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Inside India's Temple of Holy Rats

Matt Blomberg

Worshippers believe the 20,000 or so rats, which live inside the temple, are reincarnated descendants of a Hindu goddess.

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Deshnoke is a small, dusty town on the fringes of the Great Indian Desert, midway between New Delhi and India's western border. In a land of stunning monuments, it might appear underwhelming, but once you get closer the senses go to work. And by far its strangest site has to be Karni Mata—the temple of rats.

Worshippers lining up to enter the temple

The rats here, some 20,000 according to legend and locals, are said to be the earthly representations of Karni Mata—a 15th century sage and healer who disappeared near Deshnoke at the age of 151. Karni Mata was revered for her generosity, good will, and supernatural powers. And while there are a variety of tales as to how the mass of rodents came to live here, all conclude with the goddess reincarnating a human soul as a rat.

Inside the temple, the floor crawls and jumps. Skittish first-time visitors navigate drifts of fur, which cover the marble underfoot. The initiated make their way to a shrine at the centre of the temple, where they make offerings to the hundreds of rats scurrying around the foot of a silver statue of Karni Mata.

A rat feasts on one of its own

The most devoted followers drink from the bowl the rats bathe and play in, before eating the crumbs they leave behind. Some even sleep in the temple, letting the rats crawl over them during the night. Newlyweds visit as part of their wedding ceremony. A small number of people even call the temple home.

All this is said to bring good luck, particularly for those who encounter the temple's two elusive albino rats. To understand the connection between luck and rats, we spoke to a few devotees at the temple.

Arun Prasath Is a 26-Year-Old Scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai

In town for a wedding with friends, Arun was visiting the sacred temple for the first time. He was more skeptical than the rest.

You can see that foreign visitors are scared of the rats, and I am just as scared as they are. We won't go inside the sanctum to pray and eat with the rats, which is what most people come here to do. The priest in there allows the rats to run all over him, even on his head, and he doesn't seem to care.

We have heard a lot about this place and seen it on documentaries. We are told that coming here will bring good luck, that your dreams will come true if you see a white rat, which we have seen today. Let's wait and see how that manifests. For us, coming here is more about observing our religion—and amusing ourselves.

It's interesting, you know, people say this place is divine. But over there you can see the rats eating one of their own. Let me ask you, is that divinity?

Sunil Gupta, 51, a Marketing Professional From New Delhi

Sunil was in the area for work and paid his first ever visit to the rat temple.

The story behind this temple began more than 500 years ago when Yamraj, the god of death, came to take the soul of a 10-year-old child who was very close to Karni Devi. Yamraj said that the life of this child was finished and that he must take its soul to heaven, but Karni Devi would not allow that. 'I am also powerful,' she told Yemraj, and to stop him from taking the soul of that child, turned the child into a rat.

From that day, the souls of all of Karni Devi's people, her relatives and those close to her, could not be taken by Yemraj, and were instead reincarnated as rats. All these holy rats here in this temple are the people of Karni Devi, and when they die they will be reincarnated as humans once more. This is her power and this is why we worship these rats.

I can't say specifically how this place has brought good luck to people, but in Hinduism when we worship some god, our luck automatically increases. Different people follow different religions, but Hinduism is real; all the facts are scientifically proven. How else can you explain the presence here of all these rats?

Narayn Krishant, 45, Has Worked at the Rat Temple For 25 Years

Outside the entrance, Narayn watches over the shoes of every visitor. He has never misplaced a pair.

Imagine: people come from all over India to drink water and drink milk with the rats, to eat with the rats. I am able to walk inside and worship them always, for 20 minutes now, for 10 minutes later. Every day I work here for 16 hours, and for only 5,000 rupee (about AU$100) a month but this is a pure place and everyone is born with a duty for their life. This is mine.

In this temple, the white rats are especially lucky, there are two of them now living here. Some people come here many, many times to touch the white rats but never even see them. I can see them almost every day and this has been very lucky for me. Three years ago I had a heart attack, but because I am constantly worshipping Karni Devi, I was absent from here for only two days—and that is the only time I have been ill or failed to attend my work.

The first time I came here I was just eight years old. I thought, I don't need to go to other countries or anywhere else, only this temple.

This 55-Year-Old Man Is a Constant Presence at the Rat Temple

He said worshipping Karni Marta had provided him with all that he needed in life.

"From my birth, I have lived only here... We don't have names and we desire nothing. I am the son of the goddess Karni Devi—that is my only name. We live under her only.

In this temple are not rats, they are kabbas [converted by the divine]. There is a big story behind why they are kabbas but I couldn't begin to tell you because you would need to leave before the story was finished. You should buy a book if you want to learn. Foreigners come here and take photographs and knowledge of our culture and religion and then they just go back. Do they really understand each and every thing?

I am just a poor person and I exist only to worship Karni Devi, but the goddess feeds me. I also use drugs, mostly ganja. The almighty goddess arranges all for me, whatever I wish, my wishes are fulfilled. Also if I want the goddess will come here for us to see. But that power is so, so strong. You can understand that I cannot be using it all the time.