Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is a small town in Kanchipuram district in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India. It is a town along the Bay of Bengal coastline. And, it also has many beautiful ancient historical monuments including a temple right on the sea shore. Once upon a time it was a bustling city and seaport for trade between India and South East Asia. Later it was ruled by the Pallava dynasty. Most of the temples and historical spots in the town are devoted to Shiva. We spent a couple of days in Mahabalipuram around the new years eve. And welcomed the new year with a visit to the marvellous architectures that the place has to offer. There are so many things to do in Mahabalipuram. So, here goes my favorite list of things to do when in Mahabalipuram.
The must of the things to do in Mahabalipuram is a visit to the Shore Temple. It is the most famous monument of the town. A visit to Mahabalipuram or a list of things to do in Mahabalipuram can’t be complete without a mention to the Shore Temple. As the name suggests, the temple is located right on the sea shore. What makes it special, is the beautiful ancient architecture of the temple and the carvings on the walls. However, what made it extra special for me was the absolute absence of religious gurus to bother you in the temple premises. This temple is a UNESCO world heritage and also counted as the finest example of Pallava architecture. It was built in 700 AD.
There is a beautiful manicured lawn surrounding the temple. The path to the temple follows a winding track from the entrance gate to the main temple through these lawns. On one side of the temple lies the rocky beaches. While on the other side of the temple campus is the sandy beach. A narrow lane besides the campus of the temple leads to the sandy beach. I guess this is the most crowded beach of Mahabalipuram. One side of the lane leading to the beach is full of shops, but more on them later. On the beach you can get some snacks, icecream and a horse ride to enjoy but there are no proper shacks. I wish the area was developed a little bit to include some nice shacks.
Actually, not many know that there are two light houses in Mahabalipuram. Both of them would come in the list of things to do in Mahabalipuram. One of them is a modern lighthouse structure. It was built in a later era when the trade with the other countries started. It can be well recognized as a light house from far away. A flight of stairs lead to the top of this light house. You can climb to the top and enjoy the marvelous site beyond.
The other light house is not into existence anymore. Just besides the existing light house, you see a temple perched atop a huge rock at almost same height as the lighthouse. The top of this temple was used as a lighthouse earlier, before the construction of the former. Lights were placed atop the temple roof and then they were manually operated to help the ship in the ancient era. So, you can say, this one is the other lighthouse that many won’t know about, until.. you happened to visit the heritage museum. This immediately goes into my list of things to do in Mahabalipuram.
The heritage museum lies just besides the light house. These consist of two small houses in a sprawling campus. However, they are both house to several very interesting heritage including the model of the first ships that sailed through the famous silk route to reach india, the model of first ships that were ever constructed in India, several equipments that were used in the light house including the ancient lanterns, the clockwork, and several other equipments that were used inside the ship itself, including a model of the full control panel of a ship and another beautiful model of titanic. They go especially in my list of things to do in Mahabalipuram. When I personally researched on what to do in Mahabalipuram, there was hardly any mention of these museums. But we found them very interesting.
These are another set of archeological wonders and must visit when in Mahabalipuram. Actually these are considered fine example of stone cut monolithic structures of ancient India. The Pancha Ratha are a set of 5 different monuments. Each one is called a ratha and is named after the Pandavas and their family. They are the Dharmaraja Ratha, Bheem Ratha, Arjun Ratha, Nakul Sahdev Ratha and Draupadi Ratha respectively.
While the Bheem ratha is uniquely constructed as an oblong building. The Arjun Ratha and Yudhisthir Ratha are quiet similar with square shape and dome on top. The other two rathas are relatively smaller in size. However, each one is marked by beautiful sculptures and carvings on the wall. Apart from the rathas, there is a lion and a elephant each carved out of a monolith stone, that seem to be quiet popular amongst the tourists for snaps :). These monuments are also classified as UNESCO world heritage structures along with the Shore Temple. Overall, another must have in the list of things to do in Mahabalipuram.
At a walking distance of around 7minutes from Pancha Ratha lies the Krishna’s butterball. It is a big stone uniquely balanced on an incline, another favorite to take snaps. The single boulder that is called Krishna’s butterball weighs 250 tons. Alongside this stone are several other stones in unique shapes and some natural caves formed by the incline of one massive stone atop the other. The area here has been developed into a nice picnic cum tourist spot with manicured lawns surrounding the whole area marked by stones and sculptures. A small ancient temple also lies in the same campus. A nice place to enjoy as well as relax your feet.
There are interesting stories associated with Krishna’s butterball. It is said that an attempt was made by one of the Pallava king to move the stone, however it couldn’t be moved. Centuries later, a governor of the region reattempted a transfer of this boulder with 7 elephants employed for the cause. Still it couldn’t be moved!!! The name of the boulder is driven from it’s resemblance to a butterball, a favorite snack of Krishna. No doubt, this one is a special one amongst the things to do in Mahabalipuram.
Just besides the Krishna’s butterball lies Arjuna’s penance. The carvings on the wall here are particularly remarkable. There is a temple chamber also adjoining the sculptures. These sculptures depict scenes from the Mahabharata. The legend depicted on the twin-stone boulders here are that of the descend of the river Ganga to earth , under the guidance of Bagiratha. The elephant carving at Arjuna’s penance is considered the best stone carving in India. The size of the elephant is near real life. And in totality there are about 146 carvings on this particular monument. It is also a part of the UNESCO world heritage sites of Mahabalipuram.
