Middle Kingdoms of India, Part 77


Elephant beside Nakula Sahadeva Ratha

Aug 24, 2015 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation of India's great history, religious movements and temple architecture.

The Pallavas

The Five Rathas of Mahabalipuram

Today, we would like to offer a brief description of each of the five rock temple monoliths built by the Pallavas at Mahabalipuram. These five 'chariots' are famously known as the pancha-ratha, and the three vahana (vehicle) animals attending them.

Draupadi Ratha

Draupadi Ratha

The rock-cut ratha closest to the entrance of the complex is Draupadi Ratha. It is the smallest one, shaped like a small Bengali-style hut with a square roof. It sits on a shared platform (upa-pitham) with the Arjuna ratha. The platform is adorned with carved elephants and lions.

The Draupadi shrine is devoted to Durga Ma, who is featured in a beautifully carved panel, standing on a lotus pedestal and surrounded by her attendants. On the eastern wall there is another striking sculpture of Mahishasura Durga.

On the lintel above the entrance door is a stylized makara. Some of the ratha sculptures were never finished.

Arjuna Ratha

Arjuna Ratha

Residing on the same platform as Draupadi temple is the Arjuna Ratha, which is devoted to Lord Shiva. Slightly larger than Draupadi ratha but still the second smallest temple shrine in the complex, Arjuna ratha is replete with carved figures.

Unlike the Bengali-style Draupadi ratha, the Arjuna ratha is in a style characteristic of South Indian temples. It faces east with two storeys, a small portico and carved pillars. The progressively smaller roof pavilions end in a domed roof, also in the South Indian style.

While the inside of the shrine is unadorned, the exterior is covered with rich sculptured figures, including Shiva and his consorts and two beautiful apsaras. The central figure is of Shiva, legs crossed and leaning on Nandi.

Nakula Sahadeva Ratha

Nakula Sahadeva Ratha

This shrine is devoted to Lord Indra and is therefore associated with elephants. It is positioned right beside the Mahaballipuram elephant -- one of the best known pachyderm sculptures in India. This ratha is the only one not in a straight procession with the other four, and it is the only one with a south-facing entrance.

The Nakula Sahadeva Ratha is built in the apsidal vimana style, shaped like the back of an elephant. Again, the ratha was not quite fully completed. Columns and pillars are adorned with seated lion guards.

Bhima Ratha

Bhima Ratha

The Bhima ratha is the third temple in the procession, and it's the longest of all the rathas. Bhima ratha measures 12.8 meters long by 7.3 meters wide. It is a Gopura-style temple with a decorative gabled roof.

Bhima ratha appears to be dedicated to Anantashayi Vishnu, which is no doubt why it's the largest structure of the five rathas. It features a large bas relief sculpture of Lord Visnu as Sayanamurti.

Like the others, Bhima ratha remains in an unfinished condition. The sanctum has a parikrama passage. Outside, under the vaulted barrel roof is a long pillared porch, the beautiful columns adorned with lions.

Dharmaraja Ratha

Dharmaraja Ratha

Also known as Yudhishir's ratha, the Dharmaraja ratha is built in classic South Indian vimana style, with tower above the shrine. Although incomplete, this ratha is the tallest and most ornamented, with three storeys.

Dharmaraja ratha is devoted to Lord Shiva, and is adorned with excellent examples of Pallava plastic art, including some elements considered to be important innovations in the art for its period. The corners are replete with very beautiful figures of Shiva, the columns and pilasters adorned with lions.

With eight decorative panels, the ground floor of this ratha is completed. On one wall is a sculpted figure of Ardhanariswara. Small cut-outs are hewn into the two top floors. While there are no stairs leading to the second floor, the second and third floor are connected by a flight of steps.

Dharmaraja ratha bears an inscription in Pallava-Grantha script, with the titles of King Narasimhavarman I. An inscription also mentions that this ratha was created as the Shiva temple of Atyantakama Pallava.

Lion beside Draupadi Ratha

Animal Vahanas

Finally, interspersed among the pancha rathas are three large animal sculptures, all carved from monolithic stone. Each one is symbolically related to a particular ratha, as each is the vahana (vehicle) of a particular divine personality.

The Nandi bull, which is not finished, is associated with Arjuna Ratha, which is a Shiva temple. The lion is located in front of Draupadi ratha, just as the lion is typically positioned in front of Durga temples. And the elephant stands next to Nakula Sahadeva ratha, related to Indra and his elephant, Airavata.

Nandi Bull


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


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