Located on the Bay of Bengal 60km south of Chennai, the village itself is World Heritage listed. An enchanting little seaside town, Mamallapuram is easily explored on foot or bike. It’s easy to see why a good many business travellers to Chennai head here after their meetings to relax.
Most of the stone carvings, temples and manapams in Mamallapuram date to the Pallava dynasty of the 7th and 8th centuries. The sculptures have all been carved from the rock of the natural landscape – much of it granite – and are considered to be the oldest existing examples of Dravidian architecture.
The bas-reliefs are as extraordinary for the skill with which they’re made as for their depiction of ordinary life. Whereas much stonework of the time depicts complex religious symbolism, in Mamallapuram, the ancient carvings show such everyday scenes as women milking buffalo.
Stone carving is by no means just an ancient art in Mamallapuram. Some of the world’s best stone carvers still chip away at their wares in the city today and are internationally renowned for their work.
Mamallapuram hosts an important annual dance festival that showcases native dancing from throughout India for a month every December to January.
When to go:
The best time to visit Mamallapuram is from November to February when the weather is most pleasant. Tourist activities are severely hampered from June to September by hot and humid weather accompanied by heavy rainfall.
- Head straight to Arjuna’s Penance, the world’s largest bas-relief. Also known as the Descent of the Ganges, the relief depicts the legend of the descent of the Ganges from heaven to earth. Detailed carvings include realistic images of gods, demigods, people, elephants and monkeys.
- Wander past the Shore Temple, one of the oldest temples in south India. Originally built in the 8th century and facing the Bay of Bengal, it has suffered some erosion but remains a magnificent sight today.
- Marvel at the Five Rathas, which are rock-cut temples named after the Pandava brothers and Draupadi of the Indian epic Mahabharatha. Four of the five rathas are believed to have been carved from a single rock formation.
- Walk over the main hill to see many mandapams, including the most impressive one, Krishna Mandapa, depicting a lifelike scene of Lord Krishna.
- Dare to stand under Krishna’s Butterball, a giant boulder perched seemingly precariously on the slope of a hill. It is a natural phenomenon that seems to defy all the laws of physics.
- Pop into the Sculpture Museum to see more than 3,000 sculptures in stone, wood and metal.
- Hire a local boat (and captain) to go fishing.
- Take a walk on the beautiful sandy beach.
- Gorge yourself on the exquisite seafood at The Wharf, listed as one of the best restaurants in Asia by the Miele guide.
- Explore the town by night, when all the stone work is lit up. It’s a magical experience.