Home to a holy rat pack

Personal Journeys

A memorable placeRats - the...

August 02, 1998|By Kirk S. Nevin | Kirk S. Nevin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Home to a holy rat pack; A memorable place

Rats - the four-legged, whiskery, gray kind - don't normally play a big part in our travel plans.

The exception came on a hot, dusty day last winter when my wife, Susan, and I spent an afternoon at the Holy Rat Temple in Deshnok, Rajasthan, India.

The guidebook description intrigued us. The Karni Mata temple is home to thousands of holy rats, which are believed to be reincarnations of people hiding from the wrath of Yama, the god of death. The rats live very well: three meals a day plus an evening dessert of sweetmeats and warm milk. (Not so the holy cows of India, who generally fend for themselves.)

We arrived at the temple after two long days aboard packed Indian buses. The structure itself is quite striking, with huge silver gates and scores of intricate marble carvings, most donated by a generous devotee, the Maharaja Ganga Singh.

All visitors remove their shoes and socks just inside the temple gate. This sounds easy, but it is not, because the fat holy rats surround you as you sit down; they race across your bare feet (actually, this contact is deemed by rat devotees to be an auspicious sign for your future); the playful babies tug at your socks and crawl into your snug, warm shoes.

So you walk around a bit, admiring the ornate marble and gold and silver shrines. Those little spaces between your toes quickly fill with rat droppings.

And if you're incredibly lucky, as I was, the rat priest (he serves the "kabas," as the holy rats are known, in hopes that he will be reincarnated as a holy man) will approach you and bless you.

Even as the scurrying hordes of fat holy rats raced up our legs and across our bare feet, the priest confessed: I am old, and sick, and I must retire. He said he liked my big beard, and he had noticed that the rats seemed to like me.

Then, even as I basked in the fair light of this most generous compliment, he asked: "Would you like to take my place as the rat priest?"

Obviously, I was a bit overwhelmed by his offer. To be invited to live here, in this gorgeous desert temple, to perform daily the holy rites for the thousands of kabas, to come back in my next life as a true holy man ...

I was speechless. But, alas, Susan was not. She thanked the old man for his generous offer even as she led me back to our shoes (very important to dump out the baby rats before putting the shoes on) and hustled me out through those magnificent silver doors. She never looked back.

So now, whenever things get tough at home, I remind her that we could be living a life of luxury in a 500-year-old silver and marble temple in the Great Rajasthan Desert, surrounded by fat, happy kabas. And I remind her that maybe the old priest is still searching for the perfect man to take his place in the temple.

Perhaps it's not too late, I say, for me to realize my true personal spiritual destiny.

It is, she says, too late.

Kirk S. Nevin lives in White Hall.

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Pub Date: 8/02/98

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