The town of Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. The town is around an hour’s drive from Chennai, the largest city in South India and is home to a group of over 40 phenomenal monuments including the largest open air bas-relief in the world.
Mahabalipuram is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites that include the structural temples, the five Rathas (chariot temples), the Mandapas (cave temples with bas reliefs) and the rock reliefs of the area.
The area also has a great beach and a vibrant fisher-folk community nearby. This provides the visitor a unique window into the culture of these communities in south India which have not changed much since the age of the ancient Dravidian civilization about 5,000 years ago.
The present town of Mahabalipuram was founded around 2,000 years ago as a major port and a second capital by the reigning Pallava Dynasty of the time. The city was widely featured in the chronicles of the age as a major trading post frequented by sea-farers of Africa, the Middle East and the Orient.
It is easy to take a tour to Mahabalipuram as part of a day trip as all of its main attractions are in close proximity to one another. Among the most prominent of these are the five Ratha Temples are shaped like gigantic chariots with intricate stone carvings which are dedicated to the five Pandava princes from the ancient Indian Vedic epic the Mahabharatha and their common wife Darupadi. The Rathas were constructed during the 7th century and are complemented by fine stone carvings as well as enormous stone animals including an elephant.
In the immediate vicinity of the five Rathas is a massive stone carving etched into a singular gigantic boulder called Arjuna’s Penance. This intricately carved relief dates back to the 8th century and depicts rich scenes of Indian mythology, bursting with magical beings and tales of heroism of Arjuna, the most skilled warrior amongst the Pandava princes.
Another interpretation of a part of this massive bas-relief is titled the “Descent of the Ganges” which is said to depict the penance of an ancient Indian sage Bhagaritha that caused the holy river Ganges to descend to the Earth to wash away the sins of mankind.
On the northeast of Arjuna’s Penance is the Ganesh Ratha, which was a temple initially dedicated to the worship of Shiva but is now dedicated to the worship of his son Ganesh, the elephant headed God. The Ganesh Ratha is one of the most picturesque attractions at Mahabalipuram primarily due the presence of a large boulder titled “Krishna’s Butter Ball” which is precariously balanced atop a hill as if by magic.
Other major attractions in Mahabalipuram include the Cave Temples or the Mandapams. These are located in a hill in the immediate periphery of Mahabalipuram. The larger of these include the Varaha Manadapa, the Kirshna Mandapa and the Mahishamardini Mandapa.
These cave temples were built at various times after the 7th century by various Pallava Kings to honor Hindu deities such as Brahma (The Creator), Shiva (The Destroyer) and Vishnu (The Preserver). The temples are a fine specimen of the finesse of ancient Indian artisans and the architectural development of the age. They are replete with fine carvings of various Indian Vedic scriptures and depict the tales of various Hindu deities.
Other minor temples in the Cave Temples complex which are frequently visited by tourists and are famous for the intricacy of their artwork include the Kotikal Mandapa and the Varaha MandapaII. Many visitors touring Mahabalipuram also make it a point to visit the remains of the nearby Olakkannesvara temple and the interesting Trimurti Cave Temple which is dedicated to the worship of all three Hindu deities with dedicated shrines to each of them.
For temple watchers though, the star attraction of any tour to Mahabalipuram is the Shore Temple. The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram represents the architectural pinnacle of the Pallava period. The Shore Temple was constructed out of blocks of solid granite at the coastline of the Bay of Bengal. Archeologists and historians believe that the temple was used not just as a site for religious worship but also as a major nautical waypoint to aid shipping thereby displaying the considerable maritime ambitions of the Pallava Empire.
Constructed in the 7th century, the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram is famous for the finesse of its architecture as well as for the intricacy of its stone carvings, many of which have eroded over the centuries. The temple, while not amongst the larger ones in India, is still notable due to the depth of its design and concept. The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram has held the interest of temple enthusiasts from around the world because of its excellent proportions, impressionist embellishments and supreme quality of carvings. The spire of the Shore Temple has often been quoted as one of the finest examples in all of India.
The Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram has been conceived as the perfect cosmic body with its head and heart located over the spire. Inside the temple there are three main shrines two of which, facing east and west respectively, are dedicated to Shiva. These two shrines have been designed to catch the earliest and the last rays of the sun to illuminate the temple. The third smaller shrine is dedicated to Vishnu.
It has been long theorized that the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram was part of a larger temple complex that housed multiple temples which have been destroyed due to the loss of coastline and cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal that periodically hits the region. This theory found new credence after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 when the receding waters revealed the remnants of what may have been sister temples to the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram.
Other points of interest to the visitor on a tour of Mahabalipuram would include the famous Sculpture Museum that is home to over 3,000 sculptures excavated at various times in Mahabalipuram. Also frequented by visitors is the nearby Mahabalipuram Lighthouse as well as the Tiger Cave which is another rock-carved cave temple dedicated to the worship of the Hindu Goddess Durga.
Best Time to Visit Mahabalipuram:
Mahabalipuram has a tropical weather that is typical of South India and Tamil Nadu. Being a coastal town and close to the thermal equator, the city does not see much temperature variance throughout the year.
The Northeastern Monsoon from mid-October to Mid-December brings the most rains to Mahabalipuram while for the rest of the year, the town remains hot and humid.
In recent years, the Mahabalipuram Dance Festival, a four week event showcasing Tamil dance, theatrical arts as well as traditional puppetry has become a point of interest for tourists. The Mahabalipuram Dance Festival is held near Arjuna’s Penance every December-January and showcases performances of Bhartiya Natyam, Kathakali, Kuchi Pudi and other tribal dances as well as musical renditions and other performances.
How to get to Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram is about an hour’s drive from Chennai which is India’s fourth largest city and is the capital of Tamil Nadu.
The most convenient way to get to Mahabalipuram is by taking a flight to the Chennai International Airport which is serviced by a significant number of regional and international carriers.
The airport offers convenient connections to all cities in India as well as a number of international destinations across Asia, the Middle East, Far East and Europe. From the Chennai International Airport, you can travel to Mahabalipuram in a luxury SUV.
Since Chennai offers a plethora of top-end luxury hotels, most foreign visitors choose to stay in the city and explore Mahabalipuram as a day excursion.
Mahabalipuram with its unique attractions and UNESCO World Heritage site status on four categories of monuments is sure to attract the interests of fans of ancient Indian history, world religions as well as enthusiasts of culture, archeology, art, architecture and spirituality.
The monuments at Mahabalipuram thanks to their convenient location and proximity can easily be visited during the course of a single day thereby making it a perfect cultural excursion for all age groups.
It is worth remembering that all the major attractions at Mahabalipuram including the Shore Temple and the Five Rathas are all Hindu temples with significant religious importance for locals. It is therefore required that visiting tourists dress modestly covering arms, legs and shoulders.
Since all attractions in Mahabalipuram are within close walking distance to one another, many visitors prefer exploring the town on foot thereby requiring some walking. It is therefore advisable that light, breathable cotton clothing is worn along with appropriate protection against the sun so as to best help visitors adjust to the hot and humid weather of Mahabalipuram.
Sights in / Near Mahabalipuram :