A seaside village that takes your breath away! From beautiful sceneries to ancient monuments, historic temples and unique sculptures, so unique is this town that it’s been referred to as a fabulous “open-air museum” of sculpture. Mahabalipuram is indeed a legacy in stone!

Named more out of gratitude than out of respect for the leader, the city was named Mahabalipuram after the cruel and arrogant King Mahabali who was killed at that location by Lord Vishnu during a fierce battle. Another legend behind the name goes that while the ancient name of the city was ‘Mamallapuram’ it was later changed into Mahabalipura during the reign of King Narsimha Varman I. A very interesting history is associated with the name of the town. It is said that the King Narsima was awarded with a title ‘Mamalla’ meaning ‘the great wrestler’. It was from this title that the name of the city was derived.

Located close to Chennai (Madras) on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, along the Indian eastern coast, Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu is known for its rock carvings, monolithic sculptures and famous shore temple, the only one to have survived the ravages of nature.

A well established sea port during the 7th and 10th centuries, this city was actually the 2nd capital of the Pallava dynasty during which many great poets, artists, artisans, scholars and saints emerged. The Pallavas being the pioneers and forerunners of new styles both in art and architecture, Mahabalipuram was the best place to show off their skill and talent. It was during these glorious years that new artistic and architectural creations were constructed, and many  temples and rock-cut caves built, some even carved out of a single enormous rock!

While the shore temple and five rathas are must visits, other attractions here include Arjuna’s penance, Tiger’s Caves, the crocodile bank, and more.

While earlier it is believed that there were seven magnificent temples what are known as the seven pagodas, built near the sea shore, today only one stands there, others believed to be submerged under the sea. Constructed during the 7th century, it was one of the oldest of the south Indian Temples which were structural temples constructed in the Dravidian style – a temple that is full of designs made by carvings, this has been listed among the world heritage sites of the UNESCO. While it consists of three temples in total, two facing the east and west are dedicated to Lord Shiva while the other one is a Vishnu Temple. The Vishnu temples were built by Narasimha Varman I and the other two were built by Narasimha Varman II.

Built by king Narasimha I, and shaped like that of a huge whale, Arjuna’s penance is a famous rock sculpture known for its carvings of God’s of the triple world, demi-gods, or gods of men, birds and beasts, the Nagas and the Nymphs. Figures of Sun and Moon and other celestial (heavenly beings) are also seen. Other figures include Siddhas, Charnas, Kimpurushas, Kinnara (half-man and half-bird) with musical instruments like cymbals, veena in their hands.

Coming to the panch Rathas, these are a set of rock temples that are excellent examples of the evolution of Dravidian style architecture. Built in the same shape as pagodas, these rathas are built to resemble Buddhist shrines and monasteries and are associated with the great epic Mahabharata. They describe the heroes of Mahabharata with their wife Draupadi which is termed as pancha pandava rathas. The five rathas are (i) Draupadi’s Ratha, (ii) Arjuna’s Rath, (iii) Sahadev’s Rath, (iv) and (v) Dharamraja Yudhistar’s Rath.

The first ratha that is located right by the entrance gate is Draupadi’s Ratha and is dedicated to the goddess Durga. Next is the Arjuna’s Ratha dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Nakul –Sahadev Rath is known for its huge elephant sculptures and is dedicated to the God of Rain, Lord Indra. While the Bhima Ratha is incomplete, one can find many carvings of lions here.  The largest of the Five Rathas is the Dharamraja Yudhistar’s Rath, dedicated to Lord Shiva. A great example of later built South India temples, many innovative and well carved designs can be seen in this Ratha.

Masters of rock-cut mandapams, while the must visit mandapams are the Krishna Mandapam, Mahishasuramardhini Mandapam and Varaha Mandapam, each depicting mythological scenes on it, others include  the Kodikkal Mandapam, Ramanuja Mandapam  and Pancha Pandava Mandapam. Other marvels in rock here are the  Trimurti cave, Koneri cave, Adivaraha Temple, Krishna’s Butter Ball, Replica of Arjuna’s Penance and Sthalasayana Perumal temple each having fascinating sculpting and an interesting story to tell.

While these amazing monuments keep you busy don’t forget to enjoy and relax by the seaside! The Mahabalipuram beach is one of the finest in India lined with casuarinas groves, and is known to provide some spectacular views of the sunrise and sunset. Other attractions here also include the Crocodile Bank, located 14 kilometers from Mahabalipuram that houses several different species of Indian and African alligators and crocodiles that are kept in open pools resembling their natural habitat. Besides the Crocodile Conservation Center, a snake farm also located at this site is the most popular amongst tourists, with the process of extracting the snake venom a popular tourist attraction

So spectacular is this seaside village, that it  has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Whether it is for its architectural marvels carved in rock…its scenic beaches or its rich heritage, this picture perfect place is an ideal getaway for lovers of art.