I watched the patch of moisture on the glass window of the SUV reach outward as I exhaled onto it, my nose pressed against the window, eyes firmly set on the icy, razor back peak beyond. We were at Khardung La, 18,370 feet above sea level, the highest motorable
(if it can be called that!) road in the world. Bone chilling winds penetrated into the jacket I huddled into as we stepped out into the rarefied air taking in the view around. Clear blue skies above, barren brown snow capped ranges glistening in the morning sun and the road lined with loose rock and melted snow. After an arduous drive from Leh at 11,000 feet the cup of steaming hot lemon tea and bowl of watery maggi was welcome. A bright yellow board swathed in colourful prayer flags welcomed us to the highest point in the world along with a warning, not to stay beyond thirty minutes. Rows and rows of faded colourful prayer flags fluttered against miles of stark white snow. Nature in all her fury and beauty both apparent here and the faith of the Ladhakis in a higher omnipresent power apparent in the infinite number of prayer flags strung between peaks and all around this little pass which is also an army outpost.
Between sips of reinvigorating lemon tea I stared at the prayer flags, arranged from left to right blue, white, red, green, and yellow representing the five elements. Horizontal prayer flags (Lung Ta) connected along their top edges to a long string hung from high to low between rocks were visible all across. Tibetans believe that prayer flags spread goodness, prayer, mantras and blessings to all as the wind that passes over them spreads it into the universe. To me as I struggled to keep out the cold winds from entering my bones and the nausea that was inevitable at that height, the prayer flags symbolized an uncanny faith of the people in a higher power even in this perilous terrain.
Memories of the trip across Khardung La’s treacherous slopes and the fluttering prayer flags resurfaced while driving along miles of common grassland in Bikaner. This grassland- gochar or grazing lands belongs to the famous Karni Mata Temple Deshnok. Dotted with scrub vegetation, ber and khejri trees the grasslands extend for miles into the horizon, blurring the distance between heaven and earth. During the months of October and November, devotees who throng the renowned temple perform a parikrama here where in they offer their prayers and tie red cloth onto the ber and khejri trees. Red chunaris, scarves even bangles dot the barren landscape tied onto a tree ,a prayer on the lips of the devotees mostly women who walk for miles from their villages across Rajasthan to get here, their resilient faith enabling them to undertake this strenuous walk.
Legends and myths abound across the sands of the Thar and those surrounding the Karni Temple have remained popular in local folklore as well. What sets this temple apart from others in the country is the fact that thousands of rats live and are worshipped here. That alone makes it a fascinating place for tourists both Indian and International to visit. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Karni, who is regarded as a reincarnation of Durga, the Goddess of power and victory. Legend has it that the descendants of Karni Mata are reincarnated as rats more popularly known as kabbas. Karni Mata is believed to have lived here and performed several miracles during her time in the 14th century.
The temple was created after her mysterious disappearance from Deshnok and completed in the Mughal style in the 20th century by Maharaja Ganga Singh ji of Bikaner. White marble walls with fine engravings make up the temple fascade. Two massive exquisitely carved silver doors were donated by a devotee and at the entrance a carved marble lion sculpture sits and looks on at the temple as it bustles with activity all the year through. But it is not for its architecture that this temple has attained so much fame but for the abundance of rats. At first sight it can be overwhelming for someone who comes here for the first time to see the thousands of rats scampering about the temple premises. Most of the rats are black, and the few white ones are considered Holy. Spotting a white one is deemed good luck and if you were to visit the temple and see a group of people crowding in a corner chattering excitedly rest assured a white kabba has been located.
Rituals begin at 4 AM every morning and are performed by a selected group of priests from the Charan community who make up the majority of the population of this small town of Deshnok. Murky incense spreads through the air as prayers are offered in the main shrine. Kabas wander about undisturbed by the presence of devotees and priests and are venerated and fed by the devotees. As dusk arrives and the evening prayers begin you can spot men and women sitting cross legged on the floor, chanting their prayers, oblivious to the scurrying rats, enlivened with the hope that their prayer to the Goddess will be heard.
