If you are traveling around Tamil Nadu then most probably you will be transiting through Chennai, and I would recommend you to spare two days for Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram. It’s just a short drive from Chennai and the four-lane highway is just butter smooth. The drive from Chennai will surely be picturesque as you would be able to see the Bay of Bengal to your left coming into view from time to time. I keep visiting this place often as I always prefer to take the night flight back to Kolkata from Chennai since I get cheapest air tickets on this route and extending my return date by accommodating a short trip to this place has always been my favorite.
Mahabalipuram is much more than a temple town, it’s rather a heaven for stone architecture lovers. This coastal town has some of the finest collection of early Dravidian architectural marvels. There are lots of things to see in this place. Most of the places of interest are in groups thus it’s easy for you to navigate. While doing my research on Mahabalipuram before going I had difficulty in planning my route as no site or blog points out all the places of interest in a single document thus I had decided to write this blog which would list down all the major important landmarks in this town.
Where to Stay in Mahabalipuram
It all depends on your pocket, the more you pay the luxurious it gets. Some resorts also have their own private beach while some have a real breath-taking view. I stayed at Country Club Jade Beach Resort which is near to Crocodile Bank and the reason I chose this over the tourist district would be that this place is quite and calm from the rest of the place, giving you the best place to enjoy your stay at Mahabalipuram. Previously I had stayed in another Country Club Resort in Corbett and was quite satisfied with the level of hospitality, thus was sure to get the same here in Mahabalipuram also.
If you are a budget traveler then you can always stay around the tourist district near Othavadai Street, it’s close to the beach as well as close to most of the tourist sites.
How to Go Around Mahabalipuram
You can either book a car (taxi) or an auto to take you to different spots from where you can visit different tourist spots. If you are adventurous enough then you may hire a bicycle, motorbike or a scooty which you can drive on your own. There is ample parking space available next to all the spots where you can park and roam around. Note that some parking spots may require you to buy parking tickets. Depending on where you are staying you can always walk around also as most of the site groups are walkable.
Places to Visit Around Mahabalipuram
This place was once a sea port catering to the world trade since 1st century AD built by the Pallavas. This place has shore temples, cave temples, and other important historic site. There are quite a few sites that one needs to see in this small town.
You can do all of them in a single day or break up depending on your choice. It all depends on how much you want to absorb what you will see. When I wanted to plan out my route I found that no single blog or site I found on the Internet gives a complete route map. What I did was to combine all the data and feed them into my GPS with which I charted my own route thus ensuring that I do not miss any of the important sites. I am sharing the route plan with you so that you can easily navigate.
Use This Map to Navigate Around Mahabalipuram – All the Locations Have Been Pointed Out
Kotikal Mandapa – Mahabalipuram
It is a small primitive rock cut temple of Mahendra style devoted to Durga. The façade shows two massive pillars and pilasters at either side end. In the center of the back wall, a cell has been cut and is guarded by female doorkeepers on either side of the entrance. There is an inscription with 7th-century letters-Sri Vamankusa.(Information from ASI)
Trimurthi Cave – Mahabalipuram
A Triple-celled temple with superstructure is believed to be dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, the three gods of the Hindu pantheon. The entrance of each cell is flanked by dvarapalas in narrow panels.(Information from ASI)
Krishna’s Butterball – Mahabalipuram
This is neither a temple nor a part of any architecture but is very popular with tourists due to its unusual placement. For the purely geometric reason, the large piece of almost spherical boulder seems to be standing still on an inclined plain. It is said that Pallava king Narasimhavarman used elephants to move this rock but failed, years later it was also tried by Arthur Havelock the governor of Madras but failed to move the rock. The name Krishna’s Butterball is due to the story of Krishna stealing butter and the piece of boulder resembles a giant butterball which is used in making butter from milk.
Ganesha Ratha – Mahabalipuram
This is a monolithic rock cut temple originally dedicated to Shiva with a presence of Linga but now replaced by a Ganesha idol.
