Karni Mata Temple, India: The faint squeal of thousands of rats can be heard as we approach the ornately detailed temple. When we step inside, they scurry around the black-and-white marble flours in a whimsical blur, jutting from one bowl of milk to the other, just barely avoiding our bare feet.
A group of Indian women in brightly colored saris are waiting in line to be blessed by the sadhu of the Karni Mata temple, and they pay no wonder to the rats running over their toes. These dirty animals often holds little importance to mankind, even in most parts of India, but in this unique Hindu temple, pilgrims believe that the touch of a rat is a touch of good luck.
I’m hoping today is not my lucky day.
I get in line behind the women and wait for an orange dot on my forehead – the nationwide sign of a Hindu blessing. I curl my exposed toes under (the temple ran out of foot covers, and shoes are forbidden inside temples) and keep my eye on a perpetual lookout for any furry, grey blobs to squiggle too near. Rats make me squeamish. Most other things, spiders and snakes included, don’t bother me given they keep their distance and don’t catch me off guard. Rats, however, can scurry across the far side of the room and still send chills up my spine.
So how did I wind up walking barefoot through rat urine and watching them nearly scurry too close? It’s the innate curiosity in me, a desire to face my fears, and a travelers thrill for adventure. Coming to India was scary. Coming alone, even more so. But my quest for a thrill has driven me to do dumber things. I just had to see this for myself. Plus, I wanted to learn how rats became holy.
Legend has it that the Karni Mata herself – a reincarnation of the goddess of power and victory, now known as the rat goddess – made a deal with the god of death, Yama, in order to save the dieing child of a close friend.
When she begged to revive the child, he told her it was too late; He had already passed into his next life form. (Read more about the Hindu belief in reincarnation in Life & Death Along the Ghats of Varanasi.)
As a compromise, Karni Mata asked if all her people could become rats in their next lives until they could once again be reunited with their tribesmen. He agreed, and the rats at the Karni Mata temple are believed to be her people.
“Keep your eye out for an albino rat,” says Don, the American man with a rented car who drove me to Deshnoke, the small village outside Bikaner where the thousands of Hindu pilgrims come to worship rats each year.
“Why?” I ask, crinkling my nose even more, and nearly stepping on my own feet. Knowing these rats were once people doesn’t make me any less queasy.
“It’s good luck to see one,” he says.
I run through the ways to get lucky in my head. There’s no way I’m willingly going to let a rat touch my foot. The thought of drinking out of their milk bowl makes me want to vomit, and the likelihood of seeing one of only four or five holy, white rats out of the 20,000 that live here is pretty slim. But I look around anyway. I would love to see the Karni Mata herself, in white rat form. If I’m going to get lucky, that will be how.
Eventually, I leave without seeing the Karni Mata, but her friends have driven me away. I can’t wait to put my shoes back on and be far away from these squirmy gutter animals.
As I walk through the arched exit, I look up to whatever God will listen and ask him to spare me from becoming a rat. Then, I thank him for not sending any luck my way.
Worshipping Rats at the Rat Temple in India
P.S. Dear Readers,
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