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Rats Rule at Indian Temple

Sharon Guynup and Nicolas Ruggia
National Geographic Channel
June 29, 2004
 
The floors are a living tangle of undulating fur. Small, brown blurs
scurry across marble floors. Thousands of rats dine with people and
scamper over their feet.

It may sound like a nightmare from the New York City subway to some, but in India's small northwestern city of Deshnoke, this is a place of worship: Rajastan's famous Karni Mata Temple.



This ornate, isolated Hindu temple was constructed by Maharaja Ganga Singh in the early 1900s as a tribute to the rat goddess, Karni Mata. Intricate marble panels line the entrance and the floors, and silver and gold decorations are found throughout.

But by far the most intriguing aspect of the interior is the 20,000-odd rats that call this temple home. These holy animals are called kabbas, and many people travel great distances to pay their respects.

The legend goes that Karni Mata, a mystic matriarch from the 14th century, was an incarnation of Durga, the goddess of power and victory. At some point during her life, the child of one of her clansmen died. She attempted to bring the child back to life, only to be told by Yama, the god of death, that he had already been reincarnated.

Karni Mata cut a deal with Yama: From that point forward, all of her tribespeople would be reborn as rats until they could be born back into the clan.

In Hinduism, death marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one on the path to a soul's eventual oneness with the universe. This cycle of transmigration is known as samsara and is precisely why Karni Mata's rats are treated like royalty.

Gautam Ghosh, professor of anthropology and Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, noted how rare this rat-worshipping temple is. "In India, as in the West, rats aren't treated with particular veneration."

In Hinduism, many deities take animals forms. "The main theological point is that there's no dividing line between what forms gods or goddesses can use," said Rachel Fell McDermott, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College in New York City. "There's nothing to say they can't take form as a fish, a bird, or even a rat."

Ghosh noted that this temple is linked to the royal family who ruled Bikaner, a nearby city. When a Hindu royal family is seeking greater power, they look to the local cults for a patron god—or, according to London-based art historian George Michell, usually a goddess—to help them attain that power.

The male gods are not as powerful for direct involvement in people's lives, he explained, so cults surrounding local goddesses are commonly used to help sway things in their favor. "Kings who want to be powerful in India must be protected by goddesses," Michell said. This is how the Karni Mata Temple was established.

The temple draws Hindu visitors from across the country hoping for blessings, as well as curious tourists from around the world. Inside, where shoes are not permitted, tourists and worshippers alike hope to have rats run across their feet for good luck.

Eating food or drinking water that previously has been sampled by a rat is considered to be a supreme blessing. But there is one rare blessing that draws the most attention: the sighting of a white rat.

Out of all of the thousands of rats in the temple, there are said to be four or five white rats, which are considered to be especially holy. They are believed be the manifestations of Karni Mata herself and her kin. Sighting them is a special charm, and visitors put in extensive efforts to bring them forth, offering prasad, a candylike food.

Unlike the rest of the world, where rats are commonly killed for inhabiting the same space as humans, in this temple the rat residents are treated with sincere devotion. The veneration is so complete that if someone accidentally steps on a rat and kills it, they are expected to buy a gold or silver rat and place it in the temple as atonement.

For an animal that is commonly associated with pestilence and disease, this may seem strange. But during the century of this temple's existence, there has never been an outbreak of plague or other ratborne illness among the humans who have visited—which may be a miracle in itself.

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