10 marvellous things to do in Mahabalipuram

posted in: Asia, Beaches, Culture, Heritage, India, Tamil Nadu | 60
60 odd kilometers from Chennai, along the East Coast Road, lies this little town called as Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram. This town is a popular weekend-getaway for the people in Chennai and a great stop-over for people traveling to or coming from Pondicherry. I have been here at least twice and each time, have found something unique and amazing about this town.
An ancient sea-port, from the times of Ptolemy, Mahabalipuram today, has become a treasure-trove of UNESCO sites. There are two interesting legends about the name Mahabalipuram – the first being that of King Mahabali who used to rule here and hence the name. The second being that the Pallava King Narasimhavarman I was quite renowned as a wrestler and hence the name Mamalla was given to honor him. Consequently, the town got named so. Today, this town offers its visitors not just a peek into the history but a fabulous beach experience too.

Here is my list of 10 things to do in Mahabalipuram.

1) Shore Temple

Shore temple, Mahabalipuram

As evident from the name, this temple from the Pallava era lies along the shores of the Bay of Bengal. What struck me the most during my visit was the golden color of the temple against the clear blue skies. The shore temple has been declared as a UNESCO heritage site. It is said that it is the only surviving temple of a set of seven such temples. The other temples are assumed to have submerged in the ocean. Interestingly, a few of them were sighted again during the Tsunami. Unfortunately, there is no diving expedition, else most likely I would be in the queue to know more.

The current temple has a walk-way through a green lawn . As you approach the temple, you can sight the sea in the background. One thing to note here is that the entire temple is made out of a single rock. Amazing right? 

Sculpture of Shiv- Parvati and their sons
Sculpture of Shiv- Parvati and their sons in Mahabalipuram

On entering the temple, you will see two different sanctums with a few stairs leading inside and between the two, is one smaller chamber. The two bigger ones are dedicated to Lord Shiva while the smaller one has a reclining statue of Lord Vishnu. The temple sanctums are a little defaced but you can spot a few sculptures and the reclining statue of Vishnu on entering it. The entrance to the chambers is through a narrow entrance over some steep stairs. The narrow entrance made me feel as if I was entering some sort of a tunnel.

Though it was bright noon, the inner sanctums were quite dark. However, it is said that with the first ray of light, the chambers, especially the one with the reclining Vishnu get lit very beautifully. There are a lot of smaller shrines around the temple – like the one in a well-like enclosure in the gardens. The Shore temple makes a beautiful backdrop at sunrise or sunset and most people come to see it around then. It is no wonder that this is a annual venue for the cultural dance festival of India, that normally takes place in December.

2) Pancha Rathas

Pancha Ratha Image Credits: Aasif Iqbal J Under CC by NC-ND-2.0
Pancha Ratha in Mahabalipuram                                                                 Image Credits: Aasif Iqbal J Under CC by NC-ND-2.0

This is my favorite amongst all the highlights of Mahabalipuram. The sheer beauty of the monolithic rock-cut temples in the form of chariots or rathas, can really mesmerize anyone. These are a set of 5 temples that are named after the Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame. The first temple that you see is shaped like a hut and is dedicated to Draupadi. This has a small entrance and you can enter in to see a sculpture of a Goddess Durga. The base of the temple have tigers etched to possibly symbolize the Goddess’ vehicle.

Arjuna's Ratha
Arjuna’s Ratha in Mahabalipuram
This is followed by Arjuna’s ratha, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The sculptures around the temple are stunning and are of various Gods, Goddess’ and humans. Right behind this is a mammoth ratha dedicated to Bhima followed by the last ratha in this line, for the eldest Pandava Yudhisthira
Yudhisthira's Ratha
Yudhisthira’s Ratha
Yudhisthira’s ratha is dedicated to Lord Shiva and there are lovely sculptures of Lord Shiva in various forms. Now here is one curious fact – The Yudhisthira Ratha has a lovely ground floor and a first and second floor as well. What makes the whole deal curious is that there is no staircase from ground to first but there are stairs from first to second. 😉 I wonder what they were thinking?

Right in front of Arjuna’s ratha is one ratha that has elephants sculpted at its back and is dedicated to Lord Indra. This is the last ratha here – Nakul-Sahadeva ratha. You will find a lot of animals sculpted on the rocks here – including a huge elephant and Nandi – the bull. 