Arjuna’s Penance – Mahabalipuram
Arjuna’s penance is an impressive bas-relief, datable to Narasimhavarman I’s period, suggestively depicts the story of Kiratarjuniya, wherein Arjuna, the great warrior hero of the Mahabharata, obtained the all-pervading Pasupatha weapon from Siva after a grueling fight and severe penance. Siva and an emaciated Arjuna, doing penance, are shown prominently at the center. The artist has excelled in imagination by placing the scene by the side of a river, judiciously suggesting the natural cleft as a river by depicting a naga and nagini. The peace and calm of the situation further enhanced by the presence of Chandra, Surya, Kinnaras, Ghandarvas, Apsaras etc., hunters carrying the hunt, host of animals, sages doing penance in front of a temple and Brahmins doing the mid-day rituals. The deer resting at ease by the side of a lion and the rats frolicking around the wily cat doing penance on hind legs have only enhanced the mood. Depicting the animals in the most natural form and in the right proportion is a testimony to the skillful execution by the artist.(Information from ASI)
Panchapandava Mandapam – Mahabalipuram
(On the left side of ArjunaPenance ) A large cave temple of which only six lion pillars and similar pilasters at either end are finished. The brackets above the capitals of these pillars are decorated with lions and griffins with human riders. The pillars and Pilasters with vyala base mounted on square pitha. (Information from ASI)
Govardhanadhari Panal – Mahabalipuram
(On the left side of Panchapandava Mandapam)The huge bas-relief with a hall (mandapa) of the 16th century added in front depicts the story of Krishna lifting the Govardhana hill to protect the cowherds and the cattle from the storm raised by Indra. The central figure of Krishna, with Balarama by his side, is shown lifting the hill with his little finger. Enjoying the divine protection, the rest are carrying on their business as usual. The artist suggests this by depicting a gopa (cowherd) milking a cow while the cow itself is fondly licking its calf. Another cowherd is seen playing the flute while the gopis carry a pile of pots. A woodcutter strolls with an axe. While one child enjoys the warmth of her mother, another takes a ride over the shoulder of an old man. The hill itself is a habitat for lions, griffins, and sphinxes. This is the best representation of this story in the art of India. (Information from ASI)
Varaha Cave – Mahabalipuram
(Above Arjuna Penance) The mandapa in the front has two lion- pillars and two pilasters, and beyond this in the center, the cell is guarded by two dwarapalas. There are four panels on the walls of front mandapa representing Varaha raising goddess earth from the ocean. (Bhuvaraha panel), Gajalakshmi seated on a lotus and bathed by elephants, Durga with four arms and Trivikrama overcoming the demon king Bali. (Information from ASI)
Rayar Gopuram – Mahabalipuram
This is an unfinished structure, even though it’s called a gopuram but there are no structures on the top, only the majestic pillar remains.
Unknown Tank Structure – Mahabalipuram
Could not find any official information about it on site as well as on the net. What it looks like is that of a water tank carved into a boulder.
Koneri Mandapa – Mahabalipuram
An unfinished five celled rock cut temple with four pillars supported by couchant lions and flanked by pilasters and with a central cell.
Ramanuja Mandapam – Mahabalipuram
This is another fine example of a rock-cut cave temple in Mahabalipuram, It has six flat faced pillar followed by another two lion-faced pillars into the rock cut cave. No deities are present inside the cave.
Mahabalipuram Lighthouse Museum
This place is obviously not a part of historical importance such as the other temples of Mahabalipuram but children would love to see miniature ships, submarines, marking buoy etc.
Mahabalipuram Light House
This in the new lighthouse and was built around 1900 as per the inscription on the foundation stone. You can buy a ticket at the base and go all the way up to get a full panoramic view of the surroundings. At night the lighthouse lights up the sky with its circulating lights.
Mahishamardini Cave – Mahabalipuram
The cave has a front mandapa with a triple cell with four pillars and two pilasters. On either side of this mandapa two large panels one representing Seshasayi Vishnu and other Mahishamardhini. The central cell is intended for a Siva Linga; on the wall behind is the representation of Somaskanda.(Information from ASI)
Olakaneeswara Temple – Mahabalipuram
This was the old lighthouse built by the Pallava’s in 640 AD making this the oldest lighthouse in India. The temple structure has some stone works on the outer walls, there was also a Shiv Langa present in the temple but missing now.
Dharmaraja Mandapa – Mahabalipuram
The triple celled cave temple with massive pillars belongs to Mahendravarman’s time. The cave temple contains inscription in Pallavagrantha which gives the name of the temple as AtyantakamaPallavesvara –graham. (Information from ASI)
Pancha Rathas – Draupathi Ratha – Mahabalipuram
This is the smallest and the northern most of five monolithic rathas. It illustrates a simple hut-like Kutagara-Vimana. It shares an upapitha with Arjunaratha. In elevation, the vimana has a simple padabandhaadhisthana. The pada portion has devakoshtas containing images of Durga. The usual kapota is not to be seen. The roof, shaped like a hut with the decorative motif in the joints. There is stupi carved out of the bedrock in a corner of the upapitha but yet to be detached from it. The sanctum bears an excellent depiction of Durga, possibly of a later period.(Information from ASI)
Pancha Rathas – Arjuna Ratha – Mahabalipuram
