Pancha Rathas – the monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram

The eldest of the rathas was the grandest 
The second one resembled its namesake and was the mightiest
The third reflected his nimble nature & the fourth was all about twins' animal care
The fifth was symbolic of their wife's nurture of their lair.

Such is the representation of the famed monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram - popularly known as the Pancha Rathas Mahabalipuram. Discover more about this UNESCO World Heritage Site with this ultimate guide to the Mahabalipuram five rathas.

Third time and not bored! Third time and found something more! If you are wondering what I am rambling about – it is my third visit to the lovely UNESCO World Heritage site of Mahabalipuram called the Pancha Rathas. For some reason, the sandy ruins of this ancient coastal town always fascinate me. They are not as intricate as a lot of other places but there is always something new that I have discovered on each of my visits. The glorious Pancha Rathas Mamallapuram in particular has been a favorite for various reasons – its mysterious history, its uniqueness and the little details on them.

The rock cut monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram - the Pancha Rathas
The rock-cut monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram – the Pancha Rathas

In my Mahabalipuram guide, I have shared the entire history and overview of this ancient shore town with its early mentions going back to the days of Ptolemy. The seaport was also, a bustling hub for architectural experiments- from carved bas-reliefs to monolithic structures. The five Rathas monument is one such example of the rock-cut monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram. What makes it even more intriguing are the various theories surrounding this Mahabalipuram five rathas.

In this post, you will learn all about the Pancha Rathas architecture and its history. You will also, get tips and suggestions on how to plan a visit to the Pancha Rathas Mahabalipuram which includes the Pancha Rathas timings, entrance fees, where to stay in Mahabalipuram and how to get there. It is best to now get started.

History of the Pancha Rathas Mahabalipuram

Pancha means Five and Rathas mean Chariots. Initially, it was thought that these monuments were made to emulate the Chariots of the Five Pandava brothers and their wife – Draupadi. Given this interpretation, this group of monuments is also, called the Pandava Rathas. However, this initial explanation has been disputed and now the historians all feel that these had no connection to the Pandavas and these could just be Buddhist buildings. One set also, feels that these could just be prototypes of the temples (experiments similar to the ones done in Aihole) that were built across Tamil Nadu. Either way, the purpose of these structures is not known and the name now has been officially, considered a misnomer.

Dharmaraja Ratha and the other Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram
Dharmaraja Ratha and the other Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram

However, once named so named! The Pancha Rathas stuck on. It is said that they were built around 630 AD by the famous Pallava king – Mahendravarman I and later continued by his son King Narsimhavarman. However, they say that the construction stopped after his death and these monuments literally got buried under the sands of time. It was later that the British discovered these and excavated them.

The Mahabalipuram five Rathas along with a few other monuments like the Shore temple were managed by ASI (Archaeological Society of India) until 1984. This is when it got clubbed as the Group of monuments and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mahabalipuram Pancha Rathas architecture & plan

The Mamallapuram Pancha Rathas are believed carved out of a single hillock. They are monolithic in a literal sense. It is this fact that had my eyeballs popping out. Imagine being able to carve out an entire hill to make these fascinating structures and that too, without our modern-day tools. Impressive!

The Mahabalipuram five Rathas temples are a great example of the monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture
The Mahabalipuram five Rathas temples are a great example of the monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture

The Pancha Rathas architecture is said to be of the Dravidian stylespecifically the Pallava style. Though they say that these were left incomplete, there is so much perfection and beauty here, that it is hard to believe that this was done without a purpose or was not completed.

There are five major structures that seemed to have been modeled after the traditional Indian chariots or the Rathas. Each one of these has a different type of roof – which is what the historians believe was the main aspect of architecture that was being experimented on here. Besides these five monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram, there are a few other structures like a rock-cut lion, a Nandi and an elephant. All these are perfect examples of monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture.