Truly a masterpiece, this UNESCO heritage site never fails to impress people. One little piece of memory that I have here is that of eating cucumber and pineapple from the street vendors near the entrance. It is actually a treat and you should try it too, but remember to get the cucumber and pineapple cut in front of you after the guy has cleaned the knife. 😀

3) Cave Temples

Tiger temple Image credits: Leon Yakov under CC by 2.0
Tiger temple                                                                                                             Image credits: Leon Yakov under CC by 2.0
8 open-air treasure troves of amazing sculptures carved into the rocks with 8 different themes. The cave temples are quite spread out and are not really walk-able from one place to another. Amongst the 8 caves, the three most popular ones are the Krishna caves, the Mahishasurmardini caves and the Varaha caves – each alive with the stories of the the God and Goddess after whom they have been named. 
Krishna Cave.                                                               Image credits:Opalpeterllu under CC by NC ND 2.0
Krishna Cave.                                                                                               Image credits: Opalpeterllu under CC by NC ND 2.0

The Krishna cave has sculptures of Krishna lifting the Govardhan mountain to shelter his herd with various cowherds milking cows , while the Mahishasurmadini caves have sculptures of how Goddess Durga destroyed the demon Mahishasur. The Varaha caves similarly, depict the story of Lord Vishnu’s avataar Varaha or the boar. While all of these caves are beautiful, it was the Tiger cave that I found very unique and artistic with its cavern covered with Tiger sculptures. Definitely worth the trip to see them.

4) Thirukadalmalai

Thirukadalmalai temple                         Image Credits: Gowrishankar under CC by SA , Wikimedia Commons
Thirukadalmalai temple                                                      Image Credits: Gowrishankar under CC by SA , Wikimedia Commons

A temple built by the Pallava kings to protect all the other temples from the sea waves.:-) This temple has some beautiful Dravidian style architecture and while a part of the UNESCO sites, this is still a functional temple. You will find some religious activities and Poojas happening here still. One must visit this white colored temple a contrast to the golden ones across Mahabalipuram. The temple has two shrines and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is said that after building this temple, no harm has indeed, come to the rest of the temples and structures in Mahabalipuram.

5) Arjuna’s Penance

Arjuna's Penance- Caught while driving past it.
Arjuna’s Penance- Caught while driving past it.

There is no way that you can miss this when in Mahabalipuram – for it is one of the World’s largest open air Bas relief. Also, known as Descent of the Ganga, this amazing Bas relief stretches across 100 feet in length and is 45 feet high with intricate carvings of humans, elephants and other animals. The relief depicts the story of Arjuna doing his penance in the forest to please Lord Shiva in order to get his celestial weapon. However, some say that it is actually Sage Bhagiratha, who is bringing the holy river – Ganga to Earth. 

6) Krishna’s Butterball

Krishna's Butterball                                                   Image Credits:Ross G. Strachan under CC by NC ND 2.0
Krishna’s Butterball                                                                               Image Credits:Ross G. Strachan under CC by NC ND 2.0

You don’t need to be a Tom Cruise to defy gravity for this marvel already does that. Heaven knows how this huge stone of around 16 feet diameter balances itself on a slope, and not just for the last couple of years but for over 1000 years. Attempts have been made to roll it down with the help of elephants but surprisingly the rock does not budge. I think Ripley’s Believe it or not should definitely feature this one.

7) Dakshina Chitra

Insides of a Tamil Home                                             Image Credits: Rrjanbiah under Wikimedia Commons
Insides of a Tamil Home                                                                            Image Credits: Rrjanbiah under Wikimedia Commons

A cultural village on the outskirts of Mahabalipuram that showcases the culture of the Southern states of India. You can see the various homes, indulge in a few activities, enjoy some folklore and crafts, while soaking up the Indian culture down south. It is advisable to do this when entering or leaving Mahabalipuram as this is not exactly within the town limits.

