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10 Must-See Tourist Attractions in and Around Mahabalipuram

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I am a marketing professional holding a postgraduate degree in management. I live in Chennai and have traveled extensively in Tamil Nadu.

Mahabalipuram is a coastal town in North Tamil Nadu. It is a favorite weekend getaway for Chennai residents and an important heritage destination for international travelers. It has other names, such as Mamallapuram or Seven Pagodas. This town got its other name from the belief that it was once home to seven temples.

It is believed that a tsunami submerged six of these temples during the 13th century. Now we have only one temple surviving, namely the Shore Temple. Evidence of the missing temples was found in 2004 in the wake of another tsunami.

Top 10 Places in Mahabalipuram

  1. Shore Temple
  2. Arjuna's Penance
  3. Cave Temples
  4. Krishna's Butterball
  5. Pancha Pandava Rathas
  6. Museums
  7. Beach
  8. Tiger Cave
  9. Sadras Fort
  10. Alamparai Fort

1. Shore Temple

This is the only surviving temple from the seven pagodas. It is no longer a place of worship and it probably never was. It was built using granite stones in the Dravidian style of architecture. King Narasimhavarman built this temple in the 7th century.

This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most popular monument in Mahabalipuram. The statue of Lord Vishnu in a resting pose is a major attraction here. This sleeping posture is popularly called Anantha Sayanam in Tamil.

2. Arjuna's Penance

Arjuna's Penance is an open-air rock relief with a representation of how Arjuna performed several austerities to get superpowers from Lord Shiva. There is an alternate belief that the rock relief represented how the sacred Ganges river was brought from the heavens to Earth. So some people prefer calling it the Descent of the Ganges.

This is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mahabalipuram. The rock canvas can be seen on the main road near the bus stand. It is impossible to miss this even as a passerby.

3. Cave Temples

There is a small hillock behind Arjuna's Penance where one can find many cave temples. A small trek takes one to the cave temples on this hillock. In the Varaha Cave Temple (the first image in this article), one can see delicate and intricate workmanship.

Another attraction is a half-finished building resembling a fort on this hillock. It is an unfinished temple called Rayar Gopuram. One should not miss three lighthouses towards the end of the trek. The more prominent one was built by the British only a century ago. The other two were the old lighthouses built during the 7th century by Pallavas.

4. Krishna's Butterball

This is a very interesting natural rock formation that defies gravity. The huge boulder seems to be standing on a slope with minimal surface contact. This could roll down anytime but it has not happened yet. For now, it is a great place for taking selfies. One can find this rock at the base of the hillock housing the cave temples.

One can not miss the Ganesha Ratha Temple near Krishna's Butterball. It is one of the few completed temples in Mahabalipuram.

5. Pancha Pandava Rathas

These are five monolithic structures built by King Narasimhavarman in the 7th century. They resemble chariots (ratha in Tamil). Some believe that these chariots were representations of the ones used by Pandavas of the Mahabaratha.

There is no consensus on what these chariots represent, but they are known as Pancha Pandava Rathas or Pancha Rathas. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

6. Museums

There are two museums near Arjuna's Penance that can be accessed from the roadside or the lighthouse side. Maritime museum has information about maritime equipment and miniature models of ships and boats. The Lighthouse Heritage Museum has information and exhibits on lighthouses, navigation equipment and even utensils used by seafarers in olden days.

7. Mahabalipuram Beach

Mahabalipuram has a long shoreline with clear blue water and white sand. The beach near the Shore Temple is the most crowded. The beach is ideal for a visit during the monsoon months from July to December. It can get hot during the daytime in summer.

8. Tiger Cave

Tiger cave is a rock-cut temple 4 km north of Mahabalipuram along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. This temple, like Shore Temple, is also not a place of worship. It is, however, a favorite picnic spot and a great place to hang out with plenty of shade provided by trees.

There are Chennai residents who plan a picnic visit just to Tiger Cave without even visiting other places in Mahabalipuram. When visiting, one should remember to try some tender coconuts (available all year) and Palmyra fruits (available only during summer months).

9. Sadras Fort

Sadras is just 15 km south of Mahabalipuram and is an offbeat attraction worth visiting. The Dutch developed Sadras in the 17th century when their trading port at neighboring Tranquebar town (Tarangambadi) was flourishing. Sadras Fort was built for their commercial use.

In 1818, the British raided the fort and brought it under their control. There is a cemetery inside the fort with many decorated graves from that period. Only one of the magnificent structures in the fort survives.

10. Alamparai Fort

This is another offbeat attraction one can consider while visiting Mahabalipuram. Alamparai Fort is at a distance of 54 km south of the coastal town. This sea fort is in a dilapidated condition, with only the ruins remaining. The 2004 tsunami caused further damage to the already ruined fort.

Though not well maintained, it has a certain charm typical of any old building left to ruin. Trees and weeds peek out from the old walls. Here, one can appreciate the inescapable cycle of creation and destruction.

Travel and Stay

The nearest airport and the railway station are in Chennai. One can take a bus from Parry's corner or Koyambedu bus stand in Chennai to reach Mahabalipuram. One can drive down the ECR (East Coast Road) to reach Mahabalipuram in an hour.

Mahabalipuram has many beach resorts. Radisson Blue Resort Temple Bay, Ideal Beach Resorts and TTDC Hotel Mamallapuram are good stay options in Mahabalipuram. Taj Fisherman's Cove is a posh beach resort, though it is far from Mahabalipuram town.

Seafood is a specialty in Mahabalipuram. There are many outlets near the bus stand selling jewellery made of seashells or beads and handicraft items, serving as souvenirs for your Mahabalipuram trip.

© 2019 Mohan Babu

Please share your valuable comments.

Mohan Babu (author) from Chennai, India on June 25, 2019:

Thanks Liz. Yes, it is a beautiful location.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 25, 2019:

This is a very well-structured and well-illustrated article. It looks like a very interesting and beautiful location.