Five Rathas Mahabalipuram

By Sanjeev Nayyar | 2016

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Mahabalipuram has so much to offer, can easily spend a day. Shore Temple and Shell Museum are presented separately. These monolith ie free-standing temples are known as 5 Rathas as they resemble wooden chariot, cut out of solid rock, most of which are locally styled rathas (ratham in Tamil) or chariots. It is innovation of Pallava King Narasimhavarman I 630-668 a.d.). A huge rock was cut out to make different forms of temples. Extreme right is Nakula-Sahadeva ratha.

Board outside temple. They are also called Panchapandava Rathas although they have nothing to do with the Mahabharata. They were excavated during the reign of Narasimhavarman I. Monuments can be grouped according to mode of construction. Monoliths cut out of solid rock, caves excavated in hill-scarps and used as temples, temples meaning built-up masonry temples, sculptured scenes and other edifices like loose sculptures, engravings etc.

Right to left first is Draupadi ratha, Arjuna-ratha, Bhima-ratha, Dharmaraja-ratha. Draupadi ratha is supported by 4 corner-pilasters and has a niche crowned by makara-toranas on 3 sides. Niches contain standing figures of Durga. Right of pic and in front of ratha is a standing lion, representing the vehicle of Durga. Left centre is half finished Nandi.

Back side view of Dharmaraja-ratha. The temple is a pyramidal structure with a square base. The upper part consists of a series of diminishing storeys, with having a row of pavilions above a row of kudu (chaitya-windows) arranged immediately above brackets of pilasters. They divide the actual portion of the temple into niches with carved images. In the lower tier, there are 4 corner blocks each with 2 panels. In centre of are 2 pillars and pilasters supported on squatting lions.

Wall of Dharmaraja-ratha has various images. U see Brahma.

This image is of Harihara. Also seen in Temples of Aihole, see pic no 17 Click here

This image is of Ardhanarishwara, a combination of Siva and Parvati.

A side view of the Bhima-ratha. Mamallapuram is 58 kms from Chennai, was a prominent seaport during the time of Periplus (1st century a.d.) & finds mention in Hiuen Tsang account. Monolithic carving continued during later periods (Tiger-cave, Pidari-ratha etc). Structural architecture was introduced on a grand scale by Pallava Rajasimha (700-728 a.d.). The grandiose Vijayanagara phase is represented here by Raya-gopuram and Talasayana-Peruma temple, juxtaposed to the carved boulder of Arjuna''s penance.

Front view of the Bhima-ratha. It is roof shaped like the hood of a country wagon, is elongated on a rectangular base and supported length-wise by 4 pillars and 2 pilasters. The curvilinear roof here and in the Drapaudi ratha suggests its origin from a thatched hut with a covering. Judging from the oblong plan of the sanctum, it is likely that the temple was meant for the reclining form of Vishnu.

Left to right is Nakula-Sahadeva ratha, then Arjuna-ratha and lastly Draupadi-ratha. Arjuna-ratha has carved panels between the pilasters on the 4 sides of its main body on gr floor and 1st storey.

View of Nakula-Sahadeva ratha with elephant, vehicle of Lord Indra.

Side view of Arjuna-ratha. Vrishabhantiks flanked by royal attendants. See half finished Nandi on right of pic and sculptures on temple wall. Of the 4 Pallava rulers between 580-728, the name of Mahendravarman has come down as the pioneer of south Indian temple architecture and painting. He was a Jain but became a Saivite later. He dotted north-eastern Tamil Nadu with rock-cut Siva temples esp. imp is the rock-cut temples at Trichy. His son Narasimhavarman I was as great a contributor to art and rock-cut architecture / sculpture.

Inside Drapaudi-ratha you see a 4 armed standing figure of Durga, adored by 2 male worshippers kneeling at her feet, one of them is brandishing his sword to cut off his head as an offering to the goddess, and 4 dwarf gunas in flight overhead.

Rear side of Arjuna Temple. Centre of pic u see Indra on Airavata (Skanda on elephant). Left panel that I did not click had Vishnu leaning on Garuda. Above lower panels are mithuna figures or royal couples. Attempt of sculptor to represent many figures in full and three-quarters profile shows a mastery of skill. At base u see lion on left side and elephant on right - never seen this before. This alternate thing is on 4 sides of the ratha.

U see walkway to Lighthouse temple actually called OLAKKANESVBRA mandir. Could have clicked more and better pics of 5 Rathas. It was first day of shoot, takes time to get into the mood and the guide was pushing me to move fast.

Temple on top of a rock as you see. Turn right to see cave, left is steps to temple.

New Lighthouse view from temple. Gives you a super view too.

Mahishamardini cave and Olakkannisvara temple above. Inside cave are 2 large panels one representing Seshasayi Vishnu and other Mahishamardini. The central cell is intended for a Siva linga. Also see pics of rock-cut caves at Badami Click here

Panel 1 is Seshasayi Vishnu. U see Vishnu on his serpent-couch is represented in yoganidra and the great calm is heightened by the fury of Madhu and Kaitabha shown brandishing their weapons. Lower two in panel are Sudarsana and Nandaka.

Left of pic Mahishamardini is shown in the relief as 8 armed riding her lion, equipped with all weapons and using bow with its string pulled up to her ear. She is attended by a hosts of ganas and amazon yoginis and is in the ear like alidha posture using a huge club. This is probably one of the most remarkable representations of Mahishamardini in a group, another is at Ellora.

