Also known as Matri-rin Mahadev or Kashi Karvat, Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple has to be one of the most photographed temples in the holy city of Banaras. An image of this temple is almost guaranteed to appear in any promotional materials about the ancient city, it is probably the most recognisable monument along the ghats for foreign visitors.
Located between Manikarnika Ghat and Scindhia Ghat a short distance east of Tarkeshwar Mahadev Mandir, the temple is famous for having a lean of around nine degrees, a far more severe deviation from vertical compared to the likes of the leaning tower of Pisa which currently has a four degree lean.
The location of this temple is also a curious one. Rather than being built at a higher level and protected from the high flood waters of the Ganga during the monsoon season, it appears that the builders made a conscious decision to construct the temple in a location where for many months of the year it would be partially underwater.
Today it would be all too easy to assume that the location of this temple and its leaning aspect is an anomaly, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. Many paintings of the ghats from the early to mid 19th century depict leaning temples close to the Ganga, so it would appear that Ratneshwar Mahadev is now a lone survivor of this phenomenon.
We also have documentary evidence of these leaning temples. The artist William Daniell writing in The Oriental Annual in 1834 observed :
“One of the most extraordinary objects to be witnessed at Benares and which is generally one of great curiosity to the stranger, is a pagoda standing in the river, there is nothing to connect it with the shore. The whole foundation is submerged, and two of the towers have declined so much out of the perpendicular as to form an acute angle with liquid plain beneath them….It has been surmised, and with probability, that this temple was originally erected upon the bank of the river, which then offered a firm and unsuspected foundation; but that, in consequence of the continual pressure of the stream, the bank had given way all round the building, which, on about of the depth and solidarity of the foundation, stood firm while the waters surrounded it, thought the towers had been partially dislodged by the shock. Or it may be that even the foundation sank in some degree with the bank, thus projecting the two towers out of the direct perpendicular, and giving them the very extraordinary position in which they now retain.”
Very early photographs from the 1860s of this specific temple do not show any lean, but certainly by the early 20th century subsidence at the back (north-west) end of the temple had started. I suspect the most likely cause of this is not simply a case of poor foundations, but the disturbance of the foundations and adjacent river bed during the building and remodeling of neighbouring ghats. It’s probably a combination of factors that had led to the current precarious-looking lean that Ratneshwar Mahadev is now so famous for.
The origins of the temple are uncertain. A local legend states that it was built over 500 years ago by a servant of Raja Man Singh, for his mother Ratna Bai. On completing the effort the servant boasted that he had paid his debt to his mother (Matru-run), but since the debt to one’s mother can never be repaid, the temple started to lean. Another legend suggests the temple was built by Ratna Bai, a female servant of Ahilya Bai of Indore. Ahilya Bai cursed the temple to lean because her servant had named it after herself.
Scholars however place the construction of this temple to be a little later than the legends suggest. Some believe it was built by Queen Baija Bai of Gwalior in the 19th century, others have placed it’s construction to the mid 1850s by the Amethi royal family. It would appear the former is most likely, as we know this temple existed prior to the 1850s.
Revenue records indicate it was built sometime between 1825 and 1830, which is backed up by a drawing of the temple made by James Prinsep who was master of Banaras Mint from 1820 – 1830. During Princep’s time in Banaras he commented that the temple entrance was often submerged and the priest would dive into the water to conduct worship.
During the Winter and Spring months the water levels of the great Ganga are low enough to permit access without getting your feet wet. It’s worth a quick exploration, there’s some nice carvings that have remained in remarkably good condition considering the length of time this temple is submerged each year.
The other classic view of this temple is of course from a boat ride on the Ganga itself. Despite being a terribly touristy thing to do, it is thoroughly well worth doing, especially shortly after sunrise.
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