Heritage Walk through a Historical Town: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide

Heritage Walk through a Historical Town: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide

Mahabalipuram, once known as Mamallapuram is a historical beach town which lies 60 km ahead from Chennai on the east coast in TamilNadu. The town is popular among the locals as a famous weekend getaway and is equally known among the UNESCO heritage lovers. Mahabalipuram has several monuments dating back to 7th and 8th century when the Pallavas returned from Sri Lanka to rule here and made this beach town as their thriving seaport. So, here in this Mahabalipuram travel guide, we will be briefing and opening up all the histories which you must know once visiting the monuments of this small historical town.


History of Mahabalipuram Town

According to the legends, the name Mahabalipuram is derived from two words “Mahabali” and “Puram”. The word Mahabali comes from the King name Bali or Mahabali who once ruled this place and “Puram” in Sanskrit means a city or urban dwelling. So, together it makes Mahabalipuram. Whereas there is another legend theory thought that the Pallava King Narasimhavarman I, was a great wrestler and to honor him he was dedicated to the great title Mamalla. So, together the historical town got its name as Mamallapuram.Mahabalipuram Travel Guide

Heritage walk through a Historical town: Mahabalipuram Travel guide

Mahabalipuram town might be the first love of UNESCO world heritage site lovers but it too is a great place to admire sculptures, dwell into the caves, soak in the beaches and smell the fresh coastal air.

We did the early morning, heritage walk of historical town Mahabalipuram, during our visit to Chariot Beach Resort for #chariotbloggersretreat #ctbr #funatcbr. Also, read the activities at Chariot Beach Resort Mahabalipuram.

1.Shore Temple

The Shore temple, as the name says looks on to the shore of Bay of Bengal and is a part of UNESCO monuments listing. It is also one of the oldest temples in South India.

Ticket: Rs 30/- for Indians and Rs 500/- for Non-Indian; extra charges for videography.

Timings: 6:00am – 6:00 pm

The time required for exploring: 30 minutes to several hours, depending on your eye detailing.

Shore Temple - Mahabalipuram Travel guide
Shore Temple – Mahabalipuram Travel guide

The Shore temple is believed to be the only surviving temple of a set of 7 temples, whereas the rest temples are submerged under the ocean. Interestingly, during a briefing session about the temple, our guide too explained that a part of these submerged temples was visible during 2004 Tsunami when the water receded back by a kilometer or more. Indeed, we were taken to the ocean middle by the organized Catamaran, to witness the part of rock emerging above in the center. The locals believe this emerging rock to be one among the rest six submerged temples.

The complex has two similar pyramid shaped, 60 feet high temples inside which houses the idols of Hindu God Lord Shiva with his family and Lord Vishnu. Along with it, there are multiple small shrines, open halls and compound wall with statues of Shiva’s Vahana Nandi surrounding it. The sculptures are disfigured but the scaffolding around show the continuous restoration work carried out by ASI.

Shiva's Vahan Nandi surrounding Shore temple : Mahabalipuram Travel Guide
Shiva’s Vahan Nandi surrounding Shore temple

The intricate carvings stepped architecture and compound designs, clearly depict the architectural bent of mind these guys had. Shore Temple looks like a masterpiece when the sun rays fall on it during sunrise and sunset. Another worth mentioning point is that this temple was monolithic i.e. carved from a single stone, which is simply worth praises.

2.Arjuns Penance / Descent of Ganges

Ticket: Rs 10/- for Indian citizens and Rs 250/- for Non-Indians

Timings: 6:00am – 6:00 pm

Time required for exploring: 30 minutes to an hour

The Arjun’s Penance or Descent of Ganges is one of the largest sculptural art & perfect example of low relief work in the world. The carvings depict the Jungle scene with mythological Hindu God’s on the 27-meter long boulder.

There are two-three legend tales linked to this artwork. The first being – It is a Mahabharata scene where Arjun one of the Pandavas is praying in yoga posture in the jungle, to Lord Shiva for gaining powerful weapon to defeat the evil. The second tale is Goddess Bhagirathi along with Lord Shiva, receives River Ganga (depicted by a cleft in the sculpture along with snakes) on earth from Heaven. And all the animals rush together to quench their thirst, forgetting their predatory relations.

Arjuns Penance / Descent of Ganges: Mahabalipuram travel guide
Arjuns Penance / Descent of Ganges: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide

Interestingly, the sculpture too has a shadow of Charlatans. The cat is seen depicting Arjun and mice praying to her. When the cat finishes the prayers, she devours over the mice as a prey.

If we leave the history apart, the whole artwork is to be relished and it is a great masterpiece made by Pallavas in the 7th century, despite the lack of high-end tools.

