Back in the time of myth and mystery, a little boy struggled for his last gasp of air against a black tide. He gave a final sigh as he drowned in the river and his breath turned to bubbles and eddies on the surface of the water. His limbs floated weightlessly, graceful and delicate, as the life left his body.
His mother was a storyteller named Karni Mata, and she became distraught with grief. She begged Yama, the God of Death, to bring him back to life. Prostrating herself on the cold stone floor of the temple she cried "He is my youngest son, my sweetest boy. Please, restore my child to me and I will worship you forever."
But Yama was not able to do this for Karni Mata. However, he said that if Karni Mata died herself, then as the incarnation of Durga she could reanimate her child - and to this she agreed, on the condition that all her descendants would never die fully but would be reincarnated themselves as kabas - rats. As rats they would return as members of her family, and in this way she would be reunited with her son and they would live forever.
That's the romance of the story, at any rate. The reality, of course, is slightly different.
The Rat Temple at Deshnok is one of the more challenging temples for Westerners to visit, though this doesn't seem to stop the hordes of people and pilgrims who brave the building. The temple is an important place of pilgrimmage, and there is a constant stream of humanity arriving to buy prasad (offerings of holy sweets) and enter the temple hoping for good luck. Or if you're a traveller like me, arriving with a camera to take pictures of something that is completely beyond the grasp of any hygienic person (or government for that fact - can you imagine the occupational health and safety issues??).
Visiting the temple appears to be quite the social thing to do, with large family groups arriving; children right through to grandparents and aunts and uncles. Given the religious significance you can understand why, but I also suspect there's something of the circus about it - quite bluntly, it's like going to a sideshow.
So I took off my sandals and slipped on the little booties provided, and as I stepped inside the sacred building I understood why I'd been given them. The floor is not awash with thousands of rats, like the living moving carpet that I had imagined (how deliciously awful would that be - like something out of a nightmare), but it is covered with rat droppings and other unidentifiable muck. Nice.
There was a cluster of people gathered round a corner, and as I surreptitiously slid to the front of the crowd I realised why - there was a giant white rat in the corner. Any rat in the temple is good luck, but a white rat is extra special super good luck, though as I tried to take a picture a small child ran up and touched it and it disappeared back into the shadows.
So as I walked across the open atrium, the filth and putrescence didn't bother me as much as it might have. Which really was a stroke of incredible good fortune.
It meant I was able to ignore the mounds of rats sleeping huddled together. I was able to not be disgusted by their mangy open wounds.
I wasn't revolted by the massive cancerous growths on their undersides and I continued on my way.
The rats are constantly fed by pilgrims and tourists. They drink from giant flat bowls of sweet milk and eat sugar sweets and grains, fighting with the pigeons for the scraps. They sleep in the railings, on the doors, in piles on the floor, between pillars and the wall, their little paws clasped together and their hairless brown tails twitching with half-remembered dreams.
The stench is quite intense, and though people say the rats are healthy, I think it's said in the same way that the newspapers state that Connaught Place, in the shambles it's in, is practically completed and will be ready in two days' time. As if simply saying it makes it true - but there can be no way that those rats are healthy - it just cannot possibly be the case! - and I am staggered that the village of Deshnok hasn't succumbed entirely to an epidemic of the black plague.Check out this photo, it gives a pretty good idea of what the place is like ... and how cute is that little fellow in the middle of the frame, peering out at me from behind the door.
One of the girls I'm travelling with has a rat phobia too, so you can just imagine how much fun this was for her. To her credit The Southern Belle was determined to give it a try - an extreme example of flooding, you could call it - to see whether she could get past a lifetime of learnt fear.
She was doing well, but then at one point I turned around and she was standing absolutely still, rooted to the spot, with tears streaming down her face and her breath hitching violently in her chest. I retraced my steps through the rubbish, avoiding the scampering rodents to the left and right of me, and together we navigated a path to a clear spot where she was able to stop hyperventilating in desperate terror.
That was about as much as she could manage, so we began a slow walk towards the exit. On the way, this little boy showed us a white mouse he'd caught, and he was so proud, because touching one of the holy rats is the ultimate in good luck, and touching a holy white rat is like touching a god itself.
I'm just grateful, for his sake, that it was clean.