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Iconic Tourist Site: Mahabalipuram

  • 18 Jun 2022

Mahabalipuram, also known as the Seven Pagodas, is a historic town situated in northeast Tamil Nadu. It lies along the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal towards the south of Chennai. The religious centre of the town was founded in the 7th century CE. It was founded by the Hindu Pallava king, Narasimhavarman, who was also known as Mamalla, after whom the town was named. It was during their reign that they created beautiful sculptures and rock-cut cave temples reflecting the Pallava architecture, whose remains still exist.

The place is embellished with several Pallava temples and monuments that include the Arjuna’s Penance, the descent of the Ganges (a series of sculptured cave temples) and a Shiva temple on the seashore. These sites play a pivotal role in the history of Mahabalipuram. The place also harbours the five famous rathas that are also called the monolithic temples. These are the remnants of seven temples, thus the reason behind the town being named Seven Pagodas. This entire assemblage was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in the year 1984.

Mahabalipuram is also a resort and a tourist centre. It has several ancient monuments and temples, along with an extensive beach that houses a lot of resorts and cabins for tourists.

History of Mahabalipuram

Neolithic burials have been excavated near Mahabalipuram. The city was earlier a seaport as coins from China, Persia, and Romania were found here, which is evidence of showing that this region was active when it came to global sea trade during that period. Two Pallava coins that read ‘Srihari’ and ‘Srinidhi’ have also been found in this region.

The Pallava kings ruled Mahabalipuram for a long time. They ruled this region from around the 3rd century to the 9th century CE. And the region was used for trade purposes with Sri Lanka and South-East Asia.


In Indian architecture, the monuments present at Mahabalipuram occupy a very special position in history. The beautiful sculptures and temples show the highest quality of craftsmanship in the region. The monuments in this region are divided into 5 categories.

1. Mandapa Rock-cut Caves

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When Narasimhavarman was ruling the region, cave temples such as these were constructed as it was considered to be an innovation. Some of the prominent examples of cave temples include – Koneri Mandapam, Mahishamardini Cave, Bhuvaraha, Gajalakshmi, Trivikrama, Durga and Varaha Mandapa. These beautiful cave temples are known for their grace and mesmerising architecture.

2. Rathas Monolithic Temples

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Pancha Rathas is a monument famous for its design and significance in Mahabalipuram. Also like the Monolithic temples, every Ratha in the complex resembles a stone-cut chariot. These are named after five Pandava brothers and their common wife: Dharmaraj Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjun Ratha, Nakul-Sahdev Ratha and Draupadi Rath. These rock-cut chariots display characteristics of contemporary temples. These Rathas are carved with artistic motifs that show Hindu gods and royalties of the time.

3. Rock Reliefs

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The rock reliefs are known to be an important creation that was created during the rule of Narasimhavarman. Four such rock reliefs can be found in the region of Mahabalipuram. And the most important of them all are Arjuna's Penance and Govardhan Dhari.

4. Temples

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Under King Rajasimha’s rule, the concept of structural architecture at a very large level was introduced. The earliest of this kind of temple is the Mukunda Nayanar temple, followed by the Olakkanesvara temple. Among these, the Shore Temple is known to have the most beautiful layout.

Mukunda Nayanar Temple

Olakkanesvara Temple

5. Excavated Remains

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Around the Shore temple, the existence of some buried structures can be seen. Unique among these structures are- a miniature shrine, a Bhuvaraha image, a reclining image of Vishnu, and a well from Pallava King Narasimhavarman Rajasimha’s reign.

Places to visit in Mahabalipuram

1. Arjuna’s Penance

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It is an open-air sculpture and it shows the various events that took place during Arjuna’s penance. Carved on two big rocks, and the height of these two rocks is around 43 feet. The top of this rock used to be a collecting pool during ancient times. The sculpting on the rock is very intricate and detailed and cannot be found anywhere else in India. It is one of the largest rock-cut reliefs to be found in the entire world and also one of the most popular places to be visited in Mahabalipuram. The art done in the 7th century gives it a distinct shape and structure.

2. Thirukadalmallai

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Thirukadalmallai also known as Sri Sthala Sayana Perumal Temple is dedicated to Lord Sthalasayana Perumal (Vishnu) and Goddess Nilamangai Thayar (Lakshmi) and is among the 108 Divyadesam. Divya Desams are the 108 temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The Divya Desam temples of Mahabalipuram were built by the Pallavas in the 8th century BC. With its exquisite carving, it is considered one of the most sought-after of all the tourist places in Mahabalipuram. Thirukadalmallai is one of the perfect examples of Dravidian architectural style.

