Karni Mata – The Rat Temple (Rajasthan, India)


The resident diety is Karni Mata, a mystic who lived in the 15th century and who is considered an incarnation of Durga. She was the daughter of a 16th century Charan who married at 27. After her marriage dissolved, she became a sanyasinand devoted her life to the service of the poor. She was patronized by the Rathore clan of Bikaner and predicted great glory for Bika when he set out to establish a kingdom for himself. The Sanctum sanctorum of the temple depicts Karni Mata as Durga after slaying the buffalo-demon Mahishasura. Her inverted trident is impaled in the demon’s head

Not only the mother goddess but well fed rats (called kabas) reside here and receive homage. The high priests have gone to great length to protect the rats whose bodies are believed to house the souls of Karni Mata’s departed devotees.

The story goes that Karni Mata once tried to restore the dead child of a storyteller back to life but failed because Yama, the god of death, had already accepted his soul and re-incarnated him in human form. Karni Mata, famed for her legendary temper, was so inflamed by her failure that she announced that no one from her tribe would fall into Yama’s hands again. Instead, when they died, all of them would temporarily inhabit the body of a rat before being reborn into the tribe. Therefore, the rats are considered to be incarnations of storytellers and are much revered.
The image below shows the special holes around the courtyard that facilitate the rats’ movements throughout the temple. It is said that if you spot a white rat, you will have good luck.

Her first temple was constructed in the village of Mathaniya during her lifetime by her follower Amra Charan. In AD 1472, she arranged the marriage of Rao Bika (the fifth son of Rao Jodha) and Rang Kunwar (daughter of Rao Shekha of Pungal) to turn the enmity of the Rathor and Bhatian families into friendship. In 1485, she laid the foundation stone of the fort of Bikaner at the request of Rao Bika. In 1538, Karniji went to visit Maharaja of Jaisalmer. She was travelling back to Deshnok with her stepson Poonjar and few other followers on 21 March AD 1538. They were near Gadiyala and Girirajsar of Kolayat district in Bikaner district where she asked the caravan to stop for water. She disappeared there reportedly at the age of 151 years.

Known by many as the 8th wonder of the world, Karni Mata is definitely one of the most unusual places on the face of the Earth. As impossible as it may seem at this Hindu temple, humans live in perfect harmony with thousands of rats.

 Karni Mata rats

Karni Mata rats

The Karni Mata temple lies in Deshnok, only 30km from Bikaner, a city that connects with Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and other important cities, via one of India’s highways. It was first built in the 15th century, but was completed in the early 1900s by maharajah Gangha Singh, as a tribute to matriarch Shri Karni Mata, an important figure in Hindi religion, believed to have been a reincarnation of Durga, the goddess of power and victory. Gangha Singh also donated the temple’s beautifully crafted silver gates and many sculpted pieces of white marble.

 Karni Mata Temple entrance

Karni Mata Temple entrance

To better understand why thousands of people come here every day to worship and make offerings to these rats, it is important to know the legend behind the temple of Karni Mata. It is said that a long time ago, Karni Mata restored one of her devotee’s child back to life, from the hands of Yoma, the god of death. She then announced to all the people of her clan that she had struck a deal with Yoma and that from that moment on, none of them would fall into his hands again. Instead they would temporarily be turned into rats, before being reborn into the tribe.

 Bowl of rats

Bowl of rats

It might sound like any other fairytale but there are some things going on at Karni Mata that aren’t very easy to explain. Although there are over 20,000 rats living here, and no one prevents them from running away, none of them have ever tried to leave the temple. Everyone knows how scared rats are of humans and how they run away and hide as soon as they see us approaching, but not the ones at the Rat Temple. They instead walk around the devotees, minding their own business and sometimes climb on their shoulders, head or arms, which is considered to be a sign of blessing.

 Rats feeding

Rats feeding

Kaba, as the Karni Mata rats are called never once attacked any of the temple visitors and in all its history there hasn’t been any report of rat-related diseases. The devotees first offer grains, milk and sweets to the Kaba and then they share the leftovers among themselves. The water from which the Kaba drink is considered holy water.

Another interesting fact about the rats of Karni Mata is that no one really knows how they reproduce. Many believe that the female rats are taken to some sort of VIP maternity for rats where experts take care of the delivery. The reason behind this rumor is that no one has ever seen baby rats in the temple, all the Kaba are the same standard size and weight. And unlike normal rats, that reproduce incredibly fast, the number of rats at Karni Mata has remained constant, around 20,000, ever since anyone can remember.

 Karni Mata rats

Karni Mata rats

When visiting this holy place, people are obliged to take their shoes off, but if you think that’s disgusting, think again. Despite the large number of rats, Karni Mata Temple is reasonably clean and there are no unbearable odors.

The story of the temple is that a woman brought the body of her recently dead son to Karni Mata and asked her to restore the boy to life. Karni fell into a deep trance and encountered Yamaraja, the lord of death. But He told her that the boy had already accepted another body and could not be recalled. Karni refused to accept this and said that Yamaraja would no longer govern her tribe of Charans. At death they would enter the bodies of kabas, or sacred rats, and when the rats died they would be reborn as Charans. Karni Mata was an ascetic who led a righteous life dedicated to the service and upliftment of the poor and downtrodden of all communities. It is believed that she possessed supernatural powers. She laid the foundation of Deshnoke and her principal followers, Charans, as well as the rulers of Bikaner have worshiped her as a goddess.
Karni Mata Fair :
The Fair is held twice a year at Deshnoke. Twice a year, devotees throng Deshnoke to worship Goddess Durga and her incarnations. This coincides with the Karni Mata festival, which is held in the months of Vaishakha (April/May) and Kartika (October/November). The Karni Mata Fair is held in her honour. The Karni Mata temple at Deshnoke is a stone and marble structure, which is also known as Madh. The Rajputs bring their children on jadula (their first hair cut) and place them at the deity’s feet for blessing.
Worship and Rituals :
Charan priests perform Mangla-Ki-Aarti and offer bhog (special food) as worship. A peculiar characteristic of the temple is the legion of brown rats roaming about in large numbers in the temple, which are considered to be auspicious and the devotees make offerings to these rats. Two kinds of offerings are made to Karni Mata. The Dwar Bhent is distributed to the priests and the workers. The Kalash Bhent is utilised for the temple maintenance and development.
Reaching the temple :
During the Karni Mata Fair in Chaitra, (March- April) special buses and trains carry the pilgrims to Deshnoke. It is connected by rail and road with Bikaner, Nagaur, Jodhpur and Jaipur and regular buses ply on these routes.
Location :
This temple is situated in Deshnoke a small town near Nokha in Bikaner district.

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2 comments on “Karni Mata – The Rat Temple (Rajasthan, India)

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