8) Surfing

Mahabalipuram Beach                                   Image Credits: Nigel's Europe and Beyond under CC by SA 2.0
Mahabalipuram Beach                                                               Image Credits: Nigel’s Europe and Beyond under CC by SA 2.0
Hey you are in a beach town and you cannot really get out without experiencing the beach here. 🙂 The beach is quite safe in certain places for some general water fun but the one thing that this beach is known for is surfing. If you don’t know where to go, this surfing school can give you some tips and lessons 🙂 Unfortunately, I did not have enough time for this but am definitely heading back to Mahabalipuram just for this.

Besides surfing , you can avail some boat rides, turtle walks and treks through this popular restaurant called Surf. Turtle walk is a fun activity where you trek along the beach to find turtles and release them safely into the water. Sigh! Am yet to do this. Next time for sure.

9) Lighthouse

Lighthouse at Mahabalipuram                                Image Credits: Christopher Porter under CC by NC ND 2.0
Lighthouse at Mahabalipuram                                                            Image Credits: Christopher Porter under CC by NC ND 2.0

View the entire town from atop this lighthouse. Right next to it is the ancient lighthouse that was built during the Pallava era to serve as a beacon at this ancient sea port. Catch the Sunset from here with some refreshing breeze and a view of the sea.

10) Crocodile Farm

Madras Crocodile Bank                                    Image credits: Kmanoj under CC by 3.0 Wikimedia Commons
Madras Crocodile Bank                                                                    Image credits: Kmanoj under CC by 3.0 Wikimedia Commons
The Madras Crocodile Bank is one of the largest crocodile breeding center in India and is home to several species of crocodiles, snakes, turtles and more. The place is along the road to Chennai and is quite well maintained. A great place to see these reptiles including the Indian Ghariyal, which can be viewed under water – Thanks to the special tank here. Loved the turtles here. 

Need more reasons to head to Mahabalipuram? Food, cycle rides , stone carving classes? It’s all here in this small town . Let me know on which of the “10 things to do in Mahabalipuram” is your favoriteAnd while you share that, remember to add this pin to your travel board.
Ten things to do in Mahabalipuram

Getting to Mahabalipuram:

  • Chennai is the closest airport to this town.
  • Mahabalipuram is easily accessibly by road from Chennai or Pondicherry. There are plenty of buses from both these cities that take you to the town. 
  • I would highly recommend the drive to this place as it is along a lovely coastal stretch. You would love the blue stretch of water as you drive along.

Travel Tips:

  • October to February are some good months to visit Mahabalipuram. The weather is quite pleasant during this time.
  • Be careful when getting into the sea as the sea can be rough in various parts and have sudden depths
  • You can avail of cycles or bikes to travel within the town. These are easily available at any hotel or resort
  • You will find a lot of vendors selling beautiful wooden sculptures at most of these tourist attractions. The sculptures make some great memories and show-pieces. I have one with different poses of Lord Ganesha, which have been so appreciated by people. It is not a bad idea to buy from these but remember to bargain well. Also, check the quality of the pieces before you accept them.
  • There are plenty of resorts and hotels in the town that you can opt for your stay. Some of them are in fact, by the beach.





Share the Thrill of Travel

60 Responses

  1. Planned a trip to this place in the month of February.But was not able to go. Your post is making us to plan a trip here.Wonderful informative post with photos,

    Sriram & Krithiga

  2. I have been there in my college days and I loved the place. Thank you for refreshing the memories.

  3. I missed the surfing and the crocodile park… but pretty much covered everything else 🙂 love the place, especially that big rock!!

  4. I have stayed in Chennai for months but then haven;t got a chance to visit this place. Awesome Pictures!
    Read –> ​​A Rat's Nibble

  5. Nice Info. Thanks. Also boating in muthukadu backwaters.
    Pics from our trip.

  6. Thanks guys. You must make a trip here. Am sure you would love it

  7. 🙂 Take another trip down the memory lane by actually heading there 🙂

  8. Amazing right – the Krishna's butterball 😀

  9. Gosh! Make sure you correct this at the first opportunity 😀

  10. Thanks Arun. Will take a look at your pics too.

  11. Ami, your travel posts are really professionally done and I enjoy reading them. Mahabalipuram is a favourite place of mine and I think it has far more going for it than Pondicherry but that's a personal preference:)

  12. Thank you Lata for the amazing compliment. 🙂 Am glad you enjoy them. While I like Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram in their own way, I agree that there is a certain richness to Mahabalipuram. 🙂

  13. These pictures are so beautiful, I love everything about it. It look so fresh and relaxing.
    Best Architecture Colleges in Chennai

  14. Thank you Christy. Glad you loved it.

  15. Bang on compilation of what to do in Mahabalipuram. A lot of people combine Mahabalipuram with Pondicherry and in a rush to reach Pondi miss out the brilliance of this old town. I regret missing out Dakshina Chitra but instead went to a Jagannath Temple situated in the outskirts. Maybe Dakshina Chitra is something for the next time 🙂
    Nice article Ami!