India Seashell Museum
There is a beautiful Shell Museum on the outskirts of the town which is still evolving. It has a section with huge collection of shells. These shells comprise of all possible varieties that one can think of, in all the different shapes , sizes and wonderful collection. One part of the museum contains the smallest shell of the world on display, which is as small as the size of a grain. And at the other end, the museum also has a collection of immensely large shells. Overall, the collection is totally worth a visit. Thus, one of the best things to do in Mahabalipuram. You will be amazed by the shapes, sizes and colors of the shells.
The museum also has a small aquarium, recently developed. It contains a small collection of different types of fishes. At the entrance of the aquarium is a fish pedicure which is available at an extra cost of INR 100 for 15 minutes at the time of this writing. There are several other sections being developed in the shell museum for better entertainment of the public. Definitely a place worth visiting. Thanks to Arti who had mentioned about this museum in her blog post and that is from where we came to know about it. Do read about the details of the India Seashell Museum here.
There are several cave temples in Mahabalipuram. These temples are also a part of the heritage monuments of the town. Most of these temples are carved out of single stones and some are located inside natural caves formed within these stones. Nevertheless, all of them are marvelous. These consist of temples of Shiva and Krisha along with other deities. However, idols can be seen in only some of these temples. Mostly you will find carvings of idols and other representations in the form of carvings on the sides, walls and pillars of these temples. A flight of stone steps lead up to the temples. They extend over a large area starting right from near Krishna’s butterball up to the light house.
Spend time on the beach
An obvious inclusion in the list of things to do in Mahabalipuram, since it is a coastal town. Although the beaches on the coast near Mahabalipuram are rocky. Still there are stretches where the beaches the sandy and smooth. However, the current of water is quiet strong. And also, there are no life guards. Still if you are someone like me who doesn’t mind sitting on the beach, doing nothing, just watching the sun play on the water or the waves crash against the bank, then you are not going to be disappointed.
If you are looking for too many activities on the beach, then don’t head here. However, you still might be able to raft or take a ride on a boat along with the local fishermen if you want to, that will be completely on your own risk. Given they might not have any life jackets or other safety measures with them.
The coast along the stretch from Mahabalipuram to Kovalam (a small village just near Chennai) is particularly sandy and idle for taking a walk along the beach. Children can enjoy playing in the sand. Again, don’t expect the beaches here to be super clean. In fact, they are quiet a garbage dump at stretches. So, look for a suitable spot to enjoy your slice of the beach. However, if you choose to stay in one of the beach side resorts on the east coast stretch, you will have plenty of time and easy access to enjoy the waves. Since, most of these resorts are right on the beach, so much so that the waves at night almost reach the property :). We did capture some beautiful sunrises on the beach.
Crocodile farm is another interesting addition to things to do in Mahabalipuram. Actually, it is not located exactly in Mahabalipuram. But rather, it is at a distance of some 15-17km from the town, on the east coast road, as one drives from Mahabalipuram towards Chennai. I will still rank it as one of the top things to do in Mahabalipuram. Since, there are not many crocodile farms in India. And there is definitely not one with a reserve as big as this one. If you ask me to define this place crudely, I will say it is somewhere between a zoo and a natural reserve. The crocodiles are breaded and preserved here. However, their habitat doesn’t look as close to a natural one.
There are numerous small water ponds inside the farm. And each holds a different species of the reptile family. At the end, there is a section for snakes. Also, there are some very large and some equally small tortoises housed here. Several of the animals have been adopted by people. Those people provide for the care of these animals. Hence, we hope they will be properly taken care of. Some of the ponds had numerous crocodiles, lying one on top of the other along the bank. It made me wonder if the place had enough space for all of them. Nevertheless, it is nice for a one time visit, particularly if you are an animal lover or you have kids that get excited on the mention of any animal :).
So, overall these are the best of the things to do in Mahabalipuram, as per our personal experience. When you happen to visit Mahabalipuram, don’t forget to visit these places.
Last, but not the least, if you want to take some souvenirs with you from Mahabalipuram. Or, if you enjoy shopping in general, read on. I would suggest two things in particular – 1) souvenirs created from sea shells and 2) stone sculptures. The souvenirs made of shells consist of huge range of items including showpieces, vases, key chains, personalized key chains etc. The sculptures range from small palm size to 10 feet tall ones. So, up to you what you want to pick. But these two definitely are a speciality of the region. You can either shop from the streets lining up to the Shore temple or the shopping complex near the Panch Rathas. Also you can shop from an outlet inside the sea shell museum that primarily specializes in shell based souvenirs.
Tips on visiting
- Mahabalipuram is quiet accessible via road from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. It is just 60km from Chennai and well connected via the east coast road. If traveling from Chennai, it can be covered through a single day trip.
- It is also quiet accessible from other major south Indian Cities like Bangalore via road route. Chennai will be the nearest railway station.
- The place has a hot and humid tropical climate all year round. The weather is pleasant in the morning and evening during the winter months of November to February, while bearably warm in the day. So, that defines the best season to visit here.
- You must wear comfortable cotton clothing, best will be to cover your hands and legs, otherwise you might get a very good dose of tanning. As the sun here seems to be harsh.
- All the monuments of Mahabalipuram are located at walking distance of 2-5 minutes from each other. So it is very convenient to move around.
- There are plenty of stay options also available in and around the town, suiting all budget ranges.
- There are restaurants around the main site seeing area serving South Indian Meals (Thalis), and some in nearby streets that specialize in continental food and sea food.
- Drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated while you visit the different sites.
- If you plan to stay overnight, then better choose a property as close to the sea as possible so that you can have easy accessibility to the beach.