Mamallapuram and Dakshina Chitra: Tamil heritage through the ages

Mamallapuram, previously called Mahabalipuram, is a top tourist destination in Tamil Nadu. The town draws scores of visitors due to a large area covered with temples and stunning sculptures from the 7th and 8th centuries. Although it’s a coastal town, the beaches aren’t great. Mamallapuram is an obligatory stop if you head from Chennai to Puducherry. Dakshina Chitra, a large ethnographic park located just a short ride from Mamallapuram, is worth a visit if you have more than a day to spare.

A patio of a traditional Tamil, tiled roof, one storied building with a collonaded porch at the Dakshina Chitra ethnographic part
A patio of a traditional Tamil household at the Dakshina Chitra ethnographic museum

Mamallapuram on a budget

We decided not to book any accommodation, but find a cheap and decent room upon our arrival. We saw first a dark, old, small and dirty room for 600 rupees. Then, we checked out the room, which in Book my trip, the Indian version of Booking.com, cost 450 rupees. We were shown an old but clean and spacious en-suite room with a window and asked to pay 600. Eventually, we settled on 500, which was good enough for us.

A typical budget room in India, with a bed, low table and bars in the window
A classic Indian budget room: old and basic

There was plenty of very budget (street eateries) and budget (clean but simple local restaurants) dining options nearby. Getting some fruit from street stalls wasn’t a problem either.

Minor attractions around Mamallapuram

A rather repulsive beach

It was hot when we arrived, so we postponed a walk to the beach till the afternoon. We didn’t want to visit the UNESCO sites on Sunday, knowing they’d be busy with the locals. Also, we preferred to see them early in the morning when the temperatures are lower. We didn’t know if the sea was swimmable as I read conflicting information on the forums. Mamallapuram has two beaches, divided by the grounds of the famous Shore Temple.

We went to see the smaller one (on the left of the temple) first as it was closer to our guesthouse. As soon as I arrived at the beach, I knew the discussion about the undertows and currents would be irrelevant for me. The beach was mostly the fishermen domain. Boats and nets were all over it. That alone would make it unswimmable for me, but there were also tons of garbage on the sand. This beach drew a strange mixture of people. The fishermen were fixing their fishing nets, while Indian tourists sat in the water, fully dressed. Meanwhile, a few foreign tourists were swimming in the sea in their beachwear.

Sandy beach filled with fishing boats and nets in Mamallapuram
Beach for fishermen rather than beach goers

We saw on Maps.me app a path encircling the Shore Temple and leading to the second beach. Please, don’t make the mistake of taking it. The narrow path leading between the rocks and the fence was dotted with dog and human poo, while the last section was simply an enormous open-air toilet. The shore temple – on Sunday afternoon teeming with local tourists – was visible from the path.

A pyramidal tower of 7th century stone Shore Temple is visible through the fence and cactuses in Mamallapuram
You can get a glimpse of Shore Temple for free through the fence

What awaited us on the other side of the peninsula was even worse. The beach seemed to have more garbage than sand. Plenty of stalls selling snacks and drinks were set almost directly on the beach. The crowd was immense. The whole atmosphere very much reminded me of Puri in Orissa. I walked in my flip-flops, disgusted with every step I had to take to get me out of there.

Sunday afternoon at the small beach in Mamallapuram, filled with locals entering the sea or sitting on the sand
Other side of Mamallapuram beach is popular wih the locals

Dakshina Chitra open-air ethnographic museum

We left visiting the UNESCO sites of Mamallapuram for our last day and chose to see Dakshina Chitra first. This large, open-air museum with original houses from the southern states of India is located just 25km from Mamallapuram.

Getting there was easy: we took a bus from the Mahabalipuram bus stand. The entrance cost 250 rupees for me and-unusually- a similar amount (100) for Sayak, an Indian passport holder. The museum was almost empty on a working day.

