What to explore in Mahabalipuram (Part II) – The Pancha Rathas, Krishna Mandapa, and other Rock Cut caves

The origin of monument building in Mahabalipuram is attributed to the mighty Pallava dynasty that ruled south India from around 3rd century CE with their capital at Seven_Pagodas,_Madras_-_Tucks_Oilette_(1911)Kanchipuram, after the decline of their overlords, the Satavahanas. The early Pallavas were seafaring in nature, and they spread their culture in many parts of what is now known as the South East Asia. Many ancient inscriptions from these parts written in the Pallava-Grantha script clearly establish the early connections, while the early sculptures from these places also show a remarkable influence of the Pallavan style.

Pallava script
The greatest influence of the Pallavas was undoubtedly their script, the Pallava script. It came into use sometime in the 6th century, and belonged to the group of more popular form of Brahmi scripts. Along with their spicy curry (another popular Pallavan gift to the SE Asian nations), their granth or script came along with their boats and gave rise to different writing formats, which are now used in many parts of Southeast Asia. The  four older scripts, which are directly derived from the Pallava granth are Mon, Khmer, Kawi, and Chams, and the Khmer Empire was the first to take up the Pallavan script. The Angkor kings also started using the tittle Varman , like their Pallava counterparts in India. It is believed that the the modern Lao, Thai, and Khmer scripts are all derived from the script and writing system was first adopted by the Khmer dynasty.

In the 7th century CE,  the mighty Pallavas were defeated by the Chalukyans under Pulakesin II (609-642 CE), and they lost the Telugu districts. Mahendravarman I (600-30 CE) now controlled a much reduced kingdom that extended over Thanjavur, Chingleput, Arcot,  Tiruchchirappalli, Ghittoor, and Salem. Despite his humiliating defeat, Mahendravarman I is well remembered in history as a great poet and musician, and more often as a pioneer of the South Indian style of temple painting and architecture. The Mandagapattu inscription of early 7th century (written in Laksitayana inscription) describes Mahendravarman I as a curious learner, who created a temple “dedicated to Brahma, Visnu, and Siva, to be made without the use of brick, wood, metal, or mortar.”


The monuments in Mahabalipuram (placed between 6-8th c. CE), show a beautiful amalgamation of religion and culture, through depiction of various stories from the Hindu epics. These are expressed as reliefs and sculptures on rock, often on a gargantuan scale that effortlessly integrates sculptural works with nature. The place has forty monuments that can be divided into five groups, based on their construction types:

1.  Monoliths or Rathas:  these are free-standing structures (mostly temples) cut out of
solid rock, designed to look like the local ceremonial rathas or chariots;
2. Rock cut caves or Mandapas: these include pillared mandapas or halls excavated in rocks on hill-sides
3. Structural temples: the term refers to built masonry temples, such as the Shore temple
4. Rock reliefs:  reliefs on side walls of cave temples, sculpted on massive granite rocksor boulders on hill-edges; the majority of these are from the time of Narasirmhavarman I.

5. Various ASI excavated sites

According to M.S. Ramaswamy (1989), Mahabalipuram has ten major monoliths or rathas, ten rock cut caves, two rock reliefs, and three structural temples. It is interesting to note that the sculptures, reliefs, and architecture of the Pallavas incorporate aspects of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism all in one frame. This is significant, as it helps in understanding that the monuments were built prior to 9th c. CE (before the sectarian split between Vaishnavites and Shaivites occurred), when Hindus still followed the Upanishads, where they could worship god in all forms and aspects, without giving exclusive importance to any particular one (Boner, 1990). The five main deities that we find repeatedly in Pallavan era monuments are Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Durga (Shakti), and Surya, and those that still worship these five without following the sectarian divide are known as Smarttas (Boner, 1990).

