23 March 2018 – ‘And that is why I hate foreigners. They never bathe’ Shilpa concluded with a friendly smile. I was on the bus to Karni Mata, a Rat Temple not far from the Rajasthani desert-town of Bikaner, and my closest seatmate had introduced herself and struck up a conversation. Apparently Shilpa’s dislike of foreigners stems from her impression that we only bathe once a week. I was on my way to visit a temple devoted to celebrating rats; it felt a bit surreal to debate about who had the cleanest habits. I started to argue and then realised I hadn’t showered that morning myself and staying in rooms with paper-thin walls next to Indian travellers I’ve noticed how fastidious they often are with their bathroom routines.
But Shilpa didn’t really mind – putting aside her issues with our general cleanliness she was full of questions about me and my trip, and then we talked about a family birthday she’d recently been at. She showed me photos from the party, most of them featuring an overweight Golden Retriever (‘This chap’ said Shilpa fondly ‘is named Toffee’). As we scrolled through photos of Toffee reclining on the couch and eating someone else’s birthday cake, it occurred to me that I’d never put a lot of thought into what ‘the locals’ think of us, foreigners wandering around their country for months at a time. Especially ones like me, a woman on her own. I’m a brave girl, I’ve been told, with both disapproval and admiration. I’ve been asked where my parents are; if I have a husband and kids and if so, where are they; and how many members of my family are here in India with me. My thinness and overall reasonable fitness level seem to be points of interest. Shilpa asked me for fat-loss tips but when I suggested running several kilometers a day she shuddered.
Arriving at Karni Mata I kicked off my flip flops and joined the queue of worshippers shuffling through the gates into the massive pink temple’s courtyard.
Approximately 25 000 holy rats live in the temple and people travel great distances to pay their respects to these auspicious rodents, considered to be the reincarnated offspring of a warrior-goddess.
Rats perched on the shrines; rats fought in the corners; rats swung from garlands of red and yellow flowers and scurried across the floor and around my feet.
Food-offerings lay in little piles (along with copious amounts of rat-droppings) and the sacred animals feasted and then perched on the edges of big shallow pans to drink milk.
My somewhat dirty feet got dirtier. I was glad Shilpa wasn’t around to see them.
Finished at the temple, I caught a bus going back to Bikaner. In India, people stare. They stare and they don’t mind if you catch them at it. So I was not surprised to find I had another curious seatmate: she took selfies of us and then I watched out the corner of my eye as she WhatsApp’d the pictures to her friends.
I’d got to Bikaner in the first place by night train from Amritsar. Some would say train travel in India is not for the faint of heart (some would say that India itself is not for the faint of heart, for that matter). I’d booked a bunk on the train to Ambala planning to change trains there and carry on to Bikaner – but as often happens on Indian Railways, I was waitlisted on the connecting train, meaning I could end up stuck between cities for the night. So I boarded the first one just hoping for the best. My gamble worked – arriving in Ambala at midnight, I found out I was off the waitlist and on the next train.
Safely aboard my connector, I brushed my teeth in the sink at the end of the carriage and watched in the mirror as a cabinet door in the wall behind me slid open to reveal a railway employee sleeping in the cramped space. Tucked comfortably into my berth, I listened to a group of women a few rows ahead chanting mantras and drifted off to sleep.
Besides the nearby Rat Temple, I wanted to visit Bikaner’s famous fort. Built in the early 1590s when Bikaner was the capital of its own Kingdom-state, Junagarh Fort contains lavish palaces and served as a residence for the Royal Family. The last Maharaja ruled over Bikaner until 1949 when the state joined the Union of India. His descendants still live nearby.
Since I was the only foreigner around, I got my own private English tour of the halls, courtyards, rooftops and towers of this massive old royal fort in the Thar desert.
And of course, a fort is not really a fort without a WWI fighter plane in the basement:
I took a cooking lesson in Bikaner and ate the results:
Bikaner is a great city to just wander around, and watch daily life unfolding:
By now my trip was drawing to a close: I had a flight to catch from Delhi and just a couple of days left to get there. It was getting hotter every day and here I was in the desert, so moving on from Bikaner I stopped off in Jaipur and checked into a boutique hotel to take a break poolside.
Back on the train, I was heading for Delhi. Something I love about Indian trains is that the doors at the ends of the carriages are often left wide open to the outside and I can stand there in the wind watching India fall away behind me in a blur of earth and sky.
Arriving back in the madness of Delhi late at night I walked to Paharganj and checked into the hotel where I’d started my trip. A month of trains and temples, yoga, shrines and forts, rivers, rats and monkeys, detox tea, no meat and no alcohol…and enough pollution for a lifetime (or to shorten this one, anyway).
I sat on the hotel rooftop and ordered a Kingfisher beer. Love it or hate it, India can really get a grip on a person – travellers rarely seem to visit just once. I’ve met people who’ve been here ten times, people who’ve moved here, people who spend months at a time here. This was my third trip to India and as I sat looking out at the confusion of life in Delhi’s streets, I knew it wouldn’t be my last one either.