Looking for things to do in Tamil Nadu? You’ll want to visit the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, one of 40 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.
With an extensive cultural background, a deeply woven mythology with thousands of characters, heavy history of kings, rulers, and their battles, India comes with many traditions, heritages, historical sites, and exquisite monuments.
The exotic culture of India takes pride in every single thing that has been behind by the great rulers of the country and reminds the world of the glorious past that the country features.
And for all good reasons too.
From rich traditions to landscapes, delicious local dishes, and a culture that astounds every soul, India is one of the best countries in the world to add some memorable places to your travel itinerary.
One of the things I was in awe during my visit to India is the architecture.
Fun Facts about Mahabalipuram / Mamallapuram
During my 13-day trip to India back in 2019, aside from Kerala, I had the opportunity to visit Tamil Nadu as well and spend two nights in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram).
One of the things I did in my stay was go on a tour of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram with a local tour guide, Arun.
Here are some of the fun facts I learned about the town:
Mahabalipuram is the first name of the city in honor of King Mahabali. Maha means great king, Bali means sacrifice, and Puram means Village.
They used to sacrifice animals and people.
The second name is Mamallapuram. Ma means Great, Malla means Warrior, Puram means Village.
So the city means Great Warrior Village.
UNESCO World Heritage – Mahabalipuram Monuments
Many buildings and monuments from ancient times stand tall in India posing a gorgeous and awe-inspiring reaction in the hearts of the onlookers.
Similar to Barcelona being home to Gaudi’s buildings, majority of which are UNESCO world heritage sites, so it Mahabalipuram,
One of these wonders is the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, which is a 1.5-hour from Chennai.
The kings of Kanchipuram during the Pallava dynasty built 1008 temples in Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram: 31 temples, 4 different architecture:
- Ratha Temples (Monolithic)
- Cave Temples (Rock Caves)
- Structural Temples (Bas Relief; stone-by-stone)
- Rock Reliefs, plus other rock monuments
All of these completed in 627AD, though the temples are not active anymore.
The Archaeological Survey of India undertook all the temples in 1958.
A UNESCO world heritage, accorded in the year 1984, the monuments Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu is a group of about 40 preserves which are divided into 4 major categories based on their architecture.
The group also features the world’s largest open-air rock or stone relief.
The origin of most of the buildings or structures that are found in Mahabalipuram’s Group of Monuments dates back to 7th and 8th when the reign of Pallava kings was in session.
Directly carved into huge stones, these monuments are one of a kind.
Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram – 12 Monuments in Tamil Nadu
There are over 40 monuments in the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram.
Here are 12 that I got to see during the tour.
Descent of the Ganges
Also known as Arjuna’s Penance or Bhagirath’s Penance, Descent of Ganges is an open-air stone relief in Mahabalipuram, and the largest one in the world.
This was one of my favourite monuments!
The intricate details all in one rock was amazing to see.
Out of the three major kinds of rock relief sculptures, Descent of Ganges features bas-relief carvings where the sculpture rises a few inches from the background from which is carved and stay attached to it.
The Descent of Ganges was carved on two independent rocks or boulders with a cleft measuring 30 meters in length and 15 meters in height, depicting many religious beliefs and incidents from Hindu mythology.
The Hindu, one of the most prominent newspapers in India, has observed this stone relief as “one of the marvels of sculptural art of India.”
Did you know? There are 153 sculptures in the Descent of the Ganges.
There are two different interpretations of the carvings on this sculpture:
One is said to depict Arjuna standing on one leg, indulged into austerity Tapas to please Lord Shiva.
He was seeking to receive a boon from Shiva to gain an upper hand in the battle of Mahabharata.
Arjuna received Pasupata, Shiva’s most powerful weapon, as the boon.
The other interpretation claims that the one in Tapas is a yogi named Bhagirath who is performing severe penance to bring the river Ganges to Earth so that earth can prosper.
River Ganges falls from heaven into Lord Shiva’s hair and gets divided into many small streams that flow to Earth.
One of the 10 ratha temples of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, Ganesha Ratha is a rock temple structure carved out of one huge Pink Granite rock.
It is a prime example of Indian monolithic rock-cut architecture and is allegedly believed to be the first one to be constructed out of the group of ten rathas.
