My quick guide to explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller

This post details how to explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller. Mahabalipuram is a definite visit in case you are a traveller, history buff or visiting South India.

Introduction to Mahabalipuram

The land of the Seven Pagodas as claimed by the ancient mariners who used to visit the busy thriving port town of Mamallapuram documented in the annals of the ancient history of the Indian Subcontinent. Then there came the period of World’s great floods, which submerged a major portion of this wonderful land and what remains today is just a fraction of what Mamallapuram stood for in the age of the yore.

Historical relevance

What lies below the waters of the Bay of Bengal is no more transparent to the mortal eyes however what still stands in modern-day Mahabalipuram draws a large number of visitors every year to this small coastal town located in the state of Tamil Nadu, around 50 km from Chennai on the scenic East Coast Road just before the arrival of another iconic destination – Pondicherry.

Explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller

As a first time traveller , i hope this post on to explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller will help you to chart your way as you reach Mahabalipuram.

Tamil Nadu Evenings

The post speaks about the acclaimed and ASI recognized monuments that are the pride of Mahabalipuram and worthy of visit. The total duration needed to visit and see these could vary from 2 – 3 days based on the interest level of the visitor. So lets begin ennumerating about these monuments in the succeeding paragraphs.

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Places to explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller

Adi Varaha Perumal Cave temple, Lighthouse and Mahisasurmardini Mandapa

This is the earliest of all the Pallavas structures yet hardly visited or understood much. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu in his Varaha Avatar. The outer and inner sanctum are adorned with elaborate scriptures though hardly much can be understood by the visitors on account of no knowledgeable guides or written inscriptions.

We also have the Trimurti cave out here dedicated to the trinity of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. One can also see the lighthouse built by the Pallavas which was India’s oldest lighthouse built in 640 AD that used to be functional in the early days to warn mariners about the close proximity to the land. This is an ASI monument now and has been replaced with a more modern lighthouse which stands adjacent to it .

As you set out to explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller, just keep it in mind that the Light house does permit visitors to have a look around . It is recommended to visit this place early. This helps in case one is planning to do some creative photography out here.

Descent of the Ganges

Alternately known as Arjuna’s Penance, Descent of the Ganges is a gigantic open-air bas-relief sculpted out of pink granite. The dramatic relief structure narrates tales from Indian epics of the Mahabharata. The local guides if hired actually tell some interesting tales pointing out  the various sculptures that have been carved out here. I have never seen a single rock having being carved in such a manner and it is amazing to say the least.

So while we are out to explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller and find ourselves at the Descent of the Ganges. Don’t forget to click a snap as memorabilia out here employing the services of the local photographers who will give u the photo within 10 minutes and believe me it is worth the shot.

The magnificent relief carved in the 7th century measures approx. 100 ft long and the scale on which it has been sculpted is awe inspiring. The composition of the relief includes main elements of the story from epic tales of the Mahabharata on the left while scenes depicting the natural and celestial worlds are on the right. Both are divided by a natural cleft through which a flowing waterfall is depicted.

Do you know that Tamil Nadu is also known as the land of 1000 temples? I was lucky to have visited a few of them however the list is long. For starters, if this interests you, have a look at the Great Living Chola Temples or maybe the ancient city of Kanchipuram. But then India is a treasure house of culture and ancient monuments. Check out opulence of Hampi or the opulence of Badami as well.

Krishna Mandapam

As we explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller, Just a short walk, to the left of Arjuna’s penance we have the Krishna Mandapam. It is also a bas-relief and was carved during the same time. In this cave we have carvings depicting Krishna lifting the Govardhan mountain to protect his devotees as the famous tale goes. This is the largest rock cut temple out here.#KrishnaMandapamMahabalipuram

explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller
explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller

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Pancha Rathas

These are an architectural ode to the Mahabharata and the five Pandava brothers. They are named as Dharmaraja Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakula Sahadeva Ratha and Draupadi Ratha. The construction of these was in the 7 century and are among the finest examples of monolithic architecture on the Coromandel coast of India.

There is so much detail in each of the chariots which are dedicated to each of the five brothers and their wife, Lady Draupadi. Each is significant in its own way with elaborate carvings and sculptures spread over one to three stories, the walls are decorated with bas-reliefs and murals. Beautiful elaborately carved monolithic Airavata and Nandi also decorate the premises. These were actually never used for worship, though the cause for these remains unknown.

I would recommend that you do spend some time going over the various sculptures at the Pancha Rathas. This is simply because one would find many interesting sculpture which is being overlooked as one walks over the place. As a first time traveller out to explore Mahabalipuram as a first-time traveller, i did not realise the full beauty of this particular site .

Shore Temple

The Shore Temple is located on the Bay of Bengal shoreline and as the legend goes it is one the surviving structure of the seven pagodas. Built between 700 and 728 CE, this indeed portrays the build strategy and expertise level achieved during those times. It is so constructed that the sun rays fall on the idol of Lord Shiva (Shiva Linga )  in the main inner sanctum in the east facing shrine.

There are three main shrines out there with two dedicated to Lord Shiva and one to Lord Vishnu. Actually, with the excavations which have been done, it is very much possible that this temple would have been a part of a larger complex of temples that might have got lost over a period of time. The entire temple is embellished with intricate bas-reliefs. There have been new shrines and miniature temples too which have been excavated within the main temple complex. Also unique is the series of Nandi’s which are sculpted all over the retaining boundary wall of the main temple which lend a unique perspective to the shrine.

There are various other sculptures that adorn the walls of the temple and it’s just we as a normal traveller do not have the understanding of what they mean as well their relation to the main shrine. The temple is a classic example of a monolithic structure with intricately carved structures and is a part of the UNESCO world heritage site and hence care and support to preserve the temple is being undertaken in detail. #ShoreTempleMahabalipuram

Krishna’s Butter Ball

Perched on a steep hill, this massive round boulder has been defying the pull of gravity and nature over the centuries. It appears to have stopped midway in its journey down and now sits on a smooth rocky slope and draws hordes of visitors who try their utmost might to roll it down.

The local name is “Vaan Irai Kal” however it is popularly known as Krishna’s Butter Ball based on the local folklore and legends intermixed with mythological tales. It is one of the sites to visit in case one is visiting Mahabalipuram.#KrishnaButterBallMahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram Today

Today Mahabalipuram is poised to project itself as a archaeological and historical sea side beach town with upmarket resorts as well as budget accommodation.

The local populace has realised the importance of tourism and hence do their bit also to preserve the various sculptures and monuments that are scattered all over the place. In case one is visiting Chennai do make it a point to drop in at Mahabalipuram and experience this wonder from India’s heritage past.

Quick Notes

  • From a photography point of view, the best time to visit the shore temple would be in the evening in order to capture the essence of the sunset. The other monuments too would need to be visited prior mid-morning or post early afternoon as the heat would build-up would be quite substantial in the intervening time.
  • There are numerous cafes as well as traditional restaurants that have come up which cater to almost every taste bud.
  • One would need to hire an auto-rickshaw in order to travel between the monuments in case there is no pre hired cab/personal vehicle available.
  • There are a collection of museums notable among them being the Indian Heritage, Seashell and Sculpture Museum which can be visited during the late morning or early afternoon when the heat does not permit for a visit to the various monuments described above

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