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
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?
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
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.
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’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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 favorite. And 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.
- 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.