As a dyed in the wool city girl, I would jump a mile if someone were to even mention the existence of rodents in my vicinity. I vividly recall the day of my marriage registration at the local Sub Divisional Magistrate’s office in South Delhi, where the scurrying rats (and inadvertently long wait!) somewhat dampened the spirit of the occasion, and warned my husband of my excessively squeamish nature. You can imagine then, that visiting a temple which is home to 25,000 free-roaming rats would never make it to any bucket list of mine. Yet, being a parent encourages us to do many things outside of our comfort zone, as I learnt first-hand this January.
My six-year-old son developed an interest, nay an obsession, with animals at a very young age. We don’t quite know how this happened, as my husband and I have never been animal-mad, nor did we have pets at home when our son was born. However, as every child brings their destiny, so did mine; and his seems inextricably tied to animals. What began as an interest in books about nature, moved to vivid documentaries on OTT platforms, before developing into a passionate love for all kinds of animals, especially those which are lesser-known or perceived as creepy or dirty and therefore, in my son’s vocabulary, as ‘unloved’.
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As he is our only child, we indulge this hobby of his by participating in all his animal adventures with equal gusto. Whether this means traipsing around the country on numerous, mostly unfruitful safaris, visiting zoos in different cities, adopting guinea pigs and all the indie dogs and cats in our neighbourhood, or shelling out a pretty penny to stay a night at the London zoo – our family of three does it all.
So, when my son learnt of the existence of a temple where rats are worshipped in Bikaner in Rajasthan, from a Netflix documentary called ‘72 Cutest Animals’, he couldn’t stop talking about it. Visiting the temple was high on his agenda, and since the town of Bikaner isn’t far from Delhi, it seemed an easy wish of his to fulfil.
Despite my reservations, therefore, in early January while he was on vacation from school, I put on my brave mom shoes and visited the Karni Mata or Deshnoke temple in Bikaner, with my husband and son. Much to my surprise, the excursion proved to be a tremendously rewarding experience.
The Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke village is located 30 kms south of Bikaner. It is a 16th century temple dedicated to the feminist deity Karni Mata, believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Durga who lived around that time. The story behind the temple is perhaps as extraordinary as the tremendous feats and miracles accorded to her. As an embodiment of Shakti, it is said that she remained celibate, yet tied to the shackles of social tradition, she was married to Depaji of the Charana clan. To propagate his line, her younger sister became his second wife, but it was Karni Mata who raised the four sons born of their union. When Lakshman, the youngest of these and Karni Mata’s favourite, died an accidental, untimely death, she prayed to Yamaraj, the god of death, to reinstate his life.
The legend goes that Yamaraj was loathe to upset the karmic cycle of life and rebirth, and Karni Mata conceded to him, while also getting her way. She inveigled a promise from him that her stepson, and all her descendants of the Charana clan, will be reborn as rats, who will live their feted lives in the compound of a temple constructed for the purpose. When these rat descendants die, they supposedly return as humans to the same clan – and so the cycle continues with her blessings on the members of this clan forever.
To this day, the rats or kabas (children in the local language), continue to hold sway on the temple, which has grown in scale and splendour over the centuries. Though most frequented during the auspicious Navratra period twice a year, it is popular with tourists and devotees even at other times.
Before our visit, I was very nervous and unsure of what to expect but I tried to keep an open mind. Most devotees embark on this pilgrimage with the hope of being touched or coming in contact with these hallowed beings. The most devout of them even share their food and water with the rats – a fact I was terrified to hear. Fortunately however, unlike I had imagined, every inch of the floor wasn’t overrun by rats. They are indeed everywhere but they don’t bother you unless you are directly in their path.
In fact, it quickly became apparent that these rats were harmless creatures going about their day. When one of them climbed over my feet, I yelled in surprise but I didn’t run away or kick it, which I would’ve imagined my reaction to be. My husband, who is much braver than me in general, remained his stoic self throughout and even spotted the rare white rat in a hole in the wall which is believed to be the reincarnation of the goddess and her sons. But the person who was most in his element was my son.
Enthralled, he observed the scene in silence, followed us through the rituals of prayer, and was delighted to offer parshad to the rats and pigeons. When I parked myself on an ancient decrepit staircase waiting for the white rat my husband had just seen, my son climbed to a nearby parapet to pet a rat who happily acquiesced to this attentive love, not once showing signs of the skittish nature one believes these creatures possess. “He seems like an old grandfather rat,” my son exclaimed with a smile, perhaps remembering his own genteel grandparents back home.
We then stopped at the in-house museum where Karni Mata’s life and miraculous powers are recounted through images and placards. Quite obviously in a state of disrepair, this room left a lot to be desired in terms of aesthetics, yet the deity’s fascinating story recounted to us by the museum’s caretaker and impromptu guide, more than made up for this. He too belonged to the Charana clan and was happily resigned to his fate of being reborn as a kaba and staying within this blessed karmic cycle.
After spending the better part of the day with Karni Mata and her beloved children, we made our way back to our fancy hotel in the city. As we were leaving, my son bobbed up and down with glee and announced, “These rats are so cute!” I’m not sure I could say the same for rats in Delhi or elsewhere, but these kabas certainly were.
Noor Anand Chawla writes on lifestyle.
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