With my camel safari completed, I headed east from Jaisalmer to the town of Bikaner. I'd decided to stop here on the unavoidably convoluted way to Amritsar, and reading about it, it had sounded like a fun place to visit. In the event, Bikaner itself was overshadowed by the Karni Mata Temple in nearby Deshnok, which is one of the most astounding sights I've ever seen. A 30km bus ride out of town, the Karni Mata Temple is, on the face of it, just another Hindu temple, but go inside and it's a scream. Literally.
In this country of animal worshippers, it's obvious why some animals are holy. The cow gives milk, an incredibly useful product; the monkey makes for good stories; the elephant and tiger are wild, mighty and graceful; and the swan, garuda and others are slightly mysterious and look great in pictures and carvings. Indeed, worshipping animals has always struck me as a great way to ensure that devotees live in harmony with nature, and that's a good thing, even if you aren't a believer in the religion itself. But the rat has never struck me as a holy animal however hard I think about it, and that's why Karni Mata is so intriguing.
The place is infested with rats, quite intentionally; the rats at Karni Mata are regarded as future incarnations of sadhus and mystics, which might go some way to explaining the ragged appearance of sadhus and mystics once they're reincarnated as humans. Removing your shoes at the entrance to the temple isn't so much a mark of respect to the Hindu faith; it's more a test of endurance that even Indiana Jones would consider twice. Black rats scamper everywhere, crawling into holes, lapping up milk and water from bowls, nibbling at prasad (food given as offerings) and sleeping in the shade of the marble walls. At first the sight is a little disturbing, but it soon becomes apparent that the rats are more scared of you than you are of them, and the scene melts from something out of a James Herbert novel into yet another interesting cultural event.
Before setting off for the temple, I got into a conversation with some shop owners in Bikaner who told me about the temple. Brandishing a small painting of the temple's Durga shrine, they pointed to the rats eating offerings on the steps; in the middle was a white rat, the only one, and they told me that just one white rat lived in the temple, and that it was a very special rat. If it looked at you it was very good luck, and if you touched it, it was even better. I thanked them for the information and headed off.
Imagine my amazement, then, when I wandered over to a corner of the temple where a small crowd was gathered round a pile of bricks, and discovered a white rat cowering inside the rubble. Hindus were bowing to the rat, holding their hands together in prayer and whispering to each other in excited tones. I sat around, fascinated that a rat could inspire such worship, and waited for something to happen.
Soon enough the people drifted away and the rat, sensing an escape opportunity, popped its head out and made a dash for it. I followed it slowly, tracking it down among a group of black rats, where it was trying unsuccessfully to blend into the crowd. As I ambled closer it seemed to stop, sniff the air and sense something; then it fixed its beady eyes on mine for about ten seconds before breaking contact and getting back to the business of trying to merge into the crowd. Slightly surprised to find myself excited by this symbolic event, I shuffled forward slowly, and after a few minutes of slow footwork, I managed to reach out and stroke its back. By this stage a few Hindus had followed me, ostensibly to see what the funny white man was doing (a white man among black men being as interesting as a white rat among black rats), and they soon started their prayers again. I snapped a picture and suddenly the white rat was gone, down a hole and away from the crowds.
My good luck didn't start immediately, if it started at all. I sat down to contemplate my good fortune, and instantly the one-rupee-one-pen crowd homed in and started their litany. It was hot and I wasn't really in the mood for this; the only sure-fire way to get rid of these kids is to pretend to lose your temper, but you can't do that in a temple, and all I wanted was a bit of peace in which to watch the rodent seekers do their bit. Instead I ended up with a bunch of kids who understood no English and who wouldn't take 'No' for an answer. The conversation went something like this.
'Ah, Marr. Town name?'
'Ah, Burma. Father's name?'
'Ah, Ear. Brother's name?'
'Ah, Anroo. Uncle's name?'
'Ah, Whichwun. Yes.'
At which point I gave up, found my shoes and the bus back to Bikaner, and went exploring the town itself. There's only so much you can do with the one-rupee-one-pen crowd in the heat of an Indian summer...
As the afternoon sun sweltered its way across the sky, I found time to visit the maharaja's fortress, and the old city bazaars with their windy streets. Unfortunately the Junagarh Fort cost a small fortune to enter, and then I could only go round in the company of a guide (who wanted baksheesh to show me all the rooms, which I paid in the vain hope that the 'hidden' rooms would be worth the effort, which they weren't). The upshot was that yet again I poured money into the coffers of some fat landlord who had quite justifiably been axed from his feudal position and who was now bleeding tourists instead of serfs. Every maharaja's palace I visit makes me love old George more and more; at least he had style.
But it wasn't Bikaner's fault that I didn't enjoy myself, it was mine. Yet again I came across a town fairly untainted by tourism1, and yet again I found wonderfully friendly people who wanted to talk, swap addresses and shake my hand. The problem was that I wasn't in the mood; perhaps I was tired from my delayed and over-long ten-hour bus ride from Jaisalmer, or perhaps the heat of the plains is getting me down, but I felt totally uninspired and far from friendly. But you can't inflict your moods on well-meaning and kind people, and having to keep smiling ended up as a bit of a strain. I even got invited into one particularly kind man's hotel room where he introduced me to his son, who was sitting his medical school entrance exams in Bikaner, and of whom he was incredibly proud; he lost no opportunity in singing his son's praises, he fed me bananas and chai, and he was eloquently fascinating. How can you be mean to people like that? I can't, but I found my energy rapidly draining away.
I felt like you do after a miserable night's sleep, a crappy day at work and a bad drive home, and then you have to attend a cocktail party that you don't want to go to; the normal course of events is that you put on a brave face, and when you get home you announce to your spouse, 'That's the last bloody charity/school reunion/golf club party we're going to.' Unfortunately I have no spouse at whom to let off steam, so instead I smiled all the way onto the 1am train north.
So I think the white rat's luck took a while to kick in. One thing's for sure: I certainly felt ratty as I headed north to Amritsar.
1 Though judging by the figures, Bikaner is on the up. In 1980, 1759 foreigners and 54,724 Indians visited the fort. In 1997 this had shot up to 21,809 foreigners and 158,180 Indians. It looks like Bikaner will soon change...