The town of Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) is home to over forty world famous monuments including the world’s largest open air bas relief. Four of these monuments have UNESCO World Heritage Site status including the structural temples, the five Rathas (chariot temples), the Mandapas (cave temples with bas reliefs) and the rock reliefs of the area.
The present town of Mahabalipuram was founded around 2,000 years ago as a major port and a second capital by King Narasimhavarman – I of the Pallava Dynasty.
The Group of monuments at Mahabalipuram can be toured conveniently in a day trip since all of its main attractions are in close proximity to one another. While there are nine monolithic temples amongst the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, the five Ratha Temples are the most prominent attractions of the area.
The Five Rathas are shaped like gigantic chariots with intricate stone carvings which are dedicated to the five heroic Pandava princes from the ancient Indian Vedic epic the Mahabharatha and their common wife Darupadi. Each Ratha is unique due to the variation of its shape, size and the detailed stone carvings on all of its sides.
While three of the Rathas, (the Dharmaraja, Arjuna and Darupadi) are squares, the Bhima Ratha and Ganesha Ratha are large rectangles. Interestingly, the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha is different from the rest and is apsidal shaped. Archeologists believe that the different shapes and carvings of each of the Rathas reflect the uniqueness of each deity that they extol as well as the experimental tendencies of their ancient builders when toying with building aesthetics. For example, the Darupadi Ratha is dedicated to the Goddess Durga, who represents the sacred fertility of the Indian soil. Similarly the Bhima Ratha is dedicated to Vishnu, the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha is dedicated to Indra and the Arjuna Ratha is dedicated to the worship of Shiva who was the most important deity to the ruling Pallavas.
The sculptures on the Bhima Ratha and the Dharmaraja Rathas are said to bear features of people who are Caucasian as well as from ancient Egypt. While never conclusively proven, Archeologists claim that these are a reflection of the prolific maritime trade between ancient Rome, Egypt and the Pallava Empire of which Mahabalipuram was an important center.
The Rathas were constructed during the 7th century and are complemented by fine stone carvings as well as enormous stone animals including an elephant, a lion and a bull that represent celestial vehicles of various Hindu deities.
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 forever 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 nearby 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. While some of these have eroded over time, the remnants of the carvings at the cave temple give visitors a good idea of the detailing, depth and scale of the work that was carried out by sculptors when these temples were built.
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 Mandapa-II. 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 individual 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 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.
Further excavations to the north and south of the Shore Temple also revealed remnants of rock cut figures of a religious theme before the original temple was built. These include a reclining image of Vishnu, the base of a shrine dedicated to the worship of Durga as well as a stepped ghat between the Shore Temple and the sea.
Another point of interest to the visitor on a tour of Mahabalipuram is 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.
Mahabalipuram has a tropical weather that is typical of South India. 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.
Since the best time to visit most parts of India is between October and April which is considered the high season for tourists, most visitors plan their Mahabalipuram itinerary in line with their overall India trip.
The Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram in recent times has been the venue of a high profile festival promoting traditional Tamil dance, art, theatre and puppetry. The festival is titled the Mahabalipuram Dance Festival and has generated considerable interest with visitors to Mahabalipuram.
The Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram is about an hour’s drive from Chennai which is India’s fourth largest city and is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu.
The most convenient way to get to the Group of Monuments at 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 Chennai you can take a day excursion in a luxury SUV to the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram. Alternatively, Mahabalipuram also offers limited luxury hotel options and many travelers make a stop-over in the town to explore nearby cultural artifacts and then proceed further to explore attractions in nearby cities such as Kanchipuram and Pondicherry.
The Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram with its unique attractions and UNESCO World Heritage site status 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.
All attractions at Mahabalipuram are conveniently located in close proximity to one another. This makes it easy for them to be visited during the course of a single day and many tourists prefer to explore the town on foot. This makes the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram a perfect cultural excursion for all age groups.
Appropriate Attire :
It is worth remembering that the Group of Monuments 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.