The Ratangarh temple in Madhya Pradesh’s Datia, currently in the news for a stampede that killed over 100 pilgrims, is a centuries-old working class shrine

The Ratangarh Mata Temple in Madhya Pradesh's Datia district, which witnessed a stampede on October 13 that has killed 115 people so far, has an intriguing history of nine centuries. Its devotees are mostly landless and marginal peasants who flock to the temple deep in the forests of Seondha.

According to Ghanshyam Singh, scion of the Datia royal family, the temple was built between the late 11 Century and the early 12 Century by Ratan Sen, the son of Punya Pal Parmar — a Rajput king of the erstwhile Pawaya kingdom.

“The temple mostly attracts lower peasantry from the Chambal region in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Ratan Sen established the village of Ratangarh deep in the forest on the banks of the Sind. He built a temple and a fort around it, on a hill above Ratangarh. He was killed in a war with the Jats of Gohad and Ratangarh was deserted. The walls of the fort have fallen, but the temple has been rebuilt several times,” Mr. Singh said.

The deity that is worshipped is that of goddess Durga. A common misconception is that the deity is of Mandula Devi, Ratan Sen’s daughter who died of snake bite. Her brother Kunwar Maharaj’s shrine is also located in the temple.

“The legend is that Kunwar sucked the poison out of her snake bite. Yet both died. When devotees or their cattle are bitten by a snake, they encircle the puncture with soil and pray to Mandula Devi for recovery. They have immunity from the venom only if they visit the temple during the following Bhai Dooj [that falls after Diwali] and a priest performs jhaar by shaking branches of trees from the forest over them in front of the Kunwar’s shrine. For cattle, the rope with which the animal is tied is brought and blessed,” said Mr. Singh.

Snake bite victims are known to be afflicted with fits and frothing from their mouths as soon as they come within 500 metres of the hill. Locals claim that even the ropes of snake-bitten cattle begin to wriggle. Both patient and rope need to be carried by three or four able bodied men up the hill to the Kunwar’s idol.

It is also believed that Chhatrapati Shivaji’s guru Samarth Ramdas camped here to plan Shivaji’s rescue from Agra Fort in 1666. Shivaji’s cavalry commandos brought him here after the rescue as it was too dense a jungle for the Mughal army to comb.

Chambal was notorious for its dacoits. Many of the bells in the temple have been donated by dacoits who would come there dressed as peasants. Dacoits, it is said, do not loot pilgrims who trek up the forest for a darshan of the Ratangarh Mata.