There is a few Karni Mata temples in Rajasthan in India. However, the temple of Karni Mata in Deshnok, a town close to Bikaner, is the only one of that kind – it’s the temple of rats.
Rats in India
Attitudes towards rats vary a lot in India. Similarly like in Europe they have been associated with dirt and epidemics. In the year 2000 in Mumbai there was a campaign in which people where paid 5 rupees for each rat they killed. It was aimed to reduce the spread of diseases. Another problem with rats is that they damage crops. For example, it is estimated that in the poor state of Bihar almost half of crops is eaten by rats. The Government of this state started encouraging people to eat rats. In fact, in India it is not uncommon within poorer groups to eat these rodents. However, many religious Hindus would never kill a rat. These animals living in parks or squares are also often fed by people.
Rat in religion
Rat is vahana (a vehicle) of Ganesha, who is the elephant-headed deity. Ganapati’s vahana is called also mushika what means a mouse. We cannot be really sure whether Ganesha’s vahana is a mouse or a rat. Probably it is the black rat (also referred to as the ship rat), which is smaller than the brown rat (also referred to as the common rat, street rat) and of a similar body shape to a mouse. We are not sure about sex of Ganesha’s vahana neither. It is surprising how a tiny rat can carry a big man on his back. Especially that in iconography musika is usually portrayed as the same size as Ganesha’s leg. We don’t know whether Ganapati sizes down to ride the rat or the rat grows to the size of a horse. What we know is that a small size of this agile animal might have many advantages. Thanks to him Ganesha can access the most hard-to-reach and secret places. Such a smart animal like rat is a great companion for Ganesha. Lord Ganesha is the Destroyer of Obstacles and little rat able to slither through tiny holes helps him doing his job better.
Ganapati is associated with wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings. Ganesha is sometimes called Akhuratha or Musakavahana – the who has Mouse as His Charioteer. There is a story that Ganesha defeated a demon who was impressed with his skills that he offered to become his faithful servant but under one condition – that he would make him the most agile animal in the world.
There are also other myths in which a rat symbolises primitive animal instincts, darkness, fear of enlightenment and knowledge, pride, individualism, egoism. Ganesha using a rat as a vehicle would show defeating those dark sides of human nature.
Also in Karni Mata Temple Ganesha and his rat are portrayed together. We can see them at silver entrance doors to the shrine.
Statue of Gahesha. We can see rats on the bottom (private collection)
Mata means Mother as is often use to describe Hindu goddesses or female mystics. Karni Mata was born in 15th century and it’s believed that she lived from 70 to even 150 years.
Karni Mata is believed to be an incarnation of the goddess Durga who protects the universe in time of distress. She manifested herself for the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahisasura, that many other gods were not able to defeat.
Karni Mata was devoted to help the poor. She also had a special skill – she was able to revive dead trees. This is why one day a man came to her with his dead baby asking her to revive his baby. It was impossible to be done, because the baby was already re-birthed. However, Karni Mata made a deal with Yama, the god of death, that from now on everyone from Charan caste will be rebirth as rats before they can be rebirth as humans again. Another myth says that there was an epidemic in which a lot of children was dying. Grief-stricken parents were asking Karni Mata to negotiate with Yama. He agreed the those children would be rebirth as rats.
Rats living in the temple are called kabas what in local Marwari language means babies.
Karni Mata had a husband, but she didn’t have any children and it is believed that she was a virgin. Still, she is a deity of fertility. Instead of having biological children she had her rats – kabas.
The Karni Mata Temple – The Rat Temple
The Karni Mata Temple was founded in the beginning of 20th century by maharaja of Bikaner Ganga Singh. He had a vision in which Karni Mata visited him and asked to take care of her rats. However, the most important element of the temple garbhagriha (the innermost sanctum of a temple where resides the idol or icon the deity) is dated for 15th century and according to some sources was founded by Karni Mata herself.
The population of rats remain more or less on the same level which at peak is more than 20,000 rats. If anyone would step on a rat killing this animal, he or she has to found a solid gold statue of a natural size-rat. Luckily it is unlikely for accidents like this to happen as it is mandatory to remove shoes at the entrance, which is a rule of every hindu temple. You can see what happens after you cross the gate to the temple in this short National Geographic film.