At the riverfront in the holy city of Varanasi is India’s version of the world-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s the Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple, one of only two leaning temples in the world, the other being the Leaning Temple of Huma in Odisha. Amazingly, the tilt of the Varanasi shrine, at 9 degrees, is 5 degrees more than the incline of the Italian wonder.
And that’s not its only astonishing feature. The temple is built right on the waterfront, at the bottom of beautiful Manikarnika Ghat, and it is partially submerged all year round. Sometimes, the waters of the Ganga rise quite high, covering a part of the shikhara or main tower.
Not surprisingly, the ‘Leaning Temple of Varanasi’ tops tourist itineraries of the city and the shrine has become iconic of the city itself. So what gives?
Everything about the Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple is an enigma, which adds up to lots of myths and theories but little or no answers. According to one legend, the shrine was built by a servant of Raja Man Singh of Amer (r. 1589 – 1614), while another says it was built by a servant of Ahilya Bai Holkar (r. 1767 –1795). Still others claim the temple was constructed by the Scindia queen of Gwalior, Baiza Bai, in the 19th century.
The temple’s tilt, according to local lore, is due to a curse. According to legend, Raja Man Singh’s servant built the temple for his mother, Ratna Bai, and proudly boasted to have successfully repaid the debt he owed her (Matru-rin). Since a mother’s debt can never be repaid, she cursed the temple and it started to lean. The shrine gets its alternative name ‘Matru-rin’ from this legend.
The Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple has always been a fascinating sight. Edwin Greaves, in his book Kashi The City Illustrious or Benares (1909), describes it thus: “Looked at from the river, there is in the centre the dense crowds of people on the footway by Manikarnika Kund; as a background to these, a strange medley of temples and buildings with the red-domed temple of the Raja of Amethi towering above them all; in the foreground a leaning temple and porch, almost on a level with the water, and threatening to topple over into it, and the eager crowds of bathers from various parts, in their various styles of dress, and exhibiting a variety of colouring.”
The other mystery of the Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple relates to its peculiar location. Unlike the other temples at the ghats, which are built on platforms some distance from the river, this one was deliberately constructed on the banks of the Ganga. Was it meant to be partially submerged at all times? No one knows.
A study of paintings and literature and paintings from earlier times throws up some intriguing details. It seems, the Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple was not the only temple built amid the waters of the river on these ghats. Sketches from earlier times show other partially submerged temples, of which only this shrine seems to have survived.
More evidence of this comes from Benares Illustrated, In A Series of Drawings by English scholar and Orientalist, James Prinsep, an Assay Master at the Banaras Mint from 1820 to 1830. During this time, he created and published a series of drawings. He writes, “The octagonal mut'h towards the right hand, marks the south corner of Ahulya Baee’s ghat; one of the niches outside is embellished with a small white marble figure of this celebrated princess in a sitting posture. She caused the two temples represented in the sketch to be erected, on the site of others, which had been carried away by the river.
“The same fate seems to threaten the new structures also at no very distant period, as the whole strength of the stream is exerted to undermine them. In the rains, the temples are submerged to the cornice; many Hindoos, notwithstanding, are bold enough to swim through an impetuous current, and to dive under the porch and door-way, for the honour of continuing their customary worship in despite of perils and personal inconvenience.”
Here’s another surprise. In some of these early paintings, the Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple is shown as upright. No tilt is seen in the temple structure, suggesting that it began to lean in the 20th century. A weakened or defective foundation and the pressure exerted by the river’s currents may have caused it to lean.
Despite being underwater most of the year, the Leaning Temple of Varanasi is very well preserved. No wonder it is the most photographed temple in this holy city.