A Roaring Secret: Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

posted in: India, Heritage, Tamil Nadu | 67

Playing truant is always fun. I am sure most of us have played this game of disappearing from classes or office or functions whenever it suited us. It is a sense of adventure and free will that you feel when you do this and boy! Do they leave some memories for you to cherish later. Well, I played truant during my Golden Chariot trip where I used my lunch break in Mahabalipuram to rush over and see this magnificent rock-cut caves – The Tiger Caves.

Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram
Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

I had known of these caves earlier too and had missed out on them during my earlier trips. Having checked the google maps, I realized that they were just 5 kilometers from town’s center. Given that, I spoke to the tour manager about using my lunch break to rush over to the Tiger caves and exploring it. With a promise to be back on time (as you can see, I am responsible truant), I along with 2 of my fellow bloggers – Abhinav and Swati hopped into an autorickshaw to find this lesser-visited Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram.

Discovering the Tiger Caves

The Tiger Caves are fairly well known to the local people and getting here was not tough at all. However, this is now used more as a picnic spot and that explains the lack of crowd here on a weekday. As we entered, we could see the back of the sandstone caves. As soon as we reached the front, the only word that escaped from all our mouths was “Wow”.

The side view of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram
The side view of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram
Close up of the tiger or Yeli carving on the caves
Close up of the tiger or Yeli carving on the caves
The sides of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram
The sides of the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

The entire mouth of the cave was carved with ornate tigers. Later as we queried our Golden Chariot guide, he explained that these were not just tigers but possibly mythological creatures called Yeli. Β It is as if the whole cave was showcasing the different profiles of the tiger – right to left to front of his face.Each detail of these tigers is just stunning – the eyes, the canines that jut out, the ferocious look.


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

Carved within this entrance were steps that lead to a small pavilion of sorts. This pavilion as you can see, had 2 guardian lions on either side. Within this chamber is a weathered sculpture, none of the details clear for me to identify.

The steps themselves, had tigers along its sides. Besides the central grove, you can even spot two empty chambers – one on either side. There were no carvings or inscriptions within.

The left extension of the Tiger Caves with their chambers and carving within
The left extension of the Tiger Caves with their chambers and carving within

Once I got attuned to the grandeur of this main section, my eyes traveled along to the left side of the cave. Quite unlike the main cave, here you had elephant faces carved. Just above each elephant head, note the small chamber and the deity carved within. I identified these as carvings of Shiva and Parvati but then, that is my interpretation of the same.

Significance of the Tiger Caves

Feeling like a queen at the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram
Feeling like a queen at the Tiger Caves in Mahabalipuram

The tiger caves are dated back to the 7th or 8th century AD. The Pallava dynasty is the ones associated with it. As per my Golden Chariot guide, these caves were a place where the Pallava kings addressed their audience. According to him, the central chamber was where the kings might have sat while the rest of the courtiers and audience surrounded the place. He also, said that this was also, possibly a place where various festivals were held and different artists performed for the king.

To me, this definitely sound like that could be the case. I did march up the stairs to sit and take a photograph and I admit, I did feel very Queen-like πŸ˜‰

The Subramanya Temple within the campus

The Subramanya Temple within the campus of Tiger Caves
The Subramanya Temple within the campus of Tiger Caves

Within the sprawling land of the Tiger caves are the ruins of a small temple dedicated to Lord Subramanya (Lord Shiva). The temple was undiscovered till 2005 when some inscriptions on the Tiger Cave led to it. The temple is in a dilapidated state but is quite mysterious.

The Nandi statue facing the Subramanya temple
The Nandi statue facing the Subramanya temple
The Bas-Relief at the Subramanya temple, Tiger Caves
The Bas-Relief at the Subramanya temple, Tiger Caves

A small Nandi lies in front of the temple. Close to it is a small bas-relief with a carving of a deity on a tiger attacking demons. I think this is Goddess Durga (an avatar of Parvati) attacking the demon Mahishasura. Again without a guide, this is my best guess and I am keen to know if you agree with the same.

