Stone chariots that gave inspiration to wooden temple chariots

Chariot run or rath yatra,  an essential part of festival tradition  in many temples of  India is more prominent in states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra and Odisha than other states.The annual festival event is observed with devotion, pomp and gaiety by the devotees. What is special about temple chariots or Ther (in Tamil) is they represent the intangible heritage and various aspects of temple architecture that evolved over a long period of time particularly, after medieval times. The ancient concept of Ratha gave inspirations to the temple builders to construct temples on the model of a ratha with a sanctum and vimana or shigara over it. Additional parts like mandapa. pradakshina path, entrance gate with gopura, etc., evolved gradually.  

decorated temple chariot with wooden  base

Hindu Temples are designed and constructed as models of the cosmos - holonomic and  similar in nature. The wooden base with 4 wheels and the platform represent five boothas - five elements of nature that has space-continuum aspect.  It also has intricate wooden carvings highlighting stories from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata,  besides many deities in the Hindu Pantheon. The moving wheels suggest transient aspect of nature and time. The philosophical connotation is journey through life is not an easy one -it is a sort of seesaw struggle at every phase.

There are different types of  ratha and the important ones are:  

Pushya Ratha- For processions of kings.

Kreeda Ratha- For competitions and races.

Vainayik Ratha- For giving training of driving a Ratha.

Sangramik Ratha- For wars.

Deva Ratha- For Gods.

Linking with countless hymns and epics, the vision resulted in the stone carving of chariots in many famous temples such as Vijaya Vitala temple of Humpi, Sun temple of Konark, Shore temple at Mahapalipuram, the Kal Ther (stone chariot) of Thiruvarur and  Airavateswarar temple near Kumbakonam, TN. In the last one. the entire hall is made like a ratha by the builder Rajendra Chola II -12 th CE. From  common rathas  derived  Deva Ratha - for Gods. Their plan, configuration, parts and other details evolved independently across different regions. Hence the temple rathas of Tamil nadu a bit differ from those in other states in particular, Odisha.

Chariot, a mobile wooden temple on the move,  represents  visual parts of inner  sanctuary (sanctum) the, womb where the processional idol is placed and gopura consisting of  canopy above it made of clothes, decoration, etc - the vertical dimension -the final ascent of man to enlightenment or salvation. 

The chariot carries wooden images of various deities such as Narashimha, an avatar of Vishnu, and his consort Lakshmi (in the form of Shakti energy, Prakruti- nature,  Daya- grace, kirti- celebration,  jaya - victory, Maya - creativity). The iconic representation of Lakshmi is incorporated in countless chariots in the wooden base  as she is an embodiment of power, fortune, grace , prosperity and happiness.

The depiction of trinity gods marks blessings, grace and salvation from rebirth. The depiction of goddess Durga, Kali or Easwari marks valor and wisdom.  The chariot, like a temple,  has many demi-gods-ganas, including gatekeepers - Dwarapalakas at the entrance doing duel duties  warning the  devotees to focus on the god while on the temple premises and at the same time guarding the divine premises. The center of the chariot is the sanctum - representing spiritual awakening.  

The temple chariot festival is the most prominent festival of the temple, celebrated during the Tamil month of Chithirai (March–April). Andal temple at Srivilliputhur, TN and other chariot festival will fall in the month of June or July coinciding with Panguni month as per Tamil calendar.   

Rathayatra, a religious procession accompanied by beating of drums, music and chanting of mantras  carrying the image of a festival idol (of a particular temple) in the center of the ratha (sanctuary) is observed on an auspicious day with devotion. The ratha is pulled through the wide well-paved streets around the temple called Mada street or Ratha streets. This provides an opportunity for the people of all walks of life to have darshan of the lord and get blessed by him. The chariot run will be around the temple  as in many temples of south India or to a particular destination as in the case of  Puri Jagannath temple  from the main temple to Gudicha and back.

The following are the famous  historical stone temple chariots built by various dynasties: 

01. Mahabalipuram Shore temples, TN:

Five rathas, mahabalipuram, TN.

