Ken let out a high-pitched, girly yelp, easily audible above the hubbub of the hundreds of pilgrims slowly processing through the echoing marble temple. It was so uncharacteristic of him that his wife of many decades, who was standing nearby, didn’t realise it emanated from his manly chest. A black rat had scuttled between his stockinged feet. Those of us standing next to him neither moved nor laughed. It might be us next and if we, some of whom weren’t wearing even socks, happened to tread on one – ugh! The thought of it. Besides that, if we inadvertently trampled one, we would be required to replace it with a rat made of solid silver.
There were 25,000 of them to be avoided. All, except those already lying dead or looking as though they soon might be, were scampering about from food station to food station occasionally stopping for a drink from the copper pans, thoughtfully left at frequent intervals and replenished by the Charan priests. Wire mesh strung above the courtyards protected the rats from birds of prey and snared a few unfortunate pigeons. Frightened of nothing, the rats challenged our toes. To non-believers it was grim.
We were at the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok, an otherwise unremarkable small town about 20 miles from Bikaner in Rajasthan. The story goes that Laxma, the youngest son of Karni Mata, drowned in a pond while trying to drink. Yama, the god of death, answered Karni Mata’s pleas for Laxma’s life but he, and all of her male children, were reincarnated as kabas (rats). Over 600 local families still believe that they are related to the rats.
In the early 20thC the Maharaja of Bikaner, Ganga Singh, had an exquisitely carved marble facade with silver doors added to the front of the arrestingly pink 15th C temple.
In Spring and Autumn, there is a Karni Mata fair when thousands of pilgrims home-in. The temple is opened at 4 o’clock in the morning, and having left their shoes on the opposite side of the road, pilgrims head under the great marble arch and, side-stepping rats, wind round the internal labyrinth and pay obeisance at the silver shrine. The ultimate blessing is to spot one of the very rare white rats, believed to be Karni Mata herself or one of her four sons.
In the 1960s the Princesse Rose du Croie kept a white rat that went to Parisian cocktail parties with her, snuggled inside her back-combed chignon. Its red eyes peaked out challenging the many unwanted suitors to venture cheekily near. She was almost uniquely eccentric. Few of us empathise with rats – possibly with ingrained discrimination inherited since the Black Death. I think our guide found our keenness to escape and to regain the road and our shoes and socks mystifying.
“You do not like this?”
Nearly 700 years later we face another global pandemic. Perhaps, like the pilgrims, we should have shared our food and prasad (holy offerings) and encouraged the rats to salivate over our snacks before we munched on them ourselves and then, two weeks later, we would not now need to be in lock-down.
Then again perhaps not.