The black Shiva Linga at the Subramanya Temple, Tiger Caves
The black Shiva Linga at the Subramanya Temple, Tiger Caves

The main temple has a black Shiva Linga. Around the sanctum are carved the guardians or the Dwarapalikas. If you look carefully along the walls, there are small sculptures of Lord Shiva – quite similar to the ones that I observed over the elephant heads of the main Tiger caves. This definitely gives me confidence about my interpretation that this entire structure was dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Sculpture of Lord Shiva along the walls of Subramanya temple, Tiger Caves
Sculpture of Lord Shiva along the walls of Subramanya temple, Tiger Caves

There isn’t much left other than these structures but the mere presence of it is what makes this whole monument quite mysterious. And then, there is this huge rock that towers between the Tiger Caves and temple that does seem to be there by design. I sure would love to know what went here and what other secrets these caves hold.

The tall rock at the Tiger Caves - by design or natural - not known.
The tall rock at the Tiger Caves – by design or natural – not known.

Time was short as I had promised our tour guide to be back in time for our next adventure in Mahabalipuram. I would have loved to visit the sea that I could hear roaring behind the Tiger Caves but for now, this was where it had to end. We left with the beautiful images of the mighty Tiger Caves. The Golden Chariot team ensured that we had not missed our lunch but even if we had, I think, we would not have minded it for we had explored one of Mahabalipuram’s secret – the Tiger Caves. Let me know if you too, would have given up your lunch to visit this offbeat cave, which I believe is one of the key things to see in Mahabalipuram.

Getting here:

  • On how to get to Mahabalipuram, you can refer my earlier post here
  • The Tiger caves is just 5 kms from the city center on the Chennai- ECR road. You can visit this while you are coming into Mahabalipuram from Chennai.
  • Alternatively, you can take an autorickshaw from the city center to reach this place. The auto driver will charge you around INR 200-300 for a journey to and from these caves. This includes the waiting time at the Caves.

Travel Tips:

  • There are no entrance fees or photography fees for this monument
  • Please be respectful and remove your shoes at the Subramanya temple
  • There is no restriction at the Tiger caves but in order to protect the caves, I would request you all to not damage the sculptures by inscribing on it.
  • There are no restaurants or restrooms available near the Tiger Caves.
  • Please carry enough drinking water while you head here.
  • While the Tiger Caves are not a part of the Golden Chariot itinerary, you can always go on your own. This is of course, subject to the free time you might have during your lunch. Please check with your tour manager on the same.

P.S: I was invited by Karnataka State Tourism Development CorporationΒ to experience the Golden Chariot tour.




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67 Responses

  1. saumynagayach

    Wow! Never heard of this place before but glad that I got something unknown to look out for when I visit Chennai next time. The prehistoric architecture is quite intriguing indeed.

    • Ami

      Thank you . This place is off the whole regular trail of Mahabalipuram and hence, you might have missed it. Definitely go there the next time you head to Mahabalipuram

  2. Trayee

    The tiger cave is beautiful. Rightly said “:showcasing the different profiles of the tiger”…amazing photography.

  3. yogensarswat

    I knew Mahabalipuram as a city of temples . Very beautiful sites are there to visit and off course very ancient . Your post is tellin everything about it . Thank you very much for sharing .

    • Ami

      It is off the regular circuit and thus, not often visited. You should try it the next time.

  4. vishvarsha

    I too had missed the tiger caves when I had been to Mahabalipuram but your post has now given me a reason to go back to this old quaint town and witness something new! πŸ™‚ Lovely clicks Ami.

  5. AllGudThings

    I always knew Mahabalipuram has lots of temples but never knew there are Tiger caves too. The architecture of the place really looks cool and the tiger carvings are really awesome. I loved your clicks and the way you have described every bit of Tiger Caves in this post. Would Love to explore them someday.

    • Ami

      Thank you Suruchi. Mahabalipuram has so much and each time I go there I discover more!

  6. The Travel Ninjas

    You guys were naughty being truant, but the side trip was worth it. The Tiger Caves are both beautiful and intriguing. Their age is astounding. So much detail is still preserved in the carvings. It inspires the imagination to think of all the things that happened here over all that time.

