Mamallapuram – Rathas

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas


Ratha, as a word, would be translated into a chariot or a car, a conveyance used by royalties and gods. The tradition of ratha yatras, using wooden rathas, is still common across Indian temples. These wooden rathas or temple cars are used to install a deity while taking the image out for a procession. The Ratha Yatra of lord Jagannatha of Puri is famous in and out of India.

The rathas of Mamallapuram, though referred as rathas, do not exhibit any characteristic of the temple cars. Raju Kalidos1 has compared these stone rathas with the wooden rathas of temples concluding that these stone rathas do not match with the temple cars. Therefore calling these stone monuments as rathas would be misnomer. However as these have been called so from long time, therefore we keep the same nomenclature to avoid confusion.

Sketch by Mr J. Braddock, J. Gantz, dated 1825 (image courtesy – British Library)

These stone rathas are in fact monoliths, carved out of a single rock. These monoliths are carved in fashion of different Indian temple styles. We, probably, may never know the exact intention of these monoliths, but as they showcase different temple styles, we may say that the Mamallapuram artists tried to converge all different kinds of contemporary temple styles into a single complex. Brown2 writes, “Each example, with all these features is so well preserved as to be perfectly comprehensible, but the question at once arises, what was the object and intention of recording so faithfully and with such infinite toil each architectural types, as if it were a full sized model, or to be regarded as a standard pattern for the guidance of the temple builder?”

Whenever we talk about temple architecture in its earlier stages, influence of its Buddhist counterparts is inevitable. This has been suggested by various scholars, Fergusson, Brown and many others. In the absence of surviving temples from that earlier period, it would be hard to discard the theory of this influence.  Such stone monoliths are not very frequent in South India and Mamallapuram has the largest concentration of these, totaling nine. Five of these are located in Panca Ratha complex, other three in another complex and the ninth and last, Ganesha Ratha, situated isolated.

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1 Raju Kalidos. Stone Cars and Rathamaṇḍapas. East and West Vol. 34, No. 1/3 (Sept. 1984), pp. 153-173
2 Brown, Percy. Indian Architecture: Buddhist and Hindu Period. p 79

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