Mahabalipuram - Places to visit, History, UNESCO (Chennai - Tamil Nadu)

ULTIMATE GUIDE OF PLACES TO VISIT IN MAHABALIPURAM / MAMALLAPURAM

One fine day my friend got seriously bored and said, “I want to go to Mahabalipuram – THIS WEEKEND”. When a friend needs a break, you ought to listen to her and so I promised to accompany her. So we both set off to Mahabs that weekend. Well, Chennai-vasigal (people of Chennai) call Mahabalipuram / Mamallapuram as Mahabs - it’s a kind-of pet name.  Mahabalipuram is one of the top places to visit near Chennai and one of the ideal day-trips from Chennai, though this is technically under the Chengalpattu district.
So we both set off to Mahabs by bus. It was a part by part travel. Home-VGP-Kovalam-Mahabs. I had breakfast and started from home while my friend didn’t. So we stopped-by a small hotel and had idly-vada-sambar (the typical south Indian breakfast. You ought to taste it atleast once in life). So here's my Mahabalipuram Travelogue for your virtual Mahabalipuram tour of the Monuments of Mahabalipuram and the facts about Mahabalipuram.
 
Shore Temple Mahabalipuram Beach
  
Unfinished Panel of Mahabalipuram Mamallapuram Monuments UNESCO

Shore Temple Elephant Sculpture Mahabalipuram UNESCO

Light Houses of Mahabalipuram New & Old

View from Mahabalipuram lighthouse

First lets get into the facts about Mahabalipuram. Who built the Mahabalipuram monuments? Mahabs was constructed during the Mahendra Varma - Narasimha Varma – Parameshwara Varma - Rajasimha Varma Pallava period in 7th to 9th C CE, with a majority of contribution by Narasimha Varma. Mahendra Varma began this concept of rock-cut temples with places like Mandagapattu. This is not a single piece of monument but a collection of several monuments placed in an assorted way and spread over an area of 8 sq. km. It was a very rocky terrain having several boulders and some hillocks as well. Narasimha Varma with all my passion for art and sculpture, transformed the entire region into a mass of sculptural marvel and it’s called Poetry In Stone. Artisans and sculptors from everywhere were brought here to carry out this process which seems to have lasted for 150 years. Till date, the sculptural spirit hasn’t faded a teeny weenie bit also. Just a simple stroll on the road will make you visit sculptors at every doorstep. 

Why is Mahabalipuram famous? The biggest specialty here is that all these are rock-cut temples. In the sense, each and every monument here is dug out of single pieces of rocks. None of the individual buildings here has 2 or more rocks, each one is a single piece of rock, which is dug out, carved, and decorated meticulously with great care as a single wrong stroke would result in completely destroying the rock – there is no place for correction. The Mahabalipuram Group of Monuments have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. 

We first went to the main rock-cut regions from the back entrance. First was the huge panel of reliefs. This relief has so many special sculptures. We actually went in through the back entrance so we first hit the Unfinished panel of Great Penance. It’s unfinished when compared to the more popular finished panel. With the backdrop of the light house, this panel has 2 huge boulders which are separated by a deep cavity. This has several unfinished sculptures including the great Bagiratha/Arjuna Penance. And the elephants are not very big here and they are in rather a violent movement. You may relate to this better when I refer to the Finished panel of Great Penance.

