The group of five shrines known as Pancha Rathas is one of the chief attractions of Mahabalipuram, which include :
- Tiger Cave (4km north of the town)
- Central Monuments (immediately west of the town)
- Shore Temple (a very short walk east of the town)
- Pancha Rathas (1/2km south of the town)
These monoliths are hewn out of boulders standing in the dunes about 400m south of the main rocky outcrop where the central monuments reside.
The temple-like features date back to the reign of Mamalla, but interestingly they were never completed. Their purpose also remains a mystery. Some believe they served as models of different building types, and it may be for this reason they were compared with chariots (or rathas).
The Draupadi and Arjuna Rathas at the northern (nearest) end of the group are elevated on a common plinth with elephants and lions.
The Draupadi Ratha has a hut-like roof with carved ridges. Female guardians flank the west doorway, with images of Durga seen on the other three sides. A free-standing lion stands a short distance west.
The Arjuna Ratha has elegant pilasters framing more guardians and couples, with deities in the middle of each side. To the east lies a finely sculptured Nandi.
Next in line heading south is the Bhima Ratha,. Incomplete in the lower sections except for the columns with seated lions on the western front, this “temple” is dominated by a vaulted roof with arched ends.
The Dharmaraja Ratha at the southern end is the tallest and most elaborate of the group. This is in effect a triple-storeyed version of the Arjuna Ratha, with lions carved at the column bases.
To the west of this line of four structures stands the Nakula Sahadeva Ratha, the only one with an apsidal-ended plan. A free-standing elephant stands nearby.
The state of preservation of the rathas is quite remarkable, and is down to the sturdiness of the granite they are fashioned from. This is in spite of constant salty winds from the Bay of Bengal, and not forgetting the and catastrophic tsunamis in 13th century and in 2004.
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