Mamallapuram (part two): among ancient temples

Mamallapuram is most famous for a group of monuments dating from 7-8th century. The entire complex was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Amazingly, this vast area covered with ancient masterpieces is mostly free to visit.

Arjuna's Penance: two boulders entirely covered in reliefs including human-serpent forms, a yogi, elephants and other divine and animal figures
Arjuna’s penance, the most famous relief of the ancient Mamallapuram

Mamallapuram UNESCO site

The majority of Mamallapuram monuments are free to visit. The only exeptions are Shore Temple and the Five Rathas. However, if you don’t want to spend $8 for a ticket, you could easily see those monuments through a fence. I recommend visiting the site on a working day to avoid crowds of local tourists. Early start is a great choice both because of the volume of visitors and the weather. There isn’t any shadow in the entire area. There are a couple more interesting places outside of the town which are also worth a visit.

A row of stone bulls leads towards the pyramid-shaped Shore Temple in Mamallapuram
Shore Temple – one of ticketed sights

Shore Temple

We woke up at 5.30 am to see the sunrise above the Shore Temple. We reached the ticket counter at 6.10 am. It was still quite dark with no trace of sun, so we thought our effort was in vain. Only us and three men were at the temple grounds. We were a bit disappointed to realise entering the temple wasn’t possible due to renovation. We almost finished when we suddenly saw an orange ball rising above the trees from behind the temple. In this light, the building loooked much more appealing. We were already done with the photo session by the time tourists started flooding in.

A two pyramid towers of the Shore temple at dawn
Shore Temple at dawn

We hurried to the following site, knowing we could be the first ones there. Mamallapuram was small enough to see all the monuments by walking. Ignore offers of tuk-tuk drivers- you wouldn’t need them. From the Shore Temple, we walked to the second ticketed attraction – the five rathas. It is the most distant group of monuments in the complex. On our way, we saw a botched ancient copy of Arjuna’s penance. It looked good to us, but only because we hadn’t seen the original yet.

Two boulders covered with ancient reliefs and a modern lighthouse rising from behind in Mamallapuram
A botched version of Arjuna’s Penance on the way to five rathas

Five rathas

Just as expected, we were the first ones to arrive at the five rathas (charriots). Each chariot was cut from just one piece of rock. The monuments were placed in a row, close to one another. Statues of a bull, an elephant and a lion stood between them. Sadly, some of the sculptures were covered with scaffolding.

Five rathas: five small stone temples, each one with a large animal statue in front of it
Alone at Five Rathas, ( five chariots)

It was luckily early enough to walk back to the main cluster of sights without sweating. We reached there before 8 am. We were pretty much alone for another hour, exploring the temples scattered among the boulders.

The main cluster of monuments

First, we walked on top Olakkanneshvara temple, perched on a rock with a splendid view over the area and checked out a beautiful Mahishashur cave directly underneath it.

Goats climb on top of a natural rock where a small temple is perched, while a stray dog climbs the stairs to a temple cut in the rock below in Mamallapuram
Goats on the rock with Olakkanneshvara temple and a stray dog walking up to Mahishashur Cave below

Then, we walked past the new lighthouse to the lovely Ramanuja mandapa with the columns carved with lions and further along the path to Rayala Gopuram, an unfinished building with four tall, beautifully carved columns.

A temple cut in the rock, decorated with stone columns, some scultped, in Mamallapuram
Ramanuja Mandapam

Slightly further was Varaha Mandapa with amazingly detailed bas-reliefs showing Vishnu in his incarnation as a boar, among others.

A stone-cut relief depicting god Vishnu with a head of a wild boar in one of the temples in Mamallapuram
Vishnu in his wild boar incarnation on a relief at Varaha Mandapa

The further we walked, the more tourists we came across. A tiny square Ganesh Ratha, which is still a place of worship, was particularly busy. We walked to the far end of the compound to see the famous Krishna Butterball- a natural round boulder perched perilously on a slope.

Two kids sit in a shadow cast by a round rock called Krishna Butterball in Mamallapuram
Kids sit under Krishna Butterball

Behind it, there were still two temples to check out. The Trimurti cave had a niche devoted to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma and a large well in front of it. We walked along the ridge, looking at a lotus flower-filled pond below and stumbled across a carved lion on a rectangular platform that used to be a throne. From there, we walked back past the previously seen sites and out of the gate to see the last and the grandest monuments.

Richly carved front of one of the temples cut in the rock in Mamallapuram
Trimurti cave devoted to Hindu trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva

The Arjuna’s Penance, sometimes called the Descent of the Ganges, was literally on the road. I had to stand right at the crossroads to be able to take a photo of it. It was stunning. Two twin boulders were carved bottom to top. The one on the right had almost life-size elephants. The crevice between the boulders was filled with nagas– half serpents, half-humans. On the left, an emaciated man was standing in a yogic tree pose. Two completely different interpretations of this scene exist. According to the first one, the hero Arjuna receives a powerful weapon from god Vishnu in reward for his penance. In the second one, we see the birth of the Ganges.

A sweeper in colourful sari stands with a broom in front of the monumental Arjuna Penance relief depicting a herd of elephants and a myriad of smaller human, devine and animal figures
A sweeper looks at the right half of monumental Arjuna’s Penance

Right next to Ganga descend stands an unfinished Panchapandava mandapam, decorated with pillars shaped like lions. A little bit further, you can find the marvellous Krishna mandapa. A huge bas relief inside presents a scene where Krishna lifts an entire mountain with one hand to hide shepherds with their herd from the torrential rain sent by god Indra. The scene shows shepherds during their daily chores, milking a cow or carrying fodder. Crowds of local and foreign tourists moved in waves, allowing us to take photos of the empty mandapa.

A relief depicting a shephard milking a cow which licks her calf in Krishna Mandapa in Mamallapuram
Shepard-themed Krishna mandapa

It took us 4 hours to see everything on foot, but, admittedly, we rushed a bit at the Shore Temple. We consciously missed pidari ratha and Valayankuttai ratha, which were quite a walk away. We didn’t find them worth sweating in the sun. This was the end of our stay in Mamallapuram and a time to leave Tamil Nadu state as well.

Mamallapuram to Chennai: alternative bus-train combo

The most straighforward way to get from Mamallapuram to Chennai is to take a bus stopping one kilometre outside of the town at the East Coast Road. We didn’t feel like walking that distance in the sun, so we took an alternative route.

We took a brown bus from the Mahabalipuram stand, which took us to the suburbs of Chennai. We got onboard 515 to Tambaram. It didn’t take ECR but took a longer route through the local roads. When we got to Tambaram, we just had to cross the street through the underground passage and get to the rail station. A suburban train for 10 rupees took us right to the heart of Chennai, to the Chennai Park station, 500 m from Chennai Central.

I must say searching for accommodation around Chennai Central was a nightmare. A persistent tout followed us, while the receptionists of all budget-looking hotels claimed they were fully booked. Eventually, a polite man at a tourist agency explained that the budget hoteliers didn’t want to take foreigners. We could get a room from booking.com, but they were further away and had poor ratings. Eventually, we bargained a room from 800 rupees down to 650 at a hotel which must have been quite decent a decade ago. The next day, we got on board a train to Kolkata. A mere 26 hours journey.

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
45 bus Mamallapuram – Tambaram
40 juice from a street stall
33 bus Mamallapuram – Dakshina Chitra
15 bus Mamallapuram – Tiger Cave
20 train Tambaram- Chennai
10 chai from a street stall

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