We’re in Mammalapuram. Often known as Mahabs. Or Mahabalpuram.
There are four or five streets here that form the heart of this little Backpakistan enclave in deepest Tamil Nadu – a community that’s grown into servicing the needs of the backpacker community. Here you’ll find western and seafood restaurants, there are small stores selling washing powder, printed yoga pants, cafes offering american breakfast and free wifi.
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We’re staying in the Vinodhara guesthouse, we have a ground floor room, that sometimes can see the wifi, and that most times can’t.
We have a cold water shower and a bucket in the bathroom. Two single beds are pushed together.
There might have been a TV at some point, but I think it’s in the rusted cabinet now dumped outside in the sitting area.
We’ve rigged our mosquito net to sleep in. There is netting on the windows, but the holes will stop only the biggest, fattest of beasties.
Rick Stein came here and learned how to make Indian Fish Curry, so we eat at the place that he did. And yes, it’s good. Very good. It would be better without the plethora of bones, but the gravy is mouthwatering.
Over the course of our time here, we eat pizza (awful), Indian (poor) and more seafood (not great).
Mostly we seek out free wifi that works at the Bob Marley bar on the ocean front. Here you can find views of the Shore Temple and a fabulous breeze to keep away biting insects.
Mammalapuram (often called Mahabs) was the primary seaport of the Pallava Kingdom who we met in Kanchipuram, the remains on the kingdom here are now Unesco World Heritage Sites. To get here it took us two hours on the ( 29 INR) bus from the T Nagar station in Chennai and then we took a short wander to drop our bags at the hotel.
Here’s a great guide to a heritage walk through Mammalapuram
Getting to the monuments takes a little more determined effort. It would be easy to rent an auto-rickshaw or a pushbike, but the walk isn’t difficult, it’s just starting to get warm here in the south, yes, even in January.
We easily find the Five Rathas, and pay the foreign visitor fee of 250 INR (US$3.94, GBP2.55) that will also get us in to see the Shore Temple later, tickets for domestic visitors are 10 INR.
The temples were carved in the 7th century – each from a single large rock and are dedicated to different Hindu gods, although named after the Pandava brothers – heroes of the Indian epic Mahabhrata. Ratha is Sanskrit for chariot and indicates the temples function as vehicles for the god.
First up is the Draupadi Ratha – dedicated to the goddess Durga (so not one of the brothers then, but their common wife). The lion outside is her animal mount.
Next is the Arjuna Ratha, the most important of the temples here, dedicated to Shiva, with Nandi, the vehicle of Shiva standing behind.
The Bhimia Ratha contains a shrine to Vishnu.
The tallest temple is the Dharmaraja Ratha and includes a large carving of Ardhanarishvara- half Shiva and half Parvati.
My favourite, the Nakula-Sahaeva Ratha, was named after twin Pandavas and is set aside from the others. It’s dedicated to Indra with a magnificent elephant.
It is baking hot and we spend most of the time cowered in whatever shade we can find. My brolly bought during a downpour in Kandy, Sri Lanka becomes a sun shade.
Heading back towards town, we walk through the free to enter area. We explore caves, carvings and the hillside. The lighthouse, however, has a fee (and its extra to use a camera), to take a birds eye view of the surroundings. It’s not worth it, unless you’re into birds eye views.
On we go to Krishna’s Butterball, which despite all efforts remains immovable.
A quick visit to Arjuna’s penance shows us the most spectacular of Mahab’s monuments. It’s one of India’s most superb stone carvings. Having now traveled around a lot of stone carvings in India, I can attest to that.
Also known as Descent of the Ganges, it’s carved on two huge boulders – 29 meters by 13 meters – the relief depicts the story of the descent of the sacred Ganges river to earth from the heavens. The stone work is incredible and the detail lifelike in the extreme.
We leave, but not before we’re amused to be convinced by a domestic tourist to have him take our photo. With Krishna’s butterball behind us and Arjuna’s penance to our left, he turns us round and takes our photo with the park behind us. Still, this could be a photo of us in a random park. Anywhere.
We push on, the money on our ticket runs out at the end of the day. We still have one more site to visit. We pass through the car park, where there’s a reminder that not all buses here have traditional Air Con.
This, now, is the Shore Temple. Standing this Hindu temple has suffered from erosion much more than any other monument here.
It’s also the busiest, with groups of school kids, cutely holding hands and snaking around in an impenetrable line.
I’m followed round by an inquisitive Indian girl, who seems intrigued by me. She doesn’t speak any English and my Hindi is non existent. We smile at each other and she agrees to me taking our photo before we make our escape.
It’s back to Bob Marley’s on the Beach for some breeze, wifi and Kingfisher. And its a bit of respite before we head to the Madras Crocodile Bank to see snakes, alligators and of course, crocs.
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