While Chennai in South India is chaotic, crowded and as busy as a city can get, an hour’s drive from here will take you to the peaceful shore temples of Mahabalipuram, the last stop from Chennai. In fact, chronologically, this is the first stop, because the ancient town of Mahabalipuram existed as a busy seaport even before Chennai was discovered by European settlers. Today, this is a popular tourist spot, famous for its monuments, cave temples and ornate workmanship on stone.
Also called Mammalapura, this old town has been mentioned in the travel notes of early European sailors who gave this place the nickname “seven pagodas”, a reference to seven temple structures that stood on the shore, guiding ships with the glimmering dome. Now, only one of these structures, the shore temple, exists. The remaining pagodas are believed to have gone underwater due to change in the coastal layout. As recently as in 2004, the Tsunami that hit the coast in this area swallowed a lot from the land; but also opened up the coast to reveal an old grand temple structure submerged in the water.
There are air-conditioned Government and private buses from Chennai that can take you to Mahabalipuram; you could also book a cab that will take you there in less than a couple of hours. Mahabalipuram is a small resort town by the beach; so you could even opt to pack a bag and stay there for a couple of days.
This place was a thriving port way back in the beginning of the Christian era; accounts written by Periplus in the First century CE vouch for this fact. Mythologically, this place is believed to be created by King Bali, the son of Prahalad who is known for his devotion to Lord Vishnu and for whom the Lord took the form of a lion-man to kill Prahalad’s father, the demon Hiranyakashipu. Bali created a stunningly beautiful town on the place where Vishnu took the form of Narasimha (human with lion’s head) to kill Hiranyakashipu. People believe that this shore town was so enchanting to behold that the Gods got jealous and sent huge waves to destroy it.
Historically, the structures of Mahabalipuram belong to the Pallava dynasty that ruled the region from 3rd century till 9th century; poems from that period describe this port to be so prosperous that ships from here were laden almost to the point of breaking with riches and treasures.
The famous shore temple of Mahabalipuram and the chariot-shaped stone structures called Rathas were built in 7th century AD by King Narasimhavarman of the Pallavan dynasty. The sculptures and stone carvings here are captivating, especially when we consider the lack of technology in the period when this place was created.
Today, Mahabalipuram is a thriving tourist spot with resorts, restaurants famous for seafood, souvenir markets and are a favoured destination for history, art and photography buffs. The monuments, classified as UNESCO World Heritage site are free to visit and a perfect destination for lovers of culture. Rent a bicycle and explore the place at your own pace.
The town gets more interesting in December and January every year when the Annual Dance Festival takes place; dancers from all parts of India participate to display their unique style of dance and this event makes the place very colorful.