Rodents rule the roost at Hindu temple,believed to be incarnations of human beings
THEY scurry across the marble floors, perch snoozing on the railings and snuggle into holes low down in the walls, their long tails poking out.
Rats, hundreds and hundreds of them, are everywhere at the Karni Mata Hindu temple in the Indian state of Rajasthan and woe betide anyone who takes fright and steps on one.
For according to legend, the sacred brown rodents are nothing less than incarnations of human beings from the local Charan tribe whose souls are temporarily inhabiting the body of a rat until their rebirth.
"They are my ancestors," said Hinglaj Dan Bareth, a Charan and the headmaster of a school in the small desert town of Deshnoke where the temple was founded in the 16th century.
"If you kill one of them by stepping on it you have to offer a gold or silver rat to the temple," he said, sitting on some steps in the temple confines where the creatures rule the roost.
An estimated 1 million people a year journey to the imposing shrine, built in honour of Karni Mata, a 15th century female mystic believed by many Hindus to have been an incarnation of Durga, the great goddess of power and victory.
Visitors range from the devout to the merely curious, from newly-weds seeking a blessing on their marriage to foreign tourists, from the awe-struck to the squeamish.
"I enjoyed it. Two rats ran over my feet," said Sumit Jha, a 14-year-old boy from the town of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, who visited the temple with his family. "It tickled but I wasn't afraid."
If a rat scuttles across your feet in the temple, where visitors tread barefoot, it is considered a sign of good fortune.
Even more propitious is a sighting of a rare white rat, revered as an incarnation of Karni Mata herself by worshippers who stand hands clasped in prayer.
And, according to folklore, drinking milk or water from the containers the rats have sipped from brings surefire protection from the plague.
"Some of the people who come here do get scared of the rats, but we tell them they're harmless and there's nothing to fear," said Narayan Dan, one of the priests at the temple.
Poor get leftovers
Karni Mata was born in 1387, the youngest of six girls in her commoner family.
An ascetic, tradition recounts that she got one of her sisters to bear children for her husband. Believers credit her with a series of miracles during a reputed lifespan of 151 years.
She is the patron goddess of the Maharajas, or princely rulers, of Bikaner, a city 30 km (20 miles) north of Deshnoke that was founded in the 1480s.
The rat cult stems from a tale that Karni Mata resurrected one of her step-sons, retrieving him from the clutches of Yama, the Hindu Lord of the Dead.
Legend has it that she vowed no one from her tribe would ever again fall into Yama's hands and would instead inhabit the body of a rat until born back into the clan.
Devotees stream to the temple with offerings for the rats, ranging from milk poured into metal bowls set down on the black and white marble floors to grain, sweets, coconuts and bananas.
At the end of each day, what the rats have left uneaten is distributed to the poor.
The most pampered rats are those that inhabit the inner sanctum of the temple, a dimly lit shrine of intricately carved marble where richly decorated silver doors depict Karni Mata in victorious pose with rodents leaping about her.
The inner sanctum is the equivalent of "rat heaven".
The most succulent treats are left here by pilgrims who crowd into a small antechamber accessible only to the temple priests.
It contains a hallowed image of the goddess carved on sandstone, it is said, by a blind sculptor whose sight Karni Mata miraculously restored as his reward.
Bells clang, drums bang and rhythmic chants sound during prayer services, rising to a noisy crescendo.
Unfazed by the din, the rats snack to their heart's content or snooze, lying on the cool marble floor or perched in unlikely positions on door lintels or in the swirls of metal railings.
"It's funny to see rats that have no fear of humans," said Kamal Kishore Bansal, a 28-year-old marble worker from the nearby town of Nagaur who had come to the temple with a wedding party.
"You couldn't be frightened of them, they're so small."
"Rat hell" is outside the inner sanctuary and "hottest" in an area where huge vats once used to heat water and boil up food sit perched above redundant brick furnaces set into the bare earth.
"If a rat from hell tries to get into heaven, the rats that are already there will chase it away," said Bareth, 40.
So where did Bareth believe he was heading, heaven or hell?
"It depends on my work, my worship and my character and morals," he said.
(Agencies via Xinhua)