Apart from Arjuna’s Penance, the Shore Temple and Pancha Rathas (Five Rathas) are the best places to visit in Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram’s monolithic shrines and rock-cut cave temples lie scattered over a landscape heaped with boulders and rocky hillocks. Among these, the excellent Shore Temple, built to Lord Shiva, and the Pancha Rathas (Five Rathas), a cluster of temples named for the five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame, are the best places to visit in Mahabalipuram. Arjuna’s Penance, the largest relief-carving on earth, is also one of the popular Mahabalipuram attractions. Equally fascinating is the panel dedicated to Vishnu inside Varaha Cave Temple.
Mahabalipuram’s main hill, which dominates the town, makes for an excellent hour or two of low-key hiking (it’s a good spot for the sunset as well). There are several Mahabalipuram temple ruins and mandapams that lie scattered over this low rise of rock which make for an interesting visit.
Besides the highlights mentioned above, one of the other popular things to do in Mahabalipuram is to take wacky photos in front of the giant boulder known as Krishna’s Butter Ball as if you’re holding it up. Also, if you’re keen on seeing some sculptures produced by the Mahabalipuram College of Sculpting, head to Sculpture Museum Mahabalipuram in town; otherwise you can give this museum a miss.
Below is a list of the best places to visit in Mahabalipuram.
Inland from the Shore Temple, in the village centre, is the celebrated bas-relief Bhagiratha’s Penance, also known as Arjuna’s Penance or the Descent of the Ganges. Sculpted on the face of two enormous adjacent rocks, the bas-relief is one of the greatest of its age and certainly one of the most convincing and unpretentious works of ancient art in India.
The spectacular Shore Temple symbolises the heights of Pallava architecture and the maritime ambitions of the Pallava kings. Perched on the edge of a sandy beach on the Bay of Bengal, where it has been subjected to centuries of battering by salt water and oceanic winds, this early-8th-century stone temple is considered to be one of the oldest temples in South India.
Carved from single pieces of rock, Pancha Rathas (Five Rathas) are a set of mid-7th century monolithic temples in the Dravidian style of architecture. Influenced by Buddhist architecture, each temple is dedicated to a Hindu god and named for one of the Pancha Pandavas, the five hero-brothers of the epic Mahabharata, plus their common wife, Draupadi.
Built in the late 7th century, the Varaha Cave Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is one of the finest examples of Indian rock-cut cave architecture. The Varaha Cave Temple has beautifully moulded lion pillars, while the relief sculptures of Lakshmi, Durga and Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu, are among the masterpieces of Pallava art.
A curious attraction in Mahabalipuram, Krishna’s Butter Ball is a giant balancing rock, perched on a smooth slope, seemingly defying all laws of physics. This colossal boulder, which is about five metres in diameter, is perilously resting at an angle of 45 degrees. This is a popular attraction for taking wacky photos such as placing your hands under the stone which looks as though you’re holding it up or pushing it.
Located on East Raja Street, the Sculpture Museum Mahabalipuram contains more than 3,000 sculptures including interesting stonework of gods and goddesses. Some fine paintings are also on display and the front courtyard is littered with sculptures in stone, wood, metal and even cement.