From there we directly went to the Pancha Ratha Complex (Five Rathas) without continuing in the main section. Entry to this is ticketed. This is the actual hillock region where 5 different temples were built, one in each hillock. The one at the Southern end which is Hut-like is the Draupathi Ratha. Just next to her is Arjuna Ratha coz he was the one who won her hand. Next is one is Bhima Ratha which is a vast and wide one. The last one is in the line is Dharmaraja Ratha. Dharmaraja/Dirudrashtrar is the eldest of the Pancha Pandava and so this ratha is a two storeyed one. The last ratha is separated from the other 4 which are in a line. It’s the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha. Since they both are twins they share the same Ratha.
Apart from this is a huge Elephant, Lion and Nandi (Bull) stand-alone sculptures. All these Ratha’s and Stand-alone statues were sculpted from the top as that is logic. As I told earlier it is all individual single stone. So some of these Rathas are unfinished at the bottom. 
Then from there we went back to the main section thru the back entrance and reached the Light House first. Actually this is the Mahabalipuram Temple of Olakkaneswarar, which was used during the British era as the light house till they built the new one. Next we proceeded to the DHARMARAJA MANDAPAM. This has 3 shrines in it and unfortunately it’s all empty. Our next venture was MAHISHASURA MARDHINI MANDAPAM. The central shrine here is Somaskanda. Somaskanda is little Lord Muruga/Karthikeya with Lord Shiva and Parwathi on either sides. On the left wall is the Mahishasura Mardhini Panel. Mahisha is Bull and Asura is demon, so this is about Goddess Ambal who kills the demon who comes like a Bull. The whole scene of Ambal on a lion killing Mahisha with Bow and Arrow is depicted here. On the right wall is Anantha Sayana Panel. Sayana is sleeping – Anantha Sayana is the Sleeping posture of Lord Vishnu. 

Mahishasura Mardhini Panel Mahabalipuram

Bhagiratha Penance Arjuna Penance UNESCO Mahabalipuram

Arjuna's Penance & Cat Penance at Mahabalipuram

Monkey sculpture Mahabalipuram

Krishna Mandapam Govardhana Giri Mahabalipuram UNESCO
  
Our next place was THE Panel. You know, THE panel! The huge Finished panel of Great Penance. Now, you may remember the Unfinished panel that I referred to in my last post. Now this panel is the finished one. There are so many things to note in this. The Elephants – Remember in the unfinished one those were fierce and very dynamic. Here they seem to be just standing with the babies sitting beneath them. Here there are not 2 boulders, instead it has a single boulder with a deep cleft in between. There are these beautiful Nagas – Snake figures. I love their thought process in this. When it rains and the water pours down through this cleft these Nagas would seem to be coming down. There is a huge water storage system beneath – rain water harvesting!!! This water flow depicts Ganga coming down from heaven. 
It's called the Bhagiratha's Penance or Arjuna's Penance. The legend is that Bhagiratha prays to Ganga to come down to earth to provide water to the people. She accepts but says that when she comes down, her fierceness and force would destroy so many things. So he prays to Lord Shiva to absorb her force and let down only the water. He too accepts. Now as Ganga comes down, Lord Shiva catches her with his matted locks and holds her in his head. And Ganga flows gently from there. On the other hand, Arjuna is one of the 5 brothers of Pancha Pandavas who is a master archer and is praying to Lord Shiva for certain weapons. So where is Bhagiratha/Arjuna? He is the main character of this panel. So realistically depicted with even his ribcage jutting out of his frail body after days together meditating in the single-leg posture as a Tapasvin (meditator/yogist). Lord Shiva is beside him. Is it Bhagiratha or Arjuna? Well, art historians themselves are at a loss, so you can choose as you wish!
At that era itself, the sculptor had a funny bone!!! Near the elephants is this Cat’s Penance. This is the story that says about a cat that acts like performing penance to fool the rats which come near it thinking that the cat is a tapasvin, so the cat can eat ‘em. A moral story today has its evolution during or before this era. Would you belive that???!!!! Hard for me…
Several other Bhootha Ganas, Flying celestials, Chandra, Surya, A forest scene where Bhagiratha performs tapas animals comprise the whole scene. 
Beside this panel is a free standing statue of 2 monkeys, with one picking lice on the other. And I became the 3rd monkey and picked lice on the 2nd one!!! 

