The Place Where Rats Are King
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one of these furry guys could be your next bestie.
Pet Love: A global look at cozy relationships between people and animals.
New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with rats. Pizza Rat — the one seen hustling down a flight of stairs with a fine-looking slice in a video that has racked up more than 8.35 million YouTube views — inspired countless Halloween costumes. That said, almost no New Yorker would intentionally hang out with a real one. If that appeals, we’ve got a destination for you.
In India, 20,000 rats live in the Karni Mata, a Hindu temple.
This temple is no joke. People from all over India make pilgrimages to pay their respects to the revered black rats. If you’re a die-hard Amazing Race fan, you might have heard of it — it was featured on the show’s very first episode way back when. The Temple of Rats was built in the early 1900s and, with its touches of silver and marble, is a far cry from Manhattan’s sewers and subway tracks. There are even golden rat statues — that’s the price you have to pay for killing one of the temple’s tiny inhabitants. According to Pankaj Jain, a professor at the University of North Texas who holds a Ph.D. in Hinduism, this is a way to remind people that hurting any being is “like hurting yourself.”
Visitors hope to get up close and personal with the rats, known as kabbas, or children. Don’t worry if they nibble on your food or scamper over your bare feet (no shoes allowed), which in unenlightened NYC is the cue for “start screaming.” Here it’s a good omen! Luckily, the temple has never had any outbreaks of diseases, like the plague, which is still a thing. Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at the University of Southern California, says rats are considered a symbol of prosperity. Also, these critters are believed to be the reincarnation of Karni Mata, the Goddess of Rats. One version of the story goes that a relative of Mata’s was drowning. Mata begged the God of Death to save the boy, but it was too late. Mata reincarnated him and her future descendants as rats so they could live on.
This temple isn’t as wild as it might seem to outsiders. Linda Hess, a senior lecturer on Hinduism at Stanford, says it should be viewed within the wider context of Hinduism. She worries that “it’s so weird that people might think these people are strange and wonder what the hell is going on.” Hindu literature has an “unstoppable wealth of stories and deities and mythology,” she says, and rats are just one of many. Jain adds that Americans love dogs and cats, and for Hindus, rats are no different.
So if you’re thinking, why rats? The real question should be, why not rats? If you get reincarnated, you just might come back as one.