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Ratha (Sanskrit: रथ, rátha, Avestan raθa) is the Indo-Iranian term for a spoked-wheel chariot or a cart of antiquity.

The Rigvedic word rá-tha does not denote a war-chariot like those of Andronovo, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The word is from √ṛ ‘go’ giving primary rá-tha ‘a goer, car, vehicle’. Similar formations exist with the suffix -tha: ártha ‘goal’, ukthá ‘saying’, ǵāthā ‘song’ etc. The rigvedic ratha is described as pṛthu ‘broad’ 1.123.1; bṛhat ‘tall, big’ 6.61.13; variṣṭha ‘widest’ 6.47.9. It has space not for 1 only or 2 (i.e. the driver and the warrior with his spear and bow) but for 3: it is said to be trivandhurá (1.41.2; 7.71.4) and then to carry 8 aṣṭāvandhurá (10.53.7)[1]

Incidentally, we have seen above how the Vedic Aryans used Indian timbers in the manufacture of different parts of the chariot: śiṁśapa (dalbergia sissoo, the sissoo or shisham or North Indian rosewood tree), khadira (acacia catechu, the heartwood tree), śalmalī (salmalia malabaricum, the silk-cotton tree) and kiṁṣuka (butea monosperma, the flame-of-the forest). On the other hand, in the case of the “Egyptian war chariot”, Tarr points out that “the timbers in question were not of Egyptian origin but ‘came from the north’. […] The timbers used were holm-oak for the axle and the spokes, elm for the pole, ash for the felloes, the chassis and the dashboard, hornbeam for the yoke and birch bark for wrapping and for joining the spokes with the felloes and the hub […] The wooden material of the Egyptian chariots came from the Caucasus” (TARR 1969:74). [1]

Textual evidence[edit]

File:Rama goes to forest.jpg
Rama goes to forest

Chariots figure prominently in the Rigveda, evidencing their presence in India in the 2nd millennium BCE. Notably, the Rigveda differentiates between the Ratha (chariot) and the Anas (often translated as "cart").[2] Rigvedic chariots are described as made of the wood of Salmali (RV 10.85.20), Khadira and Simsapa (RV 3.53.19) trees. While the number of wheels varies, chariot measurements for each configuration are found in the Shulba Sutras.

Chariots also feature prominently in later texts, including the other Vedas, the Puranas and the great Hindu epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata). Indeed, most of the deities in the Hindu pantheon are portrayed as riding them. Among Rigvedic deities, notably Ushas (the dawn) rides in a chariot, as well as Agni in his function as a messenger between gods and men. In RV 6.61.13, the Sarasvati river is described as being wide and speedy, like a (Rigvedic) chariot.

  • However, I pointed out that the references to spokes, “ara”, appear only in those Mandalas which I have designated as Late Mandalas (i.e. 5, 8, 9, 10, late 1) and not in those Mandalas which I have designated as Early and Middle (i.e. 6,3,7,4,2, early and middle 1). As per my tentative chronology, publicized by Farmer, the Late Mandalas were composed between 2400 BC-1500 BC. Hence, the Early and Middle Mandalas preceded the invention of spoked-wheels. I further suggested that Central Asia was the exit-point from India, and that there is an archaeological record of the spread of spoked-wheels from Central Asia to other parts of the Old World; so spoked-wheels may have been invented in India some time after 2400 BC. Now, I am told, Prof. B. B. Lal, in a forthcoming publication, is publishing some evidence for the existence of spoked-wheels in India prior to 2000 BC. .... The Early Mandalas (and upam.s) contain no references to technological innovations like ‘ara’ (spokes) which appear only in late Mandalas and upam.s. (Talageri 2001)

The following are the only verses in the RV which refer to spoked wheels: V. 13.6; 58.5. I. 32.15; 141.9; 164.11-13,48. VIII. 20.14; 77.3. X. 78.4. They are all in the late RV. (Talageri 2008)

Even the most elementary student of Indo-European knows that spoked wheels developed after all the different branches had dispersed from the Homeland (wherever it be located), and there is no common word for "spoke" in the different branches. Not even in Indo-Aryan and Iranian. In the Rigveda, spoked wheels or spokes are found only in the New Rigveda. They are completely absent in the Old Rigveda. This fits in with the fact that the Old Rigveda goes back beyond 2500 BCE, since spoked wheels were only invented in the second half of the third millennium BCE. [2]

