Whenever I took my shoes off before entering one of the holy temples in India, I didn’t seem to mind; it was out of respect after all, something that becomes habit when you’re in the country. However, it was a completely different situation when arriving at the Karni Mata Temple, in the city of Deshnoke in Rajasthan — where tens of thousands of rats roam freely. I may have considered these rodents to be vermin in the city sewers and subway tracks back home, but here they are not a nuisance — in fact, they are revered as holy reincarnations.
According to Hindu lore, Karni Mata, a matriarch during the 14th century believed to be the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, tried to bring a dead child in her tribe back to life. She asked for this favor to Yama, the god of death, who didn’t exactly do the deed but compromised by reincarnating the child as a rat. And from that day forward, all the deceased males of her tribe would be reincarnated as such. Six hundred years later, these males and all their descendants live in the temple.
The holy rats, or kabbas as they are called, scurry around the marble floors and through the cracks in the walls. Faithful worshipers come from far distances to pay their respects with offerings of food and milk, while barefoot tourists like myself come in — some of which are undoubtedly squeamish — to witness this offbeat faction of Hinduism. It was inevitable when a rat ran over my bare foot — something that would have definitely freaked me out back home — but I kept my cool out of respect; it was probably someone’s uncle after all.