The Architecture of the Rathas of Mamallapuram

The Rathas or the Panch Rathas of Mamallapuram are the temple complex containing five temples of the monolithic Indian rock- cut architecture. The geographical location of the Rathas at present is Mahabalipuram, (or Mamallapuram) on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu.

According to the historical records, these Rathas were built in the early 7th century CE by the Pallava Rulers. These were carved out from a single large boulder.

The Panch Rathas

Basically, these monolithic temples were named after the protagonist characters of Mahabharat – the Pandavas. Although the five temples are named after the Pandavas and Draupadi but they do not have any connections with the Mahabharat. One more fact is supposed to be considered:- the nomenclature of the temple suggests that Pallavas had the knowledge of Mahabharat during their ruling period.

So the names of these temples are –

  • Dharmaraj Ratha
  • Bheem Ratha
  • Arjun Ratha
  • Nakul- Sahadev Ratha
  • Draupadi Ratha

It was said that the Pallava ruler Mahendravarman-I commenced the construction of these Rathas.Among the forty heritage sites in Mahabalipuram, the Pancha Rathas hold a rather unique position. However, built under the patronage of Narasimhavarman I,these rathas are five monolithic free-standing temples that were cut out from solid granite and diorite rocks.

Now let us figure out the architectural features of these Rathas.

Dharmaraj Ratha – named after the Mahabharat character of Yudhishthir, this Ratha is the largest of the rest of the Rathas. It contains a sanctuary of 3 storeys, bordered by miniature buildings and surmounted by an octagonal dome. This shrine is purely dedicated to Lord Shiva even though it’s named after Yudhishthir. It has engravings in Pallava Granth script of the titles of Narsimhavarman-I, which mentions the fact that it was created as a Shiva temple of Ayantahama Pallava.Thus, this justifies the making of Dharmaraj Ratha.

Bheem Ratha– it’s perhaps the longest of all the Rathas, measuring 12.8m in length, 7.3m in width and 7.6m in height. It is said that the Ratha is devoted to Lord Vishnu in the form of Sayanmurti or in simpler terms Vishnu Anantasayyan mudra. Also, the building remains unfinished and the sanctuary has a circumambulatory passage around it, while the pillars of this shrine are adorned with engravings of lions.

Arjun Ratha- it’s a small structure in the shape of a wooden shrine, facing towards the east. Its dimensions are – 11 x 16 x 30 feet and is 3 storeyed structure. No carvings have been found inside the temple, although we find various Gods including Indra on the outer walls of the Ratha.

Nakul-Sahadev Ratha- it’s exceptional as it’s the only one which is not placed in a linear position and stands aside. The roof of the shrine is in the shape of an elephant’s back, while the relief sculpture of the Ardhanareshwar adorns the walls and the pillars are decorated with seated lions.

Nakul-Sahadev Ratha

Draupadi Ratha- is the smallest of all the Panch Rathas. This has been dedicated to Goddess Durga in the form of Mahishaasurmarddini (where She’s standing on the head of the demon Mahisasur). This shrine has a thatched hut like shape with a square roof. The presence of a carved panel makes it more detailed as this finely carved panel shows Goddess Durga on a lotus pedestal. Additionally, a carved sea- monster lies on the entrance door too.

So, these were the major architectural traits of the Panch Rathas that reflected the typical Pallava architectural features. Not only this but they belong to very rare examples where the entire buildings with ornate interior and exterior designs are made out from the live cliff, as each one of these are carved out from one single large piece of stone, hence.

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