  • Kazanas has repeatedly argued that the ratha in the Rig-Veda is not a two-wheeled chariot used in races and on the battlefield, but a cart, sometimes a large one for multiple passengers. The war chariot is typical of the mid-2nd millennium, as in the Hittite-Egyptian war and the Trojan war, and in Kazanas’s count, the Rig-Veda had already been completed by then. Elst 2018
  • Thus, Talageri (2008:190-191) argues that the Ṛg-Veda straddles the invention or introduction of the spoked-wheeled chariot: the early parts clearly don’t know of it yet, while the later parts do. Earlier, the appearances of the spoke-wheeled chariot “in” the Rg-Veda were taken as proof that the hymn collection as a whole is younger than the chariot, but now a more sophisticated understanding of the book’s layeredness has made us realize that the oldest hymns do not mention it, indicating that the composers didn’t know of it yet. Elst 2018
  • What a difference this can make, may be illustrated with the debate on the evidence for horse-drawn chariots in the Rg-Veda and in the archaeological record. The pro-AIT argument runs that these are in evidence in the Rg-Veda, don’t predate the 2nd millennium in the archaeological record (leaving aside for now that the archaeological record is pretty silent on their first appearance, for none have been dug up from reputedly Indo-Aryan or Indo-Iranian settlements in Kazakhstan’s Andronovo culture, the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex or post-Harappan India), so that the Rg-Veda is definitely younger than 2000 BC. Against this, Talageri argues that spoked-wheel chariots are not simply in evidence “in the Rg-Veda”, as the Orientalists have known since the 19th century, but are specifically typical of its youngest period. The older parts know of carts, generally with four full wheels, but the chariots with two spoked wheels are a later development which must have taken place within the period of composition of the Rg-Veda, part of which predates their introduction. Elst 2018 Some Unlikely Tentacles of Early Indo-European


  • Likewise it is often claimed that there were no spoked wheels in Harappa, though they make their appearance halfway through the Rg-Veda (as Talageri has shown). True, India’s hot and humid climate is not conducive to the preservation of wooden implements, but a number of terracotta models of the same spoked wheel have been dug up. Elst 2018 [3]

Indus Valley Civilization[edit]

At Harappa in modern-day Pakistan we find evidence for the use of terracotta model carts as early as 3500 BC during the Ravi Phase at Harappa.

During the Harappan Period (Harappa Phase, 2600...1900 BC) there was a dramatic increase in terracotta cart and wheel types at Harappa and other sites throughout the Indus region. The diversity in carts and wheels, including depictions of what may be spoked wheels, during this period of urban expansion and trade may reflect different functional needs, as well as stylistic and cultural preferences. The unique fonns and the early appearance of carts in the Indus valley region suggest that they are the result of indigenous technological development and not diffusion from West Asia or Central Asia as proposed by earlier scholars.[3]


File:Andronovo culture.png
The area of the spoke-wheeled chariot finds within the Sintashta-Petrovka culture is indicated in purple.

Development of the spoke-wheeled chariot is associated with the Proto-Indo-Iranians. The earliest fully developed war chariots known are from the chariot burials of the Andronovo (Timber-Grave) sites of the Sintashta-Petrovka culture in modern Russia and Kazakhstan dating from around 2000 BCE.

The chariot must not necessarily be regarded as a marker for Indo-European or Indo-Iranian presence.[4] According to Raulwing, it is an undeniable fact that only comparative Indo-European linguistics is able to furnish the methodological basics of the hypothesis of a "PIE chariot", in other words: "Ausserhalb der Sprachwissenschaft winkt keine Rettung![5]"[6][7]

The earliest evidence for chariots in southern Central Asia (on the Oxus) dates to the Achaemenid period (apart from chariots harnessed by oxen, as seen on petroglyphs).[8] No Andronovian chariot burial has been found south of the Oxus.[9]


Horse-drawn chariot carved onto the mandapam of Airavateswarar temple, Darasuram (left), c.a. 12th century CE. The chariot and its wheel (right)are so finely sculpted that they include even the faintest details
File:Rath Yatra Puri 2007 11071 crop.jpg
The Rath Jatra in the Grand Avenue at the Jagannath Temple, Puri, 2007

There are a few depictions of chariots among the petroglyphs in the sandstone of the Vindhya range. Two depictions of chariots are found in Morhana Pahar, Mirzapur district. One shows a team of two horses, with the head of a single driver visible. The other one is drawn by four horses, has six-spoked wheels, and shows a driver standing up in a large chariot-box. This chariot is being attacked, with a figure wielding a shield and a mace standing at its path, and another figure armed with bow and arrow threatening its right flank. It has been suggested (Sparreboom 1985:87) that the drawings record a story, most probably dating to the early centuries BC, from some center in the area of the GangesYamuna plain into the territory of still neolithic hunting tribes. The drawings would then be a representation of foreign technology, comparable to the Arnhem Land Aboriginal rock paintings depicting Westerners. The very realistic chariots carved into the Sanchi stupas are dated to roughly the 1st century.

