Mamallapuram – The Workshop of the Pallavas
Arjuna Ratha is built over the common platform shared with the Draupadi Ratha. This large platform is supported on alternating figures of lions and elephants and is reached by a flight of steps. The ratha is composed of a narrow ardha-mandapa (front porch) followed by garbha-grha (sanctum) and measures 11.5 feet x 16 feet and its height reaching 20 feet. The adhisthana (base) is composed of various moldings; upana, jagati, tripatta-kumuda, lower kampa, kantha, upper kampa and pattika. This adhisthana is reached by a small flight of steps.
The ratha faces west and its ardha-mandapa is supported on two pillars and two pilasters. While the pillars are modern as the original have not survived, Longhurst1 tells that the modern pillars are placed to provide an additional support as the mandapa had been cut away to an alarming degree. The pilasters have seated-lion bases suggesting that the original pillars were also of the same design. The beam above has a frieze of ganas. The cornice above the beam has six kudu-arches (dormer windows), each having a human face inside. Above this cornice rises its dvi-tala (two stories) shikhara (tower). On each storey of the shikhara, decoration scheme includes one sala-shrine (oblong) placed between two kuta-shrines (corner). These shrines are interconnected with cloisters. The first storey has an empty cell facing west. There are total of eight niches provided around this cell. These niches are adorned with images of various couples, carved till their waists, who according to Nagaswamy2 may represent the ashta-dikpalas (eight directional guardians). As there is no provision of a staircase, a visitor cannot reach this first story.
The ratha is designed in tri-ratha pattern, allowing three niches on each side, central bhadra-nice and corner karna-nices. The karna-niches of each side are adorned with figures of dvarapalas. In the central bhadra-niche in the north we find a male figure with an attendant. The male figure has four hands and probably holding a chakra (discus) and shankha (conch) in his upper hands. The fiures is generally identified as Vishnu and Garuda however Nagaswamy3 identifies him with Shiva. Identification with Vishnu seems to be appropriate. The recess on the right of this central niche is unfinished. While the recess on the left has an image of a couple.
On the eastern side, the karna-niches have dvarapalas, one holding a bow and bearing a thread made of human skull and the other is standing with one hand on his thigh and the other hand raised in adoration. The recess on the south has figures of two females and the recess on the north has a bearded man and a child. The central bhadra-niche has a male figure riding over an elephant. In Hindu iconography, Indra and Subramanya, both are associated with elephant as their mount. Thus, the male figure is generally identified with Indra4 or Subramanya5. An argument in support of Indra comes from the direction this figure is facing. Indra, in his role of a dikpala, is the guardian of the east direction and this figure also faces east.
Susan Huntington6 tells that it would be hard to identify him with Indra due to missing characteristic attributes such as, vajra (thunderbolt). Also, if we identify him as as Subramanya, then the bearded male in the recess may be identified with Velan and the two ladies in another recess may be the possessed ones whom Velan came to relieve. In another interpretation, the two ladies may be taken as the two wives of Subramanya. Huntington proposes a new identification of the figures in these niches. She tells that the elephant rider is Aiyanar-Sasta, the God only known in south India. He is usually depicted riding a horse however he is also associated with elephants. Aiyanar is said to be the son of Shiva and Mohini, a form of Vishnu. He is therefore also referred as Hariharaputra. He has two wives, Puranai and Putkalai (alternatively Madana and Varnani). The bearded man would be the sage Damanaka and the child would be Satyaka. Damanaka was the chief attendant of Aiyanar and Satyaka was his son. It is also known that Damanaka had a deformed body.
On southern wall, the central bhadra-niche has Shiva as Vrashbhantaka-murthi, leaning on his bull, Nandi. The recess on either side of the bhadra-niche have two couples. H Heras7 is of opinion that the two couples on this side and the one couple in the east represent three Pallava kings, Mahendravarman I, Narasimhavarman I and Mahendravarman II. The couples indeed bear royal attributes and may represent royal personalities however it would be hard to identify them with different Pallava kings. We do not know if the Arjuna Ratha was completed within the term of a single Pallava king or it spanned over the terms of multiple kings. In case we accept the theory as proposed by Heras, the presence of three royal couples, provided they all represent different kings, suggests that the work on the ratha spanned over multiple reigns. Lefevre8 tells that a close scrutiny of the historical bas-reliefs from the Vaikuntha Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram shows the royal couples and their posture resemble very much with what we find on the Arjuna Ratha. He concludes that it does not prove undoubtedly that these couples are royal portraits but it could indicate that by the time of Nandivarman Pallavamalla they were conceived as such.
The karna-niches have figures of dvarapalas. The garbha-grha is devoid of any icon or image. Longhurst, while clearing the plinth of the ratha, reported finding of a broken head of Shiva and the finials of the Arjuna and Draupadi Ratha. On the basis of this head, he suggests that the Arjuna Ratha is dedicated to Shiva. Deriving further on this, Longhurst tells that these kind of trident heads were setup in place of lingas thus constituting a peculiar custom of the Pallavas which doubtless indicate to some special Shiva cult being followed in that period. As per him, the horn-headdress worn by some dvarapalas further attests this special cult. Nagaswamy, on the basis of the figures on its external walls, also of opinion that the ratha was dedicated to Shiva.
At the back of this ratha, in the east, is a figure of a bull which may represent Nandi. This is irregular that instead of Nandi in front of the sanctum, we find it at the back of the temple. One assumption would be that the artists did not find a suitable boulder in front of the temple, however in that case, they may have changed the entrance of the ratha from west to east. As this was not done, it may be said that carving this bull was an afterthought once the ratha was already hewn out.
1 Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 17-18
2 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. pp 49-50
3 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 49
4 Sivaramamurti, C (1952). Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 15 | Longhurst, A H (1928). Pallava Architecture Part II. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 17-18
5 Nagaswamy, R (2008). Mahabalipuram. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. ISBN 9780198071273. p 49 | Sivaramamurti, C (1952). Mahabalipuram. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 15
6 Huntington, Susan L (1981). Iconographic reflections on the Arjuna Ratha published in Kaladarsana. E. J. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9004064982. pp 57-68
7 Heras, H (1935). The Royal Portraits of Mahabalipuram published in Acta Orientalia 13. pp 163-173
8 Lefevre, Vincent (2011). Portraiture in Early India. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004207356. p 171