Not too far away from Chennai lies a town that will transport you back into time. That town is Mahabalipuram, or officially known as Mamallapuram. A major seaport of the Pallava Kingdom, Mahabalipuram is extremely popular among travelers for its wide variety of temples that have also been classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
With its proximity to the sea, secluded beaches, and a very laid-back lifestyle, Mahabalipuram has become a popular destination among backpackers and is emerging as one of India’s hottest surfing destinations. Continue reading this Mahabalipuram travel guide so that you know how to make the best out of your vacation in this town.
Mahabalipuram has been around for millennia. While not a lot of ancient historical evidence is available, the port city is known to have relations with the Ancient Romans. But what makes Mahabalipuram popular are the many temples and structures built during the reign of the Pallava Dynasty.
One of the major two seaports in the Pallava Kingdom, Mahabalipuram port acted as a strategic base to launch trading and diplomatic missions with Sri Lanka and the rest of Southeast Asia.
The temples that Mahabalipuram is largely known for depict various episodes from the Mahabharata and Hindu mythologies. Mahabalipuram is also very popular for its rock-cut architecture. For example, the monument complex of Pancha Rathas has five structures that are named after the five Pandavas from the Mahabharata.
Similarly, another amazing example of rock architecture in Mahabalipuram is the Descent of the Ganges or also known as Arjuna’s Penance. The structure is one of the largest open-air rock reliefs in the world. The exemplary detailing in the sculptures, that embody tales from the Mahabharata and depict various Hindu gods is spectacular.
Any discussion about the rock architecture and Mahabalipuram is incomplete without the Cave Temples. There are around ten cave temples in the monument complex that date back to the 7th century.
Apart from all the architectural delights, Mahabalipuram also has a really chill vibe too. Othavadai Street in particular has some pocket-friendly hotels and some great cafes and restaurants that are largely catered towards the international traveler. So if you’re craving a pizza or waffles for breakfast, Othavadai Street is where you want to visit.
Mahabalipuram does not have an airport. Chennai International Airport and is approximately 55 kilometers away from the city. Flying into Chennai is relatively straightforward due to its excellent connectivity with most major cities.
Just like the airport, Mahabalipuram also does not have a major railway station. The closest one is at Chengalpattu Junction (22 kilometers away) but the closest major station is Chennai Central. So taking a train to Chennai and making up the rest of the journey by road is easy as Chennai is just over 50 kilometers away from Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram has great road connectivity; getting a bus from Chennai or Pondicherry is easy due to great state and private bus connectivity. Road connectivity by cabs from the aforementioned cities is quite good too.
Like much of South India, the best time to visit Mahabalipuram is during the winter months. Anytime from October to March is a great time to visit. The weather from November in particular is great, the days are warm enough for a visit to the beach and nights are really pleasant.
While the monsoon months from June to September are also a good time to explore the town, rains can play a spoilsport to your beach picnics or surf plans. Summer months from April to June are best avoided.
Mahabalipuram is not a very large town. It’s super accessible by foot and you can easily walk around. However, there’s also the option of hiring a bicycle through your guesthouse. Local transportation like cabs and bike hires are also alternatives.
Also read: The Pondicherry Travel Guide By Unstumbled
“Mahabalipuram is yet another temple destination.”
While this is true, the town has some of the most beautiful temples you will see. Add a monument complex that is home to some of the coolest structures you could think of – gigantic rocks, open-air rock reliefs, cave temples, and monolith pyramid structures, this town is just fascinating.
Mahabalipuram is not just about temples. To the architecturally uninitiated, Mahabalipuram is also a beach destination. Secluded beaches that are clean and have powerful waves have led to the town becoming a popular surfing destination among avid surfers. The laid-back vibe has led to the town becoming a popular destination among backpackers. So Mahabalipuram definitely has more than one reason to visit!
Mahabalipuram is primarily a coastal town and a good one at that, which means a visit to the beach is a must. You could spend a day at the beach. The waters are quite clean and may tempt you to go in for a swim. Mahabalipuram Beach has a few surf schools and if surfing was always on your bucket list, there are not many better places in the country than the ‘Mahabs Beach’.
The Shore Temple complex just around the Mahabalipuram Beach is one of the landmark monuments of Mahabalipuram. Named aptly after the shore it overlooks (the Bay of Bengal), the Shore Temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a complex in itself which houses temples and shrines and is an absolute archaeological masterpiece. There have been reports of new structures being found after recent excavation attempts post the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami.
Situated in the same complex, The Descent of the Ganges is one of the largest open-air rock reliefs in the world. Carved on two gigantic boulders, the rock tells the tale of the descent of the Holy River Ganges from heaven to Earth to save her. The panels also show Lord Shiva catching the river and diving the river into different streams. A lot of the carvings on the rock are life-sized. They also showcase tales from the Mahabharata and Arjuna’s penance to acquire a weapon that would help defeat the Kauravas in battle.
In the same complex not too far away from the relief is Krishna’s Butterball, a humongous rock that is perched atop a short incline. No matter what the Pallava King Narasimhavaraman did, he was simply unable to move the rock. Even today, Krishna’s Butterball continues to defy the rules of science by creating the illusion of being uncomfortably based on a rocky plinth. You can try pushing it too, and rest assured, it simply won’t budge!
Again in the same complex lie the Pancha Rathas. Rathas means chariots. These are technically not temples but structures built as a homage to the five Pandavas and Draupadi. What’s impressive is that these pyramid-like structures represent monolith rock architecture, which means the entire Ratha was carved out of the same rock.
The cave temples of Mahabalipuram are another set of temples you must check out. Located in the same complex, these temples were built in the 7th century and convey tales from Indian mythologies. One of the most impressive ones is of Goddess Durga killing Mahishasura (a buffalo-headed demon). The cave temples may be less popular than the Rathas, but are just as impressive.
Whether you’re a history enthusiast or would just like to surf the waves of the Bay of Bengal, Mahabalipuram beckons to you and is definitely worth visiting. And we highly recommend that you visit this town at least once!
Mahabalipuram is a small town with all the major attractions practically next to each other. So one day will be enough for you to explore Mahabalipuram.
When you’re in Mahabalipuram, here are the places that you must visit:
Mahabalipuram Beach may not be the cleanest, but it definitely is cleaner than the more commercialized beaches around.
Mahabalipuram was originally called Mamallapuram, after the Pallava King Naramsimhavarman I, who was called ‘Mamallan’ (the great wrestler). The name Mahabalipuram is said to have emerged much later.
Yes, you can book Ola cabs to get around and out of Mahabalipuram.
The Shore Temple, which is the most important temple in Mahabalipuram, is dedicated to Lord Shiva.
If you’re in Chennai, you can board the MTC 568C bus from the Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus which terminates at Mahabalipuram.
If you’re in Pondicherry, take a bus that’s bound for Chennai/ECR and get off at Mahabalipuram Bus Stand.
For those arriving from other states, your best bet is to reach Chennai first as Mahabalipuram doesn’t have direct connectivity with most cities.
Stone And Seashell Artifacts - The streets along the many attractions of Mahabalipuram are lined with shops selling attractive stone and seashell artifacts and sculptures. Make sure that you bargain for a good deal!
Yes, you can visit the attractions in Mahabalipuram on Sundays too. Just keep in mind that the places remain open between 6 am to 6 pm.
About 6-8 hours would be sufficient for you to explore all the major attractions of Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram is about 96 km away from Pondicherry. The trip would take you nearly 2 hours, and there’s decent bus connectivity between the two places.