By Monidipa Dey
Mahabalipuram, a quiet town in Tamil Nadu, holds an important place within the portals of Indian history. It is here that the mighty Pallavas once ruled and built their beautiful monuments, starting from around the 3rd century CE. The Pallavas were a seafaring clan, and are remembered for spreading their culture to many parts of South-East Asia, which includes their Pallava-Grantha script and sculptural style. The Pallavan monuments in Mahabalipuram were built mostly between 6 to the 8th century. CE and they show a remarkable amalgamation of natural elements, culture, and religion in their rock reliefs and sculptures.
Among the forty heritage sites in Mahabalipuram, the Pancha Rathas hold a rather unique position. Built under the patronage of Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE), these rathas are a group of five monolithic free-standing temples that were cut out from solid granite and diorite rocks. The five temples are symbolically named after the Pandavas and Draupadi but do not have any connections with the Mahabharata.
The Pancha Rathas are unique as they are among the earliest monuments of their type in India. From the types of super-structures seen here, it seems quite likely that the artists carried out various experiments with different types of future temple roof designs here. So it is quite possible that when we look at the Pancha Rathas, we are actually looking at an early medieval laboratory field, where artists once experimented with the transition of rock-cut temples to structural ones.
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Draupadi Ratha is the smallest and resembles a mud hut with a thatched Bengal roof. The doorway faces west and has two dwarapalikas on either side. The niches on the other three walls show standing Durgas, while a four-armed standing Durga is seen inside the sanctum.
Arjuna Ratha stands on the same plinth as the Draupadi Ratha and shows a square structure with stairs leading to a shallow pillared porch in front. It has a two-tiered roof and a hexagonal vimana. The sanctum is empty, while the four walls hold various sculptures that include a beautiful Shiva leaning casually on his Nandi, and a rather young looking Vishnu with his Garuda. Directly in front of this temple is a huge monolithic lion.
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Bhima Ratha is the largest structure here and has a vaulted barrel-like roof. It stands on a rectangular platform and is elongated with no sculptures on its walls. From its elongated shape, it is believed that the temple could have once held an Anantasayi Vishnu.
Dharmaraja Ratha stands at the southern end and is the highest temple. It has a square base with a pyramidal top showing a number of diminishing storeys. There are eight sculptures on the corner blocks that hold Brahma, Harihara, Skanda, King Narsimhavarma I, three four-armed Shivas, and a beautiful Ardhanarisvara.
Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha shows a south entrance with a shallow pillared porch. There are no carvings on this temple. There is a huge monolithic elephant right beside it, which is suggestive of the elephant-back shape of this rather incomplete looking temple.
Travel tips: Mahabalipuram is best visited during the winters when the weather is relatively cooler. There are regular buses and taxis that ply from Chennai to Mahabalipuram, and it is a pleasant drive down the East Coast road. There are many hotels in Mahabalipuram suitable for all kinds of budgets, and it is advisable to keep 1-2 days to see this ancient town.
(The author is a travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)