The world is full of countless temples, churches, shrines, and other sacred places for the devoted to express their religious beliefs. Some of these places of worship are the world's most beautiful creations, inspiring awe in all who look upon them, regardless of their personal denomination. Then there are others that might arouse a wholly different sensation in outsiders.
The 600 year old Karni Mata temple, located in Deshnoke, Rajasthan, India, may seem from a distance to be similar to many other Indian temples and in fact is quite beautiful to behold. The ornate temple, which was first constructed in the 15th century by Maharaja Ganga Singh, is decked out with marble floors and panels, as well as intricate sculptures and decorations of silver and gold featured throughout. Some of the doors of the temple are made of pure silver.
It is only as one gets closer to this shimmering, majestic structure that one might notice small, brown blurs crisscrossing the immaculate marble floors. Then as one enters the temple proper, one’s attention might be drawn to the writhing, undulating masses of brown bodies, tangled fur, and whirling tails carpeting many areas of the temple floors. The creatures are absolutely everywhere, scrabbling forth from crevices, scampering along the floor and over ledges, and even dangling from door handles and grills. Here, scurrying back and forth across the decorative, checkered floors and crawling under temple-goers’ legs and over feet are the temple’s estimated 20,000 rats that call this place home.
No, this isn’t a major rat infestation in need of an exterminator. You might see that the temple visitors stroll causally among the rats and that a groundskeeper may stand to the side calmly and dutifully cleaning up the droppings and leftover food scraps that have been left out for them. In fact, the droves of worshippers who come to the temple do not see the rats as vermin at all, but rather as sacred and holy animals known as kabbas, or “little children.” Not only are the rats here revered and respected, but they are also generously fed and protected from predators by various wires and grills designed to keep out animals such as cats and birds of prey. Great pains are taken not to harm the rats in any way. Visitors must remove their shoes when entering the grounds, mostly for the rats’ protection, and it is said that temple law dictates that if someone steps on and kills a rat they must replace it with one made of solid gold.
Hearing all of this, a common reaction from an outsider one might be to scratch their head and ask “Why?” The story of how the rats of Karni Mata temple came to be sacred, venerated animals takes many forms, but the most common version dates back to the 14th century with the worship of Karni Mata, a woman who was believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu goddess of power and victory, Maa Durga. Karni Mata was widely known as a mystic who was capable of working miracles and devoted her life to helping the impoverished and unfortunate. The legend goes that Karni Mata’s stepson, Lakshman, drowned while trying to drink water from a pond. The grieving mother begged for help from Yama, the god of death, to revive the boy. At first, Yama refused even after being continually implored by Karni Mata, but eventually he relented and proclaimed that Lakshman and indeed all of Karni Mata’s male children, future descendants, and in some versions of the story, all of her tribespeople would from then on be reincarnated as rats until they could be reborn back into her family of their clan.
The story has several permutations, sometimes mentioning the drowned boy as the son of a storyteller or even Karni Mata’s own youngest son, but all end with her future male descendants being reincarnated as rats. It is this belief that the rats of Karni Mata temple are the revered reincarnations of the matriarch mystic’s family that gives the animals their holy status.
Other folkloric traditions offer other variations of the tale. Another legend behind the rats is the story of an army of 20,000 men who deserted a battle and retreated to Deshnoke to hide. Karni Mata was greatly angered by this, as desertion was seen as a dishonorable crime punishable by death. Luckily for the army, the goddess was merciful and decided not to execute them. Instead, it is said that she offered the soldiers the option of being turned into rats rather than face death. The soldiers agreed and were allowed to remain at their temple sanctuary. To repay the mercy bestowed upon them by Karni Mata, the rats vowed to continue worshipping and serving her, and so these 20,000 remain at the temple to this day in a continual cycle of being reincarnated as rats.
India has no particular predilection for revering rats. While normal rats of the surrounding area are seen as vermin much as they are everywhere else in the world, the rats of Karni Mata temple are treated like royalty. The temple puts out food and large saucers of milk for the creatures regularly, and in particular there are many such feeding areas situated in front of a large image of Karni Mata depicting her wearing a crown, and a garland of flowers and holding a trident in her hand. Visitors give out various food items as well. It is said that any food that is nibbled on by one of the many rats here has been blessed, so it is not uncommon to see worshippers here offer their food to a rat to take a bite out of before eating it themselves, or to even pick up the rat’s leftovers to eat.
While barefoot visitors carefully walk amongst the squirming masses of rats, some of the creatures will invariable skitter over feet. This would probably be enough to make most people recoil or even flee in disgust, but to the worshippers here it is seen as a blessing and it is welcomed to have rat scamper across one’s feet. An event seen as particularly auspicious is the sighting of one of the temple’s rare white rats. Among the 20,000 or so brown rats are said to be around five albino white rats that are believed to be the incarnation of Karni Mata herself and her four sons, and so spotting one is said to be one of the greatest honors a temple visitor can receive. Anyone who catches a glimpse of a white rat is said to be bestowed with a prosperous life. Some worshippers go through great efforts, such as using a sweet holy food known as prasad, to lure the white rats out of hiding in order to incur good fortune and health. Many newly married local couples make a visit here for the rats’ blessings, and to see a white rat on such an occasion is seen to surely signify a long and happy life together.
Karni Mata temple and its rats have other bizarre purported characteristics. It is said that the rats of the temple will not leave the temple gates and are more likely to congregate during temple rituals. The rats are also not known to ever bite or attack humans in any way. Another oddity is that although occasional outbreaks of disease and the unhealthy lifestyle of being pampered and fed sweets all day long take their toll on the rat population here, their numbers always manage to stay at around approximately 20,000, no more and no less. It is also believed that they and their matron Karni Mata protect the temple from misfortune. The rats are believed to have saved the temple from bombings in 1961, as well as from the damage from an oil tanker that overturned near the temple in 2007. The fact that in all of the temple’s existence there has never been a case of plague or other diseases transferred from the rats to humans is also seen as divine protection from Karni Mata.
The bizarre Karni Mata temple has become popular for tourists from around India and indeed the world, with many of them coming not out of any religious fervor but typically rather out of pure, morbid curiosity. For anyone willing to make the journey, the temple is readily accessible by bus or taxi from the nearby town of Bikaner, in Rajasthan, which lies around 30km to the north. Although the rats are considered to be mostly safe, the floor tends to be rather filthy and some foreign visitors have recommended that, while it is required to remove one’s shoes at the gate, it is probably a good idea to wear socks. Karni Mata certainly temple seems like a place worth visiting if you are interested in strange religious customs, you are not squeamish, and don’t mind a few thousand rats scurrying around you and over your feet as you take in the splendor of this beautiful and mysterious place.