The Pancha Rathas or the Five Monoliths

This group of five monolithic structures are cut out from solid rock to create

North View of the 5 Pagodas about one mile south of Mahabilipoorum showing also a Lion and Elephant, the latter as large as life, the former larger, the whole cut sculptured from solid Granite stones – from a Sketch by Mr J. Braddock. J. Gantz’, 1825 (photo courtesy – British Library)

five free-standing temples (the term rathas commonly used for the monoliths is a misnomer, as none of the structures look like ceremonial rathas or temple chariots). The naming of the temples after the Pandavas and Draupadi is also purely symbolic, and has no historical basis or connections with the Mahabharata. It is believed that these monuments were created during the rule of Narasimhavarman I (630-668 CE), and are among the earliest structures of their type in India. It is interesting to note that the different forms of  super-structures created here show artistic experimentation with various types of future temple roofing. The stones used for these monolithic temples are naturally available blocks of granite and diorite, and are dedicated to the forms and ideas of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shakti. All the five monoliths are built on moulded plinths, they completely lack any ganas, sculptures are seen within tall niches, there are overhanging eaves with sometimes human faces seen on them, while the important sculptures are seen with makaras on brackets.

The layout of the Pancha Rathas (from “Iconographic reflections on the Arjuna Ratha” by Susan Huntington)
These monolithic ‘rathas’ could be experimental models created by the artisans before they actually started implementing these designs and building structural temples. So, here we are possibly looking at an ancient  laboratory, where artists experimented with the transition of rock cut temples to structural ones.
IMG_5271 (1)
Draupadi ratha: this is the smallest and the most elegant among the five rathas in this complex. it resembles a village mud hut with a thatched (curved) bangla chala or Bengal roof. There are four supporting pilasters in the corners, and three niches on three walls that are crowned by makara-toranas. The side facing west has the doorway, with two niches on two sides of the door containing dwarapalikas. The remaining niches show a standing Durga, and the east niche shows Durga standing on the severed head of the mahisasura (buffalo demon). Inside the sanctum, on the wall there is a four-armed standing Durga. 
IMG_5272 (1)
Durga or Kotravai seen with two male devotees (Kapalika sect)
kneeling at her feet. One of them has a sword in hand ready to
to cut his head off (sacrificial scene, common in Pallava sculptures), as an offering to the devi. There are four ganas watching from overhead. In front of this ratha stands a huge monolithic lion. 


Durga, or Vishnu Ammai, as she is better known in Tamil Nadu, on Draupadi ratha wall
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Arjuna ratha: Standing on the same plinth as the Draupadi ratha is the Arjuna ratha. Similar in design to the Dharmaraja ratha, though smaller, it is a square structure with steps leading to a shallow pillared mandapa in front. The ratha shows a two tiered superstructure and a hexagonal vimana. While the sanctum is now empty, the four walls are amply sculpted with carved panels between pilasters on four sides. There are five panels on three sides of the main cell with the central one holding prominent figures. The corner-panels show dwarapalas (quite debatable owing to their costumes, postures, and head-gears). One of the central panels (south facing) holds Shiva casually leaning on his Nandi, while the north facing wall holds a young looking Vishnu with his garuda, and Indra on his Airavata stands on the east facing wall. Directly in front of this temple stands a huge monolithic elephant. 

Owing to the Indra panel and the elephant in front, the general belief among historians is that the temple was dedicated to Indra. However, according to Susan Huntington, the temple was more likely to have been dedicated to Aiyappan or Aiyyanar-Sasta, the son of Shiva and Mohini. The two women in the left side panel of Aiyyanar-Sasta riding his elephant are his two wives, Puranai and Putkalai. On the right panel we see an older man leading a child, which according to Huntington, are Aiyyanar-Sasta’s son Satyaka and his chief attendant Damanaka. 

IMG_5281 (1)
Vishnu with Garuda on north facing wall

The panels on two sides side of Vishnu and Shiva show a pair of mithuna couples, and two free standing males (whether they are dwarapalas is debatable) in the corner panels. Mithuna couples are also seen in the upper storey kudu panels. There are alternating simhas (lions) and gajas (elephants) carved at the base of this ratha. The decorative patterns used here are kudus and pavilions, similar to that of the Dharmaraja-ratha.

