Bikaner; The Karni Mata temple and our million little friends; In which our mothers would certainly not approve

The first day after we arrived in Bikaner was another rest day. Sheryl was feeling sick again - not as badly as earlier, but still too sick to do anything, or to eat anything besides toast and black tea. This is getting more than a little worrying, but there’s nothing we can do about it in Bikaner. It’s too small and grimy a place for me to be able to trust the hospitals. I used the time to do some writing, but I’m steadily falling farther and farther behind. I’m just not inspired, and it seems like so much work these days.

The next day Sheryl was still feeling delicate. She says she’s sick of staying in bed, though. And to be honest, I’m most heartily sick of her staying in bed myself. I’m glad she felt strong enough to go out today, because the rats were waiting for us.

The Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke, half an hour away from Bikaner by bus, is called the Rat Temple - and for good reason. The legend goes that Karni Mata, a 14th-century incarnation of the Hindu god Durga, asked Yama, the god of death, to restore the son of a storyteller to life. Yama refused, as gods of death are wont to do. In retaliation, Karni Mata caused all dead storytellers to be reincarnated as rats, thus taking them out of Yama’s reach forever. So Karni Mata’s temple in Deshnoke is a place where rats are held sacred. The best part, though, is that there are thousands upon thousands of rats living in the temple!

Sheryl and I both love rats. She’s had rats as pets in the past, and I’ve known a lot of people who kept them. I know they’re really vicious, filthy bastards at heart, but so are cats and people and I love them too. I just like their pointy little faces and their clever pink hands. So given the chance to play with a few thousand of them, well, no need to ask me twice.

The temple has a big, wide courtyard surrounded by a wall. The huge facade is pierced by the main entrance gate, which is white marble carved with leaves, snakes and lizards and flanked with stone carvings of elephants and sleeping lions. The doors of the gate are of thick, solid silver and cast into the shape of cavorting gods and lines of rats. The inner courtyard is roofed with a net, either to keep the pigeons from stealing the rats’ food or to keep hawks from stealing the rats themselves.

The first things we saw as we walked through the gates were, well, rats! Thousands of them, everywhere. Scurrying, squabbling, sitting in huge food bowls full of grain and crouched lapping around big cauldrons full of milk. Young ones, old ones, healthy ones, sick ones, sleek ones, mangy ones. Rats with one eye, rats with both eyes. Rats with long tails, rats with tails bitten off. The foundations of the temple were riddled with cracks and pipes and pits in the floor, and rats were constantly swarming in and out, up from the basements and back down. Little beady eyes and whiskery faces were looking at us everywhere we went, and rows of tails hung down from every ledge. It’s supposed to be lucky to see a white rat, but if there was one, he never poked his nose out of his hole.

Not everyone seemed as enchanted by the rats as we were. There were only a couple other foreign tourists, and a steady stream of Indian visitors, but most people came, spent ten or fifteen minutes, and left. We, on the other hand, must have spent two hours hanging around, playing with the rats. They were swarming all over my feet, poking their noses between my toes and nibbling my toenails. Whenever I crouched down to say hello a few of them would come running along the ledges to sniff my hands and face. We fed them cashews. I expected them to snatch them and run but they eat so well here that they just nibbled them slowly. They seemed to like them, but sometimes it was hard to get them to take one, and they never came back for more.

The smell was very strong, but not overpowering, and the floor was cleaner than I’d have expected from a giant rat colony - but still filthy. It crossed my mind that there are a lot of things we’ve done in our travels that our mothers would probably not approve of, but walking around an Indian rat temple with no shoes or socks, letting the rats run all over our feet and playing with them would probably win the prize. Sorry, Mom, but you know how it is.

We even got some pictures of Spidey with the rats. They were mostly scared of him, believe it or not - the very same rats that nibbled my toes and took cashews from my fingers - but one actually started chewing on his eye! I was not impressed. I’m glad I didn’t bring Mister Raisin to play with them, they’d have eaten him in a second.

So things have continued well, and my outlook continues to improve. Today was a really good day. We even found a hundred-rupee note on the ground in Deshnoke, which paid for the bus both ways and the camera charge for the temple. A few more days like this and I’ll have my joy of travelling back. Bikaner has really restored my delight in India.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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