Next to the Arjuna's Penance panel is the Krishna Mandapam. Krishna Mandapam as the name suggests, denotes the Krishna Leela or the plays of Krishna. The main scene is the Govardhana Giri scene, where Krishna lifts the mountain Govardhana when rain and thunder storm ravishes the village.
The legend goes that in Gokul people always prayed to Indhra for rains but Krishna says it’s the mountain Govardhana that blocks the clouds and showers rain. So instead of Indhra lets pray Govardhana Giri/Mountain. And people of Gokul accept his idea. So angered Indhra forces thunderstorm and rain in Gokul when Krishna lifts Govardhana with his little finger and the whole village comes under the mountain and gets protected.
Seen here is the whole village depicted under the mountain that Krishna lifts. Now, comes again our crazy shoot. There is a couple seen dancing in rejoice in the scene and we decided the separate the couple & pull them apart......
The shot of this milk man milking the cow while the cow caresses her child by licking is the best part of the whole series. Even the tongue of the cow is shown so perfectly. Don’t you just feel the mother-child love in this shot?!!!

Detail of Krishna Mandapam UNESCO

Funny pictures to shoot at Mahabalipuram

Krishna Butter Ball Mahabalipuram Mamallapuram

Varaha Panel, Sculptures of Mahabalipuram

Gajalakshmi Panel, Sculptures of Mahabalipuram

The next place in the list was Krishna Butterball aka Bheema’s Mustard seed. This is a huuuuuge free rock standing at a dangerous slope. But it’s so well sturdy. In fact the government thought of the possibilities of massacre if it rolls down the slope. So trials we done to push and pull it with elephants and too, but in vain!!! Its toooooo sturdy to roll off the slope…
Krishna is a very chweet God filled with mystical powers. He takes different forms and changes his sizes. So this huge rock is as small as a Butter ball to Him, if he blows up. Bheema is one of the Pancha Pandavas, the strongest and biggest in size of the five. And he eats a lot too!!! So this huge rock is only as small as Mustard seed for his huuuuuuuuge tummy!!! Thus these names… You may look at the size of the people standing right below the rock to visualize the rock's actual size. This is perhaps the most popular of the Mahabalipuram places to see.

From there we went to the Ganesha Ratha. It’s a Ratha like temple that houses Lord Ganesha / Vinayakar. Next was to the Varaha Mandapam. This has 4 panels. First is Varaha Panel. Varaha is the 3rd re-incarnation of Lord Vishnu when is born as a Wild Boar. Here is the scene of Lord Vishnu in the form Wild Boar saves Mother Earth – Bhoodevi and puts her on his lap. Second is the Gajalakshmi Panel. Well, Lakshmi was created during the churning of the ocean by angels and demons. Gaja is elephant. Since she is flanked by 2 elephants on either side she is called Gaja Lakshmi. She’s sitting on a lotus with her feet placed on the lotus leaves. Next is the Durga Panel. She is seen standing here on a lotus. Her vahana Lion is on the top left with a stylized mane. The last panel is the Trivikrama Panel. Trivikrama is the form taken by Lord Vishnu in his re-incarnation as Vamana. He is also called Ongi Ulagalandha Perumal.

MAHABALIPURAM RAYAR MANDAPAM (shooting location of Guru Bollywood movie)
Our next venture was to the place where Kokila Ben of Reliance Industries, dances in rain. Ha… Ok. What I meant is, in the Bollywood movie ‘Guru’ starring Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai which is based in the real life history of Dhirubai Ambani. Aishwarya Rai plays the character of his wife. A song sequence ‘Barso re’, was shot here in which she dances. And the place is called Rayar Gopuram. Again an unfinished structure.
From here we kept on walking until we saw a rock smiling. Is it only us or do u see it too..??? It is smiling, no???