Unlike the Pancha Rathas (5 Chariots), the Ganesha Chariot was completed.
This ratha temple was dedicate to Lord Shiva, initially constructed with a Shiv Lingam (a crypto-crystalline Quartz rock which represents the energy of Lord Shiva).
Though the temple is 1,400 years old, the Ganesh sculpture is 150 years old.
Ganesha Ratha started being associated with the deity Ganesh (son of Lord Shiva) after the removal and replacement of Shiva Linga with an image of Lord Ganesha in the 1880s.
The exteriors of the ratha temple measure 20 x 11.5 feet or 6.1 meters x 3.5 meters with a total height of 28 feet or 8.5 meters.
This three-tiered ratha is covered with several inscriptions and images from Indian mythology which can also be found on other south Indian temples.
The frontage of the temple features a columned designed with dwarpal (guardians or gatekeepers of the temple) sculptures.
You will find many lion sculptures and illustrations in this and many other monuments as they are the typical design or a sign for the Pallava Kings.
There are about 18 different inscriptions in Granth script and Nagari Script from Sanskrit: Granth is a south Indian script.
Nagari is associated with the central-eastern part of the country and is often used as a synonym for the Devnagari script – the script for Hindi and many other languages around the world.
Took 10 years to make, Krishna Mandapam is an unfinished cave temple in the Mahabalipuram Group of Monuments dedicated to the 8th Vishnu reincarnation, Krishna.
Krishna Mandapam is one of the two most important bas-relief architecture in the world.
The other one being Angkor Wat, which is made of sandstone.
A very sophisticated and spacious cave with huge columns and panels, it depicts two figures or scenes from Hindu mythology, Mahabharata, while representing the daily lives of the people of Tamil Nadu in the 7th century.
A very prominent moment from the Krishna arc in Hindu mythology is when he lifts a huge mountain named Govardhana and places it on his little finger alone to save the villagers from the wrath of Indra Dev, the god of rain in Hindu culture.
The villagers gathered under the mountain with their cattle and other belongings until Indra Dev stopped the rain.
Krishna can be seen playing his flute with one hand and holding Mount Govardhan in another in the sculpture while the villagers go about their daily activities around him.
Did you know? Krisna is a playboy with more than 18,000 girlfriends.
There is a young man carved in one section who is pulling his beloved towards him.
The lady is shown to resist him a little bit but she is willing to comply.
Another section depicts a man milking his cow while the cow licks her calf with love.
A milkmaid can be seen carrying a stack of cattle fodder on her neck with a bunch of milk cans.
The rest of the people are carved sitting near Krishna listening to his flute.
Used to be called natural balancing rock, Krishna’s Butterball is very different from the other Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram: a giant granite rock resting on a short incline.
Along with being a UNESCO world heritage site, Krishna’s Butterball is also listed in the protected national monuments of India by Archaeological Survey of India.
Hindu mythology has records of Krishna stealing butter from the butter handi of his mother.
The boulder measures 6 meters in height and 5 meters in width and weighs 250 tonnes.
It was designed with a perfectly balanced spherical base and called Tanjavur Bommai.
Did you know? Inspired by the balance of this huge boulder on a slope, another Tamil King Raja Raj Chola created a kind of mud doll that never falls.
It is said that Pallava king Narasimhavarman tried to get the boulder moved from its place but failed.
Another attempt to move the boulder was made by 1908 city governor, Arthur Havelock, using seven elephants but reaped no results.
Mahishasuramardini Mandapa Cave
Located in the southern part of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, Mahishamardini mandapa or Mahishasuramardini cave is the ultimate representation of Tamil temple rock art.
It is said to be the most intricate carvings in the whole historical city of Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram.
There are several panels in this temple and the sculptures follow the storyline or narration of the Markandeya Purana.
The temple gained its name for the carvings of Mahishasuramardini legend rock relief on the north wall.
The mandapa has 3 shrines which makes it popular apart from the northern wall of Mahishasuramardini legend.
All three of them are connected to the central hall with a trapezoid shape.
The central shrine has a huge rock relief which represents Lord Shiva sitting in a Sukhasana yoga posture while Devi Parvati sits next to him with baby Skanda in her lap.
Lord Vishnu, Lord Brahma, and Suryadev can be seen standing behind them.
