Mahabalipuram - Arjuna's Penance, UNESCO & more (Kanchipuram - Tamil Nadu)

Ultimate guide to Mahabalipuram - Part 1

One fine day my friend got seriously bored and said, “I want to go to Mahabalipuram – THIS WEEKEND”. When a friend gets freaked out and needs a break, I ought to listen to her and 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.
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. U ought to taste it atleast once in life).
Shore Temple Mahabalipuram Beach
First lets get into the facts about Mahabalipuram. 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. 

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. This 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 without continuing in the main section. It has an entrance fee of Rs.10. 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. 

Our next place was THE Panel. U 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. 
Bhagiratha Penance Arjuna Penance UNESCO Mahabalipuram

Arjuna's Penance & Cat Penance at Mahabalipuram
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.
Monkey sculpture Mahabalipuram

Arjuna's Penance Mahabalipuram UNESCO Ultimate guide to Mahabalipuram Group of Monuments UNESCO
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!!! 
Will continue my Mahabalipuram travelogue in the next post. Stay tuned...


From Chennai 
     From Tambaram: 50 km via Vandalur, Kelambakkam, ECR 
     From Tambaram: 50 km via Medavakkam, Sozhinganallur, OMR, ECR 
     From Thiruvanmiyur: 43 km on ECR 
From Pondicherry: 96 km on ECR via Marakkanam

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.


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


  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

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

  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

  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

  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!

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

  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...

  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!

  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...

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

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

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

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

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

    @Ramesh, :)

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

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

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

  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... :)

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

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

  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...

    Thank you soo much. That's so sweet of you...

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

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

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

    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.. :)

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

  22. வெல் அண்ட் குட்.

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

  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♥

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

  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 :)

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

  28. @Diane,
    Thanks dear. :)

    Nandri... Varugaikku nandri... Meendum Varuga.. :)

    It was great fun indeed. :)

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

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

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

    Awaiting your master shots.. :)

  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

  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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