Mamallapuram – Dharmaraja Ratha

Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas

Dharmaraja Ratha

Photograph of the Dharmaraja Ratha at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu, from the south-west, taken by Alexander Rea in the 1880s | British Library

Dharmaraja Ratha is the largest and grandest of all the rathas in Mamallapuram. It is located on the southernmost corner of the Pancha Ratha complex. It is carved on the same rock as that of the Draupadi, Arjuna and Bhima Ratha. Being the largest among all, it is aptly named Dharmaraja Ratha, referring to the eldest Pandava brother. It is a tri-tala (three story) structure, all stories follow a square plan and finally topped with an octagonal griva (neck) and octagonal shikhara (cupola). The stupi of the shikara is found placed on the plinth. Due to its octagonal griva and shikhara, the ratha may be placed in the Dravida order as illustrated in various south India agama texts. The ratha faces west and has two levels of platforms. The upapitha, or lower platform, though mostly left incomplete, is composed of three mouldings. The lowermost is a khura moulding, above that is a kandhara moulding where blocks were meant for lion or elephants were left uncarved, and the uppermost is a projecting mahapatti. The upper platform, or adhisthana, is of kapota-bandha type, composed of a jagati, tripatta-kumuda, kantha, kapota, kampa and vajana. On the kampa and vajana, forming prati-mukha in this case, has a frieze of alternating pair of lions and elephants, corresponding to the placement of pillars and pilasters above.

Dharmaraja Ratha | www.kevinstandagephotography.com

The entrance to the ratha is provided on all sides through rock-cut stairs. The main entrance is through a mukha-mandapa in the west. Due to paucity of rock in front of mukha-mandapa, steps were provided through a masonry staircase. The ground floor is designed in fashion of a sarvatobhadra (open on four sides) shrine, allowing a circumambulatory space around the central cell. On each side are provided two pillars and two pilasters. The pillars have seated-lion base with octagonal shaft above. Pilasters have seated-lion base with tetragonal shaft above. Intercolumniation between the pillars is more than the gap between the pillars and pilasters. This further supports that the central wide opening was left as the shrine was designed as sarvatobhadra shrine.  Above the corbels of the pillars runs a beam which supports a kapota. Below this beam are friezes for bhuta-ganas.  The kapota face is decorated with chaitya-arches (or dormer windows), all having a human head inside. Niches are provided at the corners, eight niches overall on the ground floor. These niches house images of various deities and a portrait image of a Pallava king.

Dharmaraja Ratha (image courtesy – indiancolumbus.blogspot.com)

Walls of the ground floor are terminated with a vyala-mala frieze running across four walls. This vyala-mala follows the projections and recess as per the hara decoration above. The hara decoration of north, south and east is composed of three sala-shrines (oblong shrines) in between two karnakuta-shrines (square shrines) at the corners all interconnected with cloisters. In the west, due to mukha-mandapa, the decoration scheme includes a panjara-shrine (apsidal shrine) with sala and karnakutas. distinguish between Behind this hara decoration is provided an open space for circumambulatory path, thus making this ratha of anarpita category.  This ratha is unique in the manner that it has a sanctum in its every story. The shrine at the first story rises without an adhisthana. Niches are provided in projections as well in recess of the shrine walls. The walls are terminated with kapota cornice and a vayala-mala above. The hara decoration has two sala-shrines between two karnakuta-shrines in the north, south and east. In the west, it has three sala-shrines between two karnakutas. In the west is provided a projecting mukha-mandapa, comprising the portion consisting of three salas. The second story is similar to the first story in design and decoration. The hara decoration of this story, on each side, has one sala shrine between two karnakutas. This is the most complete story of the ratha, and its sanctum has an image of Somaskanda, properly consecrated and inscribed. The ground and first floor are complete in their iconographic aspect however their sanctums are not hewn out. Nagaswamy1 tells that the tri-tala of this ratha represents three spaces, earth, outer space and heaven, also referred as Bhur-Bhuvah-Swvah.