On my first visit to the temple, like most people I too could not keep my eyes off the rats as they oscillated between definitive states of action and lifeless inertia in the temple complex. The initial unease at this unique sight is of an ephemeral nature. Over the years the people of Bikaner and across India have developed an unfettered faith in the temple and the Goddess who presides over it. From the historic Maharajas of Bikaner and Jodhpur who worshipped the Goddess to the present day population, this temple presents a unique tapestry of infinite magnificence and incomprehensible trust that the people have for the deity.
Bikaner in all respects is a small town at heart , it’s people are good-natured with infectious warmth draped in absolute conservativeness. For the city, its surrounding villages and the areas around the temple, Karni Mandir is not just a temple that stands out because of the distinctive presence of rats. For them, this temple has been celebrated in timelessness and has been a protector and guardian over generations.
One of the first stories that was narrated to me when I reached Bikaner was one from the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Being cheek and jowl with the Pakistan border, Bikaner was at risk from the constant cross border shelling and air attacks. But the city and district remained safe during the war, a miracle that the people attribute to the beneficence and miraculous power of Karni Mata.
Since this story sounded much like the one surrounding the Tanot Mata temple in Jaisalmer, I was inclined not to pay too much heed to it when I first got posted as District Collector Bikaner. One night only a few weeks after I had joined the district, a firecracker godown in the heart of the city caught fire. As I paced up and down the Circuit House corridors that night, uneasy and concerned, alternating between phone calls and instructions hoping against hope that the inevitable casualties could be avoided, a concerned staff member of the Circuit House tried to placate me by narrating an event from 2002.
Army trucks loaded with ammunition for Operation Parakram had caught fire one January afternoon in the cantonment only about half a kilometer from the city. Around 1,000 tonnes of ammunition was reduced to ashes and the sound of explosions had shaken the city with several people still recounting having seen missiles that had fallen around the city. He recalled the panic that had ensued on that day but gently added, “Karni Mata protected the city,like she always does- the damage could have been huge, there were only two casualties. Don’t worry madam- this fire will be put out as well”
That night his narrative for me was like an attempt to offer chamomile tea to a raging bull – I was too perturbed to take heed of what he was saying. But as the fire tenders and officials labored interminably at the site of the firecracker godown, and the fire was put out with no casualties, I found myself marveling at the miraculous escape we had just had. Could his story have been true? Did Karni Mata really protect the city?
That night as I slept my mind was in a kerfuffle -grappling with the overwhelming need to stick to my rational notions and avoid getting into the ocean of inexplicable eccentricities that I thought this small town held. One thing was for sure, faith did over-ride rationality sometimes and possibly this was one more incident.
In May 2014 around 300 labourers in an industrial area in Bikaner, fell ill after consuming contaiminated water. Doctors suspected a cholera outbreak. Around 80 persons were admitted in hospital and more kept pouring in. We set up a temporary clinic in the industrial area and camped there along with other officials and doctors for a few days. We found several dehydrated labourers and the count was going up steadily. Teams worked round the clock ,frenzied activity all around, administering medication, intravenous fluids and checking factories and water samples. The situation was overwhelming to say the least. As dawn broke on the fifth day, a peon in the office, offered solicitous advice, “they will all recover, Karni Mata will take care.” For the second time round I was disinclined to believe what he said, the people lying all around me debilitated by severe dehydration hardly looked like they were on their way to recovery. As far as I was concerned, mostly the peon seemed to have tableaux of anecdotes to narrate, this was more serious stuff. Much to my disbelief and relief, the 300 persons who had taken severely ill began to recover; the unabated efforts of the untiring doctors and medical staff seemed to have paid off. Could it possibly have been a premonition coming true?
Mark Twain defined faith, “as believing what you know ain’t so”. Normally faith and rationality appear to be in conflict divided by some unbridgeable chasm. In Bikaner, however, the Karni Mandir of Deshnok evokes a faith where reason and faith work together seamlessly. Thinkers and philosophers the world over have written reams on the domains governed by faith and reason. For a cynic faith could seem like an occasion to suspend one’s critical faculties, but for the unseen Ladhakis who strung prayer flags across the treacherous Khardung La Pass probably faith gave them the capacity to deal with the exigencies of a hostile environment. For the thousands who throng the Karni Mata temple, faith in its miraculous powers is an orchestration of collective human optimism. For me the implicit faith of the people in the temple is humbling and probably a bedrock for a faith in humanity itself.