A beautiful lesson in history you won’t yawn at.
Stories on stone that would impress you.
A piece of our collective heritage.
Whichever way you look at the rock cut monuments, these ancient sites are key places to visit in Mahabalipuram. Rock cut Temples. Intricate carvings on whitish grey granite. Scuplted open-air reliefs. All made under the patronage of Pallava dynasty.
These group of monuments were declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1894 and draw numerous travelers from India and overseas. It is one of the most famous destinations in South India.
Mahabalipuram is a small pleasing town south of Chennai. I visited these heritage sites sites on a recent trip to Mahabalipuram. A comfort stay at a villa with a private beach access and proximity to Mahabalipuram heritage sites made for a great short getaway from Bangalore.
Places to visit in Mahabalipuram
Go early in the morning before 7 am and you are likely to have the Shore Temple mostly to yourself. It is a beautiful site with the breeze blowing in from the Bay of Bengal shores. It is also hugely popular at sunset time for the right reason, being one of the top places to see in Mahabalipuram. So be prepared to jostle with the crowds.
Shore Temple is a structural temple belonging to Pallava King Rajasimha (8th century). There are 2 shrines in this temple, one faces east and the other faces west. Both the shrines have a similar plan consisting of a sanctum and porch and both hold Shivalinga sculptures.
I went here in the afternoon and enjoyed this beautiful site despite the heat. But it would be better to visit early morning, if possible and combine it with the heritage tour of other monuments in the vicinity. There are 5 structures chiseled from rocks in the shape of ‘raths’ or chariots, typical of monolithic rock cut architecture belonging to the Pallava dynasty.
The five raths are named after the 5 Pandava brothers and their common wife Draupadi from the great Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’.
Arjuna’s Penance or the ‘Descent of the Ganges’
As you exit the Shore Temple and walk to the main road, you will sight an intricately carved open-air bas relief – the Arjuna’s Penance – right on the road. For a moment, you may wonder, like I did, that how is this ancient stone carving from 7th century so close to the road. But then you notice the road is clean and that the traffic is less. Perhaps something more can be done about protecting this heritage site.
There is a stone sculpture on the side depicting a family of monkeys, an excellent example of Pallava sculptures. It showcases one parent taking out lice from the head of the other, while the little one is resting on the lap.
Pancha Pandava Cave
To the left of Arjuna’s Penance lies the largest of all cave temples belonging to the Pallavas. It has a unique plan in having a rock-cut shrine in the corner of a facade hall with a passage for moving around the shrine.
This monument belonging to the Pallava period depicts Krishna lifting the mount Govardhana to protects the cowherds from the storm created by Indira. Krishna is shown supporting the mountain in his left hand, the other hand being in Varada attitude. This depiction, possibly of Narasimhavarman I period, has no parallel in India.
To the right of Arjuna’s Penance, there is a gated entry (ticket checked here). As you walk ahead in the complex, you first come across a monolithic rock cut temple dedicated to Ganesa.
The next natural monument is quite interesting. Krishna’s butterball is a gigantic granite boulder, approximately 6 metres high and 5 metres wide.
I climbed one side of the Krishna’s butter ball and saw it from the back side. Then continue ahead on a short walk up the straight oath on the rocks, nothing that can’t be managed with sensible shoes.
I first reached the rock cut Varaha Temple, the most complete structure of its kind. This has been dated to the period of Pallava King Narasimhavarman (from 7th century).
This gopuram, though incomplete is fairly interesting. There are beautifully sculpted door jambs erected over the summit of a hillock and as you walk across them, you get a sense of what the sculptors were hoping to achieve.
This small structural Temple is built on a hillock, nothing too high. This Temple has been assigned to the last years of Pallava King Rajasimha (8th century) – or so the board informed me.
The next site I went to was a rock cut Mandapa dedicated to 3 forms of Shiva. This has been dated to the period of Pallava King Narasinhavarman (from 7th century). The most significant feature of this cave temple is a sculpture depicting Mahishamardhini fighting Mahisasura.
The giant boulder in which this cave temple has been cut itself is remarkable. There are other boulders strewn around and the whole landscape feels unreal.
This is a modern structure made of natural stone in 1887. Interestingly, India’s oldest lighthouse made by King Mahendra Pallava in 7th century stands next to this modern structure.
The last stretch has very narrow and steep wooden steps, may be difficult for the elderly and those who get claustrophobic. There are nice views of the beach, of Iswara temple, the gigantic rocks and the landscape around but nothing that would be imprinted on your memory for ages, so feel free to skip going up if the lighthouse is crowded.
