History and Construction
The Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, near Bikaner in Rajasthan, India, is a one-of-a-kind temple housing 20,000 rats as the highly revered residents of the temple. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Karni Mata, and the rats kept here are considered so sacred that food nibbled by them are treated as “prasadam” or holy food, that is often consumed by worshipers visiting this temple themselves! There are two very interesting stories that link the rats to the prime deity of the temple. According to one account, in the ancient times, a battle ensued in a nearby region and 20,000 army-men participating in the battle fled from the field, seeking refuge at the temple. Deserting the battlefield being recognized as a crime, the army battalion was treated as a group of sinners and the kind Goddess, instead of killing the sinners, forgave them, allowing them to stay in her temple as rats. The men, grateful to the Goddess who saved their lives, promised to serve her forever. Another equally fascinating story describing the origin of rat worship in the temple was related to the death of Karni Mata’s step-son who died by drowning in a well. The Goddess, highly bereaved by her loss, ask the God of Death, Yama, to return her son back to life. Yama promised that from then on, each dead member of Karni Mata’s family would from then on be reincarnated as a rat and return to the temple to lead a secure and happy life.
The Karni Mata temple was built in the 15th Century by a Hindu ruler, Maharaja Ganga Singh from Bikaner. The temple adorns an impressive facade made out of white marble with intricate carvings representing various aspects of the Hindu religion. The entrance to the temple is through massive silver gates which provide a treat to the eyes. The gates lead to the temple compound with rats visible at each and every corner of the compound. Silver gateways lead to other parts of the temple which together with the marbled panels and pillars in the compound enhance the beauty of the temple. The image of the Goddess Karni Mata lies in the inner sanctum of the temple where she is shown with a trishul (a weapon) in her hand and a crown in her head, surrounded by her favorite rats.
The temple of Karni Mata is visited by a large number of devout Hindu worshipers each year who hold the Goddess and her rats in high regard. Each day at the temple witnesses Hindu religious ceremonies performed by the temple priests where Karni Mata is worshiped with flowers, food, chants, and songs. Visitors coming into the temple are requested to enter the temple grounds barefoot and treat the rats with respect and care.
Black Rats, White Rats, and Kabbas
Besides the worshipers, many tourists visit the Karni Mata Temple attracted by its rat-tales. Of the 20,000 rats dwelling here, only 4 to 5 rats are albinos and the person sighting an albino rat in this temple is considered most lucky, as these rats are believed to be the reincarnated form of the Goddess herself. All the rats are heavily fed each day with grains, milk, and other types of rat feed in large metallic bowls (pictured above). It is not rare to see the worshipers drinking or eating the leftovers left by these rats. If a rat crosses the feet of a person, it is regarded as a good omen. Also, no one is allowed to harm a single rat in the temple and one would definitely not dare to do so when the compensation to be paid for harming a rat would be donating a rat made of gold to the temple.
Safety and Tourism
Luckily, though no reported cases of human infections or diseases contracted from the rat temple exist, the rats themselves are often overfed and overcrowded. As such, they become vulnerable to the severe epidemics which frequently wipe out large populations of rodents around the world, and threaten these rats with the same. Tourists from all across the globe visit the temple each year, armed with their cameras and attracted here by the widespread media coverage of the “rat temple of India”. It is often advised that the best time to visit the temple, so that one can witness its four-legged little residents scurrying around, would be the late night hours or just prior to sunrise.