Places to visit in Mahabalipuram - The Lost City
It was around Christmas in 2004 when the seashore receded about 500 metres in a small town on eastern coast of South India. Tourists and locals who witnessed this swear that the sea revealed a long row of granite boulders which was submerged in the sea. Soon after on the fateful night of 26th December 2004, the world witnessed 3rd largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph and longest duration of 8 to 10 minutes of faulting. This also triggered one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history, a tsunami with waves up to 30 metres (100 feet) high hit coastal areas of Southeast Asia. Once things normalized, under water explorations over a decade confirmed that an entire port city could be submerged under the sea validating the legend surrounding Mahabalipuram. In this travelogue, we take you through the small town that remains of this historical city and guide you with best places to visit in Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is a small beach town around 60 kilometres south of Indian metro city - Chennai along the Bay of Bengal. This town is a popular weekend getaway for the people in Chennai and a great stopover for people travelling to or coming from Pondicherry. There are two interesting legends about the name Mahabalipuram - the first being that of King Mahabali who used to rule here and hence the name. The second being that the Pallava King Narsimha was quite renowned as a wrestler and hence the name Mamalla (which means wrestling) was given to the town to honour him. It is often called a “Lost City” as it is believed that there were seven pagodas or temples on the shores of Mahabalipuram in its heyday around 1300 years ago. All but one (Shore Temple) is what is remains now and rest are submerged in the sea. The town is known for its monuments with intricate stone carvings that date as far back as the 7th century AD. Many of the monuments have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, this town offers its visitors not just a peek into the history but a fabulous beach experience too.
Mahabalipuram from Chennai
We got a chance to visit this town of temples on our trip to Pondicherry (Read about our place of stay, the lovely luxurious beachside resort - LePondy). We started early in morning from Chennai on our rented motorbike. Driving south along the East Coast Road (ECR) was butter smooth owing to the four lane highway. The ride was quite picturesque as we drove parallel to the Bay of Bengal in our left flashing alluring views from time to time. Though the roads are awesome, the sea is not as close to what we saw in Velas, India (Read about the amazing seaside road in Velas, India)
We halted at Kovalam Beach (Yes, there is a less famous Kovalam beach in Tamil Nadu too apart from the more famous Kovalam beach in Kerala) on the way for some rest. Kovalam beach is decently clean and beautiful. We sat on a big log on the beach savouring our packed breakfast. The beach was deserted except a few fishermen getting ready to go fish hunting. Sitting on the beach we charted out our plans to visit a few places in Mahabalipuram before heading to Pondicherry. The smooth sand slipping by our toes, the breeze caressing our hair, the gentle rhythms of the waves, the endless water and sky all becoming one at the far horizon – what could be a more romantic setting for a couple to spend some quiet blissful time together! Beaches provide a deep sense of calm and inspiration.
Back on the road we soon reached Mahabalipuram by about 10 AM. Here are the places we visited in the limited time we had.
Places to visit in Mahabalipuram
Here are key places to visit in Mahabalipuram which can be easily covered in half a day -
Panch Rathas at Mahabalipuram
Panch rathas; meaning ‘Five chariots’ are monolithic structures which resemble the processional chariots of a temple. All these Rathas are believed to be carved out of a single stone. They are named after the five Pandavas and their wife, characters from the Indian mythology. Draupadi Ratha is the smallest of all and looks like a simple hut. Arjuna Ratha is two storeyed and shares a sub-structure with Draupadi Ratha. Bhima Ratha is the biggest of all and is believed to be incomplete. It is oblong in structure and is intended to be dedicated to the reclining form of Vishnu. Yudhisthir Ratha is three storeyed and the most impressive, tallest and sculpturally rich. Finally Nakul-Sahdev Ratha has the least embellishments with an elephant sculpture placed outside the Ratha. It is believed that the Rathas design was never completed because of the death of King Narsimha. The beauty of the rock-cut temples in form of chariots can really mesmerize anyone. One can hire a local guide here to understand the significance of the carvings and the history behind each construction. Truly a masterpiece, this UNESCO heritage site never fails to impress people.
