Rats and royalty

This was a strange day, but in a nice way. Once more I had to open all the windows, make lots of noise and throw things at Hans to get him to wake up. Delayed, we skipped breakfast and hopped into the car. In a way, it’s a good job we were on an empty stomach.

Our first stop was the Karni Mata Temple at Deshnok, around 30m SW of Bikaner. From the outside, this is nothing special templewise. Nice gates, lovely carvings, bustling market around it and so forth. Our guide informed us that this particular temple has featured in National Geographic, and on the Discovery Channel. This means there has to be something different about it. And there certainly is.

Let me tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably? You won’t be for long…

Karni Mata was an incarnation of Durga, who lived in the 14th Century. He asked the God of Death (Yama) to restore life to the son of a grieving storyteller. Yama refused for whatever reason a God of Death would choose to do so – maybe he was having a bad day – and to spite him Karni Mata reincarnated all dead storytellers as rats, thus depriving Yama of a lot of human souls.

Do you see where this is going yet? OK, here’s a big clue. Lonely Planet has a boxed section for this temple with the headline “The Temple of Rats”.

The place is heaving with them. This is their building. The worshippers feed them, pray to them, eat food that has been blessed and smeared with rat saliva and hope to have a rat scamper over their tootsies as a sign of good fortune. Also good luck is to spot one of the rare white rats. Our driver saw one, but we didn’t although I did have a rat brush against my heel if that counts. Of course, we were barefoot – this is a temple after all.

You have to respect the number of people constantly filing through with offerings, kneeling to pray at a small altar which opens into a chamber where rats can be seen to “dine” on the food prepared for them. This is an important religious site, though I admit it was hard not to gawp and instead to maintain an interested but non-touristy attitude. I never thought I’d be close enough to a rat that I’d have to use the macro mode on my camera to take a picture of it.

Hans and I both agreed that it was probably one of the weirdest places we have yet been – and trust me, Hans has been to a lot of places. As I said above, though, it’s not a sideshow – it’s a religious ground and a hugely important one to the Hindus who worship there.

With our shoes safely back on our feet, I had a brief conversation with a passing cow that loved being scratched underneath the eye (she kept following me when I walked off) and then we jumped into the car to be driven to Jodhpur.

We got to Jodhpur at around 2pm and were somewhat starving by this point. Well, I was. Hans slept through most of the journey! We opted to go straight to some accomodation and worry about everything else afterwards. Our driver took us to the Durag Villas Guest House which was nice enough, but we’d been recommended the Govind Hotel near the station. However, when we mentioned we wanted to check out the options, our driver said “You want to look one more place? How about that one?” and pointed out the building next door.

This was the Durag Niwas Guest House run by the same people as the Villas. Well, why not? We popped in and something just clicked. Cool, relaxed, cushioned areas to crash in, curtains tied up around the place, lovely decor in the rooms – and a good price. Rather than mess around as we’d done the previous day we decided just to take it and perhaps look at the Govind ourselves later on.

Two other things swung it for us: a) I was starving and this place sold food; b) the owner said that he had a free pass to go and watch the polo at the palace with the Maharajha at 3:00 and we were invited, regardless of whether we stayed at the Guest House or not.

Polo. With royalty. And food.

Yeah, we took the room. Looking back, this was a good decision and it was a lovely place to stay. I just opted for a nice and quick scrambled egg on toast to tide me over till dinner and we bundled into the car to go to the palace.

Our local friends walked us to the seated area and we plonked ourselves on a wall in the back row – all the chairs had been taken. Free Pepsi was dished around, a regular (“we call him the Candy Man as he always brings the cheapest sweets he can find from the market and passes them to everyone”) lived up to his nickname and I forgot to check out the toilets which, despite being in a tent by the side of a field, are apparently magnificent.

The match we watched was a cup final between the Maharajah’s side and a team from Malaysia. I didn’t know the rules of polo beforehand and now I’m even more confused, but at least I can say I sat in the same stand as a senior royal and watched 8 people on horseback swing mallets around. The Maharajah’s team won, although the visitors were giving them a scare towards full time. During the game we had a one-man commentary over the PA system by a very posh-sounding Indian chap. He did a good job considering his viewpoint was the same as ours and he often couldn’t quite see what was happening.

Once we got back to the hostel, we relieved our driver of duty for the day and settled in properly before going for a walk in town just as the sun started to dip. Our aim was to find the Govind Hotel which – eventually – we did. I have to say one thing about India I don’t like is the smell. This isn’t something I’ve mentioned about any country I’ve yet been to. The thing is, the male population of every other country doesn’t treat any available upright surface as an outdoor lavatory. OK, back home you have a few beers, you’re staggering along and you nip up an alley way for a quick piddle against a dumpster. In India, you’ll struggle to walk along any road and not see a guy having a pee somewhere. Some areas smell like the lifts in a Glasgow tenament building. It’s that bad.

But, hey, it’s all part of the experience.

Despite the late hour, Jodhpur was bustling and we dodged the traffic as we weaved across roads, and tried to avoid eye contact with anyone who had anything to sell. I guess we’re both a bit jaded by now, but the traffic and the hawkers just don’t bother us any more. Hans’ usual trick is to tell them that whatever they’re trying to sell, I want it. Any children coming up miming food and saying “bon-bon?” are told that “I don’t have bon-bon’s – he has bon-bons” and a finger is pointed in my direction. I have now taken to pre-empting this and running point, so I encounter them first and can push them towards Hans who is now the man who has to admit that his friend is a liar.

Eventually, and about 45 minutes later than we expected given the map we were following, we located the hotel. We popped in and asked to see the rooms. In honesty, they were OK but the one we were already in was a better choice, as well as 50Rp a night cheaper. However, the girls had partly recommended the place on the basis of the restaurant so we walked up several flights to the roof. Apparently there is a fort view but as it was night-time by now, we couldn’t see it. Not to worry – what was much more important was the menu.

It was varied and we sampled a bit of everything. Hans went Indian, I went western (beans on toast, pizza with everything, strawberry milkshake with ice cream and fruit salad dessert). In my defense, the beans were slightly curried.

We got talking to an American couple who’d been visiting some friends before doing a few days’ touring and then heading home – to Canterbury in England. The pleasant company made dinner go that bit quicker and all too soon they had to head off to catch their train.

Hans and I wandered the streets looking for an internet den where the PCs looked less than 15 years old and eventually settled on one around 20 minutes’ walk away. Emails done and other destinations checked out, we walked back to the guest house in near complete darkness and called it a night. A good, if weird, day.

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