The five monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram

One of the possible reasons why these monolithic temples of Mamallapuram were believed to be inspired by the Pandavas could be the specific features that each one of them displays. It is as if they were made to display the human characteristics of the five brothers and their wife. When you take a tour of the Pancha Rathas, you will be able to spot these features.

  • Dharmaraja Yudhistra – He was the eldest of the five and was known for his keen sense of Dharma and righteousness.
  • Bhima – the 2nd of the Pandavas was known for his hulk-like stature. He was the mightiest and the biggest of them all.
  • Arjuna – The most nimble and renowned warrior of them all
  • Nakul and Sahadev – the celestial twins who were known for their love and prowess with animals
  • Draupadi – the wife of all five Pandavas. She was known for her fearless attitude.

With that as a quick introduction, let’s explore each one of these Pancha Rathas in detail.

Visit the Mahabalipuram Shore temple - one of the key things to do in Mahabalipuram

Download an audio guide for the key Mahabalipuram monuments through Viator. It covers 8 landmarks including the Mahabalipuram shore temple.

Dharmaraja Ratha – the tallest of the monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram

Dharmaraja Ratha or Yudhistra's chariot - the tallest of the Mamallapuram Pancha Rathas
Dharmaraja Ratha or Yudhistra’s chariot – the tallest of the Mamallapuram Pancha Rathas

The Dharmaraja Ratha is located at the far end of the Pancharathas. It is the tallest among the Pancha rathas with three storeys and hence is considered to be Yudhistra’s chariot (the eldest of the Pandavas). The fascinating thing about it is that there is a staircase that can be found on the first floor leading to the second. However, there is no way to reach the first floor. ๐Ÿ™‚

Check the carvings on the 1st and 2nd floor of the Dharamraja's ratha
Check the carvings on the 1st and 2nd floor of the Dharamraja’s ratha

The outer face of the 40 feet tall Dharmaraja Ratha has a lot of deities carved on it – approximately 22 carvings. You can spot Lord Brahma, Harihara, Ardhnarishwari (a form of Shiva and Parvati) and the Harihara form of Lord Shiva. Our guide informed us that one of the carved images was that of King Narsimhavardhan. Sadly, he told us this after we had left the site ๐Ÿ™ and for the life of me, I cannot identify him through my images. So, I leave it as a task for you to discover and write back to me on what was left incomplete on my last visit.

The pillars of Dharamraja Rathas
The pillars of Dharamraja Ratha

Hidden on the first floor are carved images of Lord Krishna, including one on Kaliya. The 2nd floor has Somaskanda sculptures. The pillars on the ground floors are carved with Yalis (mythical lion guardians)

Bhima Ratha – the 2nd of the Pancha Rathas Mamallapuram

The biggest of the Mamallapuram Pancha Rathas - Bhima Ratha
The biggest of the Mamallapuram Pancha Rathas – Bhima Ratha

Second in line, after the Dharmaraja Ratha is the Bhima Ratha. I suppose it was called so as it is the biggest of the five – quite like the 2nd Pandava Prince – Bhima, who was known to be the mightiest of the five. If you ask me, this is the most beautiful of the five. This has a first floor, which again you cannot access but the whole oblong structure with an ornate roof does make it look like a hut.

The very mansion like architecture of the Bhima Ratha
The very mansion like architecture of the Bhima Ratha

Quite like the Dharmaraja Ratha, here the pillars have a seated Lion. The deep crevice in the front gives it a very cave-like appearance and yet, the whole mighty structure makes it look like a mansion.

The ornate roof of Bhima Ratha - the biggest of the Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram
The ornate roof of Bhima Ratha – the biggest of the Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram

Have a close look at the roof of the Bhima Ratha for three things –

  • The hidden carvings of the deities on the first floor
  • The tiny row of faces that run along the entire roof
  • The little bell-like structure at the front of the roof

If you have spotted these, remember to write in the comment box below. ๐Ÿ™‚ The first one is quite simple but hidden and the last one makes me wonder if this was designed to be a temple. My guide on my earlier visit here mentioned something curious about the tiny row of faces that you might have spotted. Some historians say that they are Caucasian faces to symbolize the Romans who traded with the Pallava kings!

