Guide To Mahabalipuram: The Mystery Of An Ancient Port City

Located on the Bay of Bengal, the ancient port city of Mamallapuram is known for its beaches, water sports, and UNESCO World Heritage-listed monuments
The Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram
The Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram

We were a couple of kilometres into the sea and enjoying a boat ride arranged by the Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay, when the boatman pointed to a patch where the waves appeared to knock furiously over an obstruction. In the split second between the movements of an advancing wave and a receding one, we caught sight of what we thought were dark slimy boulders. Gradually, we discerned more such formations spread over a large area.

These are the remains of the six submerged Shore Temples of Mamallapuram that surfaced briefly during the deadly tsunami in 2004, according to our boatman. Although it has not been verified beyond doubt that the submerged structures are the six lost pagodas of Mamallapuram, experts from the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) have confirmed the presence of ancient structures underwater. It is thought they were part of a port city that was swallowed by the sea many centuries ago.

The sea, surf, and Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram
The sea, surf, and Shore Temple of MahabalipuramFlickr: Rajesh Kumar

Lying around 60km to the south of Chennai, Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram) is a reputed tourist town whose global attraction increased after UNESCO tagged the Group of Monuments as a World Heritage Site in 1984.

It is said that in the 7th and 8th centuries, Mahabalipuram was a flourishing port city ruled by the Pallava dynasty. Patrons of art and architecture, they encouraged the construction of finely carved rock-cut temples and other architectural monuments.

Elephant bas-relief on Arjuna's Penance
Elephant bas-relief on Arjuna's Penance

A tour of Mahabalipuram typically begins from the Shore Temple. Built at the start of the 8th century, the rock-cut temple lies on the beaches of the Bay of Bengal. According to legends, it was one of seven shore temples but what happened to the remaining six remains unknown. Interest in the Shore Temple was renewed after survivors of the deadly 2004 tsunami reported sightings of old structures and sculptures on the seabed when the water receded prior to the tsunami's appearance.

Explorations by an NIO team and members of the Scientific Exploration Society from the UK had already recorded evidence of ruins off Mahabalipuram when they carried out underwater explorations in April 2002. After the tsunami, divers reported finding statuary such as an elaborately carved lion, a half-completed elephant, and a stallion in flight among other items.

Subject to natural erosion, the main Shore Temple frequently undergoes restoration and the work was ongoing during our August 2018 visit. However, tourists were merrily clambering over the remaining architectural ruins within the complex.

The Pancha Rathas
The Pancha RathasFlickr: Karthik Thorali

One among the Group of Monuments is the five chariot-shaped temples in the Pancha Rathas complex. These monolithics structures are interesting not just for how old they are but also for their style. Built in the 7th and 8th centuries, the temples were named after the five Pandava brothers and Draupadi. The very first structure is named after Draupadi and shaped like a thatched roof hut from Bengal. The second, called the Arjuna Rath, is shaped like a Buddhist vihara. The one named after Bhima has a vaulted roof. In between them all are large statues of a lion, an elephant, and a bull.

Then there are the stylistically unique cave temples locally known as mandapas. Located on the outskirts of the town, the sculpted Varaha Cave Temple dates back to the 7th century. The Tiger Cave was probably an open-air theatre and is another must-see attraction. Other popular mandapas include those dedicated to Ganesh, Krishna, and Mahishasuramardini.

Krishna's Butterball
Krishna's ButterballFlickr: Nathalie Chatelain

A monument you can see from the road is Arjuna's Penance, which is said to have one of the largest bas-relief carvings in the world. Its 27m x 9m panel supposedly contains more than a hundred sculptures. Two famous scenes depicted here come the Indian epics: one from the Mahabharata shows Arjuna performing penance to appease Shiva, and the one from the Ramayana shows Bhagiratha praying to Shiva to allow Ganga to descend to the earth.

The curiously named Krishna's Butterball is a huge boulder that is precariously balanced on a rocky ledge but which has now become a merry selfie zone.

KovalamFlickr: Girish...

Mahabalipuram's character today is not only about history and old architecture. Its tranquil beaches and adventure sports activities are also big draws. Covelong (also known as Kovalam), a fishing village about 20km away, is a favourite with surfers around the globe.

Lastly, if you have time to spare you can also visit the Cholamandal Artists’ Village 35km away and the Dakshina Chitra Heritage Museum, which has a collection of 18 authentic historical houses with contextual exhibitions. Both of them lie between Mamallapuram and Chennai.

Getting There

Mahabalipuram is about 55km by road from Chennai, the nearest airport and railhead. Bus services are available from Chennai and some other cities like Bengaluru and Coimbatore.

Where To Stay

There are plenty of hotels and resorts in and around Mamallapuram. The luxurious Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay Mamallapuram is located on the shore. It can arrange for local sightseeing and adventure activities with prior notification.

When To Go

The best time to visit is from November to February.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller