The Panch Rathas of Mahabalipuram

Confucius said, ‘‘Study the past, if you would define the future.’’
Heritage and architectural wonders from our past make us unique. Historical structures bring character and certain charm to the place and people associated. My travels and interaction with local people have always rejuvenated me and I seldom felt tired. Trip to Mahabalipuram was no different and my short visit left me unsatisfied, yearning for more. Here one can realize that the language of architectural heritage is more than form and esthetics. It evokes the past, foreshadows the future, and asserts itself as an integral part of present.

A wide-angle view of the Pancha Ratahas in Mahabalipuram

Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram is famous for exceptional architectural work of arts built by the Pallava rulers. In the words of veteran Journalist T.S. Subramanian, ‘‘According to the Mandagapattu (near Villupuram) inscription of the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (AD 580-630), unlike his ancestors who built temples using perishable materials such as brick, wood and metal, he built temples by cutting imperishable rocks. Mahendravarman I, who was a soldier, a playwright, a great builder, a poet and a musician, was the son of Simhavishnu, the founder of the Pallava dynasty. . . . The monuments at Mamallapuram are generally ascribed to four Pallava rulers: Mahendravarman I, Narasimhavarman I, Paramesvaravarman I and Narasimhavarman II. Pallava rule lasted from the third century to the eighth century A.D. Their capital was Kancheepuram.’’ (Frontline, November, 08-21, 2003)
The golden period of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram or Mahavallipur) was between the 3rd century CE and 7th century CE during the reign of the Pallava dynasty, when it became an important centre of art, architecture and literature. Without a doubt, we can say that Mahabalipuram symbolizes the confluence of Indian history, geography and ancient Indian economy.

The Pancha Rathas of Mahabalipuram is a set of five monolithic structures, located in a sandy compound, magnificently chiseled out of huge rocks. All these are monolithic structures, finely chiseled of or ‘cut out’ of granite rocks. The shapes of these are similar to that of the temple chariots used to take the deities in procession during temple festivities. These Rathas, or incomplete-temples, are the perfect examples of the evolution of Dravidian style of architecture. The shape of pagodas somewhat similar to the Buddhist shrines can also be seen. The Rathas were constructed with towers, minutely sculptured walls and chiseled out halls, some of them having multiple pillars. Archeologists claim that the Rathas are much older than the Shore temple. Experts say that everything here was sculpted only with chisels and small hammers.
Archeologists believe that the early Pallava architecture was deeply influenced by great epic Mahabharata. The amazingly ornamented Rathas are no exception and are named after the Pandavas. Thus they are also known as ‘Pandava Rathas’. Fact is there is no link between these Rathas and the iconic characters of the Mahabharata. The five rathas, all situated within a walled complex, are named as Draupadi Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha, Bhima Ratha and Dharamraja Ratha. The complex also houses three big sculptures of a Nandi, a Loin and an Elephant.

Draupadi Ratha North wall with Durga panel. Apart of Arjuna Ratha can be seen too.

DRAUPADI RATHA is located nearest to the entrance gate. Smallest and the quaintest, it is a hut like structure, dedicated to goddess Durga. Female ‘dwaarpala’ (door-keepers) stand on either ride of the door, one holding a bow and another, a sword. A bas-relief portraying Goddess Durga standing on lotus and two worshippers at her feet offering flowers can be seen on the eastern wall. Other walls have the figure of the great goddess. Figure of a Lion, the celestial vehicle to the Goddess, is in front of the Draupadi Ratha.

Arjuna Ratha, Draupadi Ratha and Bull

ARJUNA RATHA sits next to the Draupadi Ratha. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this has a small portico and delicately carved pillars. Inside there are no inscriptions or figures. Outer walls are decorated with carvings of gods and humans. The panel on the northern wall is carved with two door-keepers. One panel is carved with Lord Vishnu with Garuda. Lord Indra can be seen riding on an elephant on the eastern wall. An unfinished figure of a huge Nandi bull is present near the Ratha.