The monolithic bull sitting behind the Draupadi-Arjuna rathas
The group of figures on the east facing wall of the Arjuna’s ratha, which Susan Huntington says is that of Ayyappan or Aiyyanar-Sasta and not that of Indra. 
Shiva with nandi
 Bhima ratha : it is the largest among the rathas here, with
a vaulted barrel/wagon like roof. It is elongated in shape, and stands on a rectangular platform with four pillars and two pilasters on both the east and west sides. The ornamentation seen here are pavilions and false kudus on the upper storey, like the Dharmaraja ratha. The curved roof of this monolith and that of the Draupadi-ratha
reminds one of the village thatched huts. There are no figures carved on the walls of this ratha. From its elongated shape it has been derived that the temple was likely to have been a dedication to Anantasayi Vishnu. 
East facing side of Bhima ratha
West facing side of Bhima ratha
Dharmaraja ratha (east facing side). 

The highest temple situated at the southern end of this group is the Dharmaraja ratha. It is pyramidal in shape with a square platform. There are number of diminishing storeys on the upper part, with each storey showing pavilion rows above kudu/chaitya rows. The four corner blocks, have panels that have sculpted figures in them, and between the corner blocks are shallow mandapas with two pillars and two pilasters with simha bases. The eight sculptures on the corner blocks, show Brahma, Harihara,  Skanda, one is the royal portraiture of king Narsimhavarma I (identified by the grantha inscribed epithets of the king), three others hold four-armed Shiva, and the last one is a beautiful image of Ardhanarisvara, combining  Shiva (purusha) and Parvati (prakriti). The figures in the niches of the central tier are those that would eventually become popular in later temple iconography, such as the four-armed Natesa dancing on Apasmara, Gangadhara Shiva, Vishnu on Garuda, Vinadhara Dakshinamurti, Andhakaasuravadha, Shiva with Arjuna (it could also be Chandesvara or Bharata/nandi), Kankalamurti, Surya wearing karanda mukuta, Krishna on kaliya, Natya Dakshinamurti, along with women figures, devotees, and dwarapalas. There is also a depiction of Somaskanda Shiva on the west facing tier. The pranalas on roof are seen all around the ratha, with human and monkey faces as outlets.

Dharmaraja ratha (south facing side). 
Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha: All the temples have a west entrance except the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha, which has a south entrance. It is apsidal in shape, showing the same  ornamentation as in the Arjuna and Dharmaraja rathas. There is a shallow porch in front with two  simha based pillars. No carvings of figures are seen on this temple.
Besides the temple, stands the huge monolithic elephant, which according to some scholars, is suggestive of the elephant-back shape of the temple. 


Krishna Mandapa

This rock cut cave depicts a scene of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill, known as Goverdhana Uddhara. Here we see Krishna lifting  Govardhana with his left palm, in order to protect the cowherds and and their families from the storm created by Indra, while his right hand shows the varada mudra. Near him are the gopis, looking at him in wonder. To his right is his brother Balarama, who is standing with his left hand on the shoulder of a gopa, and right hand on hip. Farther right we see a very natural representation of a  cowherd milking his cow, while the cow licks its calf. Another gopi stands near holding milk-pots kept on a rope-sling, while carrying a bundle on her head; and a wood-cutter stands by her with his axe on his shoulder. We also see figures of a mother holding her child, and a cowherd playing his flute, while all around there are cows. The Goverdhana mountain is shown as full of lions, sphinxes, and griffins, at the left side, while an alert bull sits at the other end. While the rock relief on the cave wall is of the Pallavan era, the pillared mandapa in front is likely to be a later addition, possibly during the Vijayanagara, or alternatively the Nayaka era.


