Monolithic Stone Chariots of Mahabalipuram - Pancha Rathas

Three destinations in India are famous for their Monolithic Stone Chariots. Interestingly, all these three destinations are UNESCO world heritage sites too. They are - Sun temple in Konark Odisha, Stone chariot in the Vitthala temple complex Hampi and the Pancha Rathas of Mahabalipuram. On our visit to Mahabalipuram, we visited the "Pancha Rathas" or the five monolithic stone chariots of Mahabalipuram. Traditionally, Indian temples have chariots made of wood or metals which is used to take the chief deity out on a procession during the festival days. However, the monolithic chariots of Mahabalipuram was never intended for this use as they are stationary structures carved out of rock.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots  - The Panch Ratha complex
The Panch Ratha complex 
By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France ( [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Pancha Pandava Ratha - The Monolithic Stone Chariots

The stone chariots, known as Rathas in local language were constructed more in a resemblance to temples, were each stone chariot has an entrance door leading to a niche, which houses a deity inside. The roofs of the Rathas are finely carved and the walls too have small niches were the images of Gods are carved into them.

The Pancha Rathas are commonly known by the name "Pancha Pandava Rathas" meaning "the five chariots of the five Pandava brothers". Pandava brothers here refers to Yudishtira, Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva from the Indian epic Mahabharata.The name of the chariots can be misleading. However, information board in front of this site clearly states that these monolithic chariots have no connection with the five Pandava brothers or the epic Mahabharata.

The five monolithic chariots are said to be built by Narasimhavarman I Mamalla - the king who ruled the Pallava kingdom of South India from AD 630-668. One interesting fact about these chariots is - four out of five chariots are located in a single line and their height gradually increases from North to South. This has lead the scholars to believe that these four chariots might have been carved out from a single gigantic rock in the shape of a Whale!

The "Pancha Ratha" complex in Mahabalipurm houses five monolithic stone chariots by the name - Dharmaraja Ratha, Bheema Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha and Draupathi Ratha. In these, Dharamaraja refers to the eldest of Pandava brothers - Yudhishtira and Draupathi was the wife of Pandava brothers.

The monolithic elephant 

As we entered the sandy premises of the "Pancha Ratha" complex, the first thing that I noticed is the figure of an elephant. Even though, the elephant is not a fine creation compared to the chariots in the complex, it has some interesting features. The elephant is carved in a very coarse form, which a straight trunk and the rock between its legs is left behind without being removed. It shows that the elephant construction was not completed. It might also suggest that the Pancha Ratha complex was not fully finished and might have been abandoned due to some mysterious reasons.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots   - Monolithic Elephant
The features of the elephant are quite coarse
By Amritamitraghosh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Draupathi Ratha  (The chariot of Draupathi)

Next to the Elephant, we can find the Draupathi Ratha - or the Monolithic chariot of Drauapthi - the wife of Pandavas. Even though named so, the chief deity inside the chariot is Durga - a fierce Hindu Goddess. This chariot might have got the name of Draupati as it houses a female deity. This chariot is the smallest of all. The front side of the chariot features two female figures. They are the "Dwarapalikas" or the female gate keepers of the deity. In ancient south Indian temple structure, the sanctum would be protected by a set of gate keeper figures, who are symbolically guards the deity.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Draupathi Ratha
Draupathi Ratha - The female gate keepers are also visible
Inside the chariot , we found the idol of Goddess Durga, standing on a Lotus. Two devotees are featured sitting near her feet, one is in a very strange disposition as he is about to cut of his own head as an offering to Durga. Though it seems quite horrifying, it was not a rare custom in ancient India.In the top half of the panel, we can spot the "Ganas" or the attendants of the Goddess Durga.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Idol of Durga
Idol of Durga - The devotee on the left is about to cut his head
As we walked around the chariot , we could see an image of Goddess Durga standing on the head of a buffalo.It is carved onto the external wall of the chariot . This represents the "Mahishasura Mardini" - indicating the victorious battle Durga lead to slain Mahishasura - a demon who could change forms as a human and a buffalo.
Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots  - Mahishasura Mardini
Durga in Mahishasura Mardini form
By Sharda Crishna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Arjuna Ratha (The chariot of Arjuna)

Right next to the Draupathi Ratha, stands the Arjuna Ratha. In fact both these chariots share the same platform. I couldn't help but wonder - is the naming intentional? Arjuna was the one who was closest to Draupathi. Even though Draupthi was the common wife of five Pandavas, it was in fact Arjuna who succeeded the archery challenge and won Draupathi during her Swayamvara festival. There are remarks in Mahabharata that it was Arjuna that Druapathi loved the most! No wonder their chariots shared the same platform!

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Draupathi and Arjuna Ratha
Draupathi and Arjuna Ratha on the same platform
The Arjuna chariot has an octagonal dome with two stages. It is more ornate than the Draupthi chariot. One of the artifact of interest on the platform is an object which looks like a finial. From what it appears to be, it is the finial that was supposed to be placed on the octagonal dome of the Arjuna chariot, however due to mysterious reasons, it was not being placed. It is indeed interesting to think why the Pallava sculptures would leave such a key component behind!

The inner sanctum of the Arjuna's chariot is empty, however according to scholars it is assumed that the chariot might have been dedicated to Shiva as a head and Thrisula symbol was found inside the sanctum.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots -   Arjuna Ratha
Arjuna Ratha - The finial that was never placed on the top of Ratha is resting on the right side.

