The Chariot: A Fabled Vehicle

Chariots have traversed the long road of splendour, praise and exaltation, through the upper realms of gods and goddesses, and the underworld of demons. While the rest of the world has relegated it to a relic of the past, in India it is very much a living tradition.

By Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Dr Choodamani Nandagopal and Dr Gomathi Gowda

A virtual encyclopaedia of mythology, epics and legends, the chariot is an integral part of the temple, and can be found even in the remotest part of our land. It is the perfect complement to the chariot festival observed with devotion and grandeur.

Kukke chariot (2017-12) by Dr Choodamani NandagopalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

"In line with its vision of preserving Intangible Heritage, the Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation embarked on a project to revive, restore, preserve and regenerate interest in temple chariots and the architecture that abounds in it."

Thiruvarur chariot (2017-12) by Dr Choodamani NandagopalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Many Hindu temples perform the annual Rathotsava festival with pomp and gaiety. The magnificent temple chariots of medieval times owe their forms to the evolution and development of early temple architecture, which were executed in the form of shrines. 

SGMF in association with Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal, Art Historian, Author and UNESCO & Tagore Fellow and Dr. Gomathi Gowda, Art Historian, worked on restoring parts of an abandoned temple chariot that was purchased by art collector Arun Rajagopal.

Together they visualised and executed the Chariots Project. Arun Rajagopal acquired different pieces of architecture that go into the makings of the chariot, SGMF commissioned the services of the noted historians to inspect, identify and reveal the importance of each individual piece in the chariot.

The intensive process was successfully completed after a period of 15 months and in this exhibit we showcase some of the pieces and explain their significance in the chariot.

Story of Chariots (2020-12) by Arun RajagopalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Arun Rajagopal

An avid art collector who purchased an abandoned temple chariot from an antique collector in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

The Vedas treat the chariot as the vehicle of good fortune. The vibrant tradition of ratha, owes its fountainhead of inspiration to the innumerable hymns and epics. Stone Chariots in the Vijaya Vittala Temple at Hampi, Sun Temple at Konark and Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram.

Several deities form the body of a chariot. They are placed at various positions on the chariot and the idol of the God or Goddess being revered is placed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the chariot. Here are some examples of the kind of deities that adorn a temple chariot.

Lakshmi Narasimha, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Narasimha is seated in padmasana, with his right leg down and the left leg bent and made to rest flat upon the seat. Lakshmi is seated on his lap. The upper right hand of Narasimha holds the chakra, while the lower right hand is in the abhaya pose. The upper left hand carries the shankha while the lower left hand embraces the goddess. The right hand of Lakshmi holds the lotus while her left arm rests on the lower left hand of Narasimha.

Gajalakshmi, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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The iconic representation of Lakshmi goes back to 2nd century B.C. Lakshmi signifies beauty, is a mark of power, luck, prosperity, grace and happiness. She is Shakti (energy), Prakriti (nature), Daya (grace), Kirti (celebration), Jaya (success) and Maya (creative). The two elephants seen alongside Lakshmi represent treasurers and are known as Samkha and Padma. Lakshmi is seated in Sukhasanamudra and holds lotus buds in her hands with kunjara dvayam (elephants) on either side holding water pots.

Temple Chariot, Chennai, Neil Greentree, 1988, From the collection of: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
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Wooden panel with a musician, 1700/1799, From the collection of: British Museum
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Carvings of deities such as those seen above are placed in scientifically and religiously significant positions on the base of the chariot structure. Like a Hindu temple, even the chariot has ganas (minor deities) and dwarapalakas (gate keepers) at the entrance to the inner sanctum sanctorum.

Kumbakonam stone chariot (2017-12) by Dr Choodamani NandagopalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Stone Chariot at Airavatesvarar Temple

The stone chariot carved on the walls of the Airavatesvarar temple in Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district. 

This temple, built by Rajaraja Chola in the 12th century is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of three of Great Living Chola Temples. 

The Airavatesvarar temple is one among the 18 medieval era large temples in Kumbakonam and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. This is one of the few temples in India which has a stone chariot structure.

Sarangapani Temple Car Festival (2017-12) by Dr Choodamani NandagopalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Sarangapani Temple Car Festival

The car festival at Sarangapani Temple in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu.

Mischievous Krishna, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Revealing Krishna’s childhood pranks and depicting his various playful moods creates an atmosphere of amusement. Krishna climbs on the ladder to reach the hanging pots filled with butter, even as a gopika holding a churning rod watches him, waiting for him to get down so as to take charge of him. It’s a panel displaying good composition.

Rama Hunting Golden Deer, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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This is an interesting episode in the Aranya kanda of the epic Ramayana. While Rama, Sita and Lakshmana are in the Panchavati ashram, Maricha the demon is sent by Ravana in the guise of a golden deer to divert Rama and Lakshmana from the ashram and Sita, so that Ravana could abduct her. After chasing it for a while, Rama realizes that it is no ordinary deer. In this composition, a closer view shows Rama killing the deer from which the human form of Maricha is exposed.

Vishnu Durgai, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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There are three spherical objects on the pedestal of the chariot. In the absence of these the goddess can be identified as Vaishnavi, depending where she is coming from. In this form she is sometimes referred to as Vishnu Durgai. The Suprabhedagama calls her ‘the dear younger sister of Vishnu’ and informs that she emerged from Adishakti. Framed by the Kirtimukha, this four-armed Durga is in a standing pose. Durga’s rear hands hold a wheel and conch, typically the attributes of Vishnu.

Ratha Jatra optocht met versierde wagens ter ere van Jagannath in Madurai, Samuel Bourne, 1865/1872, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum
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Ratha Jatras or Ratha Yatras (processions where a deity is first worshipped, venerated and then taken on a tour of the kingdom or place on a holy chariot) have been an integral part of India's culture. Even today, the Ratha Yatra held at Jagannath Puri every year is considered an auspicious occasion and is attended by thousands of devotees.

Mahishasura Mardini, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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The depiction of Mahishasuramardini is a fascinating theme in Indian imagery. Mahishasuramardini, the 'slayer of the buffalo demon', is another name of Durga when in the act of slaying the demon who had assumed buffalo (mahisa) form symbolising evil and death. The Tamasic image of Mahishasuramardini is armed with various implements of war and is perceived to be destroying evil forces. In this context Durga represents the divine essence, and assumes the form of the Cosmic Mother.

Thiruvarur chariot (2017-12) by Dr Choodamani NandagopalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Thiruvarur Temple Chariot

The Thiruvarur temple chariot is said to be the biggest temple chariot in Asia. the 30-ft tall temple car rises to 96ft following extensive decorations. 

The intricate wood carvings of the deities is done by experienced and skilled craftsmen, most of who have learned the craft from elders in their family.

Each section of the chariot has intricately carved figurines that are resplendent with details of garments, jewellery, architectural design and motifs.

Thiruvarur chariot procession (2017-12) by Dr Choodamani NandagopalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Temple Car Festival

The Thiruvarur temple car festival is attended by lakhs of devotees every year.

The chariots are pulled by hundreds of devotees across the streets around the temple twice a year, once during the Brahmmotsavam during April–May and other during Ratasaptami in January–February. 

Goddess Mariamman, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Goddess Mariamman is dominant in rural India particularly Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. There is a concept that the village where she resides belongs to the goddess. In folk theology, she was there before the village was created. She is portrayed with many arms representing her powers. Mariamman has a sitting or standing position holding a trishul in one hand and kapala in another. She displays the abhaya mudra to ward off fear and protect her devotees, and also holds a damaru.

Goddess Durga, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Durga is one of the most popular representations of the mother goddess in India, a concept which predates institutionalised religion and has parallels across the world. Durga is worshipped in several avatars and she symbolises the triumph of good over evil. She is one of the Hinduism’s most popular deities, a protector of all that is good and harmonious in the world. Sitting astride a lion or tiger, the multi-limbed Durga battles the forces of evil in the world.

Kukke chariot (2017-12) by Dr Choodamani NandagopalSandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation

Kukke Subramanya Temple Chariot

The temple car that is used during the Car Festival at Kukke Subramanya temple in Sulya, Karnataka.

Kukke chariot, Dr Choodamani Nandagopal, 2017-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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The intricate carvings of deities as seen on the Kukke temple chariot.

Yashoda Krishna, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Benne Krishna (Butter Krishna), Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Early Indian classical texts conceive three basic iconographic forms or the rupas of Krishna. They are his Aradhya-rupa, that is, his votive image, his Vishwa-rupa, or his cosmic vision and his Soumya-rupa or Lalita-rupa, the form that drags one with its moon-like placid beauty. Krishna alone, among the avataras of Vishnu, is worshipped as a child, youth etc., forms that fit for exhibiting the various kinds of bhakti. As a baby, Krishna is shown with a ball of butter in his hand.

Ramanujacharya, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Ramanujacharya was a 11th century Indian theologian. Born in AD 1050 in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, he is considered to be the chief proponent of the Vishishtadvaita school of Vedanta and a great social reformer.

Lord Surya, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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The Vedas refer to Surya and his various aspects as Savitr, Pusan, Bhaga etc. Surya also connotes the solar deity in Hinduism. The Vedas assert Surya to be the creator of the material universe (Prakriti). Surya is represented with hands lifted high on the shoulders, and holding lotus flowers which are supposed to be in half-bloom. The association of lotus with the Sun is indicative of the opening and closing of the flower which is timed with the rising and setting of the Sun.

Hanuman with Sugriva, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Sugriva was the son of Surya and king of the monkeys. When Rama was wandering in the forest in search of Sita, he met a giant named Kabandha who, in grateful return for liberation told him of Sugriva, and advised him to form an alliance with the king of the monkeys, who was then living in exile. In the battle of Lanka, Sugriva performed feats of valour comparable to those of Hanuman.

Rajagopalaswami, Unknown, 1810-12, From the collection of: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
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Rajagopalaswami is the portrayal of Vishnu, the Perumal in the royal attire. The imagery is captivated by depicting the Gopala Krishna as a kingly persona seated in leelasana on the throne designed with Keertimukha foliage. To show the bountiful atmosphere , decorated utensils are placed indicating different offerings. The two saints are engaged in making offerings at the Vishnupada, the feet of Lord Vishnu.


While the chariot could not be rebuilt or reassembled due to the lack of many important parts, Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation worked with a team of researchers and the collector to frame and preserve these parts of the chariot.

Credits: Story

Curation: Sandeep & Gitanjali Maini Foundation
Special Acknowledgment: Arun Rajagopal.
Research: Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal Art Historian, Author and UNESCO and Tagore Fellow,  Dr. Gomathi Gowda Art Historian

Photography: Suresh
Video Material: Dr. Choodamani Nandagopal Art Historian, Author and UNESCO and Tagore Fellow
References: Temple Treasures (Vol III Temple Chariots)
Special Acknowledgment: Crafts Council of Karnataka.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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