A wooden, fold sculpture of a white horse at the Dakshina Chitra ethnographic museum
Dakshina Chitra exhibits plenty of sculpture and handicrafs as well

I didn’t expect just how big that open-air, living ethnographic park was. The buildings were scattered over the green, shady area. There were sections devoted to four southern states: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Unsurprisingly, the Tamil Nadu part was the most extensive. I was used to folk museums with simple huts depicting the life of peasants, but Dakshina Chitra was the opposite. The vast majority of the buildings belonged to affluent families. Those were not reconstructions but originals edifices, painstakingly transported and renovated.

A reconstruction of a old-time Tamil town with one-storey buildings with a porch at the Dakshina Chitra ethnographic museum
Traditional Tamil buildings at Dakshina Chitra open-air museum

I thoroughly enjoyed all the exhibits and informative explanations. We could even watch short movies presenting religious rituals or customs. The museum strived to show the lives of all ethnic and religious groups: Keralan Syrian Christians, Sufis from Karnataka, Tamil brahmins and many more. It took us 4.5 hours to see the whole museum without a hurry (including watching the introductory video). It was a ‘living’ museum which means we could watch a potter and a weaver at work. We could also engage in various activities, such as drawing a rangoli pattern with chalk, making pottery, weaving a small basket, etc.). It came with a small fee (10-50 rupees).

An elderly potter wearing lungi works at the potter's wheel at the Dakshina Chitra open-air museum in Tamil Nadu
At Dakshina Chitra, you can watch a potter at work or try to do it yourself

We finished sightseeing around 4pm, had a late lunch in a restaurant outside (cheaper than in the museum) and took a bus to the second place I wanted to visit.

Tiger Cave

We got off the bus one stop before the parking lot to the Tiger Cave. That allowed us to see rather unimpressive, freshly excavated remnants of a temple. Following a laid-out path, we soon reached a Shiva temple cut in a boulder. There was a statue of a bull and a small bas-relief facing the temple. We had all the temple for ourselves.

A 7th century small Siva temple cut in stone stands in a pine forest near Mamallapuram
An ancient Siva temple near Tiger Cave

It was such a serene location. We enjoyed the shade and calming beauty of a pine forest, listening to the sound of the sea in the distance. Some locals were lying on the grass, relaxing. After a 2-3 minutes walk, we reached the most important building, the Tiger Cave. It wasn’t a cave but a sculpted boulder decorated with multiple carvings of great cat faces. It used to be a viewing platform of the kings of the Pallava dynasty. If you haven’t started your visit with the Mamallapuram archaeological site, it would undoubtedly impress you, as it did impress us.

Tiger Cave- a large bulder sculpted with images of lions stands in a shade of trees near Mamallapuram
The Tiger Cave

I naively hoped that the seaside here would be in better shape than in Mamallapuram. It wasn’t. We walked past a carousel and snack sellers, through a garbage-strewn path to the beach. The sand was as full of trash (including a used nappy) as the day before. I did step into the sea, though, as the water contamination couldn’t be that bad, far away from human settlements.

We had no problem catching a brown bus back to the town.

Carousels, snack stalls and stray dogs on a beach near Tiger Cave in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu.
Beach near Tiger Cave

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Mamallapuram?
Any bus going from Chennai to Puducherry via ECR (East Coast Rd) would stop 1km from the city centre, on the outskirts of Mamallapuram.

How to get to Dakshina Chitra and Tiger Cave?
Take a brown bus no. 588 or bus no.109 from the Mahaballipuram bus stand . It stops in front of the entrance to the museum and a short walk from the Tiger Cave.

Prices [in Indian rupees as of February 2019]
600 foreigner entrance fee to Mamallapuram
500 accommodation in a very basic, old en-suite room
250 foreigner entrance fee to Dakshina Chitra
142 bus Puduchery – Mamallapuram
100 veg thali in a decent restaurant (not roadside)
60 5-litre bottle of water
40 juice from a street stall
33 bus Mamallapuram – Dakshina Chitra
15 bus Mamallapuram – Tiger Cave
10 chai from a street stall

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