Dharmaraja Ratha

Inscriptions – There are total of thirty-eight inscriptions distributed across the three stories of the ratha. Thirty-six of these are short labels borne by the Pallava kings. The rest two are the foundation inscriptions for the sanctum at the second story of the ratha. These inscriptions are discussed while discussing the sculptures at these different stories. Nine labels are found on the ground floor. These all labels are inscribed on the beam above the niches housing various sculptures. Though there are eight niches at this floor, not every niche has a label above it. The two niches on the western face has no label, while few niches have more than one label inscribed. Isn’t it interesting why the images on the western niche were left without a label? Another interesting point is that its not only the niches on the western face which are bereft of labels, a niche on the northern face at the west end also does not have a label.

The first floor has twenty-seven labels distributed unevenly across various niches and one on the parapet of the staircase leading to the upper floor. On the western face, we only find one label inscribed over one niche. Few niches of the floor have more than one label, and for the few the count goes to four.

The second floor of the ratha has only two inscriptions, and these are the foundation inscriptions referring to the consecration of the sanctum of that floor. One inscription is at the beam of the central cell on the western face and another is above the image of Surya on the eastern face. Now, the point of discussion should be why there is such an uneven distribution of labels among these three stories. If we assume that the engraving of these labels should be done once the work is complete, we expect that majority of these labels should be found at the second floor which is the most complete one. However this is not the case as the top story does not have any label.

If we assume that engraving of the labels started from the ground floor, then there must be some reason for why some niches on the ground floor as well as on the first floor were left without a label. It cannot be that the artists were exhausted of the labels as we find more than one label above many niches. Then what could be the case, were the titles of the ground floor and the first floor engraved by different kings? Assigning a title or label to a Pallava king is sometimes not very straightforward as the same title is being assumed by multiple kings. From the Pallava inscriptions found at other places, we have got a long list of titles for Mahendravarman I and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. We may ignore Mahendravarman in our discussion but Rajasimha cannot be ignored in this context.

Let us study these different labels and mark them if those are found in any other Pallava inscription.

Labels at the ground floor

Biruda (title) Analysis
Narasimha personal name of various Pallava kings, Narasimhavarman I and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha
Bhuvanabhajana A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2
Prthvisara A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Tirupporur inscription3
Sribhara A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription4
Atyantakama A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2
Anekopaya Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Srimegha A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2
Trailokyavardhana Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Vidhi Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions

Lables at the first floor

Biruda (title) Analysis
Sthirabhakti Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Madanabhirama Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Vidhi (engraved thrice) Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
repeated as also found on the ground floor
Narasimha personal name of various Pallava kings, Narasimhavarman I and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha
repeated as also found on the ground floor
Bhuvanabhajana A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2
repeated as also found on the ground floor
Srimegha A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2
repeated as also found on the ground floor
Apratihatasasana Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Kamalalita A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Tirupporur inscription3
Ameyamaya Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Sakalakalyana Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Nayanamanohara (engraved twice) A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2
Vama (engraved twice) Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Atimana Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Parapara A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2
Anupama Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Nayankura Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Lalita Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Sarvatobhadra A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2
Srinidhi A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Saluvanakuppam inscription5
Niruttara Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Vibhranta Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Satyaparakrama Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Paravara Not a known biruda of any Pallava king from other inscriptions
Mahamalla A title of Narasimhavarman I Mamalla as per his Badami inscription6
A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription2

Labels at the second floor

Biruda (title) Analysis
Atyantakama repeated as also found on the ground floor
Ranajaya A title of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha as per his Kanchipuram inscription4

From the above list, we found that many known birudas of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha are found over this ratha. Also, many birudas found in this ratha are not known from any other Pallava epigraph. Two birudas, Narasimha and Mahamalla, applies to two Pallava kings, Narasimhavarman I and Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. From the total of 40 birudas found in this ratha, more than 50%, 22 to be exact, are not known from any other Pallava epigraph. As very few epigraphs of Narasimhavarman I have come down to us, therefore we are limited in our knowledge on his known birudas. Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha has left more than two-hundred-and-fifty birudas.

