By Swami Harshananda
Ratha literally means ‘that which delights,’ ‘chariot’.
Usage of Rathas
It was used widely not only as a means of transportation but also in wars. Fabricating rathas was a highly specialized job assigned to the rathakāras. The ratha or the chariot is a carriage with two wheels drawn by two or more horses.
History of Rathas
The reference of rathas are rooted in the ancient scriptures. They can be mentioned as belows:
- It was quite common even during the times of the Ṛgveda.
- The Viṣṇu-dharmottarapurāṇa gives many details regarding the manufacture of rathas.
- Descriptions of the various kinds of rathas of the different deities, symbolical interpretations based on them, interesting accounts of expert sārathis or charioteers like Aruṇa and Mātali are often found in the epics and the purāṇas.
Design of Rathas
Works like the Mānasāra, the Śilpa-ratnākara and the Rudravāstu give details about their design, building and also the materials suitable for making them. Different kinds of rathas such as puṣpa-ratha, vimānaratha, somyaratha and gand-harvaratha are also mentioned. The number of wheels also varies from two to ten depending on the use for which they are made. They were normally drawn by horses, especially in wars or chariot-sports including races. For transporting goods, even bullocks were harnessed.
Nowadays, the word ‘ratha’ is almost exclusively used to indicate the wooden chariots used in most of the temples, which are taken out on festive occasions. Such occasions are called Rathotsavas. They are annual events, the days chosen being the day of consecration of the temple or of the installation of the main icon. These rathas are generally prepared out of the wood called tiniśa. They are often made artistically with lovely carvings.
There are elaborate rituals connected with the rathotsava, such as worshiping the ratha first, placing the deity on it, drawing it along the route fixed for its movement, taking the deity out at the end, and conducting it back to its shed. The ratha symbolizes the mount Meru, the wheels stand for the sun and moon, the images of the four horses carved on wood, for the four Vedas, and, the charioteer represents the creator Brahmā. The word ratha may also stand for a variety of temple architecture as seen in the rathas of Mahābalipuram.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore