In this area of India around Bikaner rats are considered sacred due to the local god Karni Mata. In the town of Deshnok they’re such big fans of her that they took things to extremes somewhat and built an entire temple dedicated to the little critters. Around 20,000 rats live within it and are given 5 star treatment, with large bowls of milk left out for them and devout worshippers coming from far and wide to feed them, and even eat the food the rats have been eating (it’s considered a great blessing). I’m still having nightmares about the place a few days later.
It all looks quite normal from the outside, just your average marble place of worship, but once we’d taken off our shoes (with waterproof verruca socks hidden underneath our normal socks) and crossed the gateway we entered a different reality. On the steps under the colonnade around the courtyard sat several blokes, some with their tops off, quite at peace with the fact that there were rats scuttling all around them, doing their jobbies, and getting up to all the usual stuff that rats do. Ambling around them were perfectly normal looking middle class families and their children stroking the rats, feeding them and generally unfazed by vermin that most of us would run a mile from. Only the odd scream of a traumatised toddler being introduced to the experience for the first time gave away the fact that this was the sort of thing you’d normally see in a horror film.
Things really ramped up once we entered the temple itself. In every corner is a dead or dying rat, and the little blighters cling to any available surface, even working their way up into the ceiling (one of them did a wee down onto our AFM Colin). Chris and I shuffled around talking to camera, trying not to step on them (if you kill one it has to be replaced by a solid silver rat) and suppressing the urge to shout out as they sat on our feet and nibbled on our socks.
At one point there was an elaborate ceremony inside the inner sanctum. Through the silver doors we could see a fire being lit and the chanting began to echo round the temple. A guy standing next to us went into some sort of religious frenzy and had a fit, while the rest of the crowd glanced at him disapprovingly. I think he was considered to have got a bit too carried away.
In our interview we were very firmly told that the rats are not rats, but “kabba” – reincarnated priests – and that they carry no disease. Who knows, maybe this is the case, but they certainly look like they do and I couldn’t wait to get out of the place after 4 hours.
I couldn’t bring myself to eat or drink anything while I was in there and it was very hot, so during our 12 hour drive back to Delhi I came down with sunstroke and sat hunched in the bus feeling a bit sorry for myself, the thought of all the rats and the fact I couldn’t have a wash until we go to the hotel playing on my mind somewhat. The last few hours sitting in clouds of pollution on the slow moving highway into Delhi were quite a struggle, and I was starting to feel that maybe the novelty of India was wearing off a bit. Seeing the kind of lives people are leading as you pass by makes you realise that life is tough for people out here and the place still has a long way to go until they reach the kind of living standards we in the West take for granted.