Also known as Mahabalipuram Lighthouse, Pallava Lighthouse is located near the oldest lighthouse of India constructed by Pallava kings and is a nationally-protected monument by Archaeological Survey of India.
While the old lighthouse known as Olakkannesvara Temple or Iswara Temple has several intricate carvings on its walls, the new lighthouse follows the basic architectural structure of a modern lighthouse.
The lighthouse was made in 1887 with natural stone, constructed on a hillock which can be accessed by a steep wooden staircase.
The lighthouse is fenced on all sides. You will get wonderful views of the beach and the Olakkannesvara Temple at the top of the lighthouse.
The oldest lighthouse in India and a protected monument by Archaeological Survey of India, Olakkannesvara or Iswara Temple is one of the most beautiful structures in the Group of Mahabalipuram Monuments.
The temple was constructed in the 8th century by Pallava kings.
The four outer walls of the temple depict Lord Shiva in four different forms.
I was amazed seeing how the Iswara temple was on top of the Mahishasuramardini Mandapa Cave.
The south wall has Shiva in the form of Dakshinamurthi, while the north wall has a carving of Shiva as Natraj.
The west wall has Parvati and Shiva sitting on Mount Kailash and Ravana is shown trying to shake the mountain.
The last sculpture is of Shiva as Kaala (Yama).
Olakkanesvara is a structural temple or lighthouse and the name translates to “flame eyes”.
Back in the 7th and 8th centuries when Pallava kings ruled the southern land of India, Mahabalipuram used to be a very busy port.
Bonfires were lit on the hillock on which the lighthouse is constructed to guide the marines in the night-time.
These bonfires were lit on the roof of the temple which may have gained it the name “flame eyes”.
There used to be a Shiva Linga in the temple which was later stolen somewhere around the 18th century according to the local lore.
Pancha Rathas or 5 Chariots
As evident by the name, Pancha Rathas is a group of 5 chariot monolithic sculptured monuments.
Each of the 5 chariots is carved on a single boulder and is a representation of the original chariots of the 5 Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi, which is based on the story of Mahabharata and Ramayana in India.
Did you know? The rathas used to be black but the chemicals for presevation changed its color.
- Dharmaraja Ratha which is of the eldest brother Yudhishthira. This ratha is devoted to Ardhanarisvara (half Lord Shiva and half his wife Parvati) and has lions in its pillars. The roof is Kerala style.
- Bhima Ratha which is of the second eldest brother Bhima. This ratha is devoted to Lord Vishnu (without his transport eagle) and uses Buddhist and South Indian style. The top of the ratha resembles a houesboat.
- Arjun Ratha for the third eldest brother, Arjun. This South Indian (Dravidian) style ratha is devoted to Lord Shiva whose mount is a bull which you’ll also find a sculpture of.
- Nakula Sahadeva Ratha for the youngest two brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva. This ratha is devoted to Lord Indra, rain god, whose transport is an elephant, which is why you’ll find a sculpture of it too.
- Draupadi Ratha for the wife of 5 Pandava brothers, Draupadi. This ratha is dedicated to Goddess Durga, the sun god, whose transport is a horse.
The construction of these rathas was never completed because of the war and hence the purpose of the construction also remained a secret.
These monoliths are carved in Pink Granite rocks and every single one has a unique shape, size, and design, all inspired by Dravidian architecture.
There are several other sculptures positioned among the rathas including an Elephant near Bhima and Arjuna rathas, a Bull behind the Arjuna ratha, and a Lion in front of Arjuna and Draupadi ratha.
The Pancha Rathas are located on the coast of Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu which means that the monuments have to tackle a lot of salty winds from the sea.
But thanks to the sturdiness of the Pink Granite stone, they have maintained their structure over all these years.
Panchapandava Cave Temple
Pancha Pandava Cave Temple is the largest monument in the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram among the UNESCO world heritage sites.
However, the temple is unfinished.
It is located near the bas-relief of Descent of Ganges or Arjuna’s Penance and is seen as one of the finest examples of India’s rock-cut architecture.
Another example of typical Pallava building design, the entrance to the cave has 6 pillars that rest on the heads of seated lions.
The inner chamber of the cave has 4 pillars and 2 pilasters standing parallel to the ones on the entrance.
