The Pancharathas are monolithic shrines which are located in the heritage city of Mamallapuram, towards the southern side of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. They were built in the 7th century under the reign of the Pallava king Narsimhavarman. The Pallavas were a pelagic clan that supported and spread the Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu cultures to many parts of South Asia. 
‘Pancharathas’ literally translates to ‘Five Chariots,’ and figuratively refers to the ‘Pandavas,’ who were the five brothers in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. These ‘rathas’ are miniature temples, carved out of small pieces of granite rock, nested in close proximity within a temple complex on the southern end of Mamallapuram.
These cave edifices lie at the point of evolution between the ancient rock-carved temples and the modern structural temples. The stone detailing in the temples mimics the wooden detailing, seen in timber supports and beams. Many of the details are preserved to this day because they were carved from a singular piece of living rock.
The Pancharathas symbolize a union of natural, religious, and cultural elements. Each of the rathas has a unique architectural and mythological character assigned to it. They have each been sculpted in a different manner, in a style reminiscent of Buddhist ‘viharas.’
The Draupadiratha is the smallest among the shrines. It resembles a hut, with a square plan and domical thatch-like roof perched on a small sanctum. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Durga, with effigies sculpted in the wall niches. The main doorway is framed by a torana in decorative motifs. The structure is guarded by a standing lion, which is the vehicle of the Goddess.
The Arjun Ratha shares a plinth with the Draupadi Ratha. It is a double-storied monument that comprises a sanctum and a colonnaded mandapa. It is mounted by a string of terrace- shrines with intricate carvings. The walls display grand figurines of gods, godmen, and royal couples. Behind the Ratha sits Nandi, the bull which signals that the ratha is dedicated to Lord Shiva.
The Bhimaratha is an incomplete shrine. It is oblong in shape, with a wagon-like roof that is made up of a long row of miniature shrines. It is supported by four lion pillars and two pilasters in front of the mandapa. The roof shrines are decorated with ornamentations like sun windows and pavilions. The column and walls, however, are bereft of any carvings or sculptures. The shrine is bestowed to Vishnu.
The DharmarajaRatha is the highest temple of the Pancharathas, which holds pride of place in the southernmost part of the complex. It is a three-story structure that is square in the base plan, and octagonal in the top plan. The uppermost level enshrines the holy trinity of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. The roof tiers are chiseled with ornamental and sculptural details. One of the niches possibly contains the portrait of King Narasimha himself. The Ratha is dedicated to Yudhistir, the eldest of the Pandava brothers.
The Nakul-Sahdevaratha, named after the twins is the only ratha that faces south, while the others face west. It has an apsidal plan form, which has lion columns on one porch end, and elephant columns on the other. Adjacent to this temple lies a monolithic elephant. There are no figurines carved on this shrine, which stands in patronage to Lord Indra.
The Pancharathas stand in an ode to the artistic genius of the Pallava dynasty who breathed life into stone by melding art and architecture. In 1984, the Pancharathas were accorded a UNESCO World Heritage site status.
Ankita Gupta is an architect by degree, a project manager by profession and a writer by interest. She believes in connecting with people through the written word, and tries her hand at poetry and short stories sometimes. She delights in reading, designing and globetrotting.
Piyali is also an architect (team lead!), a project manager and an artist. She loves photography, doodling, sketching and traveling in her free time.