3. Cave Temples

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There are a total of 8 rock-cut cave temples in Mahabalipuram. All the temples that have been built here have great detailing of rock cuts. Different sculptures here are dedicated to different deities and are known to be great pieces of art. Some of the well-known cave temples here include – Tiger, Kotikal, Trimurti, Varaha and Krishna.

4. Shore Temples

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Shore temples is a group of temples where one can spot a lot of tourists. There are a few temples that are located deep inside the water. Tourists can visit them by cruise to discover those temples located underwater. For the local people around, this temple holds great importance and when the level of the water is low, all the temples that are located underwater come above the surface. As these temples are located near the Bay of Bengal. These temples were constructed by the kings of the Pallava dynasty in the 8th century AD.

5. See the largest collection of Seashells

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The Indian seashell museum and aquarium is known to be the largest seashell museum in India. This is a museum known to provide a beautiful ambience to the tourists. It also gives a great way to understand and learn about marine life. Tourists from all across the world can learn about marine life. This complex has a variety of 40,000 rare and unique shells along with a large collection of fossils, fins and shark teeth. This museum is spread over an area of 2 acres. Not only this, but this museum also has a bazaar, which is known as the Maya bazaar.

From this bazaar, tourists can buy various things which are made from pearls, seashells and a lot of unique artefacts. One can also find a restaurant here which offers scrumptious dishes and serves delicious seafood and awesome desserts.

6. Dakshinachitra Museum

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This museum is located on the outskirts of Mahabalipuram. For people who wish to explore the calm and beautiful life of Mahabalipuram, this is the place to be. This place displays the art and craft along with the architecture and the lifestyle of south India. One can see 18 historic houses with unique designs here. During your visit here, you can surely learn about the culture of south India.

7. Mahishasura Mardini Cave Temple

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Mahishasura Mardini Cave Temple is located at the top of a hill with a picturesque view. This temple is also known as Yampuri and has a beautiful rock-cut structure. This temple is from the 7th century and is amongst the most mesmerising places to visit in Mahabalipuram. It is engraved with carvings of Hindu mythology. One can see the seven hooded serpents of Lord Vishnu, and Goddess Durga can also be seen sitting on her lion as she kills the demon Mahishasura. This temple also depicts Puranas on the walls of the cave.

8. Ganesh Ratha Temple

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Ganesh Ratha Temple is a great example of Indian architecture. It was formed using just one element and was also constructed in the 7th century. This temple was built in the reign of Mahendravarman. Ganesh Ratha Temple is devoted to Lord Shiva, it is also said that the temple used to have Shiva linga inside. But it was later removed due to some reason. Presently, this temple has idols ascribed to Lord Ganesha and thousands of pilgrims gather together to worship him.

9. Mamallapuram Dance Festival

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Mamallapuram Dance Festival is one of the finest cultural festivals that is celebrated in the town. This festival is celebrated every year in December or January. The date varies every year. This festival displays the art of poise and elegance through the various dance forms of our country. Amongst all the dance festivals that take place in India, Mamallapuram Dance Festival focuses especially on the dance forms from South India. It also presents to its audience with various dance forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam. This festival lasts upto 4 weeks. The main highlight of this festival is the venue of this festival. Surrounded by some of the most famous attractions this venue has the perfect backdrop.

10. Pancha Rathas

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Located at the southern end of Mahabalipuram, Pancha Rathas displays great architecture with intricate carvings. The five chariots, also known as Panch Rathas, are great examples of Dravidian architecture in the region. All the five chariots are named after the five Pandavas. The sculpture of the Goddess Durga at the entrance exhibits the charismatic charm of the place. Moving ahead, the Arjuna Ratha along with the other four Rathas have images of Gods, Goddesses and humans inscribed on them.

Mahabalipuram is all about irresistible beaches, beautiful water and historical attractions. It is amongst the most beautiful coastal towns known for its popularity and beautiful heritage sites. Mahabalipuram is a dynamic tourist spot with its ancient monuments, glorious history, modern cafes and restaurants offering a breathtaking oceanfront to enjoy the sun. While you can revel and enjoy great seafood, you can dedicate your afternoon to beautiful historical sights. If you plan this entire trip in the right way, this place can be one holistic experience for you.

 Shrishti Gupta 

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