5 Things to do in Mahabalipuram for History Buffs

I am not a history buff. There, I said it! 

Still, there’s something intriguing about the submerged temples and the balancing rocks which can spark curiosity in anyone, really – even, yours truly!

Mahabalipuram also known as Mamallapuram is a beach town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, located on the outskirts of the state capital Chennai. A short drive away from Chennai, Mahabalipuram is a popular weekend beach destination for locals as well as visitors.

Built in the early 6th century by the Pallavas who arrived from Sri Lanka , Mahabalipuram has been declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is an ancient historic town and was a bustling seaport during Pallava kings in 7th Century AD. According to the legend, it has been named after the demon king Mahabali who was renowned for his generosity. Some maintain that it has been named Mamallapuram after the Pallava King Narasimha Varman I, a great wrestler with the title Mamallan.

It is known for its historical monuments, sculptures, scenic beauty, culture and tradition. Mahabalipuram can be divided into four categories: open air bas-relief, structured temples, man-made caves and chariot temples. In total sixteen man-made caves in different stages of completion are also seen, scattered through the area. The striking feature is that all the sculptures here are monolithic – giant structures carved from single rocks.

During my third trip to Mahabalipuram last month, I finally got to explore a bit – thanks to Chariot beach resorts who curated all these historic tours for us, along with long walks on the beach, catamaran rides and finger licking cuisine. 

Here are the Top Things to do in Mahabalipuram if you are Nuts about History

Sunrise Catamaran Ride

Being a fishing village with a few tricks up its sleeve, the early morning ride in a catamaran (fishing boat) is something that is highly recommended. Just at brink of dawn with the sun coming up in the horizon, set sail about 2 kilometers into the sea where you can see the tip of the now submerged temples.

catamaran ride

Cute Catamarans sprawled across the shore, pic by MacroTraveller

There are a total of 5 submerged temples whose tip (about a meter) can be seen during sunrise and low-tide. These 5 temples are a part of the Shore temple compound which consisted of 7 temples in total (till date). Upon the culmination of the ride at the beach; a short stroll leads to the elegant Shore Temple.

Shore Temple

A UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of ‘Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, Shore Temple was built in the 7th century and is one of the oldest temples of Southern India. It is aptly named Shore Temple as it sits and overlooks the shore of Bay of Bengal. The compound houses 2 temples of similar structures (pagodas) that are dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, the Hindu Gods.

Jump shot at shore temple

Jump shot clicked by the talented Tashi of – Allgudthings

The beautifully carved granite monument towers over the shore at 60 feet. It is believed that Shore Temple was part of the Seven Pagodas of which 5 are still submerged within the sea. With wonderfully curated surroundings and intricate carvings, the temple is something to be seen to believe. Exploring the temple can take anywhere between 15 minutes to a couple of hours (for history buffs). Moving on from the temple compound and again a short walk down the road, Arjuna’s Penance can be seen as soon as the road turns.

Arjuna’s Penance

Arjuna’s Penance is the name of a massive open air bas-relief monolith built by the Pallavas in the 7th century. With a measurement of 96 feet in length and 43 feet high, this monument is also known as The Descent of Ganga. It has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of ‘Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram’. In one of the carvings, a figure can be seen standing on one leg; it is believed that the figure is of Arjuna performing an austerity ritual to receive a boon from Shiva as an aid in fighting the Mahabharata war.

carvings india

Intricate carvings, each telling a different story

The bas relief is built on a rock with a cleft with figures within. The cleft are said to represent the River Ganges and Shiva. As an alternative interpretation, rather than Arjuna, the figure performing austerities is said to be Bhagiratha by some people. There are also a number of animals that have been portrayed as well. Right next to this massive monument is the mind boggling Krishna’s Butter Ball.

arjunas penance

Krishna’s Butter Ball

Krishna’s Butter Ball is a huge round boulder that sits precariously on a inclined rock base. Legend has it that for centuries various kings had tried to move the boulder unsuccessfully. Even the British tried to move the boulder using 7 elephants as early as 80 years ago but could not move the stone even an inch.

You can see even Mighty Jo was no match for this balancing stone but hey in all fairness, I had to try!

The boulder has become a popular site for people to come and try moving the stone (unsuccessfully of course). Even scientists and archaeologists have tried to explain the phenomenon but none of them are substantial enough to be taken into consideration. After much effort to move the boulder myself (and getting clicked doing so), we were headed towards the Old Lighthouse that is about 2 kilometres from the Butter Ball.

Old Lighthouse

A short drive of 5 minutes later, we came across a granite structured Old Lighthouse built on top of a hill. Imagine signalling incoming ships from the shore in the 7th century. Sounds like a far-fetched idea.

old lighthouse

The old lighthouse, standing tall, PC : Stayopedia

However, the Pallavas were a different league altogether. They made sure that the lighthouse was high enough for ships to follow it. Intricately designed on top of a hill, the oil lit wick would be lit every evening after sunset and would burn through the night until sunrise. With perfect drainage system for the burnt oil to flow out, it does look like something from a fiction novel. Sitting next to this now defunct lighthouse stands the new modern lighthouse which is still functional and makes for pretty tourist attraction.

TipIt can get bloody hot, be sure to carry lots of water, a hand towel and a cap to beat the heat.

mahabalipuram heat

Trying to beat the heat, but failing miserably lol

After a glorious morning of exploring Mahabalipuram, the best way to relax would be to just sit by the sea and soak in the breeze and sun.

It is safe to say that Mahabalipuram is not just any other beach destination, it encapsulated almost 1500 years of history and culture within itself. The ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) is still hopeful that more temples and monuments can be found in the area.

Special thanks to Chariot Beach Resort’s GM Anand Chandrasekhar for taking such good care of all bloggers on this trip. 

Disclaimer – I was a guest of Chariot beach resort for this awesome #ChariotBloggersRetreat 

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