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Ratha ( Sanskrit rátha, Avestan raθa) is the Indo-Iranian term for the spoked-wheel chariot of Antiquity. It derives from a collective *ret-h- to a Proto-Indo-European word *rot-o- for "wheel" that also resulted in Latin rota and is also known from Germanic, Celtic and Baltic. The Sanskrit terms for the wagon pole, harness, yoke and wheel nave too have cognates other branches of Indo-European.
Development of the spoke-wheeled chariot is associated with the Proto-Indo-Iranians. The earliest fully developed chariots known are from the chariot burials of the Andronovo (Timber-Grave) sites of the Sintashta-Petrovka culture in modern Russia and Kazakhstan from around 2000 BC. This culture is at least partially derived from the earlier Yamna culture. It built heavily fortified settlements, engaged in bronze metallurgy on a scale hitherto unprecedented and practiced complex burial rituals, according to some scholars reminiscent of Aryan rituals known from the Rigveda. The Sintashta-Petrovka chariot burials yield spoke-wheeled chariots. The Andronovo culture over the next few centuries spreads across the steppes from the Urals to the Tien Shan, likely corresponding to early Indo-Iranian cultures which eventually spread to Iran and India in the course of the 2nd millennium BC.
The chariot must not necessarily be regarded as a marker for Indo-European or Indo-Iranian presence.<ref>Cf. Raulwing 2000</ref> 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!<ref>Outside of linguistics there's no hope.</ref>"<ref>Raulwing 2000:83</ref><ref>Cf. Henri Paul Francfort in Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. (2005), p. 272-276</ref>
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).<ref>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</ref> No Andronovian chariot burial has been found south of the Oxus.<ref>H. P. Francfort in Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X. (2005), p. 220, 272; H.-P. Francfort, Fouilles de Shortugai</ref>
No evidence of spoke-wheeled vehicles predating 2000 BC is known from either inside or outside of India.
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 is 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 Ganges–Jamuna 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 <ref>(Bryant 2001)</ref>. It is also highly unlikely that a perishable item like the chariot could have been preserved in the Indian climate since Harappan times <ref>cf. Bryant 2001 (The earliest known chariots in Sintashta were found in chariot burials (which are not common in India), and the chariots themselves have rotted away.)</ref>. There is evidence of wheeled vehicles (especially miniature models) in the Indus Valley Civilization, but not of chariots.<ref>Bryant 2001</ref>
 Textual evidence
Chariots figure prominently in the Rigveda, evidencing their presence in India in the 2nd millennium BC. 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.
The Rigvedic chariot is made of Salmali (RV 10.85.20), Khadira and simsapa (RV 3.53.19) and other woods native to India.<ref>Kazanas, Nicholas. 2001. The AIT and Scholarship</ref>
In RV 6.61.13, the Sarasvati river is described as being big like a chariot. Measurements for the chariot are found in the Sulba Sutras. The number of wheels of the Rigvedic chariot varies. A similar term in the Rigveda is Anas (often translated as "cart").<ref>A discussion of the difference between ratha and anas is found e.g. in Kazanas, Nicholas. 2001. The AIT and Scholarship</ref>
- Bryant, Edwin (2001). The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513777-9.
- Fussman, G.; Kellens, J.; Francfort, H.-P.; Tremblay, X.: Aryas, Aryens et Iraniens en Asie Centrale. (2005) Institut Civilisation Indienne ISBN 2-86803-072-6
- Kazanas, Nicholas. The AIT and Scholarship. Athens, 2001.
- Peter Raulwing, Horses, Chariots and Indo-Europeans, Foundations and Methods of Chariotry Research from the Viewpoint of Comparative Indo-European Linguistics, Archaeolingua, Series Minor 13, Budapest 2000)