Trip to Mahabalipuram – 13 Reasons Why you should do it!
A trip to Mahabalipuram, the treasure trove of UNESCO world heritage sites was long-awaited. In this post, I will tell you about the best things to do in Mahabalipuram while taking you on a virtual ride through the stories carved in the stones.
While we were planning our long weekend on Ganesh Chaturthi this year, Mahabalipuram trip remained somewhere in the back of my mind. Goa and Hampi were on our list of options, but given the flood alerts and weather reports, we decided to head to the east instead. We planned a short trip to Pondicherry, which included a one-day trip to Mahabalipuram.
For the unintroduced, Mahabalipuram, originally called Mamallapuram, is a small town on the eastern coast of India, in Tamil Nadu. It is famous for being the abode of the group of rock-cut monuments built during the Pallava dynasty of the 7th and 8th centuries. Most of these are much older than the famous monuments of Hampi. And as you know, the older it is, the more enticing the place becomes for me. How was the trip to this beautiful South Indian destination? Did I really like it as much as Hampi, or even more? Let’s find out.
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Mahabalipuram – A Brief Background
Everything from the origin of its name to the cause of its ruin, the history of Mahabalipuram remains shrouded in a charming mystery. It was called the land of seven Pagodas. People believed that there are seven temples on the shore, six of which are submerged under the sea. Till the tragic Tsunami of 2004, the existence of the other six Pagodas was primarily anecdotal.
It’s ironic how one of the greatest tragedies here is also remembered as a landmark day in uncovering the history of Mahabalipuram. During the Tsunami, when the waves receded it took with it centuries of sediment that covered the temples and revealed a row of rock structures underneath. There are eye-witnesses who account for this, but they were submerged under the sea again. However, the sand deposits were removed changing the coastline permanently, leaving a few structures uncovered. Most importantly it sort of confirmed the centuries-old myth of the seven Pagodas.
Mahabalipuram is associated with many a legend originating from ancient Hindu texts. That’s precisely why the kings of the Pallava dynasty must have chosen this place to commission so many rock-cut temples in honor of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Lord Vishnu is the main deity in the legends of Mahabalipuram, so it’s no wonder that most temples are dedicated to Him. But you would also find temples of Shiva, Durga, Ganesha, and others. Besides that, there are several stories depicting various Puranic lores all over the rocks in the place. Unlike Hampi, there are very few documents about the life of people during the era when these wonders were built. However, many coins and sculptures excavated point towards Mahabalipuram being a throbbing trade hub even before the rise of the Pallavas.
Interested to know more about Mahabalipuram and South India’s rich history? I highly recommend these books for you-
- The Life of Mahabalipuram – available on Kindle
- Mahabalipuram – Monumental Legacy
- A History of South India – From the Prehistoric times to the fall of Vijaynagara
13 Things to do on a one-day trip to Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram has around 40 monuments from the Pallava dynasty. Each of them is an architectural marvel that would make you awestruck at the creative and engineering genius of an era without advanced machinery like today. But there’s a lot more to do in Mahabalipuram than temple-hopping. Here are the 13 highlights of Mahabalipuram based on my favorites.
1. Shore Temple
The Shore Temple is one of the two most celebrated icons of Mahabalipuram. It is believed to be one of the seven legendary Pagodas, the only one which survived the test of time and tide. It’s amazing to see how this edifice built in the 8th century withstood countless calamities and still has the intricate bas-relief intact. The temple is located such that the first rays of the Sun fall on the presiding deity Shiva.
Entry Fee: Rs. 40 for Indian citizens, Rs. 40 for car parking. The entry fee includes entry to the beach as well.
2. Pancha Rathas
If you have ever read about Mahabalipuram, then you must have seen the striking picture of the 5 stone chariots. Unlike the spectacular stone chariot of Hampi, these chariots are monoliths and don’t have visible wheels. The Pancha Rathas is a tribute to the five Pandava brothers in the ancient epic Mahabharata. Apart from the ornate chariots, the monolithic Airavat (elephant) and Nandi (bull) also shine bright. The color of the rocks is identical to the sand beneath which makes it a magical sight.