This monolithic Vimana is one among five that carved out of a live rock. This small dvi-tall (two tiered) vimana consists, on plan a garbhagriha with a pillared Mukhamandapa. It shares an UpaPitha with Draupathiratha. The adhisthana is of simple Padabandha type. The pada portion has slit-niches between elegantly carved pillars carrying very handsome figures of Parthiharas, Amaras, a Siddha, a Chowri bearer, apsaras, and various deities like Vishnu, Skanda on elephant and Siva-Vrishabhantika. The upper tala (Storey) carries a hara with octagonal sikhara. There is a stupi carved out of the live rock but not detached from it, possibly to crown the Sikhara of the Vimana.(Information from ASI)
Pancha Rathas – Bhima Ratha – Mahabalipuram
This monolithic ratha is oblong in plan and having an ekatalavimana possibly intended to be dedicated to the reclining form of Vishnu. Only the impressive Sala -Sikhara is fully finished and there is a hara above the ground storey and has high griva wall. The Sala roof carries bold nasikas to carry a row of Stupis and Astradeva trident-finials at the apexes of gable ends. The gable ends is brilliantly relieved with decorative motifs and at the centre is a miniature model of a square, ekatala shrine with circular and crowning stupi.(Information from ASI)
Pancha Rathas – Dharma Raja Ratha – Mahabalipuram
Among the Five rathas, Dharmarajaratha is the most impressive and sculpturally rich. The tritala (three-storeyed) vimana, square in its talas but octagonal in the grivasikhara region, faces west.The sculptures around the sanctum in the corner blocks depict simple forms of Siva, Harihara, Brahma-Sasta, Brahma, a delicately balanced representation of Ardhanarisvara besides a portrait of a king, possibly Narasimhavarman I himself above which his titles Sri Megha and Trailokiya –vardhana-vidhi are inscribed. The upper floors, a veritable gallery of images, have excellently modeled images of Siva as Gangadara, the earliest representation of Siva as Natesa in the Tamil country, Vrishbantika, Kankalamurti, Vishnu resting on Garuda, and Kaliyamardhana. An inscription gives the name of the sanctum in the uppermost tier as AtyantakamaPallavesvaram, Atyantakama being a title of Paramesvaravarman I. (Information from ASI)
Sahdeva Ratha – Mahabalipuram
This monolithic ratha has an apsidal (Gajapriishta) plan from base to sikhara, recalling the earlier chaitya models. It is carried out of an independent boulder, stands near the Arjunaratha and faces south. It has a dvitalavimana (two storeyed). The adhistana of this vimana is not defined. The pada is simple punctuated by pilasters. There is a mukha- mandapa in the front.(Information from ASI)
Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple (Thirukadalmallai) – Mahabalipuram
This temple is located bang opposite to Arjuna’sPennace but needs to be entered from the other side. It’s very easy to recognize this temple with its white stone façade. This temple has mentioned since the 6th century AD and is one of the 108 temples (Divyadesam) dedicated to Vishnu.
Sculpture Museum – Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram is all about stone sculptures and the best place to see all the different varieties and examples would be to a visit to the local sculpture museum. If you are an art lover then do keep this place on your list you will surely not be disappointed.
Mahabalipuram Shore Temple
Unlike the rest of the stone caves and temples which have been carved around a small hillock this particular site is next to the shores of Bay of Bengal thus, they are called shore temple. Among the structural temples, the Shore temple consisting of two graceful Siva temples – Kshatryasimhesvaram (east) and Rajasimhesvaram (west), built by Pallava King Rajasimha (AD 700-728), mark the culmination of the architectural efforts begun with the carving of monolithic rathas. The western shrine has an outer wall (prakara) and a simple entrance tower (gopura). The elevation is gracefully proportioned. Located in between is an earlier shrine for reclining Vishnu (NarapatisimhaPallavagriham). It has no superstructure.
All the names of these shrines represent Rajasimha’s various titles. The outer enclosure with nandis is of a later period. Fully aware of inherent problems of this scenic location, the architects built the temple on a rock outcrop jutting from the sea. The use of hard stones like granite and leptinite, could not stop the erosion by abrasive wind and salty surroundings. The groyne wall, the plantation and periodic extraction of salt in recent times have checked this effect. The outcrop itself was utilized for carving several masterpieces like the excavated miniature shrine, Bhuvaraha image, Vishnu shrine, and the Mahishamardhini shrine with the beautifully carved deer.
Sustained removal of the sand in the last century brought to light several buried structures around the Shore temple. Unique among them is the early Pallava stepped structure, approximately 200 m long. This structure is running north to south parallel to the sea. The exact purpose of this massive edifice is still uncertain. The steps are built of interlocking granite slabs over a laterite core. The intelligent interlocking method used here prevented the slabs from collapsing and recalls the megalithic traditions.(Information from ASI)
Tiger Cave – Mahabalipuram
This site is a bit far away from the rest of the caves and temples. You need to hire a cab or a motorbike to get to this spot. As the name suggest this cave has tiger head carvings all over the front façade. It was built around 8th century AD by the Pallavas.
Subrahmanya Temple – Mahabalipuram
This is a new site which is being excavated and lies around 200 meters north of Tiger Cave. This site was discovered after finding the stone inscriptions near the site which had mentioned about this place.
Apart from this during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the retreating waters had moved far enough for the local fisherman had seen temples like structure and square boulders which bring into a picture of this place as being a trading and shipping hub in the past. The rushing waters had also lifted up sand around the south of shore temple to bring up new structures deep into the sand. Current restoration works are going on to develop this site.