Mahabalipuram, known also as Mamallapuram or more popularly as Mahabs, lies just about an hour’s drive from Chennai on the scenic East Coast Road (ECR) beachway. So, come the long weekend, wife, kids, and I had a brunch, packed in some food and water and setoff in our car towards this majestic yet quaint town of 7th century Pallava empire era fame. The drive itself was super smooth once you cross Thiruvanmiyur on ECR save for the frustratingly long wait at the toll at Uthandi which hits you after approximately 30 minutes of pure driving bliss along the scenic ECR highway – a state highway that plays hide and seek with the adjoining beaches.
As you get off the highway and enter the town you are immediately greeted by old world charm interspersed with the trappings of a modern city in equal measure. Entering in, you could opt for a pit stop at the Ananda Bhavan hotel to the right or check-in to the luxurious Temple Bay resort now run by the Radisson group to the left. Proceed a little further and stop at the Tamilnadu Tourism office on the left to orient yourself with the majesty of this town and its Group of Monuments that have earned the UNESCO World Heritage site tag since 1984. Nevertheless, having already done our destination research and not yet in the mood for a pit stop, we proceeded directly to West Raja Road to explore the monuments and bas reliefs.
The first monument that you see is the famed Krishna’s Butter Ball. A rock in the shape of a ball standing in the middle of a garden, it is said that even the force of many elephants could not move it from its position. Being a hot and humid day (next time, we may want to check the weather forecast before setting off) we relaxed a while under the trees and relished some of the savouries we had packed and some refreshing lemonade from the adjoining stalls. After exploring some of the other stone carved monuments in the same garden complex – notably the Ganesha Ratha and the Varaha Caves, we head to the majestic and splendid bas relief just a few hundred metres away – Arjuna’s Penance also known as Descent of the Ganges and one of the group of monuments that have earned the UNESCO World Heritage tag. Believed to be one of the largest of its kind in the world, this open-air bas relief depicts episodes from the great India epic the Mahabaratha in such intricately carved design that is sure to leave even the most architecturally disinterested souls amazed.
Once done taking in the beauty of the place we proceeded to the adjoining Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple. An orthodox and traditional Hindu temple, this is one of the 108 designated holy places (aka Divya Desams) of the Hindu Vaishnava sect. Situated right behind the main bus stand this temple retains its spartan style and old world rustic charm. Still, even the short visit leaves us feeling tranquil and blessed.
Hungry and thirsty after all the exploration we head back to our car and dig into our packed lunch boxes. You could also head to one of the many restaurants around here that serve the entire range of food options from Indian to Pan Asian to European, Mediterranean, comfort food and across a variety of budget ranges. Hunger satiated we drive down to the Five Rathas monument. The short walk from the parking lot to the monument is lined with art and sculpture shops where you could pick up a range of souvenirs from your trip. An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) managed monument, this comprises a group of five chariot shaped monumens each cut from a single piece of stone and named after one of the five Pandavas and their wife Draupadi from the great Indian epic Mahabaratha. Take along a local guide to know the detailed history of the place, explore the charm of these monuments at your own pace and spend some time at the adjoining garden.
The last and final stop on our trip is the Shore Temple. Standing majestic yet serene at the very edge of the Coromandel Coast this structural temple built with blocks of granite does justice to the axiom of save the best for the last. A pleasant 10-minute walk from the gate to the temple, the location ensures that you are engulfed in the refreshing evening sea breeze throughout your visit here. The temples that have survived the tsunami of December 2004, comprise of three complexes dedicated to the Hindu Gods of Shiva and Vishnu. After soaking in the paradox of twilight serenity by the seashore amidst the teeming crowds, we bid goodbye to this magical town and head back home.
- Reach – Get into Chennai (well connected to all major cities and towns in India and abroad by air, rail, and road. Then hire a car for your drive through scenic ECR.
- Stay – Variety of accommodation options from five star rated ones run by Radisson and Fortune groups to more modest hotels, B&Bs and lodges both within and just outside the town.
- Eat – Variety of options again. Your hotel should have a good restaurant attached. Adyar Ananda Bhavan is a safe and popular bet for a standalone restaurant.
- Get around – It is best to drive around in your own car. Alternately hire an auto rickshaw for the entire sightseeing. Your hotel can help arrange for one.
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