This lies 5 km on the main road before Mahabalipuram. This rock cut caves with tiger heads on the entrance is nestled in a beautiful green serene area where few visitors go. It is easy to miss the board on the main road so keep your eyes peeled. Surprisingly there is no entrance fee.
A common ticket applies for all of Mahabalipuram ancient places to see and can be purchased at any of the venues. It is valid for the day of purchase. Most of the monuments are walking distance from each other, though if you go in the afternoon, it may be exhausting to walk in the heat. It would take you about 3-4 hours to visit all the monuments. There are guides available right outside these sites on hire, though I didn’t take any.
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Which is your favourite ancient Temple spot in India?
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Loved your post. May I ask you something, are these monuments safe for solo female travellers during morning time?
This is a whole lot of information here in this post. Loved reading it.
Thanks Anindya, the sites are really beautiful. Hope you make a trip someday.
Beautiful! Im not sure why but the lighthouse wasnt something I expected from somewhere in India haha now that boulder is really something! Cool!
The Krishna’s Butterfall boulder is definitely a sight!
The lighthouse is something that attracts me. The lighthouse that I wet to see last time was closed so didn’t really get the chance to climb up. It’s a steep step going up and I don’t mind that having to get a beautiful view of the ocean and beautiful sceneries from above. I can see some people up there already! Must be one of those spots not to miss here at Mahabalipuram!
It wasn’t my favourite spot with the other ancient sites being much more beautiful. I like aerial views as well and hence did climb up to see the ocean on one side and the town on the other.
The rock temples of Mahabalipuram are indeed poetry etched in stone. Have been there a couple of times and they never fail to awe me with their timeless charm and aura of intrigue. Loved your pictures and the fact that you were able to photograph them sans the crowds. Good tip to head out their early in the morning.
I also went in the off-season. But the 530 am alarm was totally worth it!
This site reminds me of Hampi, which is also a fascinating place to visit. I really enjoyed my visit there so I am sure that I would find the ruins and the Shore Temple really interesting.
Hampi boulders and the ancient architecture there is indeed a natural parallel to be drawn.
This is one post on Mahabalipuram i have seen which has the maximum pictures covering all the monuments. The aerial view is really stunning and the Royagopuram reminds me of Bali. Haven’t been yet, but would love to go.
I had the same thought when I saw the Royagopuram and hence tried to take it in one panorama shot with my Iphone.
Wow what an interesting place! All the temples seem unique and incredible but i would most like to see Mahishamardhini Mandapa in person! How cool that they carved it from a boulder and there is 3 parts. What a wonderful read!
Thanks, all these are rock-cut structures and represent some amazing architecture.
I’ve been to Mahabalipuram and it’s one of the places I remember most vividly from my visit to Chennai (the other was a silk weavers village). I do wish I’d known more about it before I went. I remember the shore temple and the sacred cows – but I knew nothing about it. And I didn’t try to go up the lighthouse – it was soooo hot for someone from the UK. Now I am living vicariously and learning more about what I saw when I was there
It was hot even for me last month, but the visit in early morning was perfect. The silk weavers village sounds interesting as well. Hope you plan another trip to India, there is lots more to explore.
I loved that first view of the temple in Mahabalipuram. And then the Shore Temple and Iswara Temple. I found that they reminded me a bit of the temples in Egypt with the columns and animal statues. But the stone sculptures on the wall were so intriguing. What a fascinating series of great temples. So much to see on one visit.
Not been to Egypt but can totally relate to what you are saying. I guess animals were an important part of ancient life and the carvings reflect that.
Seen both Egypt and Mahabalipuram, Yes we can related them together very well. But this place is very small in comparison. Yes ancient Egypt and India shared similar beliefs. They worshiped nature, sun, rain, animals etc, we do the same even now in India.
Wow, what a great and detailed post! I’ve been dying to see Mahabalipuram for a few years now…especially the temples. The Mahishamardhini Mandapa looks so impressive to see in real life!
My favourite were the Pancha Raths in terms of architecture and the Shore Temple in terms of scenic setting, but everything is impressive. Hope you go soon.
These temples and ruins look totally amazing and in a part of India I am sure would not be on top of my list to go to but now I want to check this out. I am a sucker for historical ruins like this and would love to go there, see them for my eyes and hopefully close my eyes and think back to what life was like many centuries ago.
You are right Danik, this part of South India is not on first-time itinerary to this country.