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Not Exactly Temple Chariots  Mahabalipuram

    These rathas (an irregular expression, for they are really Vimanas, and not temple chariots, as the word means) perpetuate the forms of the temple in use when they used to be made of perishable materials. A Pallava who must have been something of an art critic or art historian decided that these styles should be preserved in eternal rock. Outside Mahabalipuram except in Kazhugumalai (in Tirunelveli district), there is nothing like these rathas anywhere in India.

There are four rathas elsewhere in Mahabalipuram so that there are nine in all. Among themselves they represent four main styles: the apsidal, the barrel vaulted, the domical and the so-called "hut". The third was to dominate the future, with some modifications. The first two are comparatively rare and the last very much so.

The rathas with the domical sikhara are the Dharmaraja, the largest of them all; the Arjuna, a smaller version of the first, the Pidari and the two Valayankuttai, these three located elsewhere in Mahabalipuram. The Bhima Ratha and Ganesa Ratha, which is near the larger hill, are barrel vaulted, the Sahadeva is apsidal, and the Draupadi is "hut shaped".

There are some superb sculptures on the Dharmaraja and the Arjuna. The former contains splendid divine and secular portraits, with labels beside some of them. The later are certainly kings, but it is difficult to identify them. There are some lovely royal couples on the Arjuna. Again, it is impossible to say who they are. Nevertheless, these sculptures show how beautifully delicate and sensitive Pallava sculpture is, making it one of the great schools of Indian art.

The lion, Goddess Durga's mount, stands right in front of Her shrine, here called the "Draupadi". Just alongside the apsidal Sahadeva Ratha stands the elephant, also apsidal in shape. Such touches are frequent in Mahabalipuram. It is very probable that there was a school of sculpture here in ancient days. For, probationary and incomplete sculptural and architectural efforts are to be seen at every turn. An important point is that not a single monument in Mahabalipuram is quite complete.


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