Sand, Shore, Sacred Stones, and More: The Wonders of Mamallapuram

From grand remains of the Pallava Kingdom to the serene shores, discover the must-see attractions of Mamallapuram
Shore Temple is significant part of the group of monuments that have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984
Shore Temple is significant part of the group of monuments that have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984A. SURESH BABU

As a major port city during the Pallava Kingdom, Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, is home to several beautiful heritage monuments in the Chengalpattu district. Dating to the 7th and 8th centuries, these monuments, many of which have been carved out of rocks, stand as the beacon of the Kingdom’s sheer influence and power. Strengthening its significance as a thriving hub of the Kingdom is the fact that the name Mamallapura, which translates to the “city of the Mammalla,” is an epithet of the Pallava King Narasimhavaraman I. Here’s our guide to the must-visit historical wonders, beautiful nature getaways, what to eat, and where to shop.

Historical Gems

Begin your heritage trail by visiting the magnificent Shore Temple, named after its stunning location overlooking the Bay of Bengal. A significant part of the group of monuments that have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, the temple complex is celebrated for its architectural beauty. Built during the reign of Narasimhavarman II, a great patron of the arts, the temple com`plex is considered to be one of the first stone temples in South India and the earliest examples of the Dravidian architectural style. The temple’s five-tiered, kutina-type tower is visible from far away—acting as a landmark for sailors centuries ago. The three shrines within the complex—two of which are dedicated to Shiva and one to Vishnu—are also famed for the intricate carvings of gods and goddesses. Another interesting facet of the temple is the monolith sculpture of a partly carved and partly sculpted lion found within the complex. While the temple is renowned for its architectural beauty, it was also recently recognised as India’s first “Green Energy Archaeological Site.” The best time to visit the temple is in December and January, when the Indian Dance Festival is held. 

Shore Temple was built during the reign of Narasimhavarman II
Shore Temple was built during the reign of Narasimhavarman IIA.SURESH BABU

Another must-visit historical gem is the Pancha Rathas, a set of five monolithic rock-cut temples carved in the 7th century. Built to resemble a chariot, the temples have been carved from a single piece of granite, and each of them has been named after the Pandava brothers. With features like pyramidal roofs, barrel-vaulted ceilings and intricate carvings, the temples display a variety of architectural styles. The largest among all is the Bhima Ratha.

Arjuna’s Penance is an open-air rock relief is carved on two boulders of pink granite
Arjuna’s Penance is an open-air rock relief is carved on two boulders of pink graniteTamil Nadu Tourism

Also known as Arjuna’s Penance, the Descent of the Ganges is another fantastic example of Mamallapuram’s historical treasure. The open-air rock relief is carved on two boulders of pink granite and depicts the legend of the Ganga’s descent to Earth from the heavens, which was led by Bhagiratha. The relief is beautified by intricate carvings of gods and goddesses and Puranic figures, such as Gandharva, Apsara, Gana, Kinnara, and more. The Pancha Ratha, Arjuna’s Penance, Shore Temple and Butter Ball are close by and winter is the best time to explore the monuments’ beauty. Mornings are less crowded and allow you enough time to take in all the details.

Krishna’s Butter Ball is estimated to be over 1,200 years old
Krishna’s Butter Ball is estimated to be over 1,200 years oldTamil Nadu Tourism

Next, visit the Vaan Irai Kal, popularly known as Krishna’s Butter Ball. The attraction draws tourists for its gravity-defying boulder that stands on a steep rock slope. While the structure has been associated with the mythological tale of Krishna’s love for butter, it boasts a fascinating history of its own. Estimated to be over 1,200 years old, historians believe that King Narasimhavaraman also attempted to move the rock but failed, therefore assigning it a divine character. In 1908, the British also tried to move the rock using elephants but eventually failed. While geologists attribute this unique occurrence to the friction between the rock and the small base and the centre of gravity, the rock has withstood several natural calamities.

The historic lighthouse in Mamallapuram
The historic lighthouse in Mamallapuram Tamil Nadu Tourism

Just 1.6km from the Mahabalipuram ECR Bus Stand, the historic lighthouse in Mamallapuram towers proudly and commands attention. Reaching skyward at 26 meters, this lighthouse is a brick-and-stone marvel from the British era. As you ascend to the top, the view is truly rewarding. You'll be greeted with panoramic vistas of the iconic Shore Temple, historic monuments, and the pristine coastline. Right beside this sentinel of the sea lies the Olakannesvara Temple. This 8th-century Shiva sanctuary was masterfully crafted during the reign of Narasimhavarman II. Adding a layer of curiosity to the landscape, the adjacent flat hill once served as a makeshift lighthouse, guiding ships until 1904. History and innovation intertwine seamlessly here. So, lace up those shoes and climb on up turn your Mamallapuram trip into a lively escapade.

