10 marvellous things to do in Mahabalipuram

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.

10 things to do in Mahabalipuram.

1) Shore Temple

The Nandi walls of the Shore Temple Mahabalipuram
The Nandi walls of the 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.

Read more about the mysterious Shore temple and its sister pagodas

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, Mahabalipuram
Sculpture of Shiv- Parvati and their sons, 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 an annual venue for the cultural dance festival of India, which normally takes place in December. If you are curious about more, check out this post.

2) Pancha Rathas

Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram
Pancha Rathas in Mahabalipuram

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 has tigers etched to possibly symbolize the Goddess’ vehicle.

Arjuna's Ratha in Mahabalipuram
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’sratha 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. Don’t miss this detailed post on the Pancha Rathas by me where I reveal more of the secrets this place holds.

Also read Unearthing the Pancha Rathas

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

Close up of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram
Close up of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

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 walkable 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 God and Goddess after whom they have been named. My personal favorite is the Tiger Caves.

Krishna Cave in Mahabalipuram
Krishna Cave in Mahabalipuram

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 in Mahabalipuram

Arjuna's Penance in Mahabalipuram
Arjuna’s Penance in Mahabalipuram

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   in Mahabalipuram
Krishna’s Butterball   in Mahabalipuram

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

Crocodiles at Horsley Hills

The Madras Crocodile Bank is one of the largest crocodile breeding centers 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 underwater – 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.


How to get 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.
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96 thoughts on “10 marvellous things to do in Mahabalipuram”

  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. 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:)

  3. 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. 🙂

  4. 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!

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. 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.

  7. 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 🙂

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. I never knew about Mahabalipuram but know after going through this article. I will definitely pan a trip to visit Mahabalipuram. A big hug and thanks for this discovering this wonderful place for me.

  11. when I went to mahabalipuram, I only saw the butterball, the temple and the beach. never knew there are so many things to do in mahabalipuram. thanks for sharing this great to-do list 🙂

  12. Been there twice still can’t get enough of the place. We covered all these places in a day trip. The best thing is that all the monuments are so close to each other that you can easily plan a walking trip around.

  13. Your blog is interesting and is well written. There are so many information shared by the blog which will surely help those who wish to travel these places and wish to know more about .

  14. Thanks for sharing this blog. This place is looking like a historical place. I will do study on this place and will plane to for trip. Keep shar…something like this.

  15. in case we reach here by bus(local transport) how do we cover the places? would a rickshaw take us? where would the two wheeler be available on rent? tentative cost… going wih two kids.. so any additional info would be valauble

    • You can easily cover a lot of these by walking around as they are very close to each other. Alternately, any auto will give you a package that can take you around to all these places.

  16. Great share! Such a nice content, Thanks. I have been to Mahabalipuram once and it was an amazing experience that I had. I took a cab for Chennai to Mahabalipuram. Everyone must visit this great place


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