Home > Hindu, India, National Parks, Rajasthan, Travel, Trekking > Temple Rats and Desert Camels

Temple Rats and Desert Camels

To settle the stomach and generally reinvigorate ourselves, the following day we visited a temple infested with rats. Hindu legend states that an incarnation of Durga named Karni Mata reincarnated all dead storytellers as rats and housed them at the temple in Deshnok. The holy rodents are named ’Kabas’ and scurry across the marble floor, peep out from every hole and drink from large vats of milk. One is required to stroll the premises bare foot, a mark of respect which we observed while we waited for the auspicious ’white rat’ to appear. After some time we concluded it must have been his day off; neither of us was inclined to wait for him to grace us with his presence, so we joined with some other perplexed tourists for a cup of chai over the road. Staring into my milky tea a rather disturbing episode of the Simpsons came to mind. You may have seen it, Bart discovers that the milk he has been drinking at school was drawn from the teats of rats.

I fear the above comments may have painted a rather unfavourable image of Bikaner in the reader’s mind. The old town itself is actually a pleasant melting pot of colourful Rajasthani buildings, all packed into tight lanes and surrounded by Hindu, Jain and Muslim temples. As the warm evening sun sets on the horizon and the Mosques call to prayer, the town takes on a magical glow. Strolling the streets the tourist count is pleasingly low, with only the odd child smiling gleefully as they chirp, “hello, one school pen?”. All the locals seemed to know ’Vino’s Guest House’, as it is one of the few traveller haunts in the town and also the principle provider of Camel Safaris.

The night before our safari began we realised we were woefully unprepared for the event. We had no idea if we were sleeping in tents or guest houses, who the three other people in our group were, or the names of our camels. We reassured ourselves that this was an Indian ’no problem’ style safari, everything sorts itself out in the end. Our train consisted of Hazell and I, three lovely Austrians, two camels pulling carts, three more camels for us to ride and a predictably large number of camel men who would all need tipping at the end. We questioned the need for the carts initially, but anyone who has ridden a camel will know that after an hour or so the cart is a necessity. The act of mounting and dismounting a camel is also rather amusing; they have two sets of knees leading to a rather jerky movement. On the way up one is flung backwards, and on the way down my face nearly hit the floor before my legs. To complete the comedy show, when upright they like to remove the flies from their body by kicking themselves, sending anything on its back swaying left to right.

Despite these discomforts, I came to quite like camels. They were content just plodding along, a large grin spread across their faces, much the same as the goats on the shrubby plains. Everyone has heard the theory that dogs look like their owners, but I was surprised to find this is the case with camels as well. As I watched Hazell bob along, I looked at the camel’s face and saw it reflected in the owner next to me. The camel chewed in a horizontal fashion, while the owner did same, using his widely dispersed teeth to soften a mouthful of tobacco. In a touching display of solidarity he then put some of his tobacco in his animal friend’s mouth, and they continued to chew merrily together.

The ’desert’ was actually less deserty than we had expected, with plenty of shrubs and trees. It was still a pleasant experience nonetheless, particularly as we rolled through local villages and allowed the camels to drink from the water troughs. On these occasions we became the main attraction and the whole village would stand and stare at the white people, laughing heartily as the camels lowered their heads to the water nearly sending us in. We would stop to camp for the night as the sun began to go down, at which point common sense told us we should put the tents up in the light; but this was camping with Indians. First we would have chai and sit chatting, then dinner would be cooked and eaten, by which time it was pitch black. Our assistants would then scramble around trying to put the tents up in the dark, eventually resorting to using the torches only we had packed. This ritual occurred on both nights and became even more comical when all the torch batteries had run out.

Camping under the stars is one of the wonders of being in a desert area. The sky is beautifully clear and a captivating level of detail is perceptible. Shooting stars appear with regularity and unfamiliar clusters twinkle brightly. In the morning the heat gradually returns as the sun rises, but the moon remains in the sky long into daylight. Cold at night and hot in the midday sun was the general climate, and in our long lunch breaks we got to know our English speaking guide a little better. He displayed a common trait in Indian youngsters; he wanted to prove to us that his country is developed too, and took more interest in his mobile phone than enlightening us about our surroundings. He gleefully informed us that he had a ‘60%’ girlfriend in Holland, which provoked the obvious question, ‘what happened to the other 40%?’ He explained they had been having difficulties recently and things were on the rocks. I gave my sympathy, which dwindled considerably when I asked her name. ‘I call her Malai Kofta’, he replied. ‘As in the creamy curry dish consisting of a minced vegetable Kebab?’, I queried. ‘Yes’, he said proudly, ‘it’s my favourite dish at the Laxmi Restaurant in Bikaner’. Now, call me old fashioned, (this man was indeed younger than me), but I was under the impression that women don’t like to be nicknamed according to their partners favourite curry. In days past, I fear my courtship with Hazell may have suffered slightly if I had insisted on calling her ‘Chicken Tikka Balti’. I concluded that he was lucky to still have a 60% girlfriend.

We had a pleasant jaunt through the desert for three days, finally coming full circle. We all agreed that this duration of safari was ample as we tended to our bruised backsides. Pleasant as they are, these experiences are not going to challenge or change a person on their travels. One thing that did strike home however was India’s litter problem. Even in the beautiful desert, everyone, including our guides, threw litter on the floor. It is impossible to keep lecturing on the importance of keeping their environment clean, but it is a problem India and its inhabitants need to tackle. Simple waste collection needs to be implemented, but this comes at a cost, as does the education required to encourage inhabitants to care for their environment. It makes such a difference if these beautiful surroundings are kept litter free; they are the source of the guides income and it is therefore puzzling why they are so mistreated. India is a place full of these frustrations, contrasts and paradoxes, often displaying attitudes incomprehensible to the rest of the world. That said, the Malai Kofta at the Laxmi Hotel in Bikaner is exceedingly good.

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