With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping set to attend their second, informal summit at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu on Friday and Saturday, all eyes will be on the temple town which is home to various stone sculptures and temples carved during the Pallava era.
With the temple town undergoing a makeover ahead of the VVIPs’ visit, here is all that you need to know about this historical site which is a popular destination for tourists from around the world.
What and where is Mahabalipuram?
Mahabalipuram is a coastal town along the shores of the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu. The town is situated 55 km away from Chennai.
The town is also called Mamallapuram by locals. History has it that Narasimhavarman, a king from the Pallavan dynasty was a skilled wrestler and was considered to be the best among all the wrestlers in the kingdom. The town came to be known as Mamallapuram in honour of Narasimhavarman and stems from the Tamil words ‘ma‘ (meaning the best) and ‘mallan‘ (meaning wrestler). It loosely translates into ‘wrestler of wrestlers’ or ‘king of wrestlers’.
How to reach Mahabalipuram?
Mahabalipuram is well-connected by road to other places in Tamil Nadu. Visitors from Chennai intending to visit the town can drive down to the town along the scenic East Coast Road (ECR) or travel via government and private buses. Both the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC) and private aggregators operate more than 50 buses a day along ECR towards Mahabalipuram and Puducherry.
What is the weather like at Mahabalipuram?
A coastal town, Mahabalipuram has a tropical climate. Temperatures are expected to soar during the day. Make sure that you carry enough water with you and load up on sun screen before hitting the road. It is advisable to wear a hat and loose and comfortable clothes.
What tourism spots can one visit at Mamallapuram?
Mahabalipuram is a tourism hotspot for visitors to Tamil Nadu. The town is home to several beaches and stone temples, sculptures and monoliths, most of which were made UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1984. The sites are all maintained by the Archaeological Society of India (ASI). Most of the temples and sculptures at the town were carved by sculptors during the Pallava era under the reign of Narasimhavarman and his successor, Rajasimhavarman following his death.
Despite being the home to scores of sculptures and temples, only a few monuments can be visited by tourists since most of the structures are believed to be submerged under water, either due to repeated floods during or rising sea levels. The temples and sculptures have all been hewn from stones and granite and have withstood the ravages of time till date.
Here are the popular places to visit at Mamallapuram.
Shore Temple: The Shore Temple, built a little after 700 AD, is a temple complex which is situated by the sea. The temple has two shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva and a third to Lord Vishnu. The rock-cut temple has been sculpted entirely out of granite stones and features architecture by the Pallavas and Cholas, the latter being the next kingdom to settle in the town after defeating the former.
Speculation is rife that the temple is one among seven sister temples, six of which are believed to be underwater. An outline of one such temple was discovered off the coast during the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. It is interesting to note that the Shore Temple emerged unscathed during the tsunami in 2004.
The temple was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Pancha Rathas: The Pancha Rathas (Sanskrit for five chariots) features five incomplete stone sculptures, whose tops and bases have been carved to resemble chariots. The rock-cut rathas, which were carved during Narasimhavarman’s reign are incomplete structures, with work being halted following the king’s death.
The sculptures are named after the Pandavas – Yudishtra, Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Shadeva and their wife, Draupadi. The biggest chariot is dedicated to Yudishtra and the smallest to Draupadi. Though they were never consecrated since they were unfinished, locals refer to them as temples.
Today, the Pancha Rathas have been marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mahabalipuram Beach: The Mahabalipuram beach offers a scenic view of the Bay of Bengal and the Shore Temple silhoutted against it during sunsets. During the day, the sea is dotted by fishing vessels and by night, the beach is home to several shacks where one can munch on sea food and drinks.
Arjuna’s Penance: Arjuna’s Penance, another UNESCO World Heritage Site is a huge, open-air rock relief which has been carved on two monoliths. The monument features a variety of carvings that tell different stories. One such carving depicts the descent of the river Ganga from heaven, thus giving the monument an alternate name – Descent of the Ganges. Legend has it that Arjuna prayed to Lord Shiva here for a weapon to defeat the Kauravas during the Mahabharata, following which the site came to be known as Arjuna’s Penance.
The monument was carved in honour of Narasimhavarman’s victory over the Chalukya king, Pulakeshi II.
Every year, a stage is erected before the monument to ring in the Mamallapuram Dance Festival.
Krishna’s Butter Ball: Krishna’s Butter Ball features a huge boulder resting along the incline of a smaller boulder at Mahabalipuram. Despite being precariously poised, the boulder has remained stationary for over 1000 years, although several people have made attempts to move the boulder. The tourism spot derives its name from Hindu mythology, where it is believed that Lord Krishna, while stealing butter from his mother dropped a portion of it where the rock is balanced. A few historians argue that it is called Krishna’s Butter Ball since the boulder is shaped the way Lord Krishna held butter in his hand.
Over the years, portions of the rock have eroded and given it a half-spherical form.
Krishna Mandapam: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Krishna Mandapam is a cave temple dedicated to Lord Krishna near Arjuna’s penance. Carvings of the walls of the temple depict scenes from Krishna Leela (story of Lord Krishna), including the lifting of the Govardhana hill to protect the residents of Vrindavan from floods.
Varaha Cave Temple: This rock-cut temple, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu’s third avatar, Varaha. The temple features a stone sculpture of Varaha lifting Bhoodevi (Mother Earth) from the sea.
Mahishasuramardini Mandapam: Also known as Yampuri, the Mahishasuramardini Mandapam is a cave temple, hewn out of rock which features stone reliefs of Lord Vishnu reclining on Adishesha, the seven-headed serpent, Goddess Durga slaying the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasura and a sculpture of Lord Vishnu. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ganesha Ratha: The Ganesha Ratha is a stone-temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha. Carved in the shape of a chariot, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was initially sculpted to house a Shiva Linga, which was later removed.
Mahabalipuram Light House: Being a seaside town, Mahabalipuram is also the home to two stone lighthouses. The first lighthouse was built by the Pallavan ruler Mahendravarman during his reign. The second lighthouse was commissioned during the Colonial rule. The British built the structure out of natural stone during the 19th century.
You can also hire tour guides at Mahabalipuram to take you on a tour and give a brief history of the of the stone structures in the town.
What kind of refreshments do you get at Mahabalipuram?
Being a tourism hotspot, Mahabalipuram delivers all kinds of cuisines to the palate. There are various hotels situated inside the town and shacks along the sea shore that whip up tasty cuisine, including South Indian cuisine, North Indian cuisine, fast food and delectable sea food.
Vendors also sell fresh-pressed lime juice and butter milk to tourists to beat the heat.
How long does it take to tour Mamallapuram?
A sight seeing trip would take roughly one-and-a-half to two hours. If you are interesting in taking a detailed tour of the town complete with the history of the stone monuments, it would take roughly four hours. You can finish touring the whole town in a day.