Rajasthan: Karni Mata and the Rat Temple

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The Karni Mata Temple is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to Karni Mata at Deshnok, near Bikaner, in Rajasthan. It is also known as the Rat Temple or Temple of Rats, because there are said to be 20,000 rats that make their home in this temple.

We went to the Rat Temple after we left Bikaner, a 30 km drive.

The following is taken from cj_whitehound.madasafish.com, the best source about Karni Mata that I found.

Mother Karni is an interesting character. She was a a 14th-15th Century female mystic and political figure, believed to be an incarnation of the goddess Durga, "The Inaccessible" – a warrior-woman manifestation of the Divine Mother. Karni was an ascetic who dedicated herself to serving and uplifting the poor and downtrodden of all communities, and made the town of Deshnok a sanctuary where those accused of crimes could seek asylum. It is said that she used her influence to reduce the exploitation of women by the Mughal emperors. It is also said that she was instrumental in enabling three consecutive generations of royal rulers, Rao Ridmal, Rao Jodha and Rao Bika to come to power. All three sought her advice for their troubles.

Rao Bika in particular asked her advice, and followed her instructions, on every important issue, and sought her blessing before conquering the city which he seized and re-named Bikaner in 1486 AD – at which point Karni would have been nearly 100.

According to Exquisite India: "Taking offence at a stray comment that his father made, [Rao Bika] left with a small band of horsemen to set up his own kingdom in the desert of the north. Spurred by the blessing of a great female mystic, Karni Mata, whom he had met along the way and who had predicted that his fame and glory would someday exceed that of his father, Rao Bika fought the local desert clans for thirty years, and ultimately carved out a kingdom approximately the size of England."

Legend says that Karni Mata actually laid the foundation-stones of the forts of Jodhpur and Bikaner, which implies she was indeed still around and operational when Rao Bika seized and began re-building the city in 1486. Indeed, some versions of the legend say she lived to be over 150.

The Garbha Griha or sanctum sanctorum of the temple at Deshnok is also reported to have been founded by Karni herself.

Below is a picture of Karni Mata, like Durga with her lion, only with rats at her feet: photo by Francoise Cooperman, from cj_whitehound.madasafish.com.

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She was born was born on 2nd October 1387 in Suwap, Rajasthan, as a Charan, a  caste of pious and peaceful bards in Rajasthan and Gujarat. She was the 7th child of Mehoji Charan and his wife Deval Devi. Her real name was Ridhu bhai. As a young woman she was married off by her family. Upon marriage she announced herself to be celibate, and after few days, she set her husband’s marriage with her younger sister Gulab, so he could have a more normal wife. Her sister had four sons.

Karni became recognized as spiritually powerful, and the local rulers, Rajas from Jodhpur, came to her in her village, about 30 km away, one day’s camel ride. In Hinduism, Shakti, “power,” comes from the feminine, and rulers felt they needed to “tap into” this power to successfully reign.

In 1453, she blessed Rao Jodha (founder and ruler of Jodhpur, Rao Bika’s father) in conquering the kingdoms of Ajmer, Merta and Mandor. In 1457, on the request of Rao Jodha, she laid the cornerstone of the Jodhpur Fort.

Later when Rao Bika was striking out on his own, he took the 30 km camel ride to meet with Karni to get her advice and support, and to become infused with her Shakti, her power. She gave him the advice he needed, and later even arranged his marriage to the daughter of an enemy ruler in order to secure his new kingdom in Bikaner. In 1485, on the request of Rao Bika, she went to Bikaner and laid the cornerstone of the Bikaner Fort.

In 1538, Karni went to Jaisalmer to meet the Maharaja and started to return to Deshnok with her followers. On March 21st March, 1538, near Kolayat village, she asked her followers to stop for water. She disappeared at that spot supposedly at the age of 151 years.

A community arose around her in Deshnok, including those who came to her for sanctuary, and it is said that in her lifetime the first shrine was built for her, unusual in India while a revered saint was still alive.

Carol and I are both taken by these stories of such a powerful Indian woman. This is so exceptional in a society dominated by males, where high-born women lived in separate quarters behind latticed screens, unable to join the male society. She reminds us of exceptional women in Europe from that same general era, Hildegard of Bingen and Joan of Arc.

About the rats

From Indian Patriots Council:

“Legend has it that rats have been revered ever since Karnidevi’s ["devi" just means "goddess"] stepson Laxman drowned in a tank and Yama, the god of death, refused to concede her request for Laxman’s rebirth, saying that he had already been reborn as a rat. Instead Yama promised her that from then onwards her male descendants would be born as rats in her temple at Deshnok.”