Trivikrama Panel, Sculptures of Mahabalipuram

Rayar Mandapam, Mahabalipuram

Unfinished Sculptures of Mahabalipuram

new sculptures at Mamallapuram Shore Temple

Shore Temple Mahabalipuram

SHORE TEMPLE MAHABALIPURAM (shooting location of 2 states Bollywood movie):
Then after a bit of rest.. we were off the wedding location of Krish & Ananya (that's the names of the characters played by Alia Bhatt & Arjun Kapoor in Bollywood movie 2 States and the shooting location of climax scene of wedding happened here) - the Shore Temple. Thanks to its location & picturesque setting, this place tops the Mahabalipuram tourist places! This is one of the instagrammable locations in Chennai and one of the Mahabalipuram famous places.
This is actually a complex that houses several monuments again. It is located a bit away from the main location, just near the sea on Mamallapuram beachIt houses a Siva Temple and a Vishnu Temple. On a whole the Mahabalipuram is a mystery with constant new discoveries that completely destructs the assumptions. Here too, quite a number of structures are believed to be engulfed by the sea now. A recent excavation led to the discovery of some things. One is this small Varaha (wild boar) - Small in comparison to the otherwise large scale architecture and sculpture. Another is a small rather mini shrine that houses Veenadhara Siva (Lord Siva with the music instrument veena in hand). Here is my friend in front of them.

A bit away from the main group of monuments, about 1km from the Krishna's Butter ball, are the Pidari Ratha and Valayankuttai Ratha. Unlike the main Five Rathas these 2 are incomplete rathas. The upper half of both these rathas are almost complete and lower half are totally incomplete. While Valayankuttai Ratha is a single monument, Pidari Rathas is a set of 2. These 3 were also begun to be sculpted around the same time as that of Pancha Rathas. Since these are a bit away from the main set of monuments, this place is devoid of the maddening crowd of the main monuments, but it is at a walk-able distance as well.

Further away from the main set of monuments are the Yaali Mandapam, locally called Tiger Caves (Pulikugai) and Atiranachanda Cave-Temple. This is 4.5km from the main set of monuments, along the ECR, towards Chennai. The Yaali Mandapam is an unfinished cave temple whose entrance is covered with the faces of 11 mighty yaali (mythological animals similar to lions), which is why the name. The folk-lore is that it was used as a performance stage because of the 4 steps that lead to the stage like shrine, however among historians this too is believed to be a temple shrine like Krishna Mandapam or Mahishasura Mardhini Mandapam. However this is so unfinished without even a trace of the inner sculpture or inscriptions, so the intended use will never be known!

It was afternoon by then and a friend was waiting at a hotel constantly messaging to arrive soon for our lunch get together and another group of friends were waiting at ones home for another evening get together!!! We bid goodbye to the sculptural marvel of Mahabalipuram - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

UNESCO Chennai Mamallapuram Pidari Rathas
My pre-wedding photoshoot by Shyam Anantharaman of Chennai Wedding photography team ShutterMonkeyz Photography

UNESCO Chennai Mamallapuram Valayankuttai Rathas
My pre-wedding photoshoot by Shyam Anantharaman of Chennai Wedding photography team ShutterMonkeyz Photography

Mamallapuram Tiger Caves Pulikugai Yaali Mandapam
Pic Courtesy: Sa.Balamurugan - Own work via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0


All monuments except Pancha Ratha and Shore Temple are open 24x7.
Mahabalipuram Five Rathas & Shore Temple opening hours - 6:00AM to 6:00PM

MAHABALIPURAM ENTRY TICKETS (Updated Nov 2020)
There is an entry ticket only to Tiger Cave, Pancha Ratha and Shore Temple. Rest of the monuments are free to be visited. 
Tiger Cave Mamallapuram ticket: Rs.30/- for Indians; Rs.500/- for foreigners
Five Rathas & Shore Temple combined ticket: Rs.40/- for Indians; Rs.600/- for foreigners
However there is a catch! This is applicable only if you visit Mahabalipuram by public transport. There is a toll for every vehicle that enters Mamallapuram even if its just for a transit and not to visit the monuments. The toll charges at Mahabalipuram is Rs.40/- for bikes and Rs.75/- for cars. Parking charges are separate as well. You could probably park the vehicle outside of Mahabalipuram at one of the restaurants (after eating there ofcourse) and enter the town on foot to avoid the toll & parking charges.

