“Travelling. It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
– Ibn Battuta
This is a travelogue about a single day’s travel – to Mahabalipuram from Chennai and back.
Now, Mahabalipuram is the go-to destination on weekends for practically most people residing in Chennai. Having said that, I managed to visit a couple of times before this, but it was only this time was I seriously observant of the place – mostly thanks to my new phone camera.
For the benefit of the non-Chennai residents, I will go with the basics.
What is Mahabalipuram?
Mahabalipuram, also known as Mamallapuram (meaning land of the great wrestler), is a sea-shore town on the coast of Bay of Bengal, in Tamil Nadu, India.
Where is Mahabalipuram?
It is located 60 kilometre south of the capital city Chennai of state Tamil Nadu, India.
How to reach Mahabalipuram?
Mahabalipuram is well connected by road from Chennai, which in turn is well connected by road, air and sea.
Get to Chennai via road/air/sea and:
(1) Hop onto many available Government bus services (including air-conditioned) from the central bus stand of Chennai, Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus (2nd largest in India after Delhi’s Millennium Depot). Most of the buses start early during the day – 6am to 9am.
(a) Specifically, any bus that goes to Pondicherry has a stop at Mahabalipuram.
(b) There are separate buses directly to Mahablipuram
Inquire on reaching the bus stand for both points above – both work fine.
(2) Or if you would like to hire a cab or drive down, you can do the same – take the East-Coast-Road (ECR) which leads to Pondicherry from Chennai, and you will find Mahabalipuram on the left 60 kilometre later.
- It is classified as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site.
A World Heritage Site is a landmark which has been officially recognized by the United Nations, specifically by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance, and they are legally protected by international treaties. UNESCO regards these sites as being important to the collective interests of humanity.
- It was a port-city during the 6th century – almost 2,000 years ago. It belonged to the south Indian royal dynasty of the Pallavas, and is famous for monolithic architecture – temples and monuments cut and carved out of rocks and boulders as they were situated naturally.
Having covered the basics, let me get down to my personal experience.
We – three of us including myself and two of my friends – left by a Government bus around 8am from CMBT, Chennai’s central bus terminus.
The journey was through Chennai’s East-Coast-Road (ECR). Now this road is famous for its splendour on one side. Onto the left side on the way to Mahabalipuram/Pondicherry, are wide stretches of trees of many varieties (palm, casuarina, etc) and beyond the trees is the entire sea, Bay of Bengal. It feels like you are travelling with the sea.
Do the math. 60 km from Chennai at an average speed of 100 km/h – we reached Mahabalipuram in less than 2 hours.
The bus drops you at the town bus-stand. Better to come back a kilometre to refresh oneself with some good south Indian food at the A2B Restaurant (Adyar Ananda Bhavan), which has branches pan-India.
There is a wonderful resort of Radisson Blu at the town entrance. They have a plethora of facilities if one is looking for a luxury stay and experience. Our budget was a ‘budget’ budget, if you get what I mean, so this was not for us.
Now there were a lot of drivers willing to take us around and show the place at an affordable price – worth it if one is completely lost and is alright with not much privacy and of having a time constraint.
Places We Visited:
- Shore Temple
- Mahabalipuram Beach
- Descent of the Ganges
- Pancha Rathas
- Arjuna’s Penance
- Krishna’s Butter Ball
There are other places not mentioned here because we could not cover it all up in one day (the place shuts down after sunset).
A good 2 full days would be sufficient to explore every nook and corner of Mahabalipuram with wanderlust satisfaction.
I will describe each of the places we visited in detail below with brilliant captures from my phone camera.
The highlight catch of Mahabalipuram is the Shore Temple. As the name suggests, it is a temple on the seashore.
This is a structural temple built in the 8th century AD, using granite. It was built on a piece of land jutting out (called a promontory) into the Bay of Bengal.
At the time of construction, this place was a very busy port for the trade and commerce of the royal Pallava dynasty.
The engravings and carvings into the granite were so meticulously done, that even almost 2,000 years on, they are still decipherable – they have not completely faded out.
This was discovered in the 1990s that this in fact, was an underwater shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva.
As you can see, the shrine is lower than the ground level – possibly to accommodate a water tank.
There are plenty of engravings and scriptures of old Tamil, slightly different from how Tamil is written today.
The entire temple gives you a feel of you having traveled back in time, which is amplified by the strong gush of the sea breeze now and then.
On both sides of the Shore Temple is a beautiful stretch of coast – the Mahabalipuram Beach overlooking the Bay of Bengal in the direction towards the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The captures below show the sheer beauty of a beach in its purest form.
Descent of the Ganges & Arjuna’s Penance:
This a a monolithic monument – a sculpture carved out of an existing rock/boulder.
It was carved out of 2 full boulders. It measures 96 feet by 43 feet.
(a) In one interpretation, it is said that Arjuna is performing a Tapas (meditation) to be blessed with a boon from Lord Shiva, so that it will aid Arjuna in the epic Mahabharata War.
The story of the penance is narrated in the epic Mahabharata under the subtitle the Kiratarjuniya. The boon, which Arjuna is said to have received, was called Pasupata, Shiva’s most powerful weapon.
(b) The river in the carving is said to represent Ganga or the River Ganges emerging from Shiva’s head. This provides the basis for an alternative interpretation of the mural. Rather than Arjuna, the figure performing austerities is said to be Bhagiratha. Bhagiratha is said to have performed austerities so that Ganga might descend to earth and wash over the ashes of his relatives, releasing them from their sins. To break Ganga’s fall from heaven to earth, she falls onto Shiva’s hair, and is divided into many streams by his tresses; this miraculous event is shown in the form of sculptures on the boulders being watched by the animals and human beings.
Krishna’s Butter Ball:
Now this a near-scientific marvel.
Picture this – an 18 feet by 15 feet boulder weighing 250 tons rests on a less than square foot of area, unmoved by time (1,300 years) and even by elephants!
It rests on a slope, yet has stayed still for more than 1300 years!
Claims are that many elephants (as much as 20) were trained to try and push it from its place – but it just did not budge.
The name comes from Lord Krishna in Hindu mythology and his mischievous habit of stealing butter from his mother symbolizing he pinched out this much butter from the jar.
Some claim it is placed down on Earth by the Gods themselves, but the geologists beg to differ by stating it’s a scientific marvel.
There are plenty of small-scale shops all around the beaches. They sell lot of handicraft like bags, caps and hats.
Plus there are many sculptors and potters who continue the tradition of producing the clay models, etc.
Mahabalipuram is perfect for one who loves history and architecture.
A two-day and one-night stay is the perfect plan for any group visiting – you will get to visit a few other places of tourist interest and with a bit more leisure time.
Do take your camera with you, there is historic beauty all around!
“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” – Lin Yutang