Famous as temple town, Mahabalipuram is situated along the shores of the Bay of Bengal about 60 km from the south of Chennai. Mahabalipuram is home to one of the architectural wonders of the world, the Ratha temples. It was the Pallava king Narsimha, who built the magnificent 'Ratha' cave temples of Mahabalipuram in the 7th century. The Ratha temples at Mahabalipuram bear testimony to the artistic genius of Indian architects in ancient times. The Ratha temples also reflect the artistic tastes of the Pallava rulers. The Ratha temples gave birth to a new style of architecture, the South Indian temple architecture.
The 'Ratha' cave temples are usually called the "Panch Pandava Ratha" (the five chariots of the Pandavas). The Ratha temples are regarded as the transition point between the rock-cut cave temples and freestanding stone temples. The fact that each one of these temples is carved out from a single rock goes to prove that the Indian architects had great skills. The most remarkable thing about these Rathas is that till date most of them are well preserved and many of their carvings are as fresh as they were some 1,300 years ago.
The temples at Mahabalipuram are called as Ratha temples as they resemble the shape of rathas (chariots). These temples are known especially for their Rathas and "Mandapas" (an open pavilion or a hall). The total number of Rathas at Mahabalipuram is eight out of which five are named after the five Pandavas of Mahabharata and one after Draupadi, the wife of Pandava brothers. The five Pandava rathas are the Dharma raja Ratha, the Bhima Ratha, the Arjuna Ratha, the Draupadi Ratha and the Nakul Sahadev Ratha. The Rathas at Mahabalipuram are constructed in the style of the Buddhist viharas and chaityas.
Another remarkable feature of the Ratha temples is that they were excavated by scooping out the scarp of the hill from front to back.
The unfinished Dharmaraja Ratha is three storied and the largest whereas the one-storied Draupadi Ratha is the smallest and has an interesting thatch-like roof. Base of the three-storey Dharmaraja Ratha is supported by figures of a lion, alternating with an elephant. The base of the Dharmaraja Ratha is square and it rises to 13 meters as a pyramid. The Arjuna and Draupadi Rathas are dedicated to Shiva and Durga respectively.