Nakula Sahadeva ratha, Mamallapuram

NAKULA-SAHADEVA RATHA is situated just in front of Arjuna Ratha, a little out of the line of the other four, to the westward. This is a double storeyed structure, dedicated to Lord Indra. The Ratha is characterized by its apsidal form. The roof is also apsidal-ended. The exterior looks like a Chaitya cave. The entrance portico has two monolithic columns with seated lions at the base. A free-standing monolithic elephant is standing next to this Ratha.

Bhima Ratha, the third from north with a rectangular sanctum topped with an oblong or wagon-vault roof

BHIMA RATHA is faced towards west and this is laid third of the Rathas on the hillock and larger in comparison to other Rathas. It looks like palace architecture with its barrel vaulting and long columned porch. Seated lions are carved in front of the columns. Above the pillars and beam is a cornice (kapota) with chaitya-arch design as of Buddhist shrines. Each such arch has a human head carved. Above the cornice is an arrangement of mini-shrines, square ones at the corners and oblong ones in the middle. The lower part of the structure is mostly unfinished. It is natural as in those times excavators worked from the top down. The Bhima Ratha measures 42ft long, 24ft wide and 25ft heig. The pillars are lion carved whereas the other parts are plain.

Dharmaraja Ratha, topped with an octagonal shikhara (dome)

DHARMARAJA YUDHISTAR RATHA can be called a larger version of the Arjuna Ratha, having an added course on its pyramidal roof. Yudhistar was the eldest of Pandavas and among the five Rathas, this one is the biggest. Like Arjuna Ratha this too is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The ground floor is incomplete. Above the ground floor stands minutely designed first and second floors. Peculiarly there is no stair route from the ground floor to the first floor, but there are stairs to the second floor from the first floor. One panel in ground floor is carved with the portrait of the king and the remaining ones with gods and goddesses. The beautiful figure of ‘Ardhanariswarar’ Shivaֹ can be seen. Another panel shows lord Shiva as ‘Bhikshatana’, the cosmic designer and the god of death.

Draupadi Ratha. Arjuna Ratha and the Lion sculpture
Sculpture of the Nandi guardian deity of Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva
The almost lifelike elephant statue near Nakula Sahadeva Ratha

Like many other structures in Mahabalipuram, almost all Rathas remain incomplete, like work stopped suddenly, and artisans never had time to complete their creations, even after two centuries of chiselling. Some historians link sudden withdrawal of patronage with the death of king Narasimhavarman I. Many say that the work couldn’t be completed because the Cholas attacked and defeated Pallavas. After the battle, when peace returned, a new style of art, a blend of the Pallava and the Chola style emerged. The robust Pallava style accommodated itself with a more lyrical Chola style. The dancing Nataraja sculpture is the most celebrated symbol of this assemblage.

Panch Ratha : Some wall decoration details

The Ratha-complex, along with Shore temple and other structures, was declared a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1984.
There are many more attractions and architectural remains of historical value in Mahabalipuram, apart from these Rathas, the shore temple and the Arjuna’s Penance. They are scattered around the small hilly town. The hill behind the Arjuna’s Penance has some wonderful examples of Pallava architecture, including Krishna Mandapa, Varaha Mandapa, Ganesha Ratha, Mahishasuramardini Mandapa, Vishnu Sayana Mandapa, Panchapandava Mandapa, Koneri Mandapa and some others.
A whirlwind visit of couple of hours to Mahabalipuram cannot do any justice to the beauty to the glorious history of Mahabalipuram. One needs at least few mornings and evenings to explore this open-air theatre of sculpted art. Please be ready to use your legs to feel the essence.

Image from ‘Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture’ (Vol. 1) edited by Michael W Meister and published by University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia (US). 1983

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2 Comments The Panch Rathas of Mahabalipuram

  1. Judith March 8, 2019 at 7:06 pm

    I discovered your site from Google as well as I have to claim it was a
    great discover. Many thanks!

    1. admin March 8, 2019 at 10:36 pm

      Many thanks, Judith. Honoured.


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