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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

Draupadi’s Vimana in 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

The chariot of Nakul and Sahadev

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

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

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

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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