India’s rat temple and my 15 minutes inside it

8 May

See the film: India’s Rat Temple

“I´m just going to put on my shoes”, I said, opening the car door to get my bag.

Balu shook his head: “No, you have to walk barefoot in the temple”.

Barefoot? Also in this temple?

Ahead, beyond the car park, was a white Hindu temple with intricate carvings, silver and gold decorations, and cool marble floors. But I noticed none of that. I was too focused on the fact that I was about to enter a small building where thousands and thousands of black rats lived.

Let´s go back some twenty years and visit my friend who had a pet rat before I tell you about myriads more. I had a dog and never quite understood why she opted for a fat, white rat with a long, pink tail. She would occasionally have a new scar, but claimed that they were more nibbles than bites. The cord of her bedroom lamp shade was always chewed to pieces. When she every so often put her pet down on the floor, I retreated back to her bed and out of its reach. I was six years old and way smarter than my thirty year old self.

Rajasthan's Ratistan

The desert city of Bikaner totals half a million people. It boasts courtyard houses known as havelis, camel breeding and its previous royal family´s fort and palace. But the nearby dusty village of Deshnoke, with a few scattered grey brick houses, is just as famous. If you take a left at the small roundabout marking the entrance to the village, and drive as far as you can down the narrow gravel road, you come to the small Hindu temple Karni Mata Temple or the Rat Temple. Home to 20,000 black rats, who scurry across marble floors as holy animals.

The more I had read about the place, the more intrigued I had become to see it with my own eyes. Why were rats treated like royalty?

It turned out, the reason was reincarnation. Do you remember the statue that stands on Balu's dashboard? Well, according to the legend, the god Durga was reincarnated as the matriarch Karni Mata in the 14th century. When one of the children of one of her clansmen died, she tried to bring the child back to life. But, the child had already been reincarnated. Apparently, at this time, Karni Mata struck a deal with Yama, the god of death. From then onwards, all the members of her tribe would be reborn as rats until they could be reincarnated as someone in the clan.

So. I was about to meet the reincarnated clan.

Leaving behind the car and my shoes, we entered a small area in front of the temple where we inevitably deposited our flip-flops. As we walked towards the temple on woven mats, I realised that I had come prepared for the sight. But, not for the smell. Even in airless desert heat, 20 000 rats stink.

But as I spotted the first few rats, I quickly realised that no amount of Google Images could have prepared me even for the sight. Ten scruffy-looking, black rats were scurrying around half a metre from my feet. A sight that would normally make me flee, especially if I knew that there were hords more behind them.

But, then my boyfriend broke into my thoughts.

“You insisted on coming here”, he laughed a few steps behind me.

At the time I was taking small jumps next to the rats. But, as I thought of chickening out and following the lead of the sane tourists that Balu had taken to this temple, I saw him wobbling his head. Ahead, half-turned around, Balu beamed a smile at me. I took it as an encouraging signal for me to make it past the rats, through the narrow hall and into the temple courtyard with even more rats.

Arriving there, Balu gestured for us to look around. And all around, there were rats. There were myriads of them. Small, black rats that looked none the holier than the ones residing in the gutters of Delhi.

Meanwhile, it was feeding time. In one corner, a silver-coloured plateau of milk were catering to an army of rats. Just next to them stood a little boy, so small that he didn't even reach my waist. I wondered if he had been placed there by a parent for a reason. Legend goes, if a rat runs across your feet it brings good luck. But luckily, the small boy was abruptly brushed away by a man who was there to remove the rat excrements.

Standing there barefeet on the marble tiles, imagining the amount of dried rat piss and poo that had previously been on that exact spot, I have never wished so hard for tremendously bad luck. As we went closer, drawn as to a car crash, my boyfriend and I offered Balu no other comments than “oh my god” and my occasional native Norwegian “åh herregud”.

There is however a blessing one can sight from a distance in this temple. Among the rats scurrying behind the milk, Balu pointed out, was a white rate. Apparently, the few white rats in this temple, living alongside thousands of black ones, are manifestations of Karni Mata and her four sons. Devout Hindus bring special sweets to lure these white rats out into sight. And us? I guess were just lucky. I must admit, I was feeling fairly content at this point. Against my better judgement, I had forced myself to enter a building taken over by rats and I had now been blessed by one of them.

“Go inside”, Balu said quite suddenly.

“Yes”, I smiled. “I went inside.”

“Go inside”, he replied and I quickly realised that it was a question.

“I'm not inside, I'm not inside?” I repeated slowly. But within seconds my voice reached a crescendo of half questions, half utterly disbelief: “I AM NOT INSIDE? I AM NOT INSIDE?”

Balu wobbled his head. There was more.

On the left hand side of the courtyard, an open door lead into a small white building. That was the temple.

As I followed Balu, I looked just right of the temple entrance. And that was when I completely lost my cool. “Oh my god, there are rats POURING out of that door!” But Balu was not listening, he had entered the temple. When I came to the entrance, however, my courage almost left me. Because there, on the first step of the small stairs down to the temple floor were rats, running back and forth. On the exact spot where I would put my foot.

“I am not sure I need to go in”, I said out loud. (As you will eventually see in the video I made, I was at this point continuously talking to myself. I think it started as commentary, and ended as self reassurance.)

“Do they bite?” No reply. Balu was still a few metres ahead, now waiting in a queue of people. I could retreat, but had I come all this way to not go in? The people who pushed past me made my decision. I was blocking the entrance and the easiest was to simply go with the flow, rats and all.

Entering the small room, I realised rats were everywhere and closing in on me. They were by the edges of the wall, on the middle of the floor and passing through people's feet. I felt increasingly nervous about being bitten. Balu, however, turned around and gave me a smile that seemed to barely hold back his laughter. The Indians around had also noticed me at this point. A family of three had all turned around in the queue to look at me. “Handshake”, the father said and made me greet his little girl, who seemed more amazed at me than at the rats.

Slowly, at least it felt like at snail's pace, I came closer to the innards of the temple. I asked Balu what was happening in the even smaller room in front. I didn't catch his reply, but I heard what he said next. “Don´t worry” he said, pointing down at the rats by my feet and all of a sudden making me really worried.

But then. My second white rat of the day.

Because all of a sudden a man seated in front waved his hands at me.

“Only Indians inside”.

“Ok!”, I heard myself say cheerfully. And then my Freudian slip: “Only Indians inside. I am allowed to go out!”

Making my way through the queue, I kept repeating “Only Indians inside, I can go out” as an explanation to the ones I passed. Meeting my boyfriend further behind in the queue, I mumbled the same thing to him, but I had no intentions of stopping. I was allowed out.

But then, a bloody black rat this time. Blocking my exit, my freedom and the relief for my nose. I squirmed and repeated my regular mantra, “Oh my god”. (Later, I heard myself say on the video, “Oh my god, can they sense fear?”)

Dashing for the door, I almost fell onto a few incoming Indians. As I was standing in the courtyard, catching my breath, Balu showed up. He smiled a contented smile. I had been true to my word. His tourist went inside.

“How many rats do you think live here?”, I asked.

“Millions”, he replied.

It sure felt like it.

 

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