    • Ami

      We did take permission πŸ˜‰ but it was fun nonetheless to stray off their schedule. And this one was so worth it. Thanks for stopping by guys.

  7. chantae

    Beautiful caves — they almost look like you could touch them and they’d disintegrate like sand castles. You really do look like a queen on the throne too, all you need are some tiger cubs πŸ˜€ I love that it’s free to enter. Adding to my list of someday-to-do πŸ™‚

  8. Indrani

    One hidden gem!
    Looks gorgeous with its golden hue, I think you got the light right. My pictures aren’t so yellow.
    Time to visit again.

    • Ami

      The light was a little harsh and it took me a lot of pics before I got the angle right. Thankfully managed it well. :D.

  9. Joanna

    I would probably give up lunch if I had to chose between eating or visiting a secret place. The story of the rocks is quite interesting and the fact that they are not really tigers but a mythological creature. They looks like dragons to me.

    • Ami

      Yes, these ancient sites are just amazing – for their art and the fact that they are still standing. Thanks for stopping by Heather.

  10. Tamshuk

    This is a fascinating place. The stone carvings are quite intricate which makes the whole structure quite beautiful. Nice find and a cool place to visit.

  11. Sandy N Vyjay

    The Tiger caves really look incredible. it is indeed a roaring secret, need to explore this as you have let out of the secret. Playing truant–brought make memories of college πŸ™‚

    • Ami

      Am sure it reminded you of college. For me, I think I never grew up. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. neha

    Mahabalipuram is indeed full of wonderful historical monuments. No wonder most of them are UNESCO world heritage as well. Tiger caves are as intricate and marvellous as rest of the cave temples, carvings and monuments in Mahabalipuram. And the history behind them is equally interesting

  13. quirkywanderer

    Mahabalipuram is a sheer marvel in itself. The place takes you back in time and it is simply amazing to see the stone sculptures perched across the town. Loved the architecture of the caves. My favourite in Mahabalipuram were the Pancha Rathas πŸ™‚

  14. lhelmbre

    Wow, I didn’t even know this existed! I love finding new places to add to my bucket list. Thanks for sharing This!


  15. wheninmyjourneys

    Those caves are remarkable. There’s so much detail and story in each carving. I would also skip lunch just like you did just to explore places like these especially if I have limited time too.

    • Ami

      Ha ha, glad to know that you too would have done what we did. It was so worth it. Thanks for dropping by

  16. FoxintheForest117

    We call it playing hooky here in the US and it’s the best! Looks like you had a great time on your “sick day” haha. I think I might call in to my work tomorrow – and go for a hike instead :).

  17. Bhushavali

    Glad you managed to visit Tiger Caves. There are so many hidden gems around Mahabalipuram where hardly anyone visits! I got my pre-wedding shoot done in one where there was none except us! Mahabs is so so awesome! The Pallava gift to us!

  18. Only By Land

    There’s so much going on in India, every time I read about it I find something new to explore. It is hard to imagine how royalty would be sat in these Tiger Caves back in 7-8AD isn’t it!

  19. 100cobbledroads

    Ah, missed these caves. Learning about the significance and history of the caves in the Pallava dynasty was fascinating. Makes me want to read more about their reign!

    • Ami

      Not in the usual circuit and hence a lot of people miss it. I loved finding these. Thanks for stopping by

  20. Micki

    This looks so stunning and mysterious. I love the relief and how intricate it was. Thanks for sharing!

  21. abcdefghizzy

    You do look like a queen around the tiger caves πŸ™‚ And also thank you for sharing a new word with me: truant. I had to search it first thing! I’m so jealous that you’re in India, it seems to be filled with a lifetime of adventures!

    • Ami

      Thank you. India does have a lot of wonders that are fun to discover. Hope you get here soon.

  22. Simon - SiDash Travels

    Great post πŸ™‚ these tiger caves look amazing πŸ™‚ we’re currently in India and these look like a new must see on our list. Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

    • Ami

      Oh you should club this with some more of the South Indian places. You will love it all.

  23. jayant

    Good coverage of an often overlooked part of Stone art in Mahabalipuram.

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