Lighthouse of Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram lighthouse was commissioned in 1887, became functional in 1904 but was open to the public only in 2011. It is supposed to be India’s oldest lighthouse. Reaching the top of the lighthouse is an adventure in itself. There’s a lot of spiral stairs to climb and at some places the steps are so steep and narrow that only one person can climb at a time. But on reaching the top one gets a full panoramic view of the surroundings. The top of lighthouse offers a bird’s eye view of almost entire Mahabalipuram. The Seashore temple is also visible from the top with blue waters of Bay of Bengal in the background.
Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram
The Shore Temple, a Hindu temple was built by King Narasimha in early 8th century and is believed to be the last substantial work of the Pallavas and one of the oldest structural stone temples of South India. Unlike the rest of the temples, this particular site is next to the shores of Bay of Bengal and hence called the Shore Temple. The inside view of the temple is not open to public. The temple is built such that the first rays of the rising Sun falls on the Shiva lingam located on the eastern side of the temple. Around a hundred grand Nandis (sacred bull of Shiva’s realm) surround the sanctum of the temple from all sides. It is said that the Shore temple is the only surviving temple of a set of seven such temples; the rest being submerged in the ocean. The temple has a walkway through vast expanse of green lawns. It is also a venue for the Annual cultural dance festival of India.
Sea Shell Museum of Mahabalipuram
This is our favourite amongst all the highlights of Mahabalipuram. Everyone loves the beautiful shells on the beaches and many people carry them along to their homes, often as a souvenir. Mr. K Raja Mohamed is one such person who has been passionately collecting shells over a period of 33 years from different seabeds of the world. A fish merchant by profession, Mr. Raja's childhood hobby became a passion and later a full fledged hunt to gather the unique treasures hidden in the sea. Without any formal education in Conchology (Study of Shells), Mr. Raja had to make numerous sacrifices to set up Asia's largest and India's first Sea Shell museum, a collection of 40,000 specimens of rare and unique shells from around the world.
The Museum not only houses different kinds of shells, but also educates visitors about this field. We learnt a lot about how shells are made, different kinds of shells, difference between shells, clams, oysters etc. and were left flabbergasted by this vast field full of scientific miracles. All the specimens are well preserved behind a glass frame and showcased with various details for visitors to see. The collections are amazing with beautiful rich colors and varying shapes of all possible varieties. The shells made us wonder if someone went down there into the sea to paint them; it’s hard to believe that they are naturally so beautiful. Shells as big as elephant’s ear and as small as a grain of sand were on display. The photographs of the museum are not great as we could take only our mobiles with us and also the glass gave reflections and glare. But you can click on photographs below to enlarge them and see the varied shapes, designs and read about the shells.
One of the sections that impressed us the most was the story of pearl formation. Different sized, shaped and colored pearls were on display. A few pearls were right inside the oyster shell and were never even extracted. Sea Shell Museum sprawls over an area of one and a half acre that includes an aquarium of ocean fishes and a restaurant that serves sumptuous sea-food though the aquarium and restaurant were undergoing some renovation work when we visited. But the main museum itself was enough to blow our minds as we spent around 2 hours looking at various molluscs we never knew existed. They also have a boutique shop where the most beautiful handicrafts and showpieces were made from shells. We fell in love with the giant mirror below whose frame was made from colorful shells. We left the museum extremely enriched and fascinated by the natural wonders created under the sea. The museum inspired us and is a testimony to what passion of a single person can create. (Click on the photographs below to enlarge them).
We left Mahabalipuram post lunch in awe and splendor. The history, the legend, the museum and shells, it was all too much to take within half a day. We wish we could have planned a night halt in Mahabalipuram as number of seaside resorts have sprouted here in last few years and we felt we could spend more time in this town where time seems frozen. Some other places which are less visited and we too couldn't visit includes some caves, museums, a 7D movie about the history of the region and temples. But it is probably good to skip seeing few things in places you wish to visit again.
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