March 10, 2012

Mamallapuram Five Rathas aka Pandav Rathas

Site Name: Five Rathas aka Pandav Rathas
Site Type: Monument, Heritage, Temple, Monolithic rock cut temple

Location:  1.5 kms from bus stand, Mamallapuram, near Chennai (55 kms from Chennai), Tamil Nadu state, India
Highlights: One of the most popular sites in South India; Believed to have been built by the Pallava King Rajasimha Narasimhavarman II (700-728 CE); it was originally believed to have been constructed by Narasimhavarman I (Mamallan)
Nearest Railway Station: Chennai
Nearest Airport: Chennai
How to reach: Well connected by road from Chennai
Hotel: A lot of options are available within Mamallapuram and East Coast Road outside the town
Restaurants: Many options and varieties across the town

Mamallapuram, the town with full of extrordinary monuments and beautiful sculptures, is a very important tourist site in South India. The town is also called as Mahabalipuram. It is a small coastal town located near Chennai, the gateway to South India. This town is one of the oldest sea ports in South India. There are references about this historical town even in the literature of 5th or 6th century CE.

Different Types of Monuments:

The historical town of Mamallapuram is popular due to its ancient monuments and sculptures done by the Pallava kings. The monuments of Mamallapuram can be categorized into cave temples, monoliths or rathas, bas reliefs and structural temples. Pallava king Mahendravarman I constructed cave temples. His successor Narasimhavarman I (popularly called as Mamallan) started constructing monolith monuments (in addition to constructing cave temples). Both these types of monuments were constructed by his successor Parameshvaravarman I. His successor Rajasimha Narasimhavarman II introduced structural temples.

Five Rathas
Five Rathas:

As mentioned above, Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE) was the one who started a new style of carving the temple out of a monolith. Such temples are called as rathas in Tamil language, which means chariot. Mamallapuram has a lot of such monolith monuments. Out of them, Five Rathas is the most popular one.

Five Rathas is one of the widely visited monuments in Mamallapuram. Those who visit Mamallapuram generally do not miss to visit Five Rathas, Arjuna's Penance and Shore Temple. In Tamil language, the place is called as Aindhu Ratham or Anju Ratham. It is also named as Pacha Pandava Ratha, although it has nothing to do with the heroes of the great epic Mahabharat. As per the name, this site has five monoliths or rathas.

Four out of five rathas are carved out of a single whale-back rock which has a gradual increase in height from north to south. Some of the rathas here might have been completed even by Narasimhavarman's successor, Parameshvaravarman I.

Draupadi Ratha:

Draupadi Ratha
Draupadi Ratha is the smallest ratha of the group and it is located on the northern end. This west facing ratha is found on a high rise platform, which is supported by alternating elephant and lion head images. The roof looks like a thatched roof.

The front facade has two dwarapalikas, whereas inside the cell a magnificent carved image of  Durga is found. Durga is standing on a lotus and is depicted with four arms holding conch and discus in her upper arms. Her one lower hand is in abhaya mudra and another one is resting on her waist. There are two devotees found at her foot, one is sacrificing his head and the other one is offering flowers. This is perhaps a rare scene to find and throws light on some practices followed in those days. There are four Shiv Ganas standing behind the Goddess.

There are three niches carved at the three walls surrounding the ratha. In all the niches, the image of Durga standing on a buffalo head is found. In front of this ratha, a 6 feet high lion carved out of boulder is found. This lion sculpture is very popular in this site. It attracts a lot of tourists to pose for photographs.

Arjuna Ratha:

Arjuna Ratha is found next to Draupadi Ratha sharing the same platform. It also faces the western direction. This ratha is a two storey structure with an octagonal dome on the top. The front facade is supported on two pillars and two pilasters. The pilasters are in turn supported by lion images. The first floor has eight niches adorned with couples, two on each side. This cannot be seen from outside and public is not allowed to the first floor.

Arjuna's Ratha
Although the shrine is empty now, it is believed that it was dedicated to Lord Shiva once. The northern side of the external wall, there is a niche found with Vishnu holding discus and conch mounted on Garud. The proper left is empty and further left has a dwarapala. The proper right of Vishnu has two couples and further right has another dwarapala.

