Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ratha - The Indian Chariot

Ratha, or the chariot is considered to be the best mode of transport in ancient India, especially during wars. It symbolizes energy and the zeal to move forward. But do we know everything about what is a Ratha ?

We only have a faint imagination of seeing Arjuna or Duryodhana fighting the Mahabharata war on Rathas in the B.R Chopra Mahabharata serial.  Although the chariots used in those serials were made up of low quality wood, the actual Rathas were quite powerful and could carry heavy loads.

The development of Ratha can be imagined. First man used to walk and travel. Later on, he started to ride the back of animals which was quite tedious but faster than walking. But some brilliant mind got the idea of a wheel and thus constructed a chariot moving on wheel which would be pulled by muscle power of animals while man can comfortably sit in the chariot.
Thus began the science of building a Ratha. Further developments took place.

  • The material which was used to build a Ratha was light.
  • The number of wheels, animals attached were varied.
  • The concept of Sarathi who drives the Ratha was consequently developed.

Lord Surya, with his chariot of 7 horses.

The concept of building a Ratha has not been properly described in scriptures, but we have scattered references mostly from Rigveda to describe the Ratha. 
  • The Ratha is said to be constructed of wood. The specific trees used were Khadir ( Khair in today's terms which is also used in Hom-Havan) and Shimshapa ( or Sheesham in today's terms). This information is given in RV ( 3.53.17-19)
  • The wheels used to have spokes for higher speeds and for being light in weight.
  • Different animals were used to pull the Ratha. Horses were most preferred during wars. But apart from horses, bulls, mules and wild ass was also used. RV (6.75.7) clearly tells that horses pull a Ratha faster than a bull. RV (3.53.17) tells us that bulls were indeed used to pull chariots. Use of wild ass in the Ratha of Ashwini Kumars is stated in RV (1.116.2) 
  • Almost every God had a Ratha. Hymns from Rigveda talk of Rathas of Indra, Agni, Ashwini Kumars, Usha,etc. Almost every king at war had a Ratha. 
  • Mahabharata and Ramayana wars have ample references to kings fighting on Rathas. Why others ? Our very own Krishna spoke the verses of Bhagvad Geeta on a chariot. 
  • We have an extra special hymn in Rigveda. It is 6.75. It is composed by Payu Bharadvaja. King Prastoka Sarnjaya had sought help from Payu to win a war. So Payu created this hymn in praise of all war-related things including bow, arrow, Sarathi, Ratha, different parts of Ratha,etc. It contains information about different parts of Ratha. 
Apart from this, horses having 34 ribs were used in wars and to draw Rathas. 
Now, a Ratha should have specific dimensions to bring the best out of it. For that, we have different Shulba Sutras which describe how a Ratha should be constructed. 

It is said that the Ratha of king Priyavrata, the son of Swayambhuva Manu, was so powerful, that it created seven big ditches in Earth ,when he was circumambulating the Meru mountain, which became the seven seas. The land that got separated from the seas is the seven continents or Sapta Mahadweep. 

Arjuna's peculiar chariot with his favourite 4 white horses

The Ratha had become such an integral part of people's life, that it seeped into Sanskrit language.
The most ace warrior was thus called " Maha-Rathi". 
The unit for measuring distance "Rathanya" came from Ratha travelling a decided distance.
The names of kings ended with Ratha. For eg- Dasharatha, Ashtiratha, Bhagiratha,etc.

The Ratha also inspired construction of temples. The best example is of Konark temple in Udisha. 
The wheels on the temple of Konark. They are 12 in number signifying the months of a year.
Each wheel has 8 spokes signifying the 8 Prahar of a day.

Now another question- Were Rathas being used only in wars ? Was there any other use ?
Let's look at the different types of Rathas- 
  • Sangramik Ratha- For wars.
  • Deva Ratha- For Gods.
  • Karni Ratha- Special Ratha for women, particularly queens.
  • Vainayik Ratha- For giving training of driving a Ratha.
  • Pushya Ratha- For processions of kings.
  • Kreeda Ratha- For competitions and races.
To add, the Kreeda Ratha was used extensively. Chariot racing is a famous game, even today. 
Even rituals needed Rathas. A Vajpeya Yagya needs a special Ratha "constructed from wood and having wheels with 17 spokes. ".

Rathas are used even today. The processions of different Gods are conducted on Rathas and are called Rathotsav. The most famous is the Ratha Yatra of Jagannath Puri. 

Off lately, there has been a lot of farce created due to the false Aryan Invasion Theory over excavation of Rathas in different parts of world. Wherever the Rathas are explored, countries go in a frenzy claiming that theirs is the original homeland of the so-called "Aryans". Varying Rathas made of wood, heavy, non-spoked have been found which date back to 3000 BC in Europe. Similar excavations have been made in the Mesopotamian and Hittite- Mittani civilizations in central Asia. In India, a toy in the form of a Ratha has been found in Daimabad, Maharashtra which dates to 2200 BC.

What ever may be the archaeological excavations, one thing is for sure, Rathas had a very dear place in the hearts of our ancestors, just like horses. !!!


  1. Very good piece of information indeed. But I will suggest to include the reference of Chariot of Aswini Kumars in this article. Those have three wheels, those could fly in the sky and used to rescue people when they are in the middle of rivers etc.

  2. Do you have any information about the design of these separate rathas?

  3. Please correct your article. It says that people started riding horses first and then yoking them to chariots. In reality, it was the other way around. The reason for that is that the earlier breeds of horses were not strong enough to carry the weight of a man for a long period of time. The moment stronger breeds were developed, people stopped using chariots and started riding horses directly. The most advanced chariots for war were probably the Egyptian or the Hittite chariots. Chariots probably arrived in India pretty late.