Arjuna Chariot in the Pancha Ratha rock-cut temples

This one is the third in line after Dharmaraja Ratha and was sadly under restoration this time around. However, here is a clear picture from my earlier visit.

Arjuna ratha in Mamallapuram
Arjuna ratha in Mamallapuram

Note that here there are no pillars unlike the previous two but a wall that is completely carved. Our guide told us that this was dedicated to Lord Shiva as there was a Trishul within the small cavern, Again, I could not check that as the scaffoldings did not allow me to sneak in. On one of the walls, as you can see above, there is a carving of a deity with a cow. Now that some say is Shiva with Nandi. However, I also, felt that it resembled the Cowherd representation of Krishna  – don’t you think so?

The Nandi that faces the Arjuna Ratha of the five Rathas of Mahabalipuram
The Nandi that faces the Arjuna Ratha of the five Rathas of Mahabalipuram

When I pointed that out to the guide, he gave me another piece of evidence that was irrefutable. The statue of Nandi that faced this particular piece of the Pancha Rathas. Widely accepted that every temple of Shiva has a Nandi carved in front of it. What could I say? ๐Ÿ™‚

Draupadi’s Vimana among the Mamallapuram Five Rathas

Draupadi Ratha - the smallest of the five Rathas of Mamallapuram
Draupadi Ratha – the smallest of the five Rathas of Mamallapuram

Sharing the same platform as Arjuna’s Ratha, was Draupadi’s Ratha. This for me was the simplest but cutest of the lot. It resembled a small hut with a thatched roof and if you go inside, you could spot a carving of Goddess Durga. Even around the structure, you will find the Goddess in various poses. Quite symbolic of the many roles of women – from a nurturer to a homemaker and a destroyer when things go bad.

Close-up of Draupadi Ratha roof.
Close-up of Draupadi Ratha roof.

The chariot of Nakul and Sahadev

Nakul Sahadev Ratha - the ratha dedicated to the Pandava twins
Nakul Sahadev Ratha – the ratha dedicated to the Pandava twins

The Nakul-Sahadev Ratha is the only one that is not in line with the other Rathas. It is also, the smallest but like the Bhima Ratha has a single floor. This particular piece always gave me the feeling of being incomplete. The interesting thing about this is that it is right next to a perfectly carved elephant.

The similarity of the Nakul Sahadev Ratha and the back of the monolithic elephant
The similarity of the Nakul Sahadev Ratha and the back of the monolithic elephant

When you enter the Pancha Ratha campus, the one resemblance that you cannot miss is that the back of the elephant and the Nakul-Sahadev Ratha are quite similar. If you have not noticed, this is one thing that every guide will point out. ๐Ÿ™‚

Nakul and Sahadev of Pandava fame were known for their love and prowess with animals. Interestingly, surrounding their Ratha, there are a few other rock-cut monolithic sculptures of animals. Check out the next section to know more.

The other monolithic sculptures of Mahabalipuram Five Rathas

Besides the five rathas of Mahabalipuram, there are three other monolithic structures that you must check out. I have already mentioned two of them earlier and then there is a third on that is unmissable.

The Nandi facing Arjuna’s Ratha

The monolithic Nandi that faces the Arjuna Ratha
The monolithic Nandi that faces the Arjuna Ratha

This is the sculpted structure that I had talked of in the Arjuna’s Ratha section. You will need to walk right behind Arjuna’s Ratha to see it.

The Monolithic elephant by Nakul-Sahadev’s Ratha

The perfectly carved elephant next to the Ratha of Nakul-Sahadev
The perfectly carved elephant next to the Ratha of Nakul-Sahadev

This is the same elephant whose back is similar to the shape of Nakul and Sahadev’s Ratha. The monolithic elephant is quite well carved and stands tall amid the other Rathas and structures.

The Monolithic lion at the Pancha Rathas of Mamallapuram

The Rock-cut Lion of the Pancha Rathas, Mamallapuram
The Rock-cut Lion of the Pancha Rathas, Mamallapuram

Good-looking, majestic, and a perfect guardian of this set of Pancha Rathas, this guy faces the entrance and is rarely seen without any crowd. He seems just perfect to greet you and most likely, he is the one you will first cast your sight on. Naturally, the first thing that you will say when you reach the Mahabalipuram Pancha Rathas is “Wow!”.

Well, I suppose now you know why I feel three visits and the same fascination as the first one. Don’t you also, feel the same? And just so that you can get there, read my next section on the frequently asked questions about the Mamallapuram Pancha Rathas. With that and the booking resources section, you will be all set for your trip to these monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram.

FAQs about the Mahabalipuram five Rathas

What is the best way to reach Mahabalipuram?

Chennai is the closest airport to Mahabalipuram, It is around 58 km and has numerous international and domestic flights. It is also, the closest railway station to Mamallapuram. Once you arrive here, you can get to Mahabalipuram by road.

There are self-drive options as well as cabs available from Chennai. Alternatively, you can take one of the many tourist or public buses that ply between these two towns. Once in Mahabalipuram, you can easily find the Pancha Rathas and can use the local auto-rickshaws to get there.

Which is the best time to visit the Mahabalipuram Pancha Rathas?

The best season to visit Mahabalipuram is between October to March. Avoid the summers and monsoons between April to September.

The Pancha Ratha temples are best visited in the morning or evening. Avoid afternoons as it can get really hot.

Which is the best place to stay in Mamallapuram?

There are quite a few luxury hotels by the beach available in Mahabalipuram. This includes theย Radisson Bluย and theย Welcomegroup hotels by ITC. You can also find a few mid-priced ones likeย Bodhiwood hotelย that are just a walk away from the beach. For budget-conscious travelers, you can find homestays and hotels within INR 1500 per night like theย Living Edge homestay.

What are the Mahabalipuram Pancha Rathas entrance fees?

The entrance to Pancha Rathas is INR 30 for Indians and INR 500 for the rest of the visitors. Cameras are not charged unless you are planning a professional videography. Do remember that this is a composite ticket for all the monuments included under the Group of monuments in Mahabalipuram – including the Shore Temple.

What are the Mamallapuram Pancha Rathas timings?

The Pancha Rathas timings are from 6 am to 6 pm every day. Avoid weekends as the place gets really crowded.

Which is the biggest ratha of the Pancha Rathas Mahabalipuram?

The Bhima Ratha is the biggest of the five Rathas of Mahabalipuram. It measures around 42 feet by 35 feet in size.

How many Pancha rathas are located in Mahabalipuram India?

There are five Pancha Rathas that have been named after the Pandavas – Yudhistra Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna ratha , Nakul-Sahadev Ratha and the Draupadi Ratha. In addition to these, there are three other monolithic structures in the same premises.

What do the Pancha Rathas resemble?

The Pancha Rathas are said to have been modeled after the chariots used in the olden days. These monolithic temples resemble some of the wooden chariots that were created back then.

Before you go, pin this

Pancha rathas mahabalipuram guide
Mahabalipuram five rathas guide
Five Rathas tour mahabalipuram

Booking Resources

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70 thoughts on “Pancha Rathas – the monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram”

  1. Ami, being in Chennai, I actually lost count of the number of times I’ve visited Mahabs (yeah, that’s the petname we’ve given it!). No matter how many times I go, every time I manage to discover something new that I hadn’t noticed before that.

    Reply
  2. I am not usually amazed by temples, I have seen them in tens of countries but these are a bit different. The fact that they were made from 1 hillock and not built of stones etc is quite different. I have never been to southern India only to the north but it would seem like I am missing out. I will be back there toward the end of this year and have bookmarked this post to put on my list of places I must visit.

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    • Thanks John. South India is a lot different from the north and has quite a few unique sites. Good that you have bookmarked this. You are most likely to enjoy this given your interest in heritage.

