Mahabalipuram, also known as Mamallapuram, is a small town in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A picturesque location on the coast of the Bay of Bengal makes this town even more alluring for travellers. But what puts it on the global map of historically significant places is its mesmerising structures that merge history, architecture, ancient civilisation, and mythological beliefs of the country.
History carved in stones
A busy seaport for Indian traders right from 1st century CE, Mahabalipuram’s history and importance go back a long way. It was the second capital for the Pallava Dynasty, who ruled South India from the 3rd Century to the 9th Century – a period referred to as the Golden Age for the Pallavas. The artistic work carried out during this period in the form of fascinating monuments is what makes Mahabalipuram an important tourist destination today among lovers of art, culture, history, and architecture.
The monuments here are dedicated to various Hindu deities, although many of these are as part of devotion to Lord Shiva. It is believed that there were several more structures, which were swallowed or damaged by the sea. The modern-day town as we know it was established in 1827 during the British rule in India.
The Famous Group of Monuments in Mahabalipuram
Known for its monolithic structures, Mahabalipuram has monuments that date back to the 7th and 8th Centuries, when the region was under the reign of the Pallava Kings. Featuring the Dravidian architectural style, the stunning monuments have been listed among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These draw thousands of visitors annually, and it is not tough to see why. Here’s a look at the different kind of monuments (primarily divided into four categories) you can expect to marvel at in Mahabalipuram:
Rock Relief Structures
Well-known for featuring beautiful bas-relief work, the rock reliefs here are carved on individual rocks or boulders. These open-air reliefs are a highlight among the many structures, and the one known as ‘Descent of the Ganges’ (also called Arjuna’s Penance and Bhagiratha’s Penance) is particularly famous. It is also considered as the world’s biggest bas-relief structures, formed from two gigantic adjacent granite boulders. A cleft represents the Ganges River and also depicts Arjuna – the primary character from Hindu epic Mahabharata – praying to Lord Shiva while on one leg.
The exquisite carvings and sculptural work done on giant stones are truly marvellous and a true testament to the skilled artisans of the bygone era. The carvings depict various Hindu mythological episodes.
Mahabalipuram is home to eleven Mandapas or Cave Temples, which are completely covered in impressive bas-relief. These structures feature decorated panels in the Mamalla style of architecture. Although some of these caves have remained incomplete, what stands today is still a marvellous piece of work. Famous among the Mandapas are the Krishna Mandapa, Mahishasuramardini Mandapa, Varaha Cave Temple, and Panchapandava Cave Temple.
While the Mahishasuramardini Mandava is unmissable for the stunning sculpture of Goddess Durga, the Krishna Mandapa is noteworthy for representing the lifting up of the Govardhana Hill by Lord Krishna to protect people from torrential rains as a result of Lord Indra’s fury.
Structural temples/ Shore Temple Complex
As the name suggests, the Shore Temple enjoys an idyllic location overlooking the sea. The surrounding gardens further elevate its beauty, making it a structure that scores high on a spiritual vibe, architectural grandeur, and wonderful views alike.
The temple, which has two towers and carvings on stone of exquisite quality, was constructed in the 8th Century during the reign of Pallava Rajasimha and was part of the introduction of structural temples.
The Shore Temple complex consists of three temples – one large and two smaller ones and has a wall around it impressively decorated with panels that feature sculptures of Lord Krishna. Rows of Nandi (a bull that was Lord Shiva’s vehicle) surround the courtyard.
There are a total of nine monolithic temples in Mahabalipuram, and the Five Rathas (chariots) are among the most famous ones. Carved from a huge rock in the shape of chariots, these structures are also called the Pandava Rathas, which refer to the five Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. They are even named accordingly – Dharmaraja Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Nakula Ratha, and Sahadeva Ratha. There are two other chariots close by, known as Ganesha Ratha and Draupadi (the Pandavas’ wife) Ratha.
Built in the 7th century, the Rathas were left incomplete and hence worship is not offered in these temples. All of these structures took shape from a single rock, and are truly marvellous pieces of work, each with its own shape and unique beauty. This also indicates the experimental attitude of the architect. While the Dharmaraja Ratha is the largest with three storeys, the Draupadi Ratha is the smallest albeit with an interesting hut-like roof structure.
Other Things to Do in and Around Mahabalipuram
Once you are done admiring the spectacular monuments, you can complete your day in Mahabalipuram with a visit to other popular locations. These include:
Mahabalipuram Beach: The cleanliness and white sands make this beach instantly appealing and is ideal for the entire family.
Crocodile Bank: The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology located close to Mahabalipuram is where visitors can view hundreds of crocodiles and other reptiles.
Tiger Cave: Lying in Salurankuppam village just 5km from Mahabalipuram is this exquisite Hindu temple complex, another fine example of rock-cut architecture.
Handcrafted stone statues are a great buy in Mahabalipuram. They are carved out of granite to look like the enormous originals peppered across the region. Soapstone images, wood carvings, jewelry, and items made from local seashells are also sold in the local shops.
Best time to visit:
October to March is the best time to visit this destination.