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NET: AP's view of Hindus


                Plague battles takes back seat

Associated Press, New Delhi

It is a health official's nightmare: tens of thousand of
rats racing across the floor, feasting on fruit and candy.

At the Karni Mata temple in the desert state of Rajasthan,
the effort to stifle the first outbreak of plague in 28
years takes a back seat to an old Hindu practice -- rat worship.

The marble floored temple, one of India's most famous shrines,
is one of many sites where rats are worshipped and fed as they
breed and breed and breed.

Many of the rats leap onto platform where food has been placed
under a golden umbrella by worshippers, while priests chant hymns
and play cymbals.

In Hindu mythology, the elephant-headed god Ganesh is
accompanied by rat wherever he travels. No Hindu worship is
complete without an offering to Ganesh and his small companion.

During 1940s and early 1950s, plague routinely killed thousands
of Indians each year because the impoverished nation has no real
health-care program.

"This nonsense had to stop", said Klomesh Chandra Dev, a retired
government official, who started a neighborhood campaign to kill
rats in New Delhi. "The time has come for people to realize that
it is either us or the rat."

Even at Indian airports, few staffers are willing to kill rats.
Last year Air India. India's international carrier, postponed
three flights to Tokyo, New York and London after rats were
found in the cockpit of each plane. The airline was concerned
that rats might have damaged control panel wiring.

In the eastern metropolis of Calcutta, Hindu residents still
flock to city park to feed the tens of thousands of rats
that live there.

Though rats infest much of India, including cities, shanty
towns and farms (where they eat nearly one-quarter of the
produce), Hindus rarely kill rats.

"I do drop a rat when I see one in my kitchen, but I can never 
kill it," said Amita Roy, a resident of Vasant Kunji section of 
New Delhi. "It is a sin to kill the companion of our God."

At daybreak in many towns, villages and cities, Indian men 
and women are seen carrying rats in traps and releasing them
at a distance from their homes. Rarely one is killed.

In the Rajasthan rat temple, when rats are occasionally trampled
to death by accident the errant worshipper is required to offer
a lifesize rat made of gold at the shrine.

In 1993, authorities bought rat traps after their bamboo jungles
of northeastern India were overrun. The rats were eating flowering
bamboo, threatening the livelihood of 2,700 tribal families in
the Arunachal Pradesh.

Unlike the Hindus, some of India's tribespeople eat rats
-- roasting them and sprinkling them with spices.  The 
30,000 people of the Irula tribe once lived in forests in the
southern state of Tamil Nadu, hunting small game, gathering 
roots and berries, and eating rats they could catch.

Not many people expect the plague to change the age-old tradition
of rat worship in India. But the deadly disease is beginning to
make some Indians wonder: Is it good to worship a potential killer?

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