Published as: Of Rats, Rituals and Rajputs in THE HINDU Friday Review : 15th December, 2017 http://www.thehindu.com/society/faith/of-rats-rituals-and-rajputs/article21665281.ece
Recently, The Rajput Karni Seva, a self-styled outfit drew attention to itself by expressing its aggressive resentment against the depiction of certain Kshatriya values in the Bollywood film Padmavati. Significant of those Rajput beliefs are drawn from the cult of Karni Mata.
The 15thc sacred shrine of the Karni Mata also known as the Rat Temple of India is located in village Desnok 30 kilometers from Bikaner in the Marwar region of the Thar Desert.As one nears the temple, it is inevitable that the internet images of the more than 20,000 rats makes one skeptical on enduring the presence of the rodents and simultaneously reconciling to the blessing if a rat crawls over one’s feet.
Intricately carved rows of sculpted rats on the borders of the door panel with a tree of life in the center forms on the marble gates presents the theme of co-existence where predators and prey namely, rats, serpents, and squirrels and lizards are woven within the branches of the tree.
On crossing the threshold rats are evident everywhere in the courtyard and beyond and yet they fail to frighten. A sublime energy of calm fills the visitor who is transformed into a pilgrim. His audience with the image in the sanctum is intensified by the phonetic poetic devise sonorous flow dingal sung by the dholis, describing the story and miracles of Karni Mata.
The goddess as dharini represents the female principal in Nature, upholding human, animal and natural creation, she symbolizes compassion, coexistence, and nonviolence.
The ritual priests of the temple known as the Charan Brahmins draw on the one hand their ritual sacred identity as children of Karni Mata and on the other hand their antiquity from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and even the Jain Prabandha where they are mentioned as bards and minstrels. And while on the one hand, the Charans sing elegies and genealogies of monarchs that connect the Rajputs to mythological pasts and timeless dharma and which function to legitimize the power of the rulers; for example, a bardic rendition mentions that it was Karni Mata who defined the political territories for the Rajput rulers of Bikaner, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer. On the other hand, Karni Mata is perceived in other narratives as a protector of the pastoral and marginalized communities. The metaphor of the Goddess serves to invoke coexistence of disparate human classes and emphasis nonviolence.
The local spiritual creed of Karni Mata is linked to a larger canvas with that of the cult of the Great Mother Goddess – the idea of Shakti. Her story is connected to that of Devi Hinglaj whose temple is located within the Hingol National Park in the Lasbela District of Baluchistan on the Makran coast in Pakistan. It is one of the 52 Shakti peeth, which are major shrines associated with the cult of the Mother Goddess. Hinglaj Devi was reborn as Karni Mata to a Charnan Brahmin couple who had only daughters. From an early age, the child exhibited miracles and was bestowed the name Karni, ‘the doer’ by her paternal aunt when the latter was cured of her paralyzes. Later, to relieve her parents, young Karni married Kipoji Charan of Sathika village, but before the marriage was consummated she revealed herself as a Devi to her husband and commanded him to marry her younger sister by whom there were among several children four boys. When one male child died, it is believed that Karni went to ask for his life from Yama, the God of death who refused to say that to bring the boy alive will be an intervention in the natural cycle of life and death meant for all living organisms. Karni admitted that she was in the wrong, but her compassionate nature made her tell Yama that from now on, the responsibility of all the children from her family will be hers. They will be born in two forms – as rats or Kaaba and as men they are known as Charans. Secondly, they will remain in her in her service in the temple, and her space will remain for them until eternity their earth, heaven, and hell. As Kaaba they carry a special spiritual energy and an occasional white rat is a goddess herself. The sacred food blessed by the Kaabas is known to have cured ailments and diseases including plague. What is more amazing is that there has never been any plague or disease usually associated with rodents, neither is there any smell of dead Kaabas or attacks on the Kaabas by cats or desert snake, and even though they are fed with ample food, the Kaabas are all of one size.
The spiritual importance of the symbol of the Karni Mata as that of nonviolence, protector, peaceful coexistence and provider of the power legitimacy to the Rajputs who are supposed to function to uphold these values is ironically subverted by the Rajput Karni Sena in their assertion of a new kind of political power.