Few other Rock Cut Caves and the Butter Ball

Draupadi’s bath: a small kund holding water in the Mahabalipuram main hill top. (Photo courtesy : Zehra)
The Dharmaraja rock cut throne. It is a monolithic structure that has a rectangular seat with a growling lion sitting at one end. This area is believed to have been the main palace site. Seen at Mahabalipuram main hill top. (Photo courtesy : Zehra)
Gopi’s churn. On its rim is seen written ‘Sri-Kadhiti’ in
Pallava granth 
(Photo courtesy : Zehra)
Triple celled rock cut shine of the 7th-8th  century (Photo courtesy : Zehra)
Triple celled rock cut shrine of the 7th-8th  century. The three cells are dedicated to Shiva (middle cell), Brahma, and Vishnu. Here

A beautiful rock cut panel depicting elephants, monkey, and peacock. (Photo courtesy : Zehra)

Ganesha ratha
Varaha cave II on the main Mamallapuram hill. Near the Ganesha-ratha and behind Arjuna’s penance is the beautiful Varaha-mandapa. The shallow mandapa at front has four lion pillars and pilasters. The centre garbhagriha behind the pillared mandapa is empty with two dwarapalas guarding the cell. On the sides of sanctum are four wall panels that beautifully depict Gajalakshni, Durga, Varaha raising the bhu-devi from the ocean, and Trivikrama. 
The Varaha panel: an unusual depiction of the Varaha avtaar rescuing bhu-devi. Here he is seen looking right and lovingly holding bhu-devi, instead of the typical depiction where he looks left and bhu-devi dangles from his tusk. Among those around him are Surya, Chandra, Brahma, and rishis.  The right foot of Varaha is seen resting on Sesha naga. The depiction of  lotus flowers and leaves and ripples suggest the presence of water below. 

The Gaja-Lakshmi panel: here Lakshmi is seen sitting on a lotus wearing a  crown typical of Pallavan sculpture, and a cross garland known as suvarnavaikakshaka, while her hands are suggestive of holding lotuses. The lotus leaves suggest water below.
The goddess is surrounded by her female attendants who are carrying water filled pots,  while the two elephants are pouring water on her head.
Durga panel: here the devi is shown in katyavalambita and abhaya mudra. The chattri 
above her denotes her complete sovereignty. On two sides of the devi are a lion, an antelope, ganas, and two male devotees of the Kapalika sect with the
one on her right cutting and offering his head (a sacrificial representation). 

Trivikrama panel: Vishnu is seen holding a bow, shield, and sword, along with his sankha, chakra and gada.  Among the figures present around him are the Sun and Moon, while Bali and his demons are shown at his feet. Brahma and Shiva sitting on lotuses on two sides are also shown as witnessing the event, while on top part we find Jambavan beating a drum in happiness celebrating the defeat of Bali. The figure on left of Trivikrama seen bent and flying in mid-air is likely that of Trisanku, whose space is half way between the earth and heaven. Since the foot of Vishnu reaches above Trisankhu, it denotes his foot has reached heaven. 
Rayala gopuram: a little ahead of the Varaha mandapa is
an unfinished gopuram of the Vijayanagara period, with their typical jamb decorations. 
This is the second unfinished gopuram of the Vijayanagara dynasty in Mahabalipuram, the first one being seen in front of the Sthalasayana Perumal temple.  
Ornamentation seen on the unfinished Vijaynagara rayala, Ganga on makara
Krishna’s butter ball

Besides the ones mentioned here, and in my previous article, there are many more rock cut caves that are a must visit in Mahabalipuram, which include the Mahisasurmardini caves, AdiVaraha cave, Tiger cave, among others. The main Mahabalipuram hill holds many more caves and unfinished rathas, which are definitely worth seeing. There is also a temple near Mahabalipuram, which came up during the 2004 tsunami and is now an ASI site. Mahabalipuram needs around 2-3 days if one wants to take a detailed look at all the beautiful heritage structures that this ancient city holds.


  1. Huntington Susan, Iconographic reflections on the Arjuna Ratha in Kalādarśana: American Studies in the Art of India, Volume 9 of Studies in South Asian Culture, edited by  Joanna Gottfried Williams. BRILL, 1981. 
  2. Ayyar, P. V. Jagadisa.  South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. Asian Educational Services, Madras, 1982.
  3. Ramaswami, N. S. Indian Monuments. Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1971.
  4. Alice Boner. Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture: Cave Temple Period. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., Delhi, 1990.
  5. Ramaswami, N. S. (ed.). 2000 Years of Mamallapuram: Text, Vol I. Navrang, Delhi, 1989.

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