Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas
Sahadeva Ratha is the fifth ratna in the Pancha Ratha group. Unlike other four rathas, it is hewn out of a separate boulder while all others were from the single rock. This ratha faces north and measures1 18 feet in length, 11 feet wide and 16 feet in height. This ratha is also raised above a platform (adhishthana) as the case with the other rathas in the complex. This platform can be reached through a small flight of steps.
Sahadeva Ratha has a mukha-mandapa preceding the main cell. This mukha-mandapa (portico) is supported on two lion-base pillars. The entrance to the main cell has a doorway in the center however it is devoid of any decoration. Little away from the main entrance, on either sides, are two pillars, base of which have an elephant figure. The excavated cell is devoid of any image inside.
To a curious visitor, the style of this ratha will of course attract. In simple terms, its style and design is very peculiar or strange. The simple reason is that we do not come across many temples resonating this kind of style. It is an apsidal-end temple, as its southern end is in shape of an apse. This kind of style is referred as gajaprishtha style in Hindu architectural texts2. This apsidal-end led Fergusson and others to suggest influence from Buddhist chaitya halls with an exception that the chaitya halls are apsidal from interior while this ratha is in its exterior. Buddhist influence may not be rejected as evidences for it are strong, however we also have examples of contemporary Hindu temples, being constructed in this architectural style, one such example is the Durga temple at Aihole.
An elephant, almost full size, is carved from a separate boulder, and is standing adjacent to this ratha. As the back of this elephant aligns with the apsidal end of the ratha, it appears that this elephant is carved to suggest the similarity between both. Ingenious, isn’t it? The presence of this full size elephant and the elephant figures at the base of the pillars of the cell’s entrance led Longhurst3 to suggest that this ratha was dedicated to Indra, elephant being his mount.
The gable end, on the front, showcases a mini temple inside the arch. This temple is an octagonal temple with an octagonal shikhara. As per the South Indian Agamic texts, such an octagonal shikara puts the temple in the Dravida variety. On the top of the arch, there might be a motif similar to the one seen in Ganesha Ratha. In case, it is a trishula motif, then the temple should be dedicated to Shaivite deity, most probably Shiva itself.
Though there was space for niches around the vimana, and carving might be possible, however no such attempt was made. A projecting stone at the back of the temple suggest an alcove inside, probably acting as a pedestal or niche for a cult image.
1 Fergusson, James. The Cave Temples of India, pp 135-140
2 Nagaswamy, R. Mahabalipuram. p 57
3 Longhurst, A H. Pallava Architecture vol II. p 21