The Rat Temple


Legend has it that when Karni Mata’s son drowned she was devastated. In desperation, she went to the death god, Yama, and begged him to resurrect her lost child. Yama refused her pleas for help. So in turn, Karni Mata vowed that, when she died, she would be reincarnated as a rat. She promised that when her entire family died, they too would be reincarnated as rats, for generation after generation after generation. And they did…
About 40km outside Bikaner, in a small village called Deshnok, lies the Karni Mata temple. It’s more colloquial name is “The Rat Temple”. This is where hundred of people come to pray to Karni Mata and her family in their resurrected form. That’s right, thousands upon thousands of rats infest this small temple, and the people of Deshnok are fully devoted to it. They come to the temple to pray, and see, and eat with the rats that live there. It is absolutely insane.
I first heard about the Rat Temple a few months ago when our TV offered us a free monthly subscription to the Oasis channel. One of the only 12 or so shows I’ve ever seen on that channel is called “Wildest India”.
“Hey, I’m going to India” I thought. “Let’s check it out”. The show explained about the unusual traditions of the Deshnok village and their love for the rats of Karni Mata. What the hell, sign me up, this shit is crazy!
When I found out that we would be traveling near Deshnok I was beside myself. “Rat temple? Let’s do this!” And before I knew it, Kelsi and I were standing barefoot outside the small temple in this tiny village in the middle of nowhere.
I braced myself for disappointment. It’s never as cool as it looks on TV, I thought to myself. But I was wrong… It was SO much better.
We stepped over the threshold of the temple and passed our very first rat, right in the doorway.
“Oh my god, there’s one!” We exclaimed in excitement. I almost took a photo, then thought I might see a few more later on and continued walking.
We first entered a large courtyard. There was a mesh covering over the place that tried to keep the pigeons out. Instead, they just sat on the mesh, and filled the courtyard with crap. Between the pigeon shit and the rat food, the marble floors were a mess. The food and pellets stuck to the bottoms of our bare feet as we walked across the courtyard and into the main temple.
Along the walls of the temple, both inside and out, were groups of rats. Not just two or three, but large groups of rats, all crawling over each other, fighting, biting and scratching their way into holes in the walls.
The people that worship the temple of Karni Mata hold the rats in very high esteem. If a rat runs over your feet while you are walking through the temple, it is considered good luck. If you share water with the rats it means good health, and if you eat food with the rats, it is one of the highest honours. Oh my god, are you kidding me?!
Rats don’t scare me. Even a large group of rats don’t scare me. But I was surprised by myself, as I walked through the throngs of tiny, crawling creatures, at how much I did NOT want one running over my feet!
As a kid, my friends had pet rats. They didn’t bother me. Maybe I was expecting these rats to look the same. I was sorely disappointed. These rats were mangled. They had tumors and growths coming out of all sides of their bodies. I saw one that was missing half it’s face. Kelsi and I stumbled upon a group of rats all huddled in a corner, and when we came closer to see what was happening, we saw that the rats were eating away at the rotting corpse of an already dead rat. This place is beyond ridiculous. I was disgusted by it, and yet I loved it!
The rats were everywhere, creeping in corners, climbing railings to hang out at eye level, or sitting on hand railings. Nowhere was safe. We walked into one room that had an alter (covered in rats of course) that was set in a large square pillar in the middle of the room. We watched the locals praying to the idol, then walking along the small passage that went around the pillar. At first I wasn’t sure what it was all about, then it clicked.
The small passage that went around the edge of the room had small rat holes every few inches along the floor. The people prayed to the gods, then walked through the narrow passageway in hopes that a rat would run over them and bless them with good luck. Well, when in Rome!
I followed Kelsi through the passageway in fearful anticipation. Oh my god, do I really want a rat to crawl on me in the dark?! I may have squealed as I saw the shadows of rats running back and forth across the passageway in front of me. I was scared to take a step forward in the off chance that I was the one stepping on a rat, instead of the other way around.
In the end, we both made it out untouched. I don’t care what they say, I consider myself lucky!
If this wasn’t unusual enough, there were more ways than one to be blessed with luck at the temple. All of the rats that can be seen at the Karni Mata temple are black. Thousands of rats, all of them black… Except for 5.
There are 5 pure white rats in Karni Mata. If you are lucky enough to see one on your visit, that is something very special. Good luck and longevity to you and your family!
One man stopped to talk to us when he had finished praying, probably laughing at two white girls light-footedly creeping around all the rats as we walked.
“You should check over there where that crowd of people is standing,” he said “you might get the chance to see a white rat.”
We took his advice and moved over the the small group of people huddled around a gate. Rats scuffled around on the ground by our feet and covered the gate, all the way up to the top. We looked down into a pit a few steps below. Rats swarmed the area. They drank milk out of bowls that had been laid out, crawled along stairways and skittered their way between iron scaffoldings. We looked for a few minutes, but couldn’t see any white rat. Eventually, people began to wander away.
One man offered us some rat food to throw out into the pit.
“Please, please, feed the rats with me” he gestured and handed us huge handfuls of food to throw around as we pleased. Just as we had finished, we looked up and saw a white rat.
“Look! There it is! A white rat!” We shouted.
The mood changed. People were in a frenzy. They shouted at each other in Hindi and rushed back to the gate we had stood at before. An old lady literally pushed me aside with her elbows in an attempt to see the elusive white rat! Men and women held up their children so they could see it too!
This is crazy. Is this really happening? I’m standing in the middle of a pigeon shit covered temple that is infested with thousands of rats. An old lady just bruised me in the ribs in an attempt to see a mangled, and probably disease ridden, white rodent, so that her life and her family’s life will have good fortune. Why did I enjoy this so much?!
All faiths are crazy when you look at them in a literal sense. The fact that these people wholeheartedly believe that these rats are resurrected royalty is beyond me, but I love their enthusiastic fervor! The Karni Mata temple is probably one of the strangest things I’ve witnessed in my 26 years, but I had an incredible time.
Kelsi and I probably spent close to an hour in that little temple. The whole time in awestruck wonder (or maybe it was horror). That’s 4 times longer than we spent in the massive, and beautifully decorated Jungarh Fort back in Bikaner… Man, we really need to get our priorities in order!
Nonetheless, at the end of the day I had something incredible to check off the bucket list, and a story I’ll never forget!