From Chennai 
     Tambaram to Mahabalipuram distance & route 1: 50 km via Vandalur, Kelambakkam, ECR 
     Tambaram to Mahabalipuram distance & route 2: 50 km via Medavakkam, Sozhinganallur, OMR, ECR 
     Thiruvanmiyur to Mahabalipuram: 43 km on ECR 
Pondicherry to Mahabalipuram distance: 96 km on ECR via Marakkanam

WHERE TO STAY IN MAHABALIPURAM (Updated Nov 2020)
Mahabalipuram resorts and hotels are available at all price points. 
There is the Govt guest house called Hotel TamilNadu TTDC Mahabalipuram. The hotel tariff varies from Rs.3500 to Rs.5000.
For a luxury stay, Mahabalipuram beach resorts include Radission Blu, Indeco Hotels, Mamalla Heritage Resort, Chariot Beach Resort Mahabalipuram etc.

Being an open-air monument, beside the sea in the Chennai, there is almost no time that's not suitable to visit Mamallapuram. You can visit Mamallapuram on any day around the year.
However, you may want to skip April & May which is the school summer holidays as well as weekends when the place gets too crowded with locals & people from Chennai visiting Mamallapuram on a day-trip. Also you may want to avoid December, when the annual North-East monsoon makes landfall and causes severe thunder-storms!

Ideally speaking, one day is less! So set aside atleast one day in Mahabalipuram. Begin the day with Tiger Cave, then continue to Pidari Rathas & Valayankuttai Rathas. Then head the main group of monuments - Mahabalipuram famous places of Krishna's Butter Ball, Varaha Mandapam, Finished Panel of Arjuna's Penance, Rayar Mandapam, Light house & Mahishasura Mardhini Mandapam. Finally head to Five Rathas and wrap up the day with Shore Temple. 

Being a monument beside the beach, visiting the Mahabalipuram Beach is obviously the most inherent part of visiting Mamallapuram. Within Mamallapuram town are the 2 important temples - Sthala Sayana perumal temple and Mukunda Nayanar Temple. Very close to Mamallapuram is Sadras Fort and a bit ahead is Alamparai Fort and further ahead is Mudaliyarkuppam which has a very beautiful, serene, secluded, secret beach of Chennai. On the ECR which connects Mahabalipuram to Chennai, are Dakshinachitra, Cholamandal Artists' Village etc

Ultimate guide to Mahabalipuram Group of Monuments UNESCO  Arjuna's Penance Mahabalipuram UNESCO

Places to visit in Mahabalipuram UNESCO Pinterest  Places to visit in Mahabalipuram UNESCO Pinterest

Bhushavali

An ardent traveler by passion. I am a wanderlust.. Read more about me here.

31 comments:

  1. omg..i was in New College when the NCC guys decided to go cycling to mahabalipuram..via adyar..had a gr8 time..u now reminded me of the wonderful visit..cheers

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  2. :) good you had super time :)awwwwwww I wanna go to Mahabs too :(

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  3. The sculptures are so beautiful. Nice to see they've been preserved so well. I'd always heard about Mahabalipuram and still want to visit. Thanks to your post, I feel more determined to go there...

    - World Photo Bloggers

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  4. oh yeah we went cycling in our tenth holidays from madha kailash..was fun..when i was little it was all stone and boring..but now i can see the beauty..and the snake mangoose fight in the beach...i remember it so vividly..free

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  5. I like the place, I love the pictures. I promise you, sooner or later I'll host some of your beautiful pictures on my travelling blog!

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  6. Its a fantastic place :)
    It looks you had a wonderful time there !!!
    Thanks for sharing so many shots....

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  7. ennama penne..ippave treat ketta naan engey povenn? take a flight and come to sharjah hehe..or wait until i reach chennai/mumbai around next month...hehe...keep yr cheers friend...

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  8. Hi Friend! I’m back home and happy to come here!! Another spot to put on my list. It's not such a small world... ;) And you look wonderful there!!

