The Five Rathas of Mahabalipuram


Mar 21, 2012 — CANADA (SUN) — A two-part exploration of the rock-cut temple complex at Mahabalipuram.

The Pancha Ratha is a famous rock-cut shrine complex at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. This late 7th century example of monolith rock-cut architecture is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is now one of the most popular destinations for those interested in Vedic art.

Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) is a village located about 60 km south of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. The famous rock-cut shrines were carved there during the reign of King Mamalla, also known as Narasimhavarman I (630-670 A.D.), for whom the site is named. Residing on the site are five monolith temples and three animal sculptures (elephant, lion and bull). Each one of these was carved whole from an outcropping of rock, being a pink granite found in some other rock-cut shrines in the area.

While the structures are commonly referred to as raths (pancha rathas, or 'five chariots'), they are actually temples, although they were never used for worship. The five shrines were named for the five Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishthira, Nakula and Sahadeva) and for Draupadi.

[ Click for larger image ]

Four of the shrines have pyramidal roofs, and are considered to represent a great diversity of Dravidian architecture. It is thought that the original designs might have been rendered in wood construction, or possibly stone. The structures give the impression of a life-sized model tirtha complex. Many examples of South Indian architectural style and motif that were carved into these monoliths were repeated over the next 1,000 years in South Indian temple structures.

The Dravidian stonecutters working at Mahaballipuram used an innovative method for hewing out the rock-cut shapes. They cut into the ridge of what appears to be multiple outcroppings of a single, sizeable base of pink granite, drilling holes and then driving chisels downward in unison, thus breaking off sheets of rock to arrive at their design.

The Five Rathas

Four of the rathas have stepped pyramidal roofs, and each has an interior room, intended for use as the garbha-griha in a functioning temple. It is thought that the temples were never consecrated and used for worship because their stupas remained attached to the bedrock, i.e., they were not separated as part of the shrine complex completion.

Given the sturdiness of the pink granite, the Pancha Ratha shrines remain in amazingly good condition, even after having been pummeled by catastrophic tsunamis in the 13th century, and most recently during the 2004 Banda Aceh disaster.


Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram, Wondermondo
Pancha Rathas, Art and Archaeology


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