A Day trip from Chennai to Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage site

Anytime we are in Singara Chennai, we make our pilgrimage to Mahabalipuram or Mahabs as it called by chennaites.   This UNESCO World Heritage site is probably the most underrated site in India.  We typically do this as a day trip from Chennai with family.  Mahabalipuram also is known as Mamallapuram, is a town in Kancheepuram district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is around 60 km south of the city of Chennai. It is an ancient historic town and was a bustling seaport, ancient Indian traders who went to countries of southeast Asia sailed from the seaport of Mahabalipuram.

Chennai to Mahabalipuram Day Trip

Mahabalipuram lies on the Coromandel Coast which faces the Bay of Bengal, so make sure you are there for the sunset. Mahabalipuram was an established seaport during the 7th and 10th centuries of the Pallava dynasty. This was the second capital of the Pallavas who ruled Kanchipuram. The former name of  ‘Mahabalipuram’ has a history. History and Indian Mythology says that once a very rude cruel king Mahabali reined this place and in a fierce battle king Mahabali was killed by Lord Vishnu and the place was named after the dead, arrogant kind Mahabali.  It was during the reign of King Narasimha Varman I, the name Mahabalipuram was changed. It was renamed Mahabalipuram which is called till now.

Outside Suburbia - Mahabalipuram Day Trip #ShoreTemple
Shore temple in Mahabalipuram

You can buy a ticket at the entrance and it applies for all of Mahabalipuram sites and places to see. It is valid for the entire day. Most of the monuments are walking distance from each other, though if you go in the afternoon or during a holiday, it may be exhausting to walk in the heat and through the crowds. Plan for an early morning or late afternoon visit, it should take about 4 to 5 hours to visit all the monuments.

Things to see in Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram is known for its historical monuments, sculptures, scenic beauty, culture and tradition. The art in Mahabalipuram can be divided into four categories: open air bas-relief, structured temples, man-made caves and rathas (chariot temples).

Chariot temples and the carvings, Mahabalipuram
Chariot temples and the carvings

The famous Arjuna’s Penance, Descent of Ganga and the Krishna Mandapa adorn massive rocks near the center of the village. There are sixteen man-made caves in different stages of completion, scattered through the area. The striking feature is that all the sculptures here are monolithic – giant structures carved from single rocks. 

The Arjuna’s Penance alone has a collage of about 150 sculptures depicting animals, birds, natural phenomenon and planets. Tourist guides like to point out a pair of deers that were featured on the Rs.10 Indian currency note, something Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India fell in love with during her visit to Mahabalipuram.

Giant structures carved from single rocks

A popular photo spot in Mahabalipuram is Krishna’s Butterball, a giant boulder balancing in an awkward position. Situated on a hill slope near the Ganesh Ratha, it shows Lord Krishna’s love of butter. You can place your hands under the stone which makes it look as though you are holding it up. The rock also provides welcome shade for people and animals alike!

Krishna’s Butterball rock - Mahabalipuram - Outside Suburbia
Krishna’s Butterball

Of all the monuments and temples in Mahabalipuram, the beautiful Shore Temple towers over the waves, behind a protective breakwater is my favorite. It is believed that there were seven magnificent temples that are known as the seven pagodas, built near the seashore, but the lonely survivor is the shore temple. Nearby you can also see India’s oldest lighthouse built by King Mahendra Pallava in 7th century here.

Tips for visiting Mahabalipuram

It is pretty hot in summer, so make sure and bring along some water. It is better to leave after city rush hour which is around 9:30 and try to get there before noon or plan to be there around 3 or 4 pm.  

We stop at Taj’s Fisherman cove either on the way or while coming back depending on time. You can buy many small sculptures and statues made of granite stones at the artistry workshops nearby. 

Taj's Fishermans Cove - Outside Suburbia
A stop at Taj’s Fisherman cove

Make sure you buy them at the shop rather than the from people walking around trying to sell you mini versions of the Mahabalipuram lookalikes – usually they are of poor quality and not made from granite.

We always stop if we find some coconut vendors selling fresh coconut and stock-up.  I usually keep a backup of some straws in case the coconut-walla runs out.  Kids love them and it is refreshing after walking around the temples and climbing on rocks!

Photos from our Mahabalipuram Day Trip

Outside Suburbia - Mahabalipuram Day Trip #ShoreTemple
Chennai to Mahabalipuram Day Trip #Mahabalipuram

Make sure to stop Taj’s Fishermans cove resort en route for some tea and snacks or some cocktails and beer.  It is a charming property with amazing views of the Bay of Bengal.  Our kids love to play on the beach there,  the beach is private and hence not that crowded.  While you can visit Mahabalipuram as a day trip from Chennai, if you have more time you can stay in the area and enjoy one of the beach resorts. 

We have stayed in Temple Bay before and loved it.  Intercontinental Mahabalipuram is a new resort in the area and comparable to Temple Bay. Or you can include this in your trip to Pondicherry and visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Either way don’t miss out on this historical and cultural gem when you are visiting South India.

I hope you find this post useful when planning your Chennai to Mahabalipuram day trip.

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