How the Indian chariot signifies art and culture

Chariots have interesting stories to tell. The entire cosmos becomes a chariot playing a significant role in the Indian thought process.

April 04, 2019 05:29 pm | Updated April 06, 2019 01:16 pm IST

The largest and magnificent object of National Museum, New Delhi is the installed chariot on the left corner of the campus, quaintly watched by every passer. Encased in a transparent and huge showcase, the chariot tells an interesting story from where it travelled to National Museum. This temple chariot was dedicated to Pandanalluru Sri Adikeshava Perumal, the form of Maha Vishnu from a Temple near Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu. It is a five-tiered structure in wood with six wheels, each wheel is 5.5 feet diameter and the weight of each wheel is 100 kg. That gives an idea of the massiveness and the size of this museum object, which was crafted in the mid-19th century. A team of craftsmen under the leadership of Pashupati Achari and his son executed the crafting of this chariot. Four patrons by name Manikkam Pillai, Subbu Pillai, Chattayya Pillai and Jambunatha Pillai were the great devotees of Adikeshava Perumal commissioned the chariot.

Prastara, the wall portion of the chariot is carved with hundreds of panels with interesting tales to narrate. Most of them figure around the themes of Vishnu and his incarnation. Some themes represent erotic and secular aspects signifying the sacred and profane exist side by side. Scenes depicting child birth indicate the reality of human existence.

Chariots were primarily used in south Indian temples; in some, new chariots have been replaced old ones. If the chariots become very old and fragile, or caught with fire or even damaged beyond repair, they are not be drawn during Rathotsava but abandoned outside the town in an open field. They are acquired by the museums and private collectors, who restore and place them in museums. Today, we can see a massive chariot beautifully positioned in the newly built Manjusha Museum at Dharmasthala, Calico Museum at Ahemadabad, Janapadaloka at Ramnagar, Government Museum at Kanyakumari and at the National Museum in New Delhi. Not only in temples as such, even in public places and airports, chariots of different sizes and made of different materials are making their frequent entry.

Indian Gods expelled valour and chivalry in the act of vanquishing evil and they are equipped with great chariots. Symbolically, the entire cosmos becomes a chariot playing a significant role in the Indian thought process. The puranic sources exquisitely describe various constituent parts of a chariot which the Gods used for waging wars such as Krishna-Arjuna chariot or Shiva’s chariot as Tripurantaka. Surya, the Sun god covers the entire earth within 24 hours in his high speed chariot which is yoked with seven horses and one wheel, which traverses emitting light and life.

A significant episode in the great epic Mahabharata, is the Kurukshetra War. The 18 days war had changed the entire scenario of life of common people as well as the kings of the land. It must have taken a longer time to reset the political and social life of the land and people. What emerged from the ashes of this war that remains eternal truth of one’s own understanding is the ‘ Geetopadesha’, Krishna delivering the eternal truth in the midst of war. The dialogue that takes between Arjuna, the master and Krishna the charioteer, or between two sakhas , the intimate friends, or between the bhakta and the God, is awe-inspiring. Vyasa Mahabharata gives a detailed account of Arjuna’s chariot gifted by Agni during Khandava vana episode. Interestingly, the maker of the chariot is mentioned as Bhoumana Vishvakarma, (Rigveda 10:81 and 82) he was a great sculptor coronated by Prajapati. As desired by Indra, Vishvakarma created a unique flag-staff for this chariot, this is documented in Bhishmaparva . A Kangra miniature painting displayed in National Museum picturises the Great Discourse.


Like other divinities, Shiva is also associated with chariot. The puranic sources provide good deal of information on the forms of chariots, the rathas deployed by the divinities. Rathas developed into a super structure, solid and sublime and also meticulously accurate in design, device and details. The most magnificent description of the divine Ratha of Shiva is found in the Shivapurana , wherein Sanatkumara narrates the structure of the splendid chariot of Shiva used when he wages war with the three demons, known as Tripurantaka. The chariot of Shiva plays an important role in Tripura dahana , the three cities reduced to ashes as illustrated in the sculpture of the National Museum.

Bramhanda Purana vividly narrates this form of Devi and her chariot in the chapter of the Lalithaopkyana . The Sri chakra raja ratha had the unparalleled dimensions and it is hard even to visualise. It was a nine-level structured chariot. Goddess in the form of Lalitha was gifted an unparalleled chariot to vanquish Bhandasura.

Apparently, while the rest of the world has relegated the chariots in the pages of history or as relics of the past, in India chariot has retained its stature by reigning supreme in Indian thoughts and beliefs. The vibrant tradition of Ratha , the Rathotsava , owes its inspiration to the innumerable hymns and epics, myths and legends, and folklore offering a treasure of knowledge about this vahana , We find various connotations and interpretations associated with Ratha, its magnificence, divine perceptions, its philosophical, religious and socio-cultural significance continues to fascinate Indian minds.

In south India after Ugadi, chariot festivals are celebrated heralding of the New Year. From one to five chariots are dedicated to temple festivities, a week-long festival are corresponded with the foundation of the temple or the annual festival day of the temple.

Chariot, is an eye-catching beautiful wooden or metal structure, a moving form of temple architecture known as chala-alaya with intricate work and thematic representations. The vibrant tradition of the ‘ Ratha’ , ‘ Teru’ , Rathotsava or Rathyatra finds its antiquity from the Vedic to historical and now on to present times. One of the authentic textual sources is the Vishvakarmiya Rathalakshanam, preserved in Sarasvati Mahal library at Tanjavur accounts three types of chariots, namely, Patrakalpa – the chariots for Gods, Chitrakalpa – the chariots for kings and the Ratnakalpas – the chariots for upper class . The magnificent temple chariots of medieval times owe their forms to the evolution and development of early temple architecture, that were executed in the form of shrines as seen in the rathas at Mahabalipuram and Vijayanagar stone chariot Hampi.

Recently a huge chariot with wheels and parts of its structure intact was found during the excavation at Sinauli, Uttara Pradesh. It is a great evidence for tracing the antiquity and cultural heritage of chariot, the product of knowledge society that India as ever.

Tagore National Fellow, National Museum New Delhi

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