Mahabalipuram (also written Mamallapuram), a small city on the southeastern coast of India in state of Tamil Nadu, the land of the Tamils, is the ruins of what was an ancient port city, located on the Coromandel Coast off the mighty Bay of Bengal.
Mahabalipuram is now one of India’s ancient crown jewels, a monument complex that’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It oozes history, art, architecture, and showcases the magnitude of human skill and devotion, unlike anywhere else. I, for one, was mesmerised from the time I set foot in the city.
If you are interested in UNESCO world heritage sites in India, check out this post about visiting Hampi.
And all the while I was there right until the time I left, I was left amazed by the sheer grandeur and expertise of what I saw before me, a few monuments which blew the socks off me as they seemed to defy all logic of physics even!
A HISTORICAL INSIGHT OF MAHABALIPURAM.
Before I tell you about everything I saw, and how absolutely awed I remained from the time I was there till I left, let’s get into a bit of the history of the port city of Mahabalipuram, and why it came to be of such significance.
Also known as Mamallapuram, this historic city has been around for centuries, and there have even been documented proof of a big chunk of the city being submerged during a great flood that took place between 10,000 and 13,000 BCE, it´s still believed that a big part of Mahabalipuram is laying underwater.
Since none of us was around back then, we’ll just focus on the remnants that are visible for now! So the ancient city was a bustling centre of the mighty Pallava dynasty from the 3rd to the 9th centuries CE.
The kings used Mahabalipuram as a trade city from where they launched many a significant trade and diplomatic mission to Southeast Asia.
Now it wasn’t just trading that was on their minds; during that era, any kingdom who wanted to show their might, power, riches, and glory, made sure they had unique art and architecture to display.
And with religion playing an integral role in their lives, their creativity intertwined religion and the results were in the form of many of the monuments you see today in Mahabalipuram.
From cave sanctuaries to mighty monuments, intricately designed temples to artistic sculptures, monoliths to stone carvings, the artisans of Mahabalipuram exceeded everyone’s imagination with their talent and creativity, all under the guidance of the ruling kings.
TOP THINGS TO SEE INN MAHABALIPURAM.
The father-son duo of Mahabalipuram.
One really popular king of the time was a man by the name of Mahendravarman who was responsible for making sure Mahabalipuram flourished as a centre of art and culture; his patronage aided the creation of many of the structures you see today.
Then came along his son, Narasimhavarman I, who carried on his father’s artistic vision; this period is often referred to as the Golden Age of the Pallava dynasty.
And it’s thanks to these two men and a few before and after them that we get to see such stunning art and architecture in Mahabalipuram.
THE HIGHLIGHTS OF MAHABALIPURAM.
There’s a whole lot to experience in Mahabalipuram, and if you have two days to spare, you’ll be able to cover all there is to see rather comfortably. And it’s not just temples that you get to see; there are quite a few other attractions that make for a very interesting visit to Mahabalipuram.
Imagine a whole temple carved out of a single piece of rock! And not just one – there are eight cave temples in Mahabalipuram that are mind-blowing. All in different locations, each one is dedicated to a different Hindu God.
My favourite was the Mahishasuramardini Cave (phew, some challenge pronouncing that one!), located on top of a hill and dedicated to the Indian goddess of power, Durga.
The sculptures on the panels of this temple were stunning. The other cave temples include Krishna, Varaha, Trimurti, Tiger, Atiranachanda, and Panchapandava.
PANCHA RATHAS – THE FIVE CHARIOTS.
My visit to Mahabalipuram was also a lesson in Indian mythological history. My visit to the Pancha Rathas (which essentially translates into five chariots) brought some of the lessons I learned to life. This is the most popular and crowded of all the temples around Mahabalipuram, especially are the stone-carved elephant and lion impressive.
So the famous mythological book of Hindus known as the Mahabharata has five primary characters, five brothers. And each chariot in the temple was dedicated to each brother. Every chariot was different in design and carvings, each highlighting interesting facts about each brother.
And hey, each chariot was carved out of a single stone boulder!
SHORE TEMPLE – SURVIVOR OF THE ‘GREAT FLOOD’.