Various scholars have suggested that this ratha was started by Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE). The king ruled for a good 38 years and this time was enough to finish such a ratha. How much time would be required to finish such an enterprise as the Dharmaraja Ratha? Srinivasan7 tells that Cave 3 of Nasik took around 20 years to get completed as evident from its inscriptions. As Dharmaraja Ratha is hewn out of a granite rock, we can assume that this may have taken around 25 years, allowing it to be completed within the reign of Narasimhavarman I. However, Narasimhavarman I was involved in some wars with the Chalukyas and his Vatapi conquest may be dated sometime during 642 CE. Giving discount of this, the king still had good 26 years to get his enterprise completed. If it was Narasimhavarman I who completed this ratha, how we explain the consecration of the shrine at the top story to Atyantakama, a title solely owned by Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha?

Parameshvaravarman I (670-695 CE), the grandson of Narasimhavarman I, had a peaceful rule of 25 years, a period enough to construct or finish an enterprise like that of Dharmaraja Ratha. If the ratha was started by Narasimhavarman I but he failed to complete it and the same happened during the reign of Parameshvaravarman I, then it is expected that he only consecrated the shrine. We do not have many birudas of this king and two known are Ugradanda8 and Vidyavinita9. However, both these are absent on this ratha. Few scholars have identified that biruda Atyantakama was that of Parameshvaravarman I and based upon this he should be taken as the finisher of this ratha. However, the fact remains that there is no other epigraph substantiating that Parameshvaravarman I was known as Atyantakama.

Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha (700-729 CE), the son and successor of Parameshvaravarman I, has been credited with few monuments at Mamallapuram, if not all. His rule of 29 years was good enough to take up such enterprises and complete or finish those with reasonable completion. Rajasimha has left more than two-hundred-and-fifty birudas in his various inscriptions. It would be hard to believe that the ratha was started by Narasimhavarman I and completed by Narasimhavarman II as both rules are spaced apart with good 32 years in between. If Rajasimha had a role to play with this ratha, it is also hard to believe that the ratha has 22 birudas which are otherwise unknown in his other epigraphs. As the Kanchipuram temples of Rajasimha are surely of later date than this ratha, therefore he would have surely remembered his birudas engraved on this ratha and ensure those were included in his later inscriptions.

While discussing the Adi-Varaha cave-temple and Dharmaraja Ratha, we concluded that it would be appropriate to assign the imprecatory verse to the Pallava king Parameshvaravarman I and the same king also held biruda Atyantakama and Ranajaya. In this case, the inscriptions on the top floor of this ratha may be assigned to Parameshvaravarman I. But this poses another problem, if the topmost floor was completed during the reign of the Parameshvaravarman I, then why we find various titles of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha engraved on the first and the ground floors. The construction of ratha like monoliths was carried out in top-down approach, first the top floor was excavated and then the lower floors. The top floor was completed during the reign of Parameshvaravarman I and he consecrated it with his name and titles. However, the ratha was not completed during his reign, though he had a lengthy rule. Its lower floors were taken up during the reign of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha and this explains his titles and his portrait image on the ratha. I hope our future research endeavors in this topic will bring fresh lights clearing the clouds of mysteries.

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1 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. pp 52-56
2 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 176-88
3 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 208-09
4 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 173-75
5 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 204-05
6 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. pp 135-36
7 Srinivasan, K R (1975). The Dharmaraja Ratha and its Sculptures. Abhinav Publications. New Delhi. p 4
8 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. No 54, Kanchipuram Inscription
9 Mahalingam, T V (1988). Inscriptions of the Pallavas. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. No 46, Kuram Plates

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