The exterior of the rat temple in northern India looks like any other shrine, but its interior reveals inhabitants that to the western world would induce mob hysteria and at least one significant horror movie.
The famous Karni Mata Temple, which is located in the small northwestern city of Deshnoke, India, is home to more than 15,000 deities. It is an ornate and beautifully constructed edifice with marble panels lining its stately entrance. Silver and gold decorations adorn the interior and the marble floors are always covered with masses of scurrying brown blobs.
While this might be unusual enough by itself, it is absolutely astounding when one considers that all of them are rats (bubonic plague-carrier rats) of varying horrible sizes and colors. By the thousands, they dine with worshipers and scamper across their feet.
Locals believe these rats are the reincarnation of beloved family members, a leap of faith that would be difficult to accept in the western world. These holy animals are called kabbas, and many people travel great distances to pay their respects.
For those visitors who wish to experience the rat deities, upon entering the temple, they must remove their shoes and walk and sit among them.
Tourists and worshipers encourage the rats to run across their feet as it is considered good luck. Eating food or drinking water that has been previously sampled by a rat is considered to be a supreme blessing.
A rare blessing would be the sighting of a white rat, of which there are only four or five among the more than 15,000. White rats are especially holy, believed to be the manifestations of the goddess Karni Mata and her kin.
The Maharaja Ganga Singh built the Hindu temple in the early 1900s as a tribute to the rat goddess.
To understand the concept of rat worship, one must consider the Hindu interpretation of death. For Hindus, death marks the end of one chapter in the book of life and a new one along the path of a soul’s migration to eventual “oneness” with the universe. This journey is known as samsara and is the reason the rats are worshiped.
In Hinduism, it is not unusual for deities to take animal forms. “The main theological point is that there’s no dividing line between what forms gods or goddesses can use … There’s nothing to say they can’t take form as a fish, a bird, or even a rat,” said Rachel Fell McDermott, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College.
Oddly, since the temple’s existence, there has never been an outbreak of plague or other rat-borne diseases. There is no explanation for this.
The rats may know, but they aren’t telling. Go figure.