Steps that lead to Olakkannisvara (flame-eye) Siva temple, give u a sense of the height. This masonry can be assigned to the time of Rajasimha (700-728 a.d.).

This lions and panels are seen on temple wall. Sculptures eroded with time. A primitive lighthouse was erected on the roof of this temple during colonial rule if not earlier.


Entire wall inside cave has rock-cut carving.

Centre is Shri Krishna lifting mount Govardhana to protect male and female cowherds from the storm raised by Indira. Left palm is supporting mountain, right being in boon-giving attitude. Next to Krishna are gopis standing and gazing at him astonishment. To see pics of Govardhan Parikrama Click here

Left of pic is cowherd milking cow, the animal licking the calf in a very natural manner. Centre of pic is Krishna brother Balarama with right hand on a hip. Above the cow being milked is a mother with small child. To its right is a boy playing the flute.

Overview of full rock Arjuna''s Penance and Krishna Mandapam. Former is unique to Indian art. 2 large boulders with a narrow fissure have been chosen to represent a series of rows of gods and goddesses like Chandra, Surya, pairs of Kinnaras and Siddhas, Gandharvas rushing towards a centre point near the cleft where a sage stands on this left foot deeply engaged in penance.

Centre man with both hands up, one foot resting on another is Arjuna. On his right is Siva. On his left is Nagi woman face, snake body. Group of elephants are masterpiece. The cleft is occupied with gracefully carved figures of Nagas and Nagis with hands in adoration. The scene is generally taken to represent story from Mahabharata, in which Arjuna performed penance to please Siva and obtain the Pasupata weapon from him. This theme also on the gopuram of Brihadesvara Temple Thanjavur. B180

Arrows help identify. There is Arjuna. To his right is a 4 armed Siva carrying a trident in one hand. Apart from celestial beings are hunters, sages, disciples and wild animals. Just below Arjuna on right side of pic is a temple of Vishnu where a number of sages are depicted in yoga-attitude in deep meditation. Last person bottom right of pic shows man with hands above his head is engaged in Suryopasthana ie with fingers of both hands bent to form a kind of telescope to look at the sun to avoiding the fierce rays thereby indicating the position of the sun and hour of the day.

Cultural Note on Monuments at Mamallapuram. Key points - the place dates back to early historic times. All monuments except the Vishnu temple owe their owe their existence to the pallava Simhavishnu-Lion. Mamallapuram was one of the Pallava ports. Rock-cut and monolith belong to the reign of Narasimhavarman I (630-668 a.d.) while some belong to his successors ie up to 730 a.d. Pillars are simple square and octagonal shaft type as well as ornate fluted with lion based forms reflecting all elements of the pillar order.

Monolithic rathas display full form and features of contemporary temple form. Ganesha-ratha. 3 storeyed it resembles the Bhima-ratha in roof form. The elaborately worked roof has 9 vase-shaped finials & is a precursor of the later gopuram, an essential part of medieval south Indian temples. The cell inside temple had a siva langa earlier, now occupied by a figure of Ganesha installed by villagers a few decades ago. The monolith temples was carved during reign of Paramesvaravarman I.

Varaha-mandapa. Hall has 2 lion pillars and 2 pilasters, in the centre is cell guarded by 2 dvarapala figures. There are 4 panels in cave, u see all.

Assuming form boar is Varaha. Among those surrounding and adoring Varaha are representations of Surya, Brahma, the rishis and goddess Prithvi. The right foot of Varaha rest on the hood of the Naga king Sesha.

Right of pic is Trivikrama panel, Vishnu holds his bow, sword and shield in addition to his conch, discuss and club. The celestial sphere is suggested by representations of the sun and the moon. Bali and other subdued demons are shown at his feet. The figure falling in mid-air is prob Trisanku, which suggests that the foot of Vishnu reached the abode of the celestials. Left of pic Durga is represented standing and with 4 arms, carrying the wheel and discuss in the upper pair, the other 2 hands being in abhaya and katyavalambita pose. Trivikrama pose also seen in Badami Caves, pic no 22. To see pics Click here

Gaja-lakshmi panel. Here Lakshmi is depicted on the lotus wearing a peculiar type of crown noticed in Pallava sculpture and svarnavaikakshaka (golden cross-garland on the torso) and hands in position to hold lotuses. The goddess is flanked by 2 nymphs on either side carrying pots filled with water for her bath, which the 2 elephants pour over her head. Right of pic are dvarapalas.

Krishna''s butterball. For years this piece of rock is as is. Missed seeing the Ramanuja-mandapa, Raya-gopuram, the palace site and lion-throne, Adi Varaha-mandapa. I should have taken a guide in hindsight.

Overview of Trimurthi Cave, has 3 cells for Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva. Front of each cell is beautifully carved with the usual decoration of a gopuram, and pilasters support the superstructure.

Vishnu cave. Entrance of every cell is flanked by a dvarapala. Each cell has figures of kneeling devotees and flying dwarf ganas, one of each on either side. Vishnu shown with conch and discus.

Linga - Shiva cave. Mahabalipuram has kept alive the ancient art of stone-masons and sculptors. Walk around a bit and you see the actual technique of stone-carving. Every year in January the Mamallapuram Dance Festival is held against the magnificent backdrop of Arjuna''s penance. To see pics of Mahabalipuram taken by me in 2003 Click here

Brahma cell. Right of pic is a niche surmounted by a makara-torana for an 8 armed Durga standing on the cut head of the demon Mahisa. Caption details taken taken from board in temple and booklet of Archaeological Survey of India. Our thanks. Copyright of all matter lies with them.

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