The earliest chariot remains that have been found in India (at Atranjikhera) has been dated to between 350 and 50 BCE.[10] There is evidence of wheeled vehicles (especially miniature models) in the Indus Valley Civilization, but not of chariots.[11]

Indus valley sites have offered several instances of evidence of spoked wheels. Archaeologist B. B. Lal[12] argues that finds of terracotta wheels painted lines (or low relief lines) and similar seals indicate the existence and use of spoked wheel chariots in Harappan Civilization, as showed in the Bhirrana excavations in 2005-06.[13] Bhagwan Singh[14] had made a similar assertion and S.R.Rao had presented evidence of chariots in bronze models from Daimabad (Late Harappan). The archaeologists at Daimabad are not unanimous about the date of the bronzes discovered there. On the basis of the circumstantial evidence, M. N. Deshpande, S. R. Rao and S. A. Sali are of view that these objects belong to the Late Harappan period. Looking at the analysis of the elemental composition of these artifacts, D. P. Agarwal concluded that these objects may belong to the historical period. His conclusion is based on the fact these objects contain more than 1% Arsenic, while no arsenical alloying has been found in any other Chalcolithic artifacts.[15]

In Hindu temple festivals[edit]

Ratha or Rath means a chariot or car made from wood with wheels. The Ratha may be driven manually by rope, pulled by horses or elephants. Rathas are used mostly by the Hindu temples of South India for Rathoutsava (Car festival). During the festival, the temple deities are driven through the streets, accompanied by the chanting of mantra, hymns, shloka or bhajan.

Ratha Yatra is a huge Hindu festival associated with Lord Jagannath held at Puri in the state of Orissa, India during the months of June or July.

Rathas buildings[edit]

In some Hindu temples, there are shrines or buildings named rathas because they have the shape of a huge chariot. Or because they contains a divinity like does a temple chariot.

The most known are the Pancha Rathas (=5 rathas) in Mahabalipuram, although not with the shape of a chariot.

Another example is the Jaga mohan of the Konark Sun Temple in Konarâk, built on a platform with twelve sculptures of wheels, as a symbol of the chariot of the Sun.

Rathas in architecture[edit]

Plans of the main types of buildings with rathas

In Hindu temple architecture, a ratha is a facet or vertical offset projections on the tower (generally a Shikhara).

See also[edit]


  1. Kazanas, Nicholas. "The Collapse of the AIT and the prevalence of Indigenism: archaeological, genetic, linguistic and literary evidences" (PDF). http://www.omilosmeleton.gr/. Retrieved 23 January 2015. External link in |website= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. A discussion of the difference between ratha and anas is found e.g. in Kazanas, Nicholas. 2001. The AIT and Scholarship
  3. Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. "Wheeled Vehicles of the Indus Valley Civilization of Pakistan and India" (PDF). http://a.harappa.com. Retrieved 23 January 2015. External link in |website= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Cf. Raulwing 2000
  5. I. e., "Outside of linguistics there's no hope."
  6. Raulwing 2000:83
  7. Cf. Henri Paul Francfort in Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. (2005), p. 272-276
  8. They were not used for warfare. H. P. Francfort, Fouilles de Shortugai, Recherches sur L'Asie Centrale Protohistorique Paris: Diffusion de Boccard, 1989, p. 452. Cf. Henri Paul Francfort in Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. (2005), p.272
  9. H. P. Francfort in Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. (2005), p. 220 - 272; H.-P. Francfort, Fouilles de Shortugai
  10. (Bryant 2001)
  11. Bryant 2001
  12. The Sarasvati Flows on, 2002, pp.74-75, Figs 3.28 to 331
  13. L.S.Rao, Harappan Spoked Wheels Rattled Down the Streets of Bhirrana, Dist. Fatehabad, Haryana
  14. Harappan Civilization and the Vedic Literature, in Hindi, 1987
  15. Dhavalikar, M. K. (1982). Daimabad Bronzes (PDF). in Gregory L. Possehl. ed. Harappan Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Warminster: Aris and Phillips. pp. 361-€“66. ISBN 0-85668-211-X. C1 control character in |pages= at position 5 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Bryant, Edwin (2001). The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture. Oxford University Press. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />ISBN 0-19-513777-9.
  • Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. (2005). Aryas, Aryens et Iraniens en Asie Centrale. Institut Civilisation Indienne <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />ISBN 2-86803-072-6
  • Kazanas, Nicholas (2001). The AIT and Scholarship. Omilos Meleton, Athens.
  • Peter Raulwing (2000). Horses, Chariots and Indo-Europeans, Foundations and Methods of Chariotry Research from the Viewpoint of Comparative Indo-European Linguistics. Archaeolingua, Series Minor 13, Budapest.