A Weekend in Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram or Mammallapuram, is a small town situated on the East Coast Road (ECR) near Chennai. A popular weekend getaway for Chennaites, it is only about 60 kms from the city. Mahabali or Mammallan (great wrestler) means a very powerful person. Aptly, the city’s name is a tribute to its powerful Pallava ruler, Narsimhavarman I, who was a renowned wrestler and fighter of his time. He ruled for around 40 years in the 7th century AD and in that time span commissioned most of the spell binding art and architecture that we witness today here at Mahabalipuram. The ancient Pallava town has a group of 40 ancient Hindu monuments and relics from the 7th and 8th century AD which are protected by the ASI and are also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.

In 2019, the two-day meeting between the Chinese premier and Shri Narendra Modi, was held at this very venue. Not surprisingly, in 2021-2022, it emerged as the top destination for international tourists from across the world. A popular weekend getaway for Chennaites, it beckoned us too from Bangalore to admire its ancient heritage and rock-cut sculptural beauty.

How to Reach Mahabalipuram?

  • By Road: From Bangalore, NH 48 or NH 75. The road is under renovation in parts and is closed. So kindly check the road conditions before you go. The distance is about 350 kms and takes about 7 hours.
  • By Air: Nearest airport is Chennai at about 58 kms
  • By Train: Nearest train station is Chengalpattu Junction

Getting About Mahabalipuram

The traffic and parking can get really messy near the monuments and hence we decided to hire a taxi to overcome this perennial problem. Our driver, Mr. (forgot the name!) was a thorough gentleman and an excellent driver with a neat and clean car. I highly recommend his services in case you are planning to hire a 7-seater SUV. (9841262010 is his business number)

One can cover the important monuments and rock-cut reliefs in Mahabalipuram easily in a day. The monuments are open to public between 6 am to 6 pm and this makes it easy to plan our day early. This is what our day in Mahabalipuram looked like:

Guides: Not required. The information boards are put up at various monuments.

Krishna Mandapam (1 hour)

Entry: Free

We first reached the Krishna Mandapam or the Krishna cave temple, the largest rock-cut and unfinished cave temple in town. The carvings, even after 1300 years, vividly describe the details etched out in the puranas. The rock wall depicts a scene when Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain with his hand to protect the inhabitants of Gokul from the wrath of Lord Indra. This marvellous wall relief is an amazing sight to behold taking us back in time.

A rock-cut bas relief of Lord Krishan lifting Govardhan parvat using his little finger. The gopis and others ar looking in awe and ignorance.
Carvings in Krishna Mandapam
The pillared mantapa at Mahabalipuram
Krishna Mandapam or Krishna Cave Temple. The outer mandapa was added in the 16th century.

Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges (30 minutes)

Entry: Free

From Krishna Mandapam, we headed to Arjuna’s Penance, a giant open-air rock-cut relief carved out on two monolithic rock surfaces touching each other. This bas relief is located in central Mahabalipuram and depicts the story of how the heavenly Ganges descended onto the earth led by Bhagirathi. Some think of it as a relief depicting Arjuna’s penance to seek the Pashupata astra (celestial weapon) to defeat the Kauravas. No matter how it is deciphered, the sculptural wonder is a treat for our eyes. Click here to get a detailed review of this magnificent relief.

Arjuna's Penance or Descent of the Ganges. World's largest rock-cut relief in Mahabalipuram.
Descent of the Ganges/Arjuna’s Penance
(PC: Bernard Gagnon; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Descent_of_the_Ganges_01.jpg)

Krishna’s Butterball (1 hour)

Entry: Tickets available nearby at a booth which cover the costs of the group of monuments near Krishna’s butterball including the Shore temple.

Right next to Arjuna’s Penance, is the 250 tonne boulder known as Krishna’s butterball. The area is a fenced one and has a ticketed entry. Sitting at an angle on the incline and defying gravity for centuries now, the butterball is still a mystery to the world. Many tried to push it down the slope but were unsuccessful. It is said that King Narsimhavarman I in the 7th century and even a British governor in the 19th century tried to unsuccessfully roll the ball down using the brute force of 7 elephants. However, there is no explanation till date.

We had an amazing time exploring the area around the butterball. Dharmaraja’s throne, Draupadi’s bath, Varaha cave temple, Mahishashurmardini cave temple, the unfinished mantapa on the top of the hill, the views of the town from the top and finally, the Ganesha temple on the way out.

Krishna's butterball. A huge 250 ton granite boulder sitting on an incline.
Krishna’s Butterball

Panch Rathas (30 minutes)

Next our driver took us to the Pancha Rathas, a short distance away from Krishna’s butterball. This too is a collection of 5 rock-cut monolithic monuments, carved out in the shape of rathas or chariots. They were never consecrated to be temples and the purpose of their construction remains unknown. These too remained unfinished like some of the other monuments in Mahabalipuram after the death of King Narasimhavarman I who supposedly commissioned them. These monolith chariots are named after the five Pandavas and their wife, Draupadi.

Panch Rathas at Mahabalipuram. Rock-cut monolithic structures carved in the 7th century.
Pancha Rathas
Dharmaraja's ratha at Mahabalipuram. A rock-cut monolithic chariot.
Dharmaraja Ratha

Shore Temple (30 minutes)

Entry – Ticketed entry

It was almost noon and the sun was hitting hard upon us. Although it was the month of December, the afternoon sun was merciless in this part of the world. We had to walk down the long road to the temple which is situated just off the sea coast. There we see it. Two pagoda-styled 8th century Hindu temples standing alone near the sea. The remaining 5 pagodas lie submerged under the sea. The temple has three shrines; two of Shiva and one of Vishnu.

A barricade of breakwater rocks/wall is put between the temple and the sea to protect the temple and the land from erosion. Casuarina trees are planted along the coast to prevent further erosion.

Shore temple of Mahabalipuram with the enclosure of Nandis around it.
Low wall encircling the temple with 108 sitting nandis all along it
The finial atop the shikhara at the Shore temple of Mahablipuram.
The finials on the shikhara indicate that it was a functional temple unlike the Pancha Rathas

Things to do on East Coast Road

We stayed on the East Coast Road (ECR), about 30 minutes from Mahabalipuram. ECR is not just a fine stretch of road connecting Chennai to Mahabalipuram and to Pondicherry, but it is also a hub of entertainment activities ranging from surfing in the Bay of Bengal, boating on Muthukadu lake to visiting museums and amusement parks. ECR deserves a separate weekend getaway on its own. Bengalureans who are a craving for a beach vacation can fulfil their desire by planning a stay on one of the numerous beach resorts dotting this road.

Click here to know more about the fun activities one can indulge in on the ECR.

Tourists usually manage to cover Mahabalipuram in a day or two days at the most. We too squeezed in a visit to the Crocodile Bank, the serene Iskcon Temple, and of course, the Covelong beach during the two days that we spent here.

Iskcon temple at Sholinganallur near Mahabalipuram.
Iskcon Temple, ECR

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