The rats here are sacred as they are regarded as incarnations of Karni’s descendants, (or her sister’s, since she was celibate).

Here is the Karni Mata Temple. This outer part was built in the early 20th century by Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner.

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Carol has bought some “rat prasad” (holy food offering) to offer the holy rats in the temple. Note that she is wearing her shawl, her dupatta, in Rajasthani style, over her head.

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The entrance to the temple compound. I think this is in the more monumental style of the Bikaner fort, rather then the more ornamental Mughal style seen throughout Rajasthan. This makes sense, since Ganga Singh was from Bikaner.

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Two marble lions guard the entrance to the temple.

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The inner shrine can be seen through the entrance.

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A newly married couple is going to the temple, so this must be considered as a place that is auspicious for a new marriage.

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Here is the temple itself. It is clearly in Mughal style, with chhatries (chhatri means “umbrella”), dome-shaped towers, at the corners of the top wall. I have read that the inner shrine is mostly 16th century. 

I wonder, “Where are all the rats?”

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Beautiful carved white marble.

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As we enter, I get my first glimpse of a rat.

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Soon we see many rats within the building itself.

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They like milk.

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In the front of the Karni Mata shrine in the temple is a wall made of silver, adorned with many bas reliefs of various subjects.

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Here is Karni Mata, holding a trischul (trident), like Lord Siva usually carries. She carries a severed head in her other hand. I can’t find the story about  this. Does any know?

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In front of her altar is a dish set out with rat prasad.

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A close-up of the silver wall.

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A man makes an offering to Karni Mata. In front a temple attendant takes care of the dish of rat prasad.

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At the entrances to the inner sanctum are beautiful silver doors.

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Above her shrine is a carved row of white marble rats.

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Above her shrine, coming out of the center of the silver wall, is Arjuna on his chariot, made of gold, I think. I am impressed with the dynamic energy of this. 

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We walk pradakshina around the main altar, circumambulating it. Everywhere there are rats.

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There are holes in the walls, to rats’ nests, I guess, built into the temple. Everywhere, scattered on the floor, is food that devotees brought for the rats. We are supposed to be on the lookout for white rats. Most are black and gray. If you see a white rat you are particularly blessed. If a rat runs over your bare feet, you are also blessed. If you step on a rat and kill it, you are cursed, and the only way you can clear the curse is to give the temple a gold or silver rat of the same weight as the dead rat.

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A rat climbing the wall.

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Carol is setting out food for the rats.

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A Rajasthani man sits in the temple, all in white, including his turban.

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Not only rats are in the temple. I don’t think a bug crawling on you brings a blessing, though.

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A shrine in another building of the temple.

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Another shrine in the temple. In Rajasthan, they like to color their gods with saffron color.

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Not only are rats fed here, but on big festival days many people are, too. Here is a cooking pot, maybe four meters wide. Probably it can make food for 1000 people.

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Rats at a feeding bowl.

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Carol is feeding them.

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She is getting pretty brave, sticking her hand in among them.

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Next to that feeding bowl is another bowl of milk.

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I am going for it, too.

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I am getting my hand right in there, in the midst of the rats.

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This one is eating from my hand. After it was through, it took a nip at one of my fingers. Didn’t draw blood though.

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Leaving, we note again the beautiful sliver doors.

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Carved elephants adorn the doorway.

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Thousands of hours of work must have gone into the marble carving.

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There is even a camel on the corner of the building.

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Teenagers watch as we leave. Maybe, based on their dress, these girls are not from Rajasthan.

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We are going to check out the shops as we leave the temple. We have to get around the calf.

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Standard temple souvenirs, pictures of gods and saints.

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However, these stuffed toy rats are not standard temple souvenirs.

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Nor are the plastic rat toys for the kiddies.

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Our driver, Mahavira, wanted to get something for the dashboard of his car.

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He got this small Hanuman.

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Well, we were blessed by the rats, though we did not see a white one. We are also impressed by the stories about Karni Mata. I am not sure what these blessings will bring, but I am sure that this was a place we had to visit. Next on our agenda will be the desert city Jaisalmer.

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One Response to “Rajasthan: Karni Mata and the Rat Temple”

  1. rsrinivas56 Says:

    Dear Mr Richards
    Find your blog very interesting, about your visit to karni mata temple.You tell me to stand in front of lion I would’nt mind after some thoughts, but I do’t know whether I would have the nerve to stand amidst the rats, perhaps a divine intervention might. Did you sight any white rat ?, for that would have crowned your visit to the temple, so say the fables of this temple.
    Are you in Tiruvannamalai during the pongal festivals ( 14 to 16th of jan)

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