3.Pancha Pandava Cave Temple

Ticket: Free

Timings: 6:00am – 6:00 pm

Time required for exploring: 30 minutes to an hour

Just next to the Arjun’s Penance, stands the other 7th century UNESCO monument Pancha Pandava cave temple, which is also known as the Mandapa of five Pandavas. It is the largest cave temple and one of finest cut out architecture in Mahabalipuram.

Panch Pandava Cave Temple : Mahabalipuram travel guide
Panch Pandava Cave Temple: Mahabalipuram travel guide

In the complex, there are six columns in the veranda, with the carved lion base on five. The columns with lion base are a typical architectural style of Pallavas. Behind these five pillars lies another four pillars which divide the cave further into sections. The temple and some pillars are incomplete. Around the shrine is a long dark gallery to enter the main shrine.

4. Krishnas Butter Ball

Ticket: Free

Timings: 6:00am – 6:00 pm

Time required for exploring: Maximum 30 minutes

Walk 200 meter from Arjun’s penance on right, there stands miraculous 6 meter high, 5-meter wide boulder, inclined on a rock base. God only knows how it is stable there from past 1200 years? It not only left us wondering but centuries ago it left the Pallava dynasty King Narasimhavarn too amazed. To move it, Britishers even used 7 elephants but they were too unsuccessful.

Krishnas Butter Ball: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide
Krishnas Butter Ball: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide

The Krishna’s gigantic Butter Ball is a famous attraction. People climb the huge rock to go near and move it. But till day nobody could. Look at us, even we are trying our muscle power on it.

5. Lighthouse

Ticket: Rs 10/- for Indians

Timings: 6:00am – 6:00 pm

Time required for exploring: 1 hr for both the lighthouses

From the Butter Ball, keep walking for almost 2 kilometers climbing the rocks, admiring complete incomplete temples and caves in between. Just ahead of the Lighthouse museum follow the narrow passage. It will take you to a huge gigantic rock which has Olankeeswara temple on top of it. The top of the temple was used as a lighthouse for some period. Pallavas used to light the oil lamp here from sunset to sunrise, for ships to follow the port.

Opposite to this temple stands the circular masonry tower made up of natural stone which is said to be a new lighthouse. It got opened to the public only in 2011. Adjacent to it lays the oldest lighthouse of India, built by Pallava King Mahendra in 640AD, which is now a protected monument.

Light House: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide
Light House: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide

One must climb both the lighthouses to get the panoramic city views.

6. Panch Rathas

Ticket: Rs 30/- for Indians & Rs 500/- for Non-Indians

Timings: 6:00am – 6:00 pm

Time required for exploring: 1 -2 Hrs

Panch Rathas: Mahabalipuram Travel guide
Panch Rathas: Mahabalipuram Travel guide

The term Panch Rathas again is derived from two words – “Panch” meaning five and “Rathas” means Chariot. There is a theory that it was built to imitate the 5 Pandavas (Yudhistra, Bhim, Arjun, Nakul, Sahadev) and their wife Draupadi. Thematically and structurally all the chariots differ from each other and are carved out from a single monolithic stone. They too are pyramid shaped like Shore temple and have murals all over on their walls.

For details on the Ranch Rathas, you can check here.

Tips for Heritage Walk: Mahabalipuram travel guide

  1. The weather in Chennai is hot and humid, so do carry a water bottle and hand towel with you.
  2. Wear cotton clothes and flats to be comfortable and you really need to walk a lot.
  3. Take an authorized guide to know the history of these monuments better.
  4. Follow the rules and buy a ticket for watching these monuments.
  5. Still, photography is free but videography is paid inside these 7th-century old monuments.
  6. There are lots of vendor selling seashell and stone carvings around these tourist attractions. If you have to buy, then check the piece before buying and make sure to bargain.Heritage Walk though historical town: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide

P.S:  We did the heritage walk of historical town Mahabalipuram during the Chariot Bloggers Retreat organized by Chariot Beach Resort. and also read the activities at chariot beach resort mahabalipuram, we enjoyed.


46 thoughts on “Heritage Walk through a Historical Town: Mahabalipuram Travel Guide”

  • This was one of the most memorable places I visited in Tamil Nadu. Amazing carved sandstone statues. I’ve really enjoyed your write up – although I had a guide I’d missed or forgotten much of the detail of this astonishing site.

  • WOW! I am speechless about this place, really. I visited Hampi in 2015 and I have the impression this city can really keep up with Hampi. India has so many beautiful sites to offer with so much heritage and culture. Really impressive and seems like you had a wonderful time!

  • This world heritage site looks so beautiful — such stunning reliefs! Can’t believe that a lot of these Mahabalipuram monuments date back to 7th and 8th century– wow! I love that it’s so close to the beach, too. This way you can both visit these historical places and relax at a resort.

  • What a cool place! I love exploring UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Olankeeswara temple and lighthouse are particularly interesting to me. Still not sure when I’ll finally make it to India, but I’ll be sure to have this on my itinerary when I do.