  16. Thank you Vaisakhi. Lots of people give this gem a miss owing to Pondicherry. I hope they discover it again

  17. Aaaghh I’m super excited about my trip to Mahabalipuram after reading this blog.. Thank you so much.. it was incredibly insightful 🙂

  18. prianka42

    Looks like a really cool place! I love all the different temples, they are all so unique!

  19. Very informative post — looks like there is a LOT to do!

  20. We loved Mahabalipuram and the rock temples, though the sands were blazing hot when we visited.

  21. Looking like another cool place to visit. You’re always sharing new places that I’ve yet to hear of and I love it!

  22. I have never heard of Mahabalipuram! Looks like there are a lot of things to do and see. That rock is crazy! I would want to know…what are some of the best places to eat here?

    • Thanks Katie. There are plenty of places to eat here and they aren’t hard to find. From plush restaurants to street food, from Italian and Chinese cuisine to Indian. Will work out a specific post on this. 🙂

  23. Very different. Never heard of Mahabalipuram (try saying that 5 times fast!). The architectural elements are my favorite. I would like to visit the caves you mentioned–those look really cool! The rock photo made me chuckle.

    • 🙂 It is funny when you say it 5 times :D. It is an amazing place and am sure you will like it

  24. elizabeth

    Fascinating! I love some of those temple. The tiger temple is quite unique. Do you know what time period they were built? Some of them resemble the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

    • I know that the Shore temple is around the 700 AD. Not sure of the caves But they are just amazing right?

  25. A very detailed post ! Reminded me of my family vacation spent there few years ago. Krishna’s butterball was my favourite. 🙂

    • Yes, the Krishna’s Butterball is quite fascinating. Thanks for stopping by 😀

  26. nice listing

  27. There is also a sea shell museum, which is about to shut down due to shortage of visitors

    • Ooh, now that is something that I seem to have missed. 🙁 I hope I catch it before it shuts down.

  28. Beautifully listed out. Great pics too.

  29. Very nice pictures. On my only visit to Chennai, I could not make it to Mabs. Gotta make a trip soon.

  30. Whenever I plan a trip to Mahabalipuram, something goes wrong and till date I could not visit it! Hope I am able to visit this place soon.
    Great post Ami 🙂

    • I suggest waiting till the monsoons are over :). You are likely to enjoy the place better.

  31. ourfamilytraveladventures

    Mahabalipuram looks like a really interesting place! We have friends who just moved to Chennai and we are hoping to visit soon. I think our boys would love krishna’s ball!

  32. Vikram R

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  33. Nice post! Thanks for sharing!
    If anyone includes good places to eat here, this post will be completely a guide to mahabalipuram.. any local cuisine?

    • Tons of it Prateek. There are lots of options around the main square. Will share some names soon.

  34. Had just been here recently. Covered entire Mahabalipuram in 4 hours!

  35. Hello Ami,

    I was going through internet, trying to find what all can be done during a day in Mahabalipuram. Seeing so many places without much description on internet, I really got confused, but your post really helped in resolving all these confusions. Thanks a lot for such an informative post.

    Would be really helpful if you add up these points as well –
    1. How one should be roaming in and around Mahabalipuram. Should he be taking a cab/bus for a day, or renting a bike/cycle and ride on his own.
    2. How should he plan his day, at what time should he be going to all these places.


    • Thanks Suchiir, Glad you enjoyed the post. On your queries – most places are walkable from each other. For the others, I suggest just hiring an auto. It is much easier. On planning the day, most of these open around 8 or 9 am. A few do open earlier but my memory fails me on which ones. Most of these can be covered in a day . Hope that helps.

Would love to know what you think