Unearthing the Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Tamil Nadu | 70

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 heritage site of Mahabalipuram. 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. I had shared a complete post on Mahabalipuram in my early days of blogging but with this latest visit on the Golden Chariot, there is a need to explore each one of these ruins in detail. Let me start with the glorious Pancha Rathas of Mahabalipuram.

Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram
Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram used to be an ancient seaport albeit an important one with its early mentions going back to the days of Ptolemy.There is archaeological evidence of ancient Chinese and Roman coins of 4th century AD. In my earlier post, I had given you a little more history and overview of Mahabalipuram. In the same post, I had shared an overview of various UNESCO sites in this ancient seaport and had shared that the Pancha Rathas was my favorite. I do think it still remains my favorite. Why?

For several reasons – its mysterious history, its uniqueness, the little details on it and more. Let me unearth this unusual site of Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram for you.

History of the Pancha Rathas in 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 as 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 models of the temples that were built across Tamil Nadu. Either way, the purpose of these structures is not known and the name now has been officially, considered as a misnomer.

Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram
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.

Architecture of the Pancha Rathas

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

Carved out of a single hillock - the Pancha Rathas
Carved out of a single hillock – the Pancha Rathas

The architecture here is said to be of Dravidian 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.

Dharmaraja Ratha or Yudhistra’s Chariot

This one is located at the far end of the Pancharathas. It is the tallest amidst them with three stories. The fascinating thing about it is that there is staircase that can be found on the first floor leading to the second. However, there is no way to reach the first floor. 🙂

Dharmaraja Ratha at Pancha Ratha
Dharmaraja Ratha at Pancha Ratha

The outer face of this Ratha has a lot of deities carved on it. 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 🙁 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.

Having said that, here is a small observation that I made when gazing at this piece this time. Check out the first and second floor in the various images. See if you can spot faces staring back at you! Now, I bet you had missed that one! 😉

Bhima Ratha


Bhima Ratha
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 an hut.

The front face Bhima's Ratha with its seated lion pillars and cavern
The front face Bhima’s Ratha with its seated lion pillars and cavern

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

Close up of the roof on Bhima's ratha.
Close up of the roof on Bhima’s ratha. Can you spot two of the three things that I have talked of below?

Have a close look at the roof 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 (see the first picture of Bhima’s Ratha)

If you have spotted these, remember to write in the comment box below. 🙂 The first one is quite simple but hidden and the last one make 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 Rathas

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's Ratha
Arjuna’s Ratha

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 facing Arjuna's Ratha
The Nandi facing Arjuna’s Ratha

When I pointed that out to the guide, he gave me another 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? 🙂

Close up of Nandi at the Pancha Rathas
Close up of Nandi at the Pancha Rathas

Draupadi’s Vimana in the Pancha Rathas

Draupadi's Ratha next to Arjuna Ratha at the Pancha Rathas
Draupadi’s Ratha next to Arjuna Ratha at the Pancha Rathas

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 went within, you could spot a carving of Goddess Durga. Even around the structure, you will find the Goddess in various poses.

Close up of the Roof of Draupadi's Ratha
Close up of the Roof of Draupadi’s Ratha

The chariot of Nakul and Sahadev

Nakul-Sahadev Ratha at the Pancha Rathas
Nakul-Sahadev Ratha at the Pancha Rathas

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 carved elephant alongside Nakul-Sahadev Ratha
The carved elephant alongside Nakul-Sahadev Ratha

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. 🙂

The similarity in form of the backs of Nakul-Sahadev ratha and the elephant
The similarity in form of the backs of Nakul-Sahadev ratha and the elephant

Other monolithic carvings of Pancha Rathas

I have already mentioned the Nandi that faces Arjuna’s Ratha and then the elephant that is next to Nakul and Sahadev’s Ratha. The only other carving that I have to share is this lion. 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 Pancha Rathas is “Wow!”.

The mighty lion that stares at all the visitors to the Pancha Rathas
The mighty lion that stares at all the visitors to the Pancha Rathas

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? Quickly pin this to your board and message me to let me know what are your views of the Pancha Rathas – one of the key places to visit in Mahabalipuram.

Getting here:

  • The closest airport to Mahabalipuram is Chennai. You can even take a train to Chennai or Pondicherry and then, head to Mahabalipuram by road
  • There are plenty of taxis and buses available to take you to Mahabalipuram from both these cities.
  • If you are a part of the Southern Splendour circuit of the Golden Chariot, the Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram will definitely be a part of your itinerary.

