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September 28
08:28 2017

Open museum of rock-cut caves & temples

Mahabalipuram, in the state of Tamil Nadu, is located right on the Coromandel Coast next to the Bay of Bengal. It was a well established sea port during the 7th and 10th centuries of the Pallava dynasty and has flourished accordingly.

This city was actually the second capital of the Pallavas. It was originally named after the rude, cruel, and arrogant King Mahabali who was killed during a fierce battle by Lord Vishnu at that location. It was named by the people more out of gratitude that the heartless king was killed there than out of respect upon his death for his leadership.

During the rule of the Pallavas, new styles of art and architecture were pioneered. Mahabalipuram is where they tried and then exhibited their new artistic and architectural creations. As a result, the area is brimming with rock-cut caves and numerous temples. In fact, this region is often referred to as an open museum. Some of the temples were even carved out of one enormous rock rather than simply be constructed out of rock. Not much pillaging has occurred here over the centuries, since the wealth of the Pallavas was never flaunted. So the temples are well preserved.

The architecture is not the only draw for tourists in this city. The area is also nestled in an especially impressive setting. Beautiful white sandy beaches are plentiful, as are the casuarinas trees that are found in abundance there. Mahabalipuram is also known for providing a fantastic shopping experience. Exquisite local handmade crafts are readily available in the local shops.

Tourist Attractions

Arjuna’s Penance

It is a famous rock sculpture that portrays a story out of India lore. It is carved onto the back side of a whale shaped rock. The sculpture measures 9 meters high and 27 meters long. Arjuna is the great hero of the great epic Mahabharata, and the name of the sculpture comes from his story. There is some controversy however as to whether the story portrayed is actually the story of Arjuna or if it is the story of Bhagiratha who is an ancestor to Lord Rama. Numerous gods and demigods as well as animals and people are all carved on the sculpture. The talent that it took to create such a sculpture is obvious and deserves respect. The characters amazingly look both realistic as well as humorous.

Tiger’s Caves

Tiger’s Caves is near the coastal village of Salurankuppam that is only 5 kilometers to the north of Mahabalipuram. This amazing mandapa contains a shrine that is dedicated to the goddess Durga. There are large and impressive figures located in front of the caves. As with most carvings in India, the carvings and figures tell a story. This story has to do with an event that happened to goddess Durga. The Tiger’s Caves are a popular picnic spot, so you may want to plan your day so that you are there at lunch time. Such a picnic would allow you to take in the sights at the caves as well as enjoy the beauty of the landscape itself.

Crocodile Bank

The Crocodile Bank is located 14 kilometers from Mahabalipuram. It was established by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker in 1976. It houses several different species of Indian and African alligators and crocodiles. They are kept in open pools that are made to resemble their natural habitat. This Crocodile Conservation Center is the most popular site to visit at Crocodile Bank. A snake farm is also located at this site. Anti-venom is produced here. The process of extracting the snake venom is a popular tourist attraction, and it allows the Irulas, the snake catcher’s tribe, to make a living.

Five Rathas

The Five Rathas, also known as Panch Rathas, is a set of rock temples. They are excellent examples of the evolution of Dravidian style architecture. These temples are built in the same shape as pagodas, and greatly resemble Buddhist shrines and monasteries. The rathas are associated with the great epic Mahabharata.
The first ratha that is located right by the entrance gate is Draupadi’s Ratha. It is shaped like a hut and is dedicated to the goddess Durga. Next comes Arjuna’s Rath. This one has a small portico and carved pillar stones and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are no carvings inside this temple, but many are on the outside.
Directly in front of Arjuna’s Rath is the Nakula – Sahadev Rath. This ratha has some huge elephant sculptures included that are a huge draw for the Five Rathas. It is dedicated to the God of Rain, Lord Indra. The Bhima Rath is huge. It measures 42 ft in length, 24ft in width, and 25ft in height. The pillars there contain lion carvings even though the ratha as a whole is incomplete. The largest of the Five Rathas is the Dharamraja Yudhistar’s Rath. This rath is also dedicated to Lord Shiva and is a great example of later built South Indian temples.

Shore Temple

Tradition has it that there once stood seven temples along the shore line in this area. Today, the only one that remains is the Shore Temple. It was built during the 7th century by the artisan Rajasimha under the rule of Narasimha Varman II. It is one of the oldest temples in South India that is built in the Dravidian style. It has lately increased in popularity because it is now listed as one of the world heritage sites of the UNESCO. Numerous carvings can be found throughout the temple. Three separate buildings make up the temple. Two are Shiva temples that face east and west. The third is a Vishnu temple.


Shopping opportunities are excellent in Mahabalipuram. Handmade crafts made by people in the region are the specialty. There are stone statues carved to look like the enormous originals that are in the area. The statues are carved out of granite which enhances their beauty. Many people are more than glad to travel to this region to acquire such fine artistic pieces made by quality artisans. Soapstone images, wood carvings, jewelry, and items made from local seashells are also popular items that are sold in the local shops.


The village of Kovalam was originally just a small fishing village that was located 15 kilometers from Mahabalipuram. Today, that fishing village is still there, but it has also expanded to become one of the most famous beach resorts in India. You can still explore the old sea port that used to exist there. Numerous quality beach resorts can be found at Kovalam. It is also to these beaches that the well-known Olive Ridley Turtles travel every year to hatch their eggs.

How to reach

By Train: The nearest rail head is Chengalpattu, 29 km from Mahabalipuram city. Chennai is the major railway station nearby which is connected to all major cities in India by rail.

By Air: The nearest airport is Chennai International airport, which is located 54 km from Mahabalipuram. Chennai is well connected to all major cities in India and many cities abroad, including Colombo, Middle East countries, Singapore and Gulf countries.

By Bus: Mahabalipuram is well connected with many cities in and around including Chennai by Tamil Nadu public transport bus services. Many private tourist buses also operate between Mahabalipuram and Chennai Central.



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