Monday, 22 February 2010

Rats to riches

I’d decided to head to Bikaner primarily in the search of rats; not just any rats, but holy rats. I’d arranged to be picked up by Mosheem who’d agreed to be my rickshaw driver for the day. I’d warmed to him when he’d picked up my business over other rickshaw drivers who were refusing to drop their prices below ‘rip-off’.

The following morning at precisely 9am as promised he arrived at Vinod’s guesthouse (a clean, friendly and very cheap place to stay and we set of on the 64km round trip to the small town called Desnoek made famous for its truly bizarre rat temple.

According to the Hindus who worship here, the rats are re-incarnations of dead storytellers (it's a long more here) so they deem rats to be sacred. The temple itself is modest in size and style by Hindu standards, but it is its hairy residents that are the real attraction. There are rats everywhere. As you stand barefoot in the temple, the fearless rats scurry and scamper over your feet, clamber across handrails or preen themselves atop shrines. Placed around the temple are large flattened bowls filled with milk where hungry rodents perch with milky moustaches; in other corners rats huddle together stuffing their faces with grain. Surprisingly, the rats aren’t as big or as ugly as one would expect given their daily calorific intake, but the sheer number of them and the slightly overpowering smell of rat pee are a tad off-putting.

Whilst I watched one of the holy men wafting a small tray of candles and incense about one of the shrines to Karni Mata, I watched as a female worshiper knelt down and kissed the floor. It should have been a moving experience watching someone worship their deity but all I could think about were the bacterial, parasitic and viral infections she could contract from kissing a floor contaminated with rat urine and faeces. I guess this particular God/ belief isn’t the one for me!

From Desnoek we headed back into town to visit Lalgarh Palace. Once the home of the Maharajah of Bikaner, it has now been converted to a heritage hotel with a small museum dedicated to the Bikaner Maharajahs and their families. The museum wasn’t overly exciting but there were a fair few photos documenting the lives of the current maharajah and his children. The maharajahs of each of the princely states of Rajasthan, whilst no longer head of state, generally contribute one way or another to their respective communities. This particular maharajah and one of his daughters compete in shooting competitions and have represented India in a number of competitions.

A brief tour of the museum and it was soon time to head to Junagarh – an impressive fort that stands over the city of Bikaner. To visit the fort you have no choice but to have a compulsory guide. I was in a group of locals and the guide was rushing us all in an out of each room giving me only the briefest explanation in English. I trailed behind and eventually managed to ‘lose’ the guide so that I could have a look around at a more leisurely pace.

As I came to the end of my tour I walked passed a man sat on a chair in front of the gift shop. ‘Where you from?’ he asked. ‘Here we go again’, I thought. I muttered ‘England’ and he responded with ‘How does it make you feel?’ I was taken aback by this (the second question is usually ‘You no friend?’) and asked him what he meant. ‘Well there was a time when England was in charge of India. Was that a good thing?’ Hmm a leading question. I explained that I wasn’t sure and that there was no way I could compare what India was like before, during and after British rule. I decided to turn the question back on him: ‘What do you think? Is India better now, since Independence?’ Surprisingly, he lent forward and quietly stated: ‘No, it’s not better’. ‘Let me tell you why’, he continued ‘The British gave us a lot. They built the roads, the railways, the schools. We still use everything the British gave us today.’ I joked we’d also given India cricket and now they use it to beat us every time. He laughed and then admitted he didn’t actually like cricket. It was a fascinating conversation and I was very surprised that a local would outwardly admit to a Brit that they thought British rule hadn’t been such a bad thing after all.

I had one more place to visit: the National Research Institute on Camel. At the institute various research projects are undertaken to find ways of making camel breeding profitable. I arrived to a panoramic vista of 30 camel backsides as they fed. Having a wander around I came across a pen of ‘stud camels’, saw the ‘camel dairy’ and finally came across the ‘project on agro processing and electric generation through camel draught’ (make of it what you will!). At the end of my short but amusing tour, I headed for the small café where it was possible to purchase camel milk, camel ice cream and camel cheese. I bought some pasteurized camel milk to drink: it was very creamy milk but with a definite essence of camel. I’m not sure I’d want it on my cereal for breakfast!


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