The external walls of the Arjuna chariot is richly carved with various figures. On one side we find a central figure of Subramanya about to mount on his vehicle - the elephant. On to the left of it, we can see the sculptures of two ladies with elegance and grace. They might depict the Apsaras . On the right side we can see a sage with his disciple. On either sides of this wall, we can see two Dwarapalakas or gate keepers, with raised hands possible holding some kind of a weapon.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Side Wall of the Arjuna Chariot
Side Wall of the Arjuna Chariot
By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France
 (Les temples monolithes (Mahabalipuram, Inde)) [
CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Another wall features the Shiva about to mount his vehicle Nandi - the bull. This could also be Krishna, and on either side we could see the so called donor couple, who might be the patrons of the chariot. On the outer niches we can find the gate keepers.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Side Wall of the Arjuna Chariot
Side wall of the Arjuna chariot in Mahabalipuram
By G41rn8 (Own work)
CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It is customary in ancient Indian temples to have the vehicle of the deity near the temple. Nandi - the bull - is carved on to rock which is placed at the rear side of the Arjuna chariot. This also makes it clear that this chariot was originally dedicated to Shiva.
Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Nandi - the vehicle of Shiva
Nandi - the vehicle of Shiva near the Arjuna Ratha
By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Right next to the Arjuna chariot, another huge chariot is located. This is popularly known as the Bheema Ratha. Bheema chariot is the largest of the five chariots and has a bulky appearance. The epic Mahabharata says Bheema was the strongest and gigantic of  Pandva brothers. This mighty aptly be the reason for naming this huge Ratha as Bheema Ratha. The Ratha has two stories and it is quite long. Some scholars suggests that this unfinished chariot might have been intended to house a gigantic "Ananta-shayana" or "Vishnu in cosmic sleep" idol.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Bhima Ratha
 The long- gigantic Bheema Ratha
By Parijat Dasgupta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Even though the top part of the Bheema chariot is finely carved, the lower portions are relatively unfinished. Four pillars supports the bulky roof of the Bheema chariot, which has lion carvings at the bottom. The bottom part of the chariot, has been marked for making some sculptures but has been abandoned. It is quite a perplexing question that under what circumstances that the sculptures of Mahabalipuram had to be left unfinished, it might be an enemy invasion, or a change in administration.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - The unfinished Bhima Ratha
The unfinished Bhima Ratha
The last chariot in the line is known as the Dharamaraja Ratha. This chariot stands at the highest position and hence might have named with the eldest of Pandava brothers. Like the Bheema Ratha, this also is unfinished towards the bottom part. One thing is evident from this structure is that  the Pallava sculptures used to start their work from the top of the rock and worked their way down. We can observe in all of the chariots that the top part is neatly finished and it is the bottom that is unfinished.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Dharamaraja Ratha -
Dharamaraja Ratha - In background Bheema Ratha
By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Dharamaraja Ratha is particularly of interested due to the bas-reliefs in the exterior walls. One of them depicts Lord Shiva in a very different way. This Shiva idol has a raised hairdo in the form of a coronet. In Sanscrit it is known as "Jata Mukuta". Some scholars believe that this is the Bairava form of lord Shiva.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots -  Bhairava idol
 Bhairava idol - on the external wall of Dharmaraja Ratha
By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France (Les temples monolithes (Mahabalipuram, Inde)) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Another bas-relief on the Dharmaraja Ratha has a great archaeological value. It is the carving of a king, who wears a long crown and beads necklace around his neck. The sculpture has only two hands, suggesting that it is the carving of a human and not a God.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Narasimhavarman Mamalla I
Statue believed to be of Narasimhavarman Mamalla I
By G41rn8 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

An inscription above this bas-relief is of great interest to archaeologists and scholars. The inscription is read "Antyantakama(whose desires are boundless)" and "Anekopaya"( One who has many ways) which are believed to be the titles of Narasimhavarman Mamalla I. Due to these inscriptions, it is believed that the main patron of the Pancha Rathas is  Narasimhavarman Mamalla I. However there is divided opinion among the scholars regarding during the reign of which Pallava king the chariot construction was started.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Inscription on top of the Narasimhavarman carving
Inscription on top of the Narasimhavarman carving

On another side of the chariot, we can see the bas relief of Lord Bhrahma, with three heads. On closer observation, it is clear that the right face was not complete. Another wall depicts the Hari-Hara a form that combines Shiva and Vishnu.

Another very interesting bas relief on the Dharmaraja Ratha is that of the "Ardha-Narishwara". It is a concept in the Indian mythology, were Lord Shiva and his wife Paravathi shares a single body. The bas relief is as interesting as the concept itself as both the male and female parts of it is carved out with exact features and the they unite with grace and elegance.

Artha-Narishwara - Dharmaraja Chariot Mahabalipuram - Pick, Pack, Go
Ardha-Narishwara- Image Courtesy:
The fifth and final chariot of the five monolithic stone chariots of Mahabalipuram is called the "Nakula-Sahadeva" Ratha. Nakula and Sahadeva were the youngest of the five brothers. This chariot stands apart from the other four. It is clear that this chariot was constructed in a separate rock boulder that stands opposite to the the Arjuana chariot. It is believed that this chariot was dedicated to lord Indra due to the placement of elephants outside the chariot . Elephant is the vehicle of Indra and as mentioned before, it is a custom of ancient Indian temple to place the vehicle of the chief deity just in front of the main sanctum. Right next to this chariot we can find the coarsely carved life size sculpture of an elephant.

Mahabalipuram Monolithic Stone Chariots - Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha
Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha
By Parijat Dasgupta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons