A holy rat.
If you died and came back as an animal, what would you like to be?

Bet it's not a rat.

But, the desert temple of Karni Mata in small town Deshnoke, Rajasthan, protects a whole flock of rodents the faithful believe were locals in their past lives.

We came across several versions of the story, but it seems that a girl who lived in the town some 500 years ago turned out to be an incarnation of the goddess Durga.

One of the miracles attributed to her, along with saving people from snakebites, creating springs of water in the arid desert, taking the form of a lion to fight enemies and feeding an army from just a few chappatis and a bit of yoghurt, is that she saved the souls of a group of people from going to the death god, Yama. Instead of going with Yama, these peoples' souls are reborn in the form of the holy rats that scamper about the temple consecrated to Karni Mata. Which group of people are now living rodenty lives seems to be a matter of confusion—whether it's storytellers in general, the relatives of a specific storyteller or the family of Karni Mata herself, wasn't clear to me after our visit.

The temple is a small one, down a dusty dirt road surrounded by low buildings and near the train line. At the entrance, people hawked the normal things you find by any temple in India—bangle bracelets, religious tracts, effigies of gods and goddesses and cups of tea. At this temple, they also sold food for the rats.

Entering the temple, I clumsily stepped through wet, clotted globs of pigeon doodoo, feeling the crumbs of yellow sacrificial meal (read: rat food) between my bare toes. Rats ran freely about the enclosure, snacking on the meal or slurping down milk from large steel pans placed there just for them.

The first rat—though Dan and I agreed it would be better termed a 'large mouse'--made us jump a bit.

We're in agreement--we've reached a new level of gross. But, strangely, though the thought of going to the rat temple had made my skin crawl while we were planning our trip, at the temple it seemed as normal as anything else we've done traveling.

The mice were pretty cute, really, scrubbing their little whiskered faces with tiny pink paws and scurrying back to the many holes in the temple walls to escape the increasing brilliance of the morning sun. A lady took a special interest in us and showed us how to walk around the back of the altar and where to hug the wall if we wanted to pray.

We spent awhile craning our necks in an alcove watching a few mice in the shadows, trying to spot the holiest of holy rodents—the albino rat. A man standing there, seemingly for that express purpose, told us to watch out for it. We had no luck there, but did spot a jaundiced-looking yellowy rat in a different part of the temple. The guidebook also mentioned that if the mice ran over our feet, that would bring good luck. We had brought some cookies with us on the bus for breakfast and decided to give the rest to the rats. While we did this one climbed up my bag, and later some nibbled on our toes, mistaking them for cookie crumbs. I figure, we're in good with the rats.

So, if you do come back as a rodent, mention my name.


Click here to see photos of the Rat Temple

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