Posted by: Ciaran | February 26, 2010

Changing places – ‘Rat Temple’, Bikaner

It is only when you remove your shoes that you realise how hot it is around Bikaner.  The incessant heat of India in August becomes bearable with time, but when your feet are not shielded by shoes and you are forced to pick your way through the detritus on the bald ground you appreciate how the midday sun has penetrated the earth as the heat creeps through your socks.

There is a slight queue for the temple and I wish that my feet were on its cooler marble floors.  But once I get inside I realise that it is impossible to tread a clear path through the Karni Mata Temple; or, to give it its other name, Rat Temple.

There is faeces everywhere; its dark, decaying omnipotence is outnumbered only by the volume of rats.  They drink from bowls of sweet milk, fight on the steps, and sleep as they hang off railings.

Rats drinking sweet milk at Karni Mata temple

Rats scamper around the temple, traversing across the bony feet of the man in front of me who does not flinch.  Instead, he squeaks excitedly; the rat is a Hindu god, and the crowds are enthralled by the cluster of rats lazing in the shade of the temple walls.

Two rats fight - or are they kissing and making up?

Outside, I get my shoes back.  Carefully, I peel off my socks – heavy now with hundreds of rat droppings compacted into them – and my bare feet touch the warm earth.  There is an audible intake of breath around me as I deposit my once-white socks into the bin.

I look down, and realise that none of the Indian men and women are even wearing socks.  Hiding my embarrassment, I force my feet quickly into my shoes and move away.  What were moments ago just a shield against the warmth of the ground become another reminder of a cultural barrier.

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