  • This post brought back such great memories for me! I traveled to Mamallapuram while I was studying abroad on Semester at Sea back in 2007. I remember being so in awe of the incredible architecture, and at just how old everything was there. I hadn’t remembered that the Shore Temple is monolithic. That is incredible! I would love to go back to these sites again one day with my partner. Thanks for sharing this great info!

  • Such historical places are very intriguing for me. I can’t believe there’s so much left for me to explore in my own country! I love checking out old architecture especially of temples, so interesting to read age-old inscriptions and observe the intricate carvings made by people centuries ago. I am very impressed to know that the submerged temples near the shore temple were visible during the tsunami, that must have been one sight!

  • Mahabalipuram sounds like a really fascinating town – so much history and cultural heritage – no wonder it’s a hotspot among UNESCO enthusiasts.

    The Shore temple looks really interesting – so crazy that you could see parts of the other submerged 7 after the tsunami pulled the water line back. Does that mean you would be able to take a diving trip to explore those submerged under the ocean?

  • I love visiting old temples like the Shore temple. It’s like walking thru a time capsule.

    The elephant carvings at Arjuns Penance are such an epic relief.

    I am not sure what to make of the Butter Ball but I would totally stand underneath it.

  • That cave temple looks amazing, almost like a smaller version of Petra in Jordan! I can’t believe that so many of these wonderful carvings and monuments have survived for so long and remain in such good condition (what with the floods and all…). And I’m shocked that the Shore temple was carved from a single piece – that is epic!

  • Wow..This is my first time to read about this and clearly the Mahabalipuram is an amazing place to visit! I’m not really a fan of exploring UNESCO heritage sites, but this made me keen to start checking them out! I can see the interest the Krishna’s Butter Ball.. Are there any particular stories behind its structure?

  • Mahabalipuram looks stunning. Being a bit of a history buff, I would surely enjoy going around this UNESCO heritage site. Dating back to the 7th century? Oh, even better! 🙂
    Panch Rathas caught my eye immediately! Five chariots, you say, carved out from a single monolithic stone? Amazing! It’s so interesting that they are all different.
    Would love to visit, it’s going on the bucket list! 😉

  • Mahabalipuram looks like such a fantastic place to explore and walk through, I’d really like to visit. The cave temple is 100% at the top of my list for must sees, I’d love to visit that for myself and explore. I can’t believe it all dates back to the 7th Century!

  • I have never heard of this, but I would really love to see this in person. Especially the butter ball. That is too funny of a name and it is crazy how it just sits there and no one has ever been able to push it. Love all the art work and temples.

  • I would love to visit, but the difference in the ticket fees are astounding! I understand why there’s local fee and tourist fee but why such a big difference haha I might just go to Pancha Pandava Cave Temple, at least it’s free LOL The Butter Ball scares me. I get the feeling it might roll down any second.

  • Wow, there is so much to see in Mahabalipuram! Love all of the detailed carvings on the temples, and the name of Krishna’s butter ball is amusing to say the least. Anything that’s lasted since the 7th century deserves reverence.

  • I’m not really into some heritage sites but sometimes, I consider them. I don’t mind getting under the sun while watching this huge majestic temples. And the fact that it’s listed one of UNESCO’s, it’s great to pay a visit! Make sure to bring water, too, of course! With the heat of the sun, we sure don’t want to get dehydrated!

  • Really loved all the things you showed here, all these ancient temples and carved boulders are so fascinating; it looks just as amazing as the Angkor temples in Cambodia. It shows again how little I know about India, I had no idea about all these.

  • Nice bit of legend and history of Mahabalipuram. So full of mystical feel with those temples and intricate sculptures. The gigantic Butter Ball is intriguing and will surely pique one’s interest.

  • Mahabalipuram seems to have a very old history. Not many places in the world can brag about monuments from 7th and 8th century. I can only imagine how beautiful those temples are in real life. Pictures probably don’t do them justice. Your guide is pretty useful and I’m not sure there are very many guides of this area. I’d love to visit Mahabalipuram someday.

  • This sounds like a very interesting experience. Mahabalipuram has so much to offer! I think the site that most intrigues me is Arjun’s Penance because it’s such a gorgeous work of art and the story it tells. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mahabalipuram is such an enchanting place. We have been there a couple of time and always come up with some fascinating facet that we had not seen earlier. Our favourite, of course, is the Shore temple and the Panch Rathas. We have still not been to the Lighthouse. We also want to see the submerged ruins of the temple that has become visible after the tsunami. When we were there last time, the sea played spoilsport and we could not experience this.

  • Love getting to visit UNESCO heritage sites! This one looks like another great one to add to the list. Your photos are awesome! Love that this site isn’t too overwhelmed with other visitors!

  • The temples are works of art. I am glad they have survived as well as they have over the years. I want to explore the cave temple and just see the craftsmanship.

    There are so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit around the world.