Bask In Nature

Located along the Coromandel Coast, Mamallapuram also offers many spots for seaside relaxation. The most popular spot is Mamallapuram Beach, where you can also try activities like windsurfing and surfing, as the waves are considered to be ideal for adventure activities. There are many operators facilitating such experiences. Note that the beach can get extremely crowded in the evenings, so it is best to explore it early in the morning. Summer months can also get extremely hot, so it is best to plan a visit in the second half of the year. 

For a more offbeat experience, Sadras Beach, located 13 km outside of Mamallapuram, is a great option. Sadras is a fortress town, so besides enjoying the golden shores, you can also check out the ruins of a 17th-century Dutch fort in the region. The beach can be reached after a 30-minute drive from Mamallapuram and is a great place to explore the lives of the local fishermen.

Located along the Coromandel Coast, Mamallapuram also offers many spots for seaside relaxation and water sports
Located along the Coromandel Coast, Mamallapuram also offers many spots for seaside relaxation and water sports Tamil Nadu Tourism

Kovalam Beach is an alternate site, located 15 km from Mamallapuram and easily accessible by road. The beach is one of the most serene shores in India and is ideal for activities like snorkelling, windsurfing, parasailing, scuba diving and jet-skiing. There are several operators that can help you arrange these experiences. The best time to visit for pleasant weather is from September to March. However, if you want to avoid crowds, March to May, considered to be the shoulder season, is a great time. Yet another remarkable spot is the Wide Beach, which falls en route from Chennai to Mamallapuram. The beach is a spotless stretch and is a great place to watch a stunning sunrise or sunset.

If you are a committed nature lover, then don’t miss out on the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, a renowned herpetology research station in Mamallapuram. Established in 1976, the Bank was founded by Romulus Whitaker and Zai Whitaker to conserve and safeguard the dwindling population of crocodiles in India. The Bank is spread over 8.5 acres and is home to 15 species of crocodiles and many other reptiles. The best time to visit the site is during the winter months, between 9 am to 5:30 pm. 

What To Eat

Masal Vadai
Masal VadaiTamil Nadu Tourism

Mamallapuram is a seafood lover’s haven. No two meals in this coastal city would ever be the same, given the many options, from Western favourites to spicy and delicious local recipes. Some of the favourite local delicacies you must try when in Mamallapuram are vazhakkai bhajji, tava fish fry and fish curry, which are both made with fresh catch of the day. If you love a good view with your meals, Mamallapuram spoils you with choice.

What To Shop

A great way to remember your memorable time at Mamallapuram would be to take back the famous stone sculptures as a souvenir. Given that Mamallapuram abounds with inspiration for artists, thanks to the many historical wonders, you can find various types of intricately designed sculptures, from traditional figures of deities to contemporary or abstract designs. These sculptures are painstakingly and thoughtfully crafted out of granite or sandstone by experienced artisans. You will easily find small figurines being sold in shops lined outside the many monuments. 

The Information


Where to stay:

Hotel Tamil Nadu, Beach Resort Mamallapuram boasts a beautiful 180-degree ocean view and modern, air-conditioned, furnished rooms. Check here for rates: https://www.ttdconline.com/hotel-tamil-nadu-Beach-Resort-Mahabalipuram.html

How to reach: 

By Air: The nearest airport is Chennai International Airport, located about 56 km from Mamallapuram. From the airport, you can hire a taxi or take a bus to reach Mamallapuram.

By Rail: The nearest railway station is Chengalpattu Junction, about 23-29 km from Mahabalipuram. From Chengalpattu, you can take a taxi or local bus to reach Mahabalipuram. Alternatively, you can take a train to Chennai's Egmore or Central stations and then transfer by local train or bus to Mamallapuram.

By Road: Mahabalipuram is well-connected by road from nearby cities like Chennai, Puducherry, Chengalpattu, and Kanchipuram. You can take a bus, hire a cab, or drive your own vehicle to reach Mamallapuram. The East Coast Road (ECR) is a popular scenic route from Chennai to Mamallapuram.

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