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Five Rathas

Five Rathas, also known as Pancha Rathas and often referred to as Pandava Rathas, are the most reputed architectural edifices of the nine monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram. Located on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, near Chennai, each of the five structures is chiseled in the shape of rathas or chariots. The five rathas are named as ‘Dharmaraja Ratha’, ‘Bhima Ratha’, ‘Arjuna Ratha’, ‘Nakula Sahadeva Ratha’, and ‘Draupadi Ratha’ after the five Pandava brothers and their common spouse Draupadi from the great Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’.

Although the edifices remain unfinished, these rathas that are often mistakenly referred as temples are now part of the monument complex marked as ‘Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram’ by ‘UNESCO’. It is enlisted in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The complex has remained one of the famous tourist destinations of Southern India, and has been maintained under the patronage of the the ‘Archaeological Survey of India’ (ASI).

The Rathas
The first ratha as you enter is the Draupadi Ratha. This ratha is in the form of a South Indian hut, and is dedicated to the demon-fighting goddess Durga. Female guardians flank the entrance; a huge sculpted lion, Durga's mount, stands outside.

On the same pedestal stands another ‘chariot’, the Arjuna Ratha, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The pilasters, miniature roof shrines, and small octagonal dome make this ratha a pioneer of many later South Indian temples. Shiva (leaning on Nandi, south side) and other gods are depicted on the temple's outer walls.

Next is the barrel-roofed Bhima Ratha, which was never completed. Inside the chariot is the shrine of Vishnu. The Dharmaraja Ratha, tallest of the temples, is similar to the Arjuna Ratha but one storey higher, with lion pillars.

The final one is the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha, and stands aside from the other four. Dedicated to Indra, thre is a life size stone elephant beside the chariot, which is one of India’s most perfectly sculpted elephants.

The construction of these five rathas date back to the 7th century during the reign of the King Mahendravarman I from 600–630 CE and his son Narasimhavarman I from 630–668 AD of the Pallava dynasty. The structures of the Rathas illustrate the Dravidian architecture, however, the reason behind the construction of these chariots is still not known.

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