No too far away from Chennai lies a town that is likely to 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.
Mahabalipuram with its proximity to the sea, secluded beaches and a very laid back lifestyle has become a popular destination among backpackers and is emerging as one of India’s hottest surfing destinations.
History and culture of Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram has been around since the days of seafaring explorers like Marco Polo. One of the major two seaports in 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. Mahabalipuram is also very popular for its Rock cut architecture. For example the monument complex of Pancha Rathas is 5 structures that are named after the 5 Pandavas from the Mahabharata. Each Structure is an embodiment of Indian Monolithic rock cut architecture which means its carved out of a single rock.
Similarly other amazing examples 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.
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, unmoved by the Pallava King Narasimhavaraman attempts to shift the rock. Krishna’s butterball continues to defy the rules of science by creating the illusion of being uncomfortably based on a rocky plinth.
Any discussion about Rock architecture and Mahabalipuram is incomplete without Cave Temples. There are around ten cave temples in the monument complex that date back to the 7th Century.
The most important temple in Mahabalipuram though is the Shore temple. Named aptly after the Shore it overlooks (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.
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.
How to get to Mahabalipuram
By Air – Mahabalipuram does not have an airport. The closest airport is Chennai and is approximately 55 kilometres away from the city. Flying into Chennai is relatively straightforward due to its excellent connectivity with most major cities.
By Rail – Just like with the airport. Mahabalipuram also does not have a major railway station. The closest one is at Chengalpattu (22 Kilometres away) but the closest major station is in Chennai. So taking a train to Chennai and making up the rest of the journey by road is easy as Chennai is just over 50 kilometres away
By Road – Mahabalipuram has great road connectivity, getting a bus from Chennai, Pondicherry or even Bangalore is easy due to great state and private bus connectivity. Road connectivity by cabs from the aforementioned cities is quite good too.
Best time to visit Mahabalipuram
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, 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.
Getting around Mahabalipuram
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.
Breaking stereotypes about Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram is another Temple Destination – While this is true, the town has some of the most beautiful temples you will see. Add a monument complex which is home to some of the coolest structures you could think of – gigantic rocks, open air rock reliefs, cave temples and monolith pyramid structures. Mallaipuram is not just 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 and 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
Go check out
Mahabalipuram Beach – 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 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’s not many better places in the country than the ‘Mahabs Beach’.
Shore Temple – The shore temple complex just around the Mahabalipuram beach is one of the landmark monuments of Mahabalipuram. A UNESCO world heritage site in its own right. The complex is full of temples, sculptures and shrines within itself. One of the notable things about the Shore Temple is that the Shiva Linga in the temple a structured temple wand not a rock cut like it is in most other Hindu temples.
Krishna’s Butterball – Located in the Monument complex. The butterball is a balancing rock that creates the illusion of resting awkwardly over a plinth of rock. There were various attempts to move the Rock in the Pallava reign. The rock however stands unfazed and unmoved and is a favorite among travelers.
Descent of the Ganges / Arjuna’s Penance – 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 size. The carvings also showcase tales from the Mahabharata and Arjuna’s penance to acquire a weapon that would help defeat the Kauravas in battle.
Cave Temples of Mahabalipuram – 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 are less popular than the Rathas but just as impressive.
Ratha Temple – Again in the same complex lies the Rathas. Rathas means chariots. These are technically not temples but pyramid structures built as a homage to the 5 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.
Othavadai Street – The backpacking / shopping corner of Mahabalipuram is lined up with budget friendly guesthouses, cafes and restaurants. If you are craving pasta or a pizza or if you want a cheap place to stay, Othavadai is the place to head to. With artefact shops Othavadai street is also a popular place to get some shopping done