Life had, for a while, meant monotony. Even this – my parents’ decision to visit Rajasthan, the dry lands of India – could not possibly jostle me into excitement. After an excruciating journey, we decided to spend the night at Bikaner and head towards Jaisalmer on the morrow. My father, a man of restless disposition, was keen to extricate something memorable out of this seemingly far-from-stimulating place.
One of the locals threw the words “The Rat Temple” into my father’s ears and he jumped at it with all the readiness of an optimist. Intrigued, we decided to find out the truth about the temple before visiting it. A local priest came to our rescue. 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: Rajasthan’s famous Karni Mata Temple.
Goddess Karni Mata, the divinity with mysterious healing powers, belonged to the Charan clan and was born on October 2nd, 1387 in Suwap, Rajasthan. Her real name was Ridhu Bai. One day, as her aunt combed her hair with one hand, Ridhu Bai asked her why she wouldn’t use her other hand, upon which her aunt told her how she had lost it to disability. Ridhu Bai took the hand in her own and said “Where is the defect, it is all right,” and, legend has it, her hand was cured in a moment. Awe-struck, her aunt renamed Ridhu Bai as “Karni” (the wreaker of miracles on earth).
Karni Mata, a mystic matriarch of the fourteenth century, is believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Durga – the deity of power and victory. The story goes, that when the child of one of her clansmen died, she had attempted to bring him back to life, only to be told by Yama, the god of death, that he had already been reincarnated as a rat. Karni Mata cut a deal with Yama: that day onwards, all of her tribes-people 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.
The Karni Mata Temple, located in the small town of Deshnoke (about 30 kilometers from Bikaner), is also known as “Chuha Mandir” (the temple of Rats) and was erected following her mysterious disappearance from her home. This temple is one of the strangest attractions in India, as rats – associated with plague and other diseases, and considered vermin in many cultures – are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple, locally known as “Kabbas.”
Among the inexplicably true facts about the temple, we were told, is that despite there being around twenty thousand rats here, no one to this date has seen any baby rats. Their reproduction continues to be a mystery. Devotees feed the rats enthusiastically, and yet, all of them remain the same size. Moreover, their numbers have remained constant – something diametrically opposed to the usual trend of rat populations, which is to increase rapidly. Another miracle is that rats do not run away from humans here. Rather, they climb on your shoulders and drink the milk you offer them. If one kills a rat here, one needs to replace it with a gold or silver rat of the same size, shape, height and weight. The temple gates are always open, but the rats never leave, and always stay within the temple boundaries. It is believed that when a temple rat dies, there is a consequent birth in the tribe. To this date there have been no epidemics in Bikaner, in spite of having so many rats!
The ‘facts’ were made-up stories to our outright logical and only-what-you-can-explain-is-true city brains. And yet, despite all my atheistic impulses, I will now tell you that there was an unintelligible feeling about the place. I could feel my body becoming lighter and lighter as I walked into the temple. I have been told that I’m extremely psychic and intuitive so I thought this feeling was unique to me. Then, as we came closer, our legs hung as loose weights at the sight of around twenty thousand rats running freely on the temple floor.
We stood there fixated, while my dad, the hero of the family, went and completed an entire chakra (circle) of the temple. Next, it was naturally my turn, as I had waged an unhealthy internal rebellion against myself since an early age. I was the, “Oh if you can do it then why can’t I?” kind of girl. I shuddered at the sight of a mosquito at home but I had to appear composed at the thought of innumerable rats moving all over me. I began talking to myself in my head, as I am wont to do. “Hmm. Alright, I’m going to do this!” “Ready?” “Yes, I am!” “Sure?” “Yes idiot, of course!” I began to lose my nerve and had almost rejected the plan when the incomprehensible energy surrounded me yet again and I felt an innate impulse to walk on. Before I knew it, I had completed an entire chakra of the rat temple. Six rats scampered over my feet and one jumped on my hip. I even saw two white rats that are meant to bring great luck.
Just when I was assured of the uniqueness of my psychic abilities, I saw my mom moving towards my dad and myself. Up until that moment, the theory of life on the Sun would have been more plausible to me than the idea of my mother, a lady given to hysterics and an almost paralysing animal-phobia, walking amidst rats of her own will. Before we knew it, she had completed an entire chakra as well. Everything was so strange that I struggled to keep standing without visibly shaking. When I asked my mom why and how she did it, she told me: “I just had to. I couldn’t stop myself from walking on. I still don’t know how or why, but it was meant to happen”. My father, without having heard my mother’s words, said something very similar himself.
Next we met a young fellow whom everyone was lining up to shake hands with. We were told that he had been struck by a fatal illness when he was 14. The doctors had given up on him. Thereafter, he was brought to the temple and was made to drink the same water that was offered by devotees to the temple rats. He awoke instantly after sipping the holy water – blessed, it would seem, by Karni Mata herself. He has been living at the temple ever since, and has devoted his life to Karni Mata’s service. Yes, call me absurd, but when I shook hands with him, I could feel his energy flowing through me and instantly changing something within me. All of a sudden, I felt powerful, like someone had just force-fed me bottles of Gatorade.
That night, none of us spoke to each other back at our hotel, which was rare for our talkative family. It was as if we had all found solace in our respective worlds. The trip to Rajasthan went by. Today, I can hardly remember any other sights or smells from the admittedly beautiful place. The peace I found within my own self was so overpowering that, for a while, the outside world didn’t matter.
My family is still as disinclined towards religion or visiting temples as before, but whenever we encounter a difficult situation, the words that come out of our mouths are, “Jai Karni Mata!” We believe that our faith in her blessings has created an energy field encircling my family that ensures that there is a considerable distance between the evils of the cosmos and us.
This trip led me to faith – spiritual, if not religious. This faith was sparked by a chance encounter, but will stay burning for eternity. If you feel this overwhelming, powerful sense of faith in someone or something, do not ignore it. Miracles, I believe, are nothing but a manifestation of the energies, hopes, and beliefs of the tireless human spirit. Let not having faith not keep you from unusual realizations. Go against what you’re expected to do. Choose to believe.
Written by Avnika Gupta
Featured image by Sanna Jain