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Grandeur by the Beach: Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu’s ancient city, offers travellers the whole enchilada – from ancient temples and caves to an impressive beach and crocodile conservatory

About 50km from Chennai, as you take the East Coast Road, is the traditional and ancient seaside town of Mahabalipuram. Laidback and artistic, it has shore temples, cave temples, and other important historic sites, and therefore sees a high footfall in all seasons.

Satisfy your penchant for ancient Indian history and stone architecture as you take stock of Tamil art and culture and other wonderful offerings that this charming place provides. Whether you’re looking for a traditional holiday to see age-old places of interest, a city break, or a refreshing beachside vacation, Mahabalipuram is your go-to place.

Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is a historic city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. As far as its nomenclature is concerned, the most popular explanation is that the place was named after the benevolent King Bali, or Mahabali, who attained liberation after sacrificing himself to Vaman, an incarnation of Vishnu. ‘Puram’ translates from the Sanskrit for ‘city’ or urban dwelling. Mamallapuram is the Prakrit version of the original Sanskrit name.


Explore the AdiVarahaPerumal Cave Temple, the earliest of all Pallava structures in Mahabalipuram, yet the least visited one. The actual mandapa (pavilion) is grand, but hidden behind a rather ordinary looking latter-day structure. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu.

Trimurti Cave is dedicated to the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). Apart from the deity, the carved pillars and sculptures depict devotees in various postures. The Varaha and Krishna Caves exhibit mythical tales related to Vishnu and Krishna. Mahishasuramardini Cave,atop a hill, is dedicated to goddess Durga.


Popularly known asArjuna’s Penance, Descent of the Ganges is a colossal open-air bas-relief sculpted out of pink granite. The dramatic relief sculpture narrates the tales from Indian epics such as the Mahabharata. Nearby mandapas, particularly the Krishna Mandapa, however, showcase scenes of pastoral life amid mythical figures. Other rock artworks close by have been left unfinished for some unexplained reason.

Located behind Sri SthalSayanaPerumal Temple, this monolithic sculpture is carved out of two huge boulders, 27m long and 43ft high and is the size of a blue whale, and has been listed as the World UNESCO site.


Located on the seashore and dating back to theeighth century, the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram houses three shrines, namely, Lord Vishnu and two of Lord Shiva. Constructed like a pyramid by the Pallava rulers,it has a Dravidian-style vimana or dome-like structure above the inner sanctum, measuring 60ft high in basaltic rock and rests on a 50-ft square platform. A Shiva Lingam can be seen on the sea-facing sanctum, while Lord Vishnu reclines on the ground in his chamber at the back. Being one of the oldest, five storeyed temples in India, Shore Temple has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.


A perfect exemplar of Dravidian architecture, the PanchaRathas, or rock temples,areconstructed in the form of pagodas and resemble Buddhist shrines and monasteries.The brainchild of Mamallan, what’s incredible about these rock temples is their resilience, having survived the onslaught of several natural catastrophes through many centuries.Associated with the Mahabharata, the first of the rathas, Queen Draupadi'sRatha, is located close to the entrance gate. Next, is Prince Arjuna'sRatha, which has a small portico and carved pillar stones and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Right opposite, is the Nakula-SahadevaRatha,dedicated to Lord Indra. The hugeBhimaRathais two-storeyed, with lion carvings on its pillars. The largest of the five rathas is Yudhistira'sRatha.


About 3km from Chennai, on the outskirts of Mahabalipuram, is the Crocodile Bank, a conservatory and home to hundreds of species of crocodiles. Have close encounters with crocodiles in their natural surroundings. The largest crocodile sanctuary in India that is opened by the state government, it also houses tortoises, turtles and snakes. There is a sound and light show on specific days of the week anda small refreshment shop in the precincts. Souvenirs and books can be bought from another on-site shop.


After hectic sightseeing, hit the beach at Mahabalipuram for some relaxing me-time. For the sporty, there’s surfing, as well as turtle walks along the beach to find sea turtles and release them into the sea. Check out the ancient lighthouse close to thebeach, which dates back to the times of Pallava rulers. Climb up the lighthouse for amazing views of the city and a glorious sunset.

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