    Meanwhile Blogtrotter is showing you an incredible sea symphony of colours. Enjoy and have a great weekend!

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  9. @Ramesh,
    Wow... That must have been a wonderful trip to go cycling all that way on ECR...Kewl... Btw,how many hours it took to reach...

    @Sow,
    Yes di. Had a great time thr..
    Its ok kannamma... Don't cry.. We'll go...

    @Kcalpesh,
    Its a photographers paradise. Some carvings and sculptures look so different with different lightings and angles. An exquisite place. Do make a visit...

    @Soin,
    Wow... From Madhya Kailash... Long distance... How many hours did it take..???

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  10. @Phivos,
    Wow.... Thanks dear... Thanks for that now itself.. :)

    @Anya,
    Yeah indeed had great fun.. Wait and watch the part 2...

    @Ramesh, :)

    @GMG,
    So finally back to home sweet home... Do visit Incredible India dear... U'll fall in love with her... :)

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. Bhushavali,
    I always listen to Indian music,I like:)
    Beijos(kisses)

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  13. Hi Mitr,
    Never mind the place. What about the fantastic new Profile photograph, Wow.!! {:)

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  14. Hi Lima,
    Thank you so much for the kind appreciation and compliement.
    I would love to visit your craft blog. Would drop in soon.. :)

    Hey Roy,
    So nice of you to notice my profile pic. Yes, U had a new makeover.. I cut my below-waist length hair to a very short Princess Diana Bob...
    Thank you so much... I'm flattered... :)

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  15. İncredible place.. how I want to visit there sometime...

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  16. nice photograph,with a good travel information.what i say all things in a small package.

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  17. @Aysegul,
    Do visit sweety.. May be a print out of my travelogue may help you in and out when you do make a visit...

    @Chhabi,
    Thank you soo much. That's so sweet of you...

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  18. The sculptures are beautiful. Neat write-up.I have never been there, but hope to visit sometime soon.

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  19. What an informative, warm write up! I am following this blog. It's really interesting and well presented.

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  20. @Vamsee,
    Thank you so much for the compliment. Do visit the place. Its an architechtural and sculptural marvel...

    @Sanand,
    Thank you so much for dropping by, commenting and following too. That's so sweet of you. Do drop in often. Would love your visits and comments.. :)

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  21. What an interesting place. The sculptures are magnificent. Very informative post.

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  22. வெல் அண்ட் குட்.

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  23. What an interesting place to visit. The rock temples and carvings are fascinating. Must've been fun to explore.

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  24. Thanks for the visit and comment loving♥
    You are beautiful girl and very friendly:-)
    I really like your blog,is fantastic!
    Elephant stone,everything beautiful.
    I have a craft blog, love if you visit;)
    Big hug♥

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  25. Wow! Just look at the size of those stones! What a fantastic place this is!

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  26. Oh wow! Sm amazing pictures! I wonder smtimes.. there r sooo many places to visit, hope to get all the time to roam around :)

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  27. Great shots! I was there this Diwali, hope to share some soon.

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  28. @Diane,
    Thanks dear. :)

    @Ravi,
    Nandri... Varugaikku nandri... Meendum Varuga.. :)

    @Janie,
    It was great fun indeed. :)

    @Lima,
    Thank you so much for the kind appreciation. I visited you craft blog already. Yet to drop a comment.. :)

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  29. @Jose,
    Imagine how skillful the craftsmen were to carve out these huge boulders into master pieces of art... And without any modern gizmos...

    @Vineeta,
    Ya rite... One life is just not sufficient to tour all over India alone, leave the world..

    @Indrani,
    Awaiting your master shots.. :)

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  30. Wow thats too exciting. I loved it, i can imagine the superb experience you might had.I have heard many a times for this place and thanks for sharing that with us that was awesome and m longing to go there now. Your photographs and the surroundings in the photos are now making me excited to go there.

    r4 dsi

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  31. @Holy,
    Thank you so much.. Glad that u liked it so much. Do make a visit and am sure, u'll fall in love with it.. :)

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