Next we went to another World Heritage Monument known as Five Rathas. Ratha means chariot, but this is a collection of five temples in five different styles built in the early seventh century. These were all carved out of solid rock where they stand, and have withstood the centuries including at least one major tsunami. The Rathas at Mahabalipuram are constructed in the style of the Buddhist viharas and chaityas. The architectural elements seen here appeared repeatedly, and with remarkably little variation, over the next 1,000 years of temple building in South India. The temples are unfinished and hence were never used for worship. The first Ratha is named after Draupadi. It is the smallest and the simplest of all the rathas. The square shrine has a simple roof, similar to a thatched hut, with decorated corners. Makara arch is carved above the doorway. This roof design was never used again in southern Indian architecture. Shalabhanjikas guard the doorway. Goddess Durga is the occupant of this ratha who stands surrounded by attendants. Below her, a devotee prepares to cut off his own head as a sacrifice to the goddess. It is thought that this horrible rite actually took place (not too often, one hopes) in Durga temples. Durga’s association with decapitation is attested by scenes like this, and also by ritual texts and myth (Mahishasuramardini). Arjuna Ratha dedicated to Shiva, seems to resemble a small palace or pavillion, with sculpted pilasters, miniature roof shrines, and an octagonal dome, all characteristic features of later South Indian temples.A life-size sculpture of Shiva’s mount Nandi kneels behind Arjuna Ratha, on the shrine’s east side. The unfinished Dharmaraja Ratha a larger version of the Arjuna ratha, is three storied and is the largest. The temple roof, like most in India, is covered with repeating elements. Like any other typical south Indian temple, Dharmaraja Ratha has false windows, horseshoe-shaped arches, and little “rooflets” that are barrel-shaped when placed on the side of the roof and squared-off when placed on the corner of the roof. The building is topped by an octagonal-shaped dome, the shikhara.

Here’s the information on the sign at Five Rathas:

I haven’t done a great job matching the descriptions above to the Rathas, but here are a number of pictures from our visit. These are very impressive in person.