Entry Fee: Rs. 40 for Indian citizens, Rs. 40 for car parking.
3. Cave Temple Complex
Our first stop at Mahabalipuram was the Mahishasur Mardini cave temple. A walk to the hill-top led us to discover a multitude of finished and unfinished rock-cut temples in the area. I will, therefore, group them into this umbrella – cave temple complex.
It’s easy to navigate inside from one cave temple to another using the signboards inside. Google maps are not of great use in the area. The Krishna Mandapam, Varaha cave and Ramanuja mandapam are some of the other ancient shrines here.
4. Roya Gopuram
Roya Gopuram is located close to the cave temples on your way to the famous Krishna’s butterball. Gopuram in Tamil means Gate. It is an unfinished temple located at the hill-top. The intricately carved gates provide a frame that no photographer can refuse. If you want a perfect picture of yourself with the frames, good luck to you exploring the rest of the town.
5. Arjuna’s Penance or Descent of Ganges
Arjuna’s penance is one of the largest open-air bas-relief architecture in the world. The elaborate sculptures on the pink granite are said to depict an episode of Mahabharata. There is an equally popular alternate theory of the story being related to another mythical story about the descent of Ganga. What grabbed my attention though was the sculpture adjacent to it. The overt detailing of wildlife including a monkey in the act of picking lice from her kid’s head!
6. Krishna’s butterball
Krishna’s butterball, as funny as it may sound, is a name given to the huge boulder precariously balanced on the rocks apparently defying the law of gravity. There must be some scientific explanation for the same but I didn’t probe into it. Sometimes it’s just okay to believe in magic when it hurts no one. The most cliched thing to do here is to pose while trying to push the boulder. So far no human has been able to do so. The slippery slope near the boulder used by children as a slide.
7. Mahabalipuram Lighthouse
Remember I said you have more to do in Mahabalipuram than temple-hopping? Let’s come to that now. As you hike to the Mahisasur Mardini Cave, you can see the beautiful lighthouse behind it. It’s the highest observatory at Mahabalipuram from where you can get a 360-degree panoramic view of the town.
9. Maritime Heritage Museum
In the same complex near the caves, you will find a quaint little museum called the Maritime Heritage Museum. I haven’t visited a maritime museum before so I really have no reference point. It certainly can’t be the best or the biggest of them all, but I loved learning about some maritime history of Mahabalipuram. You will find some model ships of the past, and some old anchors, and artilleries among other things. Outside the air-conditioned building a small well-maintained garden as well.
Entry fee – Rs. 10, Camera fee – Rs. 20
10. Crocodile Bank
The crocodile bank is a very unique undertaking to grow three different varieties of Indian crocodile. Crocodile hunting was a common business in the tropics till the mid 20th century, which threatened the ecological balance. The Madras Crocodile Bank, located in Mahabalipuram was intended to be a genetic repository of Indian crocodiles, for breeding and safekeeping, and eventually releasing the crocodiles to the wild. However as the wild areas have shrunk, the releasing of crocodiles have been temporarily stopped.
Apart from crocodiles, they work on preservation and research of other reptiles and amphibians including the King Cobra. If interested, you can also visit the “Dakshina Chitra Museum” which is about 10 km away from the Crocodile bank, towards Chennai. You can also enjoy some time in the Kovalam beach nearby.
11. Mahabalipuram Beach
While talking about the numerous gems of Mahabalipuram it’s easy to forget that it is after-all a beach-town. You can’t visit Mahabalipuram and not head to the golden beaches. The beach near the shore temple is especially interesting with several ancient relics that appeared after the tsunami. If you want to avoid the tourist crowd you can also visit the quaint fisherman villages near the crocodile bank.