Behind the second line of pillars and the verandah is an octagonal shaped chamber that can be used to deduce that the cave temple was initially meant to have a square design or plan.
But since the construction never finished, there is no certainty of that fact either.
The cornice at the entrance has 4 shrines and each one of these 4 shrines houses a smaller similar shrine.
The roof of these shrines is carved in the horseshoe-like projections.
Not walking distance from most of the Group of Monuments at Mamallapuram, the Shore Temple is named for the fact that it faces the shore of the Bay of Bengal.
This majestic temple is built with stone-by-stone architecture and is the oldest seaside temple in South India.
Even to this day, Shore Temple gets eroded by the seawater.
The legend associated with the Shore Temple includes Hiranyakasipu and his son, Prahlada.
Hiranyakasipu did not believe that the power of Lord Vishnu is greater than his own and hence did not worship him.
While his son Prahlada was a huge devotee of Lord Vishnu, Hiranyakashipu, angry and jealous, tried to banish and kill Prahlada several times but failed as he had the protection of Lord Vishnu with him.
The climax of the legend says that an angry Hiranyakasipu tried to prove Prahlada’s theory of Lord Vishnu being omnipresent by breaking a pillar.
As soon as he did that, Vishnu emerges from the pillar in the form of Narsimha (body of a man with the head of a lion) and killed Hiranyakasipu.
It is said that, later, the son of Prahlada, Bali, founded the Seven Pagodas of which Shore Temple is a part of.
These seven pagodas were under sea level. In 1974, the prime minister of India built a wall to protect the Shore Temple.
But during the 2004 tsunami, people found these underground temples made in Chinese pagoda style (the Seven Pagodas).
Did you know? Sea Shore Temple used to be called Seven Pagodas because of these seven temples. It was changed to Shore Temple because it’s in the sea shore.
Several unique structures can be found near the temple including an incomplete monolith of a lion and a miniature shrine.
Parvati’s ride is a lion so there is a lion statue with a small Parvati temple inside.
There are three different shrines in the Shore Temple complex which are all built as per the same layout.
Facing sunrise and sunset, the east and west shrines are dedicated to Lord Shiva because the Ishvara religion prays to Shiva.
Did you know? The sunset-facing Shiva temple had its lingam stolen by the British. Now, the linga resides in a British temple.
The middle and smallest shrine is dedicated to Lord Vishnu because the Vaishnavism religion prays to Vishnu.
The rising towers of the temple have a pyramidical outline which is quite different from other temples of the same nature.
The top of the temples resembles the design of Pancha Rathas.
Hindu religion has its own holy trinity which is consisted of three god-like figures – Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Mahesh (better known as Lord Shiva, the destroyer).
Constructed somewhere around the early 8th century and located on the north end of the Mahabalipuram site near Krishna Butterball, The Trimurti (or three-figure) Temple is dedicated to this Holy Trinity of Hinduism.
This cave at the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram is one of the very few caves in India which is categorized as complete.
The backside of Trimurti Cave features intricate carvings of elephants on it.
All three shrines of the temple have separate staircases leading to them and all three shrines have figures or sculptures of dwarpals (gatekeepers) on the entrance.
Another temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu at the Group of Monuments at Mamallapuram, Varaha Cave Temple (or Varah Mandapa) is a rock-cut out the temple.
Located on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu, the Varaha Temple represents the legend of the Boar incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
A demon named Hiranyakasha stole the Earth or the Bhudevi and hid her somewhere deep in the ocean.
This is when Lord Vishnu took on the form of a boar and came to rescue the Earth from the cosmic ocean, which makes an appearance in many different mythologies around the world with the same concept of primordial water enveloping the earth.
The Varaha Cave was constructed in the 7th century and was carved from a single Pink Granite stone.
There are two columns at the opening with the same persisting typical design of Pallava kings, resting on the heads of lions.
The inner cavity of the cave many prominent carvings with Vishnu rescuing Bhudevi, Vishnu taking three strides, Durga and Gaja Lakshmi being the most impressive ones.
For architecture lovers, history buffs, or even just travel enthusiasts, The Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram has something to make the trip worth it.
The Monuments of Mahabalipuram unfold many different historical, cultural, mythological, and archaeological fact about a country with one of the richest cultural history in the world.
In other words, it is a traveler’s heaven!