      Reply
  3. What a magnificent place, heard about Mahabalipuram but never about this place,you have shared so many infos. about this place that has made me crazy to visit this place as soon as possible.Thanks a lot for sharing and images are superb.

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  4. I can see why you like to visit this place! I see the bell and I think I see the deities but I’m not sure about the faces.

    Also, I think we should keep the Pancha Rathas story about the five brothers haha it’s not interesting when there is a story behind a name =P

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  5. What an amazing site, Ami! I can certainly see why it would take you three visits to fully appreciate it. Thx for sharing.

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  6. It’s good to know that these structures were preserved until now, considering that they were built many years ago. I would love to visit UNESCO’s heritage sites and these sites are on the list.

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    • Ha ha..yes the Elephant is cute. Rightly said that it is fascinating to see this being built without technology. One of its charm for sure. thanks for stopping by

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  7. Looks like something you would see in Egypt. I can’t believe things like this in the world exist! It’s amazing what humans can put together!

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  8. Even though it is incomplete, it still indeed amazing how they made this! I always find it fascinating to walk in such amazing places where it has a lot of history and stories behind it. I often imagine myself what would it be like when I’m there at that time. Despite already learning about this though your post, I’d still be in awe to see it in person!

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  9. I am reminded of my trip there. Looks like a different world existed there years back. The carvings and forms speak so differently. I have this urge to go there again.

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  10. The Mahabalipuram ruins are amazing. The structures are gorgeous and intricate, but they also seem so delicate and vulnerable. They do look like they are made of sand and could be blown away by a strong breeze. The Golden Chariot journey sounds really wonderful. We’ve read your post on the train and the posts on different stops and we are seriously considering taking the Golden Chariot. The train seems a wonderful experience in itself and it takes you to many awesome sites.

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  11. Mahabalipuram is indeed fascinating and a place that draws you like a magnet, again and again. The Panch Rathas brought back visual imagery of the Mahabharata. I could almost hear the sound of the conches as the chariots readied for war. The post urges me to get there again.

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  12. I just love history specially when it has to do anything with the Indian culture. Mahabalipuram seeme like a great place since i am fascinated by the Complete history of the place. I am going to make sure that I visit this place.

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  13. I have been to this place twice and I can go a few more times. ๐Ÿ™‚ Love it and the stories about them.

    It would have certainly been a different experience to go with Golden Chariot team. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Looking forward to more stories.

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    • This place is quite mesmerizing and it definitely calls people again. The Golden Chariot indeed was quite interesting and added to the thrill of the place. You should definitely go Nisha.

      Reply
  14. Wow! This place looks totally amazing and very sandy colour looking. ๐Ÿ™‚ Love to find out more about this place and go and explore it.

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  15. What an enchanting place, I love the intricate details, everything looks so delicate. Never heard of this place before but now I want to go and explore! The Golden Chariot journey sounds great too! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • The Golden Chariot adds punch to the various destinations and am sure you will enjoy them all as you go along. Mahabalipuram is really awesome. Thanks Rosie for stopping by.

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    • These are some of our oldest sites and am glad that they survive today for us to know what it was back then. You should definitely check em out.

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  16. I did spot two of the three things you mentioned by the roof of Bhima’s ratha. And I think I finally found the hidden figures of the daities as well. Were there three of them? I wonder also why they built stairs from the first to the second floor but did not build anything to access the first floor at the Dharmaraja Ratha. What interesting history and a unusual place.

    Reply
    • Bang on Agnes. I think there are more, just that I could also, see only three of those. I think the reason there are no stairs is that these might have been prototypes for the actual models elsewhere. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  17. This looks absolutely fascinating! I wish I had been able to visit during my trip to India but that was over a decade over and I think a return visit is long overdue…adding it to my wishlist!

    Reply
    • This is down South of India which is fairly unexplored as compared to the North. Hence, not surprised that you have not heard of it. Hope you now can get to it soon.

      Reply

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