Travel Tips:

  • The weather in Mahabalipuram is hot throughout the year. So, cotton clothes and flat shoes are advised.
  • The entrance to Pancha Rathas is INR 30 for Indians and INR 500 for the rest of the visitors. Cameras are not charged for unless you are planning a professional videography.
  • The Pancha Rathas are open from 6 am to 6 pm every day. Avoid weekends as the place gets really crowded.
  • Take the services of an authorized guide to understand the intricacies of this monument
  • There are a rest-rooms and canteen facilities available opposite to this monument.

P.S: I visited the Pancha Rathas this time, as a part of the Golden Chariot tour, organized by Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation.



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70 Responses

  1. asoulwindow

    I have been here 2 times and I was mesmerised both the time. It is an incredible place which takes you in a bygone era

  2. Bhushavali

    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.

  3. John Rodgers

    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.

    • Ami

      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.

  4. Jyotirmoy Sarkar

    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.

  5. Tom @ Adventurous Travels

    That’s so unbelievably amazing! Those monuments are unique in India – they look like sand sculptures! I’m fascinated! Another reason to come back to India (first being the northern mountains).

  6. Jojo

    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

    • Ami

      🙂 Whatever the name, the art and the mystery is undeniable. Glad you too, found these interesting. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Doreen Pendgracs

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

  8. Joy Generoso

    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.

  9. Stella the Travelerette

    I can see why you find the place fascinating! It is truly remarkable to think people without our technology built on that, I think the elephant is my favorite though, and not just because his back is cute.

    • Ami

      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

  10. tatumskipper

    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!

  11. Stacey Valle

    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!

    • Ami

      Thanks Stacey. Given the interest in heritage sites, I am sure you will fall in love with the ones in Mahabalipuram.

  12. Indrani

    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.

  13. thestylishtrotter

    beautiful architecture. I initially thought those were sand sculptures like the ones made on the beach but it looks more like it was carved out of stone. very beautiful and intricate details

  14. Danni Lawson

    I enjoyed reading about this historic architecture. I do think a guide is a good idea, there’s so much to see. The Pancha Rathas is really stunning.

  15. John

    This place looks amazing! Carving the structures out of a hill is mind boggling! I’ve got to learn more about this place 🙂

  16. Vishu Saumya

    Vishu has been here and always has a lot to say. This place is on my wishlist. You took me on a beautiful journey through the lovely pictures. Thanks.

    • Ami

      Am sure Vishu will Plus one to this post. I hope you get to it sooner. Time to get him there again.

  17. The Travel Ninjas

    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.

    • Ami

      The Golden Chariot is a magical journey alright and you are right to consider the same for your visit here. Hope you get to it soon.

  18. Sandy N Vyjay

    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.

    • Ami

      Sigh, one time is never enough for this lovely site. Not surprised that you feel like going there again.

  19. Laveena Sengar

    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.

    • Ami

      That would be a good trip Laveena. Am sure you will enjoy it all here in Mahabalipuram.

  20. Nisha

    I have been to this place twice and I can go a few more times. 🙂 Love it and the stories about them.

    It would have certainly been a different experience to go with Golden Chariot team. 🙂
    Looking forward to more stories.

    • Ami

      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.

  21. danik

    Wow! This place looks totally amazing and very sandy colour looking. 🙂 Love to find out more about this place and go and explore it.

    • Ami

      Danik, this place is quite interesting. Hope you have managed your research. Ping me if you want to know more. Cheers

  22. ravenoustravellers

    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.

    • Ami

      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.

  23. eatlivetraveldrink

    Holy smokes! This is unbelievable. I can’t help but want to book a ticket there right now. I have always found exploring centuries old lifestyles fascinating.

    • Ami

      And am sure then you are going to so love this site. Hope you have already booked your tickets. 🙂

  24. Ana Ojha

    I loved the architecture of the Pancha Rathas! It gives the vibes of an ancient Indian architecture which is quite fascinating indeed!

    • Ami

      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.

  25. Cassidy's Adventures

    I am totally in shock at how amazing the architecture is. I can’t believe they were able to create this stuff so long ago. And great post! Very informative!

    • Ami

      Indeed fascinating to see such amazing architecture -all done by hand. Glad you liked it too Cassidy. Cheers

  26. Agnes

    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.

    • Ami

      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. 🙂

  27. Aisha Sylvester

    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!

    • Ami

      Time to plan for it now. 🙂 India does need more than one trip to cover the main parts of it. Cheers

  28. Baskets Life Travel

    Wow Mahabalipuram looks just incredible! I love temples and ancient history this looks like a place my kids and I would love to explore! I had never heard this so thanks for sharing!

    • Ami

      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.

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