The eastern side wall has Subramanya (or Indra?) on his mount elephant. Two beautiful female figures are found on its proper right and a sage with his disciple on its proper left. Further right has a dwarapala holding a bow and another dwarapala on further left side.

The southern wall has Shiva leaning on his mount Nandi, the bull. On the either side of this niche two couples are seen. The further right and left sides have the images of dwarapalas.

The east side of the ratha, that is on the back side of the ratha, a gigantic image of Nandi, carved out of single rock is found. It is very popular among the tourists. Unfortunately, they do not seem to understand the importance of such great sculpture. They tend to sit on the rock and pose for photographs. It would be better if ASI or Government of India somehow ensures that such monuments are not even touched by such miscreants.

Bhima Ratha:

Bhima Ratha
After Draupadi ratha and Arjuna ratha, Bhima ratha is the third in line. The architecture resembles the early Buddhist style. The structure is oblong in plan and has two storeys. The ground floor is not furnished. A prakara (circumbulatory) path is planned all around supported by pillars. The corners appear to be unfinished lion base pillars. It appears that this temple could have been dedicated to Lord Vishnu, however there is no record to prove that.

The area between the ground floor and the first floor are connected with a row of small oblong shrines. The small shrines are covered with the wagon shaped roofs. The first storey has wagon shaped roof which is supported by a rectangular structure with niches carved at regular intervals. Some niches have unfinished human figures. The northern side of roof is more finished when compared to that of the southern end. A shrine with octagonal vimana topped with a spherical roof is found.

Dharmaraja Ratha:

Dharmaraja is the biggest among all the five shrines and it is located in the southern end. Although its architecture resembles the Arjuna Ratha, it has three storeys instead of two storeys. The ratha is open in all the sides; each side is supported with two pillars and two pilasters.

The external side of the ground floor are carved with eight nices. The west wall has the icon of Shiva in sambhaga mudra with his two upper arms hanging down and one of his upper arms holding a snake by its tail. His lower right arm is in abhaya mudra and the other lower arm is resting on his waist. He is shown with jatamukuta on his head. There is another icon of Shiva on the west side niche. He is seen with a big jatamukuta on his head. He has four arms and wears a very short lower garment held around his waist by a snake. He is seen wearing large earrings.

Dharmaraja Ratha
The north side wall has two niches. Brahma is found in one niche whereas Harihara - a combination of Vishnu and Shiva is seen in the other niche. The eastern wall has two niches too. In one niche the amazing icon of Ardhanareeswarar is found. The masculine and feminine features of the icon are clearly and beautifully depicted from head to toe in this icon. This is one of the best sculptures found in the entire site. Another icon has Subramanya with four arms standing in the sambhaga posture.

The south side wall also has two niches. In one niche, Shiva is found in the sambhaga posture. Another niche has the important image - the icon of Pallava king Narasimhavarma I aka Mamallan.

The first and second floor also have a lot of beautiful niches with outstanding icons. However, it is unfortunate that public is not allowed to visit those floors.

Sahadeva Ratha:

Sahadeva ratha is the last ratha in the group which is architecturally as well as location-wise standing away from the rest of the four shrines. There is a possibility that the ratha was dedicated to Indra as the elephants are found on the doors. Also, there is a magnificent life size elephant figure carved out of a single rock stands near the shrine. The shrine has its facade supported by two pillars with lion base theme. The middle cell has two pilasters on outside with elephants carved on the base such as forming the guards of the deity inside the cell. The architecture of the shrine follows gajaprstha style, resembling the back side of elephant.

Sahadeva Ratha
Five rathas are definitely one of the most outstanding monuments not only in Mamallapuram but in the entire country. I tried my level best to cover the features of this shrine in detail to some extent. I wish those who read this article should visit the site and notice all the intrinsic features. Importantly, please do not stand on elephant, sit on bull or spoil any monuments by any means in the name of posing for the photos.

Happy travelling.

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