Mahabalipuram – Temples by the Ocean
February 1, 2016
One of our favorite day trips when we were in Chennai, India, a few years ago was to visit Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram is an ancient historic town with beautiful monuments and temples that has made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along the way we stopped at DakshinaChitra, which is a museum and heritage village depicting the culture and heritage of South India. We also stopped at Tiger Cave, a site that we didn’t know what to expect to see since our guide didn’t tell us anything about it other than its name. After a long day of touring monuments and temples, we stopped at a Radisson Resort to enjoy a nice meal at their restaurant while watching the waves break on the beach.
To be clear, we did not attempt to drive while we were in India. The traffic is far too chaotic, with the constant blasts of horns, not used in anger, but meant to let other drivers know where you are and what you’re doing. Sort of “hey, I’m coming up behind you on your right” instead of “get out of my way”. We hired a driver from our hotel who took us around Chennai and drove us on our excursions, acting as a personal tour guide for us. We headed south out of Chennai, out of the hectic city traffic, and onto the highways following the coastline towards Mahabalipuram. Before we started, our driver let us know that there would be several tolls along the way, so we prepaid him so that he could pay as we passed through each of them.
Our first stop was at DakshinaChitra, which means “a picture of the south”. We had a wonderful time wandering through the village, where each section of the 10 acre site represents a different portion of southern India. Each is meant to represent the culture of the region, from art, clothing, typical homes, etc. Even though they are merely representations, it is still a site worth visiting and walking through the Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh sections. The Kerala section features a Hindu house and granary and textile exhibition. The Tamil Nadu section features a merchant’s house with basket weavers and art exhibits. Those are two largest sections, but we had a wonderful time on our self-guided tour of the whole site.
Next was our stop at Tiger Cave. On the way, we conjectured that we might be seeing some sort of zoo with tigers or perhaps a giant cave with tigers carved into its walls. It turned out to be closer to the latter, but still not what we expected. It is a Hindu temple complex located on the Bay of Bengal. There is a cave with the heads of tigers carved into the mouth of it, but the site is all about the temples. When the waters of the tsunami of 2004 receded, more temples were revealed, which is the only good that could have possibly come out of that horrific event. They are still excavating new temples and monuments today, which is quite exciting to see. As you enter the site, tour guides approach you and you negotiate the price that you’re willing to pay for your tour. Our driver had told us what the maximum amount that we should pay should be, although we’d read similar information online. Once the amount was agreed upon, our guide took us through the complex, providing history on the ancient temples and carvings, which are over two thousand years old. It was quite interesting, but just a slight build-up to what we’d see when we reached Mahabalipuram.
Upon arrival at Mahabalipuram, our driver found us a tour guide, which again we had to negotiate the price we would pay for our tour. It is hard to describe how beautiful the temples and monuments are when you see them in person. Throughout our trip to India, we rarely saw any westerners, and even at such a tourist site as this, it continued to be the case. There were so many interesting things to see, from Krishna’s Butter Ball, which is a huge boulder that balances on the side of hill, seemingly defying gravity. Its name comes from Hindu mythology where Krishna’s love of butter as a child, stealing butter from his mother’s butter jar. Legend has it that several kings tried to pull the stone down the hill using elephants, but the stone wouldn’t budge.
There are several important structures at the site. There is the Thirukadalmallai temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Bagiratha’s Penance, which is a giant rock relief. Vahara Cave Temple, which again isn’t really a cave, but giant rock that has been carved out with sculptures carved into its walls. The Shore Temple with its beautiful views of the Bay of Bengal. And Pancha Rathas or Five Chariots, which are five enormous pyramid-like structures, each carved from a single stone. The carvings on each of the temples and monuments represent stories meant to glorify the gods. Our guide took time to explain each of them to us as we were overwhelmed with the amazing Hindu mythology. There is so much to see and take in that a single visit to Mahabalipuram probably doesn’t do it justice, but unfortunately we only had time for a single visit.
When our tour was complete, our driver decided that he and the tour guide would grab a quick meal so that we could have time to do “some souvenir shopping” at the store of a relative of our tour guide. It was a little frustrating, we didn’t want tourist trinkets and the collusion between our guide and driver to try and make us feel obligated to buy something was all to obvious. Shortly, however, we were on the road back towards Chennai where we stopped at the Radisson for a late lunch. It was actually a beautiful resort and was actually one of the only non-Indian meals that we had during our time in India. After relaxing at the beach bar for a little while, it became apparent why this area is a destination for beach lovers wanting to enjoy some relaxing time by the Indian Ocean.
As we drove back into Chennai, we kept seeing what looked like bodies being hung in effigy from the roofs of several buildings. We knew that the elections had happened just prior to our arrival and that there were some protests (will tell you about our arrival at the Chennai airport in another post), so we thought that they might be related to that. We asked our driver and were surprised to learn that they were there to keep bad spirits from inhabiting new construction before it is completed, thus bringing the owners bad luck and misfortune. We didn’t take any pictures of them, not wanting to get any bad luck ourselves for doing so. All in all, it was an incredible day, full of exploration, learning, and appreciation for India’s rich culture. If you make it to southern India, whether to Chennai or to Pondicherry, you should definitely make your way to Mahabalipuram for an experience that you’ll never forget.