Pancha Rathas which translates to ‘five chariots’ are amazing pieces of antiquity that have to be seen to believe. These are no ordinary chariots, they are special as each of these five chariots are carved out from rock faces, boulders, or even from entire hills. Yes you heard it right, carved somewhere between 630–668 CE, an era where uncut rocks were used as tools. The five monolithic structures are a perfect representation of the dedicated hard work and craftsmanship of the Pallava dynasty. Sadly these structures were never completed and hence the purpose of carving them out is not known.
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Overview Of The Pancha Rathas Mahabalipuram
Built In: 7th Century
Built By: Raja Narasimhavarman of the Pallava Dynasty
Location: Mamallapuram, Chengalpattu District, Tamil Nadu, India
Style Of Architecture: South Indian Dravidian Style
Opening Timing: Daily from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm
Connectivity: Well connected by Air, Road & Rail
Best Time To Visit: November to March
Pancha Rathas History
Construction of the Pancharathas took place during the reign of King Mahendravarman I from 600–630 CE and later continued by his son King Narasimhavarman I from 630–668 AD. After the death of Narasimhavarman in 668 AD, work on the five Rathas was discontinued. Until today, work on these structures were not completed and hence the purpose of building this is not known. After the construction stopped these monuments literally got buried under the sands of time and were only discovered and excavated during British rule.
Initially it was believed that the five Rathas were built to emulate the Chariots of the Five Pandava brothers (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishthira (“Dharmaraja”), Nakula and Sahadeva) and their wife Draupadi of the great Indian epic, the ‘Mahabharata’. However as there was no link between the structures and the Pandavas, it was considered to be a misrepresentation. Now the historians feel that these could just be Buddhist buildings. But since the beginning, the names of Pandavas has incessantly remained linked with the Rathas and continues to do so. In 1984 part of the collection within the Group of Monuments was marked as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Mahabalipuram Pancha Rathas Architectural Details
The Pancha Rathas were built as models of South Indian temples using the Dravidian style of architecture. They have been carved out of a single hillock modeled after the traditional Indian chariots. The main aspect of Pancha Rathas architecture is that each of the five Rathas has a different type of roof. Historians believed that some sort of an architectural experiment was being carried on here. The very fact of carving out an entire hill without any tools gives a great impression of the remarkable architecture of the Pallavas. Apart from the five Rathas, the complex also houses sculptures like a rock-cut lion, a Nandi, an elephant and few stupa-like structures.
Details Of The Five Monolithic Temples Of Mahabalipuram
The Panch Rathas or the five chariots look more like temples than chariots. Each of these rock marvels have different structures. Apart from these rock chariots, the monument complex also houses the vehicle of Indra (statues of an elephant), the vehicle of Durga (the lion) and the vehicle of Shiva (Nandi bull). Read on to know how each one is different from the other:
The Draupadi Ratha which is named after the wife of the Pandavas is the smallest of all the five Rathas. This Ratha lies at the northern end of the five rathas and shares the same platform with Arjuna’s Ratha. It is constructed in the form of a Bengal hut and is dedicated to Goddess Durga. Inside the three walls of the Ratha one can spot carvings of Durga standing on a buffalo head and in various other poses. These walls that depict the different roles of women can be seen in various stages of completion.
This Ratha represents Arjuna, the third Pandava brother and is dedicated to Indra, the Sun God. Located just south of the Draupadi Ratha, both Draupadi and Arjuna Ratha stand on a single elevated platform with this one being slightly larger than Draupadi Ratha. A typical south-Indian temple style of architecture is followed here. There is nothing much inside but all the exterior sides have elaborate stone freezes showing magnificent gods, animals and humans. Various sculptures like Shiva leaning on his Nandi, Vishnu with his Garuda and a huge monolithic lion in front of this temple makes it a very impressive site.
Standing on a rectangular platform is the most massive among all the structures in the Pancha Rathas temple complex, the Bhima Ratha. This could be the reason why it has been named after Bhima, the strongest of the Pandavas. Though the inner sanctum is empty, its exterior has decorative pillars and a two-tiered oblong roof with intricate ornamentation on both the eastern and western sides of the structure. The unfinished but fascinating structure built in Gopura style is said to be devoted to Anantshayi Vishnu.
At the far end of the Pancha Rathas with a pyramidal top stands the tallest structure of the complex. Hence it was named after the eldest of the Pandavas, Yudhisthira who was also known as Dramaraja. Standing on a square base this ratha is crowned with a three-tiered elaborately ornamented vimana. The lower portion has decorative pillars on all four sides and eight sculptures on the corner. Each of these sculptures depicts Shiva in different incarnations, Bramha, Harihara, Skanda, Arddhanarishvara and even as a Pallava King.
Unlike the other rathas, this structure is not in line with the other but stands right next to a perfectly carved elephant. Its floor-plans too make it quite different from the other four. Instead of square and rectangular floors, this Ratha has an apsidal shape. An interesting thing about the Nakul-Sahadev Ratha is that the roof of its shrine is shaped like the back of an elephant. One can enter the structure from the south side but the inner sanctum is empty. The ratha is devoted to Indra and dedicated to Yama – the god of death.
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A visit to these five monuments reinforces the greatness of Indian architecture and its magnificence. Today the Pancha Ratahs are protected monuments under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Therefore a visit to this splendid location to see the remarkable architecture of the Pallavas is a must. Plan your visit during the months of December to March when the weather is relatively cooler and do share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.
Pancharathas in Mahabalipuram are also known as five Rathas or Pandava Rathas or Ainthinai kovil.
Pancharathas is located just 1.5 Kms away from Mahabalipuram Bus Station. This distance can be covered in 5 to 8 minutes.
The entry fee for both shore temples and Ratha is ₹ 40. However for foreign visitors the entry price is different. Entry for children below the age group of 15 years is free.