We left Delhi at 5am Sunday morning and after fourteen or so hours in the car, we reached Bikaner, a city described by Lonely Planet as “a dust-swirling desert city… Streets feel medieval - narrow, dark and uneven complete with open sewers”. It was in Bikaner that we spent the first night, luckily finding an acceptable hotel on our first try. We went for a walk to and in the old city and after about 10 minutes decided to head back to the hotel for an easily forgettable dinner and an early night. It was also more than obvious to me that Ulco was not having a good time. Not at all. I have to admit, it was a pretty lousy introduction to India. As I mentioned before, this trip to India was Ulco stepping way out of his comfort zone and I really have no idea where it will all lead. If he likes it, great. If he hates it, then he is in for a long two weeks.
Today we were all surprised to find the sandstone Junagarh Fort and a few extra sights to explore. All to soon, or not quite soon enough (depending on who you were asking) we were off to our real reason for staying a night in the oh so charming city of Bikaner; the Karni Mata Temple about thirty miles south in the otherwise nondescript town of Deshnok. In spite of having traveled over fourteen hours on bumpy roads through towns with no names and no plumbing, I had absolutely no intention of going into the temple… I just wanted to see it. I knew Jon and Ulco would not go in. In fact, I had told everyone not to mention the temple to Ulco until we were closer, because I did not want to give him too much time to get himself all worked up. I lasted about 6 hours into the drive and then spilled the beans. The only person in our party with firm plans to enter the temple was Manuel.
Perhaps I should explain a bit about the Karni Mata Temple. This temple is more commonly referred to as the Temple of Rats. As the name implies, the temple is home to thousands of rats. It is an important pilgrimage site and people bring all sorts of food offerings like sugar balls and other sweet foods for the rats. Devout believers actually eat prasad with some holy rat saliva in it, which is believed to bring about good fortune.
Once we arrived in Deshnok, I had a bit of a change of heart. I decided I was not going to let a few thousand rats bully me out of any place. I promptly removed my sandals and headed for the entrance. Yes, it is required to go in bare feet. I know. The “ick” factor goes way up, but I still was not planning to go all the way in, I just wanted a peek so I could write about it, and the temple itself seemed to have some very interesting carvings. I could feel the blood leaving my head as I got closer and I felt a bit dizzy. Standing in line did not help my anxiety and I had pictures of the floor of the temple being covered in rats and having to shuffle my way through the heaps and heaps of rodents that were just a few meters away. I wondered if they would nibble at my toes. What if it was all so horrific I fainted? Would the rats run all over my body? I wanted to back out, but I was not going to let some shriveled little raisin of an old lady be a braver man than I.
I took a deep breath and stepped into the temple. To the right were a few hundred rats, all minding their town business, eating and drinking and just being merry. There were not rats covering the temple floor. They were not running up my legs – I was in shorts, but still! They were not pouring out of the walls like the snakes in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and except for a couple of times when one went running across the main area, they stayed in their little areas. It is considered auspicious for a rat to run across your feet, but the closest one got to mine was about 6 inches, and that was my own doing. In spite of a life-long fear of rats, I was calm and relaxed in the temple and really enjoyed just watching the rats do their rat things.
I left the temple feeling a bit high. I had confronted my fear head on and found it to be far worse than any reality. I couldn’t believe I had actually done it, but I did and I was quite impressed with myself.
After visiting the Karni Mata Temple, we decided to drop in on the National Research Centre on Camels and discovered they were closed. I wanted to see camels and Jon wanted a pair of camel leather slippers, but the camels were out on safari or doing whatever it is camels do when they are not at home so we decided to just head to Jaisalmer. As we were heading back into Bikaner to pick up the main road, we got a bit lost, but that turned out to be a very nice surprise. We went a bit out of our way, but soon came across a collection of domes and so we all agreed to stop the car for some photos. It turned out these were no ordinary, run of the mill sandstone and marble constructions, these were the cenotaphs for the Bika dynasty of rulers in Devi Kund. Not only that, but we were allowed to go in and there were no other visitors. We had the place all to ourselves and it was amazing, with hundreds of elaborately carved arches and pillars and fantastically preserved and cared for, which unfortunately is a bit of a rarity in India. One of the keepers opened a small door/window for us, which when climbed into provided a fantastic scene of thousands of blooming lily pads and a few white cranes with a backdrop of white domes.
Next stop, the golden city of Jaisalmer.