One of the few remnants to the testimony that much more of Mahabalipuram existed and was submerged under the great flood, the Shore Temple is believed to be one of the few temples that survived that great flood. No amount of moisture in the air or salt erosion could damage this beauty that is dedicated to the Indian god of destruction, Shiva.
ARJUNA’S PENANCE OR DESCENT OF THE GANGES.
Another story taken out of the Mahabharata, this one showcases various events that occurred during a period of penance of one of the five brothers, Arjuna.
It’s an open-air sculpture that is around 43 feet high and is made out to two big rocks of pink granite. Every carving tells a story – if only I could understand it all!
THIRUKADALMALLAI – ONE OF 108!.
One of the 108 temples dedicated to the Indian god of creation, Vishnu – the Thirukadalmallai is one of the more active temples in the area in terms of the devotion of the locals.
Festivities and religious activities are common at this temple, and if you want an insight into a few of these customs, visit this temple for sure.
KRISHNA’S MIGHTY BUTTERBALL.
This one, I have to say, blew my mind to smithereens! For one, the name, and secondly, the structure. So Krishna is one of the most popular Indian mythological gods who is known to be cheeky.
Legend has it that when he was a little boy, he loved butter and would often steal butter from his mother’s butter bowl. The boulder that you see today is said to resemble a dollop of butter that fell from the skies; that’s one theory.
The other theory stems from the boulder’s original name of Vaan Irai Kal that translates to ‘stone of the Sky God’. It’s believed that the Gods placed the stone in that spot to show their power and might.
It’s been around for more than 1200 years; it weighs 250 tons, is six meters high and five meters wide, balances precariously on a four-foot base on a slope, and hasn’t moved an inch since!!
It defies all logic, and I’m leaning entirely towards the second theory!
Take a break from the temples.
And check out some of the other highlights of the city. The Mahabalipuram Lighthouse is a fun visit. It stands tall on rocky patches near the shore, a flight of stairs up will give you stunning views of this ancient port city.
The Maritime Heritage Museum houses a few working models of Egyptian papyrus boats, steel and wooden ships, ancient devices that were used for communicating with sailors, and loads of ancient maps of sea routes. If you’re a maritime buff, don’t miss stopping by at this museum.
Don’t forget to check out Asia’s largest seashell museum, with over 20,000 exhibits of shells of all hues, shapes, sizes, and patterns.
A few things you can enjoy in Mahabalipuram that´s not carved from stone.
Hiring a bicycle and cycling through the city; stop by at a local stall and enjoy a hot cup of filter coffee and freshly steamed rice cakes!
Sign up for a fishing safari. I had a great time out at sea with my fishermen friends who let me watch them manoeuvre their catch for the day!
HOW TO GET TO MAHABALIPURAM.
Mahabalipuram is located just over 56 kilometres/35miles away from the metropolitan city of Chennai (old name Madras), the sixth-largest city in the whole of India.
Chennai is home to the third busiest international airport in India only after New Delhi and Mumbai. Chennai International Airport (MMA) is very well connected to all major cities in Asia, the middle east and to both London and Frankfurt in Europe.
Chennai is also connected to virtually all other major Indian cities with daily trains.
From Chennai to Mahabalipuram is the easiest way to either take one of the State Transport buses and loads of private buses depart from Chennai to Mahabalipuram and back all through the day, and it’s barely a two-hour drive away.
If you’re in a group of three or four, then you could also consider hiring a taxi from Chennai and driving to Mahabalipuram for around 600-1000 rupees one way.
The nearest railway station is Chengalpattu which is about 22 kilometres west of Mahabalipuram. But keep in mind that this is more of a local train station with no major trains disembarking here.
If you happen to be travelling from Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai or Calcutta, then no major trains stop at this small station. They’ll all stop at Chennai, and from there you take a bus, a car or another local train to Mahabalipuram.
Where To Stay In Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram is a popular weekend connection for locals in Chennai, with that there´s no shortage for hotels in Mahabalipuram with everything from international chain 5star hotels with private beaches to low budget price guesthouses. The most popular places get fully booked every weekend, so be sure to book early.