Above image:  The UNESCO recognized ratha temples, in south Mahabalipuram, near Chennai city, Tamil Nadu  are quite popular  and built during the Pallava Dynasty.  There are five monolithic  rathas beautifully carved  in the shape of a ratha using locally available rock outcrops  consisting of granite and diorite A sermon in the terrain of rock and sand. Pancha Rathas, these rock temples, are a remarkable example of Dravidian style architecture. Constructed in the form of pagodas and resembling Buddhist shrines and monasteries, these rathas are associated with the great epic Mahabharata.  They were built  by  Narasimha Varma Pallava aka Mamallan,  during the reign of his royal father King Mahendravarman I.  Being on the shore close to the sea, that these temples have survived the vagaries of weather  and sea erosion for centuries  is an amazing fact and it shows how strongly they were built.   Chariot temples have wheels carved into the walls of the temples.  The carvings in the base highlight the mythical battle scenes in intricate details.............................

02. Kal-Ther or stone chariot, Thiruvarur, TN

Tiruvarur Thyagaraja temple Kal ther.

Above image: Thyagaraja Swamy temple, Thiruvarur, TN: Locally called  kal ther - stone chariot that can not be moved, is equally famous and is steeped in history. Located in the NE part of the temple, it was  built by King Vikrama Chola in 12th century AD in memory of a famous incident in the reign of king Manu Needhi Cholan,  a righteous ruler. The stone chariot was built on the temple premises to honor king Manu Neeti whose passion for fair justice was quite well-known.


03. Sun temple, Konark, Odisha:

Sun temple Konark, Odisha.

Sun temple Konark,

Above image: The Konark Sun Temple of Odisha, built in the 13th century CE, is a world famous remarkable  heritage site, a monumental representation of the Sun God Surya's chariot, with 12 pairs of wheels and 7 horses pulling it,  depicting its movement across the heavens. It is the pinnacle of a  masterpiece of creative genius not only in terms of conception and realisation but also in execution  creating,  a chariot of the Sun God. In the sanctum is enshrined God Shiva. The structure carries intricate carvings of various aspect of life including man-woman intimate relationship. They are well embellished ichnographical representation of part of day today human life. The temple's architecture is an excellent example of the Kalinga style of architecture. king Narasimhadeva I of the Eastern Ganga dynasty built it about 1250 CE.....................


04. Airavateswarar temple, Darasuram:

Carved stone chariot on the outer wall of Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram

Ratha-shaped mantap. Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram, TN

Ratha-shaped mantap. Airavatesvara Temple, Darasuram, TN

Above image: Airavateswarar temple, Darasuram, near the temple city of Kumbakonam, TN:  A UNESCO recognized World heritage site built by king Rajendra Chola II (12th century). Here,  the maha mandapa - hall is made like a ratha  with stone wheels. Dedicated to God Shiva, the temple incorporates a Chariot structure that includes various  vedic deities.  This hall shaped like a chariot has stone horses and wheels  and the design is  very much close to those of similar to those of  Nritta-sabha (community dance hall) of the Chidambaram temple, TN  and the Konark Sun Temple near Puri, Odisha....................................


05. Vijaya Vittala temple of  Hampi, Karnataka:

Hampi, Vittala temple complex, Karnataka,

Hampi, Vittala temple complex, Karnataka,

Above image: , Vittala temple complex, Hampi, Karnataka: Dedicated to Lord Vitthala, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, it t was built during the reign of King Devaraya II (1422 – 1446 A.D.) of the  the Vijayanagara  Dynasty.  During the reign of Krishnadevaraya (1509 – 1529 A.D.), additions were made to the temple.

The Vittala Temple Complex, richly sculpted Stone Chariot is considered to be the most beautiful  architecture of the Vijayanagara kingdom, one of the attractions being the musical pillars (56 in number) in the Ranga Mantapa made from selected rocks that had metallic minerals. The Stone Chariot or Ratha  in the courtyard of temple is one of the three famous stone chariots in India. The other two chariots are in Konark (Odisha) and Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu). This shrine  sculpted in the form of an ornamental  chariot is dedicated to Garuda, the vahana of Vishnu  and it enshrined in the  sanctum. 


Some vintage rathas and others:

1890 Srirangam Temple chariot

1855nBanashankari Temple (Badami) chariot

Decorated temple car, Udupi,Karnataka,

Temple chariot in Bannur,