The Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram consists of temples and reliefs from the Pallava dynasty, known for their sculptures carved out of rock.
Mahabalipuram was a 6th-7th century seaport of the South Indian Pallavas and a major centre of the cult of Siva. The sculptures were hewn out of local granite. They fall into four different categories by mode of execution: rock-cut caves, monolithic temples hewn out of a large boulder, bas-reliefs in the open air, and structural temples. The bas-relief known as Arjuna’s Penance is considered to be a unique artistic achievement.
Community Perspective: An easy start to a trip to South India, as it is doable on a day trip from Chennai. The amount of “guides” and “photographers” can be a nuisance here.
Map of MahabalipuramLoad map
If you happen to find yourself stranded in Chennai and have a free day, Mahabalipuram is the place to be. The best way to reach this temple is by taxi. From the hotel desk, they can arrange a private driver for the entire day for 40 or 50 EUR. Mahabalipuram is divided into three major parts: the Shore Temple, the Cave Temples, and the Five Rathas. The same entrance ticket is valid for all three, and you can easily walk between them as they are in close proximity. The entire place can be explored in 2 or 3 hours. While I'm not sure how Mahabalipuram compares to other World Heritage Sites in India, I can say it's truly stunning. Some locals, who have free entrance to the complex, may try to sell you souvenirs with elaborate stories ("official" guides, photographers, sculptors...). They are quite skilled at it, but if you mention that you don't have cash, they usually disappear.
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Visit January 2023 - This is one of the sites I struggle to pronounce even after I visited. Still I think Maha Bali Puram (that is how I try to memorize it) is a great site and should be mentioned when talking about India’s best sites.
We took a taxi from Chennai. I offered a generous 3000Rp flat to bring us there, drive us from site to site and drive us back. Be aware that traffic inside the zone is terrible. If you travel without children or elderly, I suggest you walk between locations.
The first location were the Five Rathas with it’s amazing monuments carved out of huge rocks. This is also where the main ticket office is located. I first had to shake off an aggressive guide who wanted an outrageous 1500Rp for his services. The location is very small and the main challenge is to take pictures without people on them.
The second location is the largest and you need some time to explore the rock-hewn temples, caves and carvings. The “Decent of the Ganges” (picture) is directly mentioned in Criterion (i) and probably the highlight of Mahabalipuram. Krishna’s Butterball, a huge balancing rock, is also in this location. Don’t miss out on Draupadi’s bath and the Lions Throne further up the hill.
After shaking off more “guides” and “photographers” we went to the third location, the shore temple. As Els mentioned, wind and weather have a visible impact on the carvings. Further, it is rather small and due to the completely overcrowded Pilgrimage Beach right next to it by far the busiest part of Mahabalipuram. We did not spend more than 15mins at this location. Enough time I would say.
We combined Chennai with a day trip to the Chola temples WHS. From Chennai there are flights in the morning and evening to and from Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), making it an easy day trip.
I visited Mahabalipuram in the first day of my visit in India in March 2015. I went there by taxi from Chennai airport (approx. 2200 INR for return trip to the city center), but there is very good system of cheap public buses from Chennai.
The site itself was nice but, comparing to other WHS in Southern India, not so deligthful. The sites is not big, but there is some distance from Shore Temple to Five Rathas. The latter I liked the most, especially because there were a lot of school children in uniforms, running and climbing the stairs and statues. The surroundings of the Shore Temple were, to my regret, not so beautiful and the beach was full of litter.
Mahabalipuram is a great place to start a journey through (South) India: it’s a small relaxing town that comes with a pretty good WHS. I visited the groups of temples and other carvings around town in one morning. Already at 7.30 am I walked to the Shore Temple – I had set out early to beat the heat and the crowds. But I surely wasn’t alone: dozens of Indian pilgrims clothed in red robes were already coming back from a bath or an offering in the sea. The entrance to the Shore Temple is separate from that to the beach, and it’s here where you’ll have to pay the 250rs entrance fee (valid for all sights in Mahabalipuram). This Shore Temple is the most recent of the Pallavan constructions. It did remind me a little of another WHS, Prambanan on Java. Unfortunately, most of the sculptures at the Shore Temple have faded beyond recognition, due to erosion from wind and water at its location near the sea.
While admiring the structure, I was ambushed by groups of girls who wanted to talk to me or take a picture. I had thought that the 21st century would have ended this curiousness here in India too, but it hasn’t (men often just stared and stared…).
Right in the middle of town, 5 minutes on foot from the Shore Temple, lies the bas-relief “Arjuna’s Penance”. This is a sight that immediately captures your attention – such an elaborate and huge sculpture! This is rightly singled out in the ICOMOS evaluation too, as a “unique artistic achievement” and highlight of Asian art. The sculpture fully covers one side of a rock, and is made up of lots of single scenes.
Finally, I walked to the Five Rathas, at the other end of town. These temples were cut out of one boulder, an impressive piece of work. However, I liked it least of the main sites. Its best features are the large stand-alone statues of animals: a lion, a bull (Nandi) and an elephant.
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