In the depths of the Thar desert, Rajasthan, stands the wonder that is Karni Mata, and bravely or foolishly we decided to visit. We had been advised to put socks on, so we obeyed and left our expensive walking sandals by the entrance in a pile of worn, grubby, flip flops. It was only 9am but the courtyard felt like a hotplate and we were grateful for the barrier the socks provided. Right away we spotted rats running along the ground. I stood still and looked around, realising there were odd ones everywhere, mainly quite still but on all levels of the temple walls, on little crevices and niches. Following the route around, I kept my head facing directly forwards, on a neck that was as rigid as the temple walls. My eyes roamed in every direction to the degree where whatever that muscley cordy thing is that stops eyeballs falling out, was hurting. I didn’t want to see them, but I wanted to know where they were and whichever way I looked I could see them. Not many, not flocks or whatever the collective term is, but a few, just going about their ratty business, dashing, pottering, sitting upright with whiskers twitching.
The place was getting busier, mainly with Indian families, well dressed tourists, the women and young girls in colourful saris and salwar kameez, the men in smart fawn trousers and neatly pressed shirts. Judging by their appearance, our sandals probably looked less posh in the pile now.
We were being funnelled from the sun towards a cave-like entrance. Just as I was thinking what on earth is this dark hole, someone drew my attention to the walls where a series of hand prints were visible. ‘It’s the widows’ they said, ‘they were mourning and about to commit Sati . . . throw themselves on the pyre. I’d heard of this of course but having it presented to me was another matter. The rats scurrying around my feet became as nothing. How could I fear an eight inch long-tailed creature when those women had felt compelled to throw themselves onto a fire? Looking at every hand, I reached a point where the hallway turned a corner, into total darkness. My worst nightmare and I turned to look behind, meeting the eyes of the Hindi women who saw that my eyes were moist, ‘Don’t worry’ they said, ‘the practice is outlawed now, it rarely happens, keep going it’s okay’. I had to walk on and after five yards or so another corner with light at the end.
Emerging into the heat I took a deep breath and the stench registered for the first time. A bell sounded and I don’t know if it was coincidence or if the rats knew it was chow time, but far too many of them emerged and headed towards a corner area. There an elderly man had set down large metal trays of milk, which they devoured.
I felt very queasy, but also drawn to watch, it was easier in the courtyard. It is considered very bad luck to step on or harm any of these creatures; they are revered as sacred Hindu deities. There are thousands ruling in this temple, with its ornate silver doors and marbled floors littered with droppings. Just a few are white, and I saw one, supposedly very auspicious. Having them that close made me feel really anxious. I don’t think it was auspicious for me; Karni Mata could have been where I caught the bug that made me lose three days of the journey being ill. I still can’t bear rats, but when I look back at my photos – very few because I couldn’t concentrate – and don’t have to avoid stepping on them, they look nearly, just a tiny bit cute. Apart from those tails. I’m glad I dared to visit and I’m grateful to Mugan Singh for the sock advice.