12. Seashell museum
The seashell museum of Mahabalipuram is the largest one of its kind in Asia. It displays a myriad of shells, corals, and fossils almost single-handedly collected by Mr. Raja Mohammed. There are about 40,000 specimens of rare seashells, shark teeth, whale fins, and other fossils, as per their official website.
13. Stone souvenir shopping
The last thing to mention is something that left a slightly sour taste in my mouth, but for all my fault. It’s hard to not notice the large number of beautiful stone artifacts on sale in the streets of Mahabalipuram. From tiny tortoise replicas that cost only Rs.30 to the bigger and more intricately sculpted ones, these are souvenirs you must consider taking home.
However, I fell into a tourist trap where some over-persuasive salesman followed me from the temples and took me to his shop to sell things at almost thrice their normal selling price. I don’t know if it was the extreme humidity or just my celebratory mood shortly after my promotion at the office, I somehow ended up duped. Anyways, my mistakes are your learnings. Don’t enter shops, rather get them from the vendors on the street selling the exact same things under the scorching heat of the sun.
Essential Travel Tips for a trip to Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram is located only 50 km away from Chennai, which has one of the busiest international airports in India. It is a popular stop-over for people traveling from Chennai to Pondicherry using the ECR highway. Mahabalipuram is a popular day-trip destination from both Chennai and Pondicherry, so you are likely to find it crowded on weekends. But if planned properly, you can check out all the highlights in one day.
While Mahabalipuram is a small town, after visiting the place I feel it’s worth staying there in a beach resort. There are some amazing beach resorts there available at affordable rates. Slowing down, watching the sunset and sunrise at the beach, and exploring the place on foot in off-tourist-hours must be a wonderful experience.
If you are going on a day trip from Pondicherry like we did, I recommend that you start at 9 am.
- Head straight to the Crocodile Bank if that interests you.
- Then head to the Shore Temple and Pancha Rathas. These are the most famous heritage sites in Mahabalipuram, so it’s good to visit it earlier in the day to avoid long queues in parking and ticket counter.
- After that, you visit the cave temples, Arjuna’s penance, Krishna’s butterball and lighthouse which are all clustered in the same location.
- If time permits you can visit a couple of museums.
While the roads are great, most of the highway is single-lane, so if you are driving try to start your return-journey by 5 pm. Alternatively, you can board a bus from Pondicherry to Chennai taking the ECR highway route, that will stop at the Mahabalipuram bus station.
Mahabalipuram is best explored on foot, and you must be ready for a lot of uphill hikes. Check out our guide to choosing the best travel shoes in India. Most of the temples are not living, so you don’t have to open your shoes before entering them. If you are new to this region, I recommend the following guided tours for you.
- Private Guided tour of Mahabalipuram for 10 hours
- Day Trip from Chennai to Mahabalipuram (7 hours and cheaper)
Going on a road trip to Mahabalipuram? Don’t forget to read and download our Road Trip Essentials Checklist.
Hampi or Mahabalipuram?
You may find the question a bit odd. I don’t really end my blog posts with such comparisons. But it’s just that since the time I started dreaming about visiting Mahabalipuram, I had the picture of Hampi in my mind. I imagined that it would be just like Hampi, but better, because of the beautiful Bay of Bengal. However, if you have visited Hampi already, I’d ask you to refrain from such expectations. Hampi is a magical experience in itself altogether. There is a mystic laid-back charm to Hampi, which makes it special. At Mahabalipuram, you can find relics of the past everywhere, just like Hampi.
But unlike Hampi, I didn’t really feel like I have stepped into a different era, a different world. I don’t know if it’s because of the tourist density in the small area, it’s proximity to a major metropolitan city or the over-commercialization. It was a throbbing historical place, but it didn’t have the transcendental impact as Hampi. That’s just my unnecessary two cents in case you are trying to decide which heritage treasure trove to visit.
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