your shoes before entering. Outside, you can purchase several different food items to offer the honored animals. If one of them runs across your naked foot, you are considered extremely fortunate. You are incredibly blessed if you spot a white rat. The very few albino animals amid the black and brown throng are the reincarnated immediate sons of the goddess Karni Mata and the goddess herself.
Eating or drinking something the "kabbas" have nibbled on or imbibed from is considered honorable. Surprisingly, although the rodents themselves fall ill, this practice has not encouraged any recorded human illnesses in the area. Whenever the rodent population at the Temple diminishes, the high birth rate replenishes the community almost immediately.
If you find yourself tempted to harm one of many furry descendants of Karni Mata, reconsider. If you kill one, even accidentally, you must replace it with a gold or silver sculpture of a rat. Use extreme caution around these minute, furry supplicants.
Twice yearly, during March-April and September-October, the Karni Mata Mela, or festival, occurs at the Temple. During these two festivals, the Temple keepers dress the Karni Mata statue in a gold crown, jewelry, and garlands. The Temple always opens at 4:00 a.m., when the priests perform sacred rituals and offerings. It closes after dark.
Temple Architecture and Art
General Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh commissioned this small Temple in the early 20th century to honor the goddess Karni Mata and her supplicants. While the Temple is small and located in a remote area, it is beautifully crafted in many respects. A statue of the goddess Karni Mata holds a special place in the sanctum within the Temple Walls.
Elaborate railings and nettings run throughout the Temple in an effort to provide the sacred animals a safe haven. The rodents often sleep on door handles, bars, and other unusual places in the Temple. They have no need to fear humans, so they scamper freely across the floors and gather in multitudes to eat from communal bowls.
The stunning front doors of the Temple are solid silver. Individual panels of the doors recreate scenes from Karni Mata's stories and miracles. The Temple facade is marble, inlaid with elaborate sculptures depicting the goddess's legends. Both predator and prey signify peaceful coexistence in a marble panel depicting the tree of life and various animals, including snakes, lizards, and rodents.
Marble lions flank the entry to the Temple, where pilgrims whisper wishes into their ears. These stately lions generally have food around them for the furry "little children" they guard. Their proud demeanor suggests they are quite pleased with serving at the will of Karni Mata and her tiny descendants.
Before You Go
Not surprisingly, in this agricultural area, you may find yourself running into monkeys and peacocks before you ever reach the Temple. Tourists who take the stairway route relate that you can find peacocks and hear their morning symphony. The cable car entrances are a popular hangout for local monkeys, so use caution in these areas.
Don't be surprised to see a Hindu devotee prostrated on the floor or eating food that has been partially eaten by a rat. Showing devotion to Karni Mata brings good luck to the worshipper's family. Delight at seeing an albino rat is quite understandable, for these are the most holy of all the Temple's inhabitants.
No fees are charged for entrance to the Temple, but a small fee is required to store your shoes while you are inside. You also need to pay a small fee to take photos in and around the Temple.
Although Western perspectives may see the Temple's importance as negligible, Hindu belief in reincarnation makes these animals something much more than small furry rodents. However, a rat in the village is definitely not a sacred reincarnation of the Depavats family member. On this point, Westerners and Hindu Devotees can agree.