Chennai might not attract as many visitors as its cousins – Delhi and Mumbai – do but Tamil Nadu’s capital has a lot to offer if you are ready to move a little bit out of the city limits. Whether it is Pondicherry or Mahabalipuram, there is a whole new world waiting for you to explore. While there are not a lot of places to visit near Chennai within 100 kms, Mahabalipuram is an excellent option for spending a quaint and relaxed weekend.
Why visit Mahabalipuram
Whether you are visiting Chennai (also known as Madras) for the first time or revisiting, you would like to explore its historical past. Mahabalipuram, also known as Mamallapuram, is located 65 km/90 minutes away from the capital of Tamil Nadu and is one of the most precious jewels of India’s ancient heritage. The drive to this soporific sea-side temple town is quite picturesque. And, once you are there you’ll be completely awed by its many attractions – caves, sculptures, temples and ruins sprinkled like jewels everywhere.
Once a thriving port city in the 5th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site contains India’s oldest examples of Dravidian buildings and sculpted monolithic rock-structures. If you flip through the history pages, you’ll find the origins of Mahabalipuram in the Pallava Dynasty, a Tamil dynasty that ruled over part of southern India between the 3rd and 9th centuries AD. Patrons of art and architecture, the Pallava kings, encouraged the construction of finely carved rock-cut temples and other architectural monuments.
Their signature symbol is a complex of temples commonly known as the ‘Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram.’ Unfortunately out of these seven temples, only one – the Shore Temple, remains open to the public today. The rest of the six temples are believed to have been submerged under the sea.
What to do and see in Mahabalipuram
Start your Mahabalipuram tour from the rock-cut Shore Temple that lies on the shore of the Bay of Bengal. The five temples in the Pancha Ratha complex are carved in chariot shape and are dedicated to the five Pandavas and their wife, Draupadi. While the first structure – Draupadi- looks like a typical thatched-roof hut from Bengal, the second structure – Arjuna’s Rath – represents a Buddhist Temple. In between them lies the towering statues of the big three animals – a lion, an elephant and a bull. Also, you’ll see a vaulted roof structure dedicated to Bhima.
Once you are done seeing the Pancha Ratha complex, don’t forget to visit other must-see sites like the cave temples, the Tiger Cave and other famous temples dedicated to Ganesha, Krishna and Mahishasur.
If you think Mahabalipuram is only limited to ancient temples and caves, then you are entirely wrong. Adventure enthusiasts will be pleasantly surprised by the unspoilt beaches and hypnotising frothy waves of the old port city, which is becoming a hotbed for adventure sports and activities. If surfing is not your thing, you can go on a two-hour-long fishing safari around small coastal fishing villages.
Another exciting adventure you can try is kattumaram (catamaran) ride. In Tamil, Kattu means tied and maram means wood. The thrilling catamaran ride lasts for 60 minutes inside the sea.
It works as an antidote for city dwellers seeking some respite from mundane life. Surfers will love Covelong that is 20km away from the city and makes a perfect weekend getaway.
And, if you love art and craft, a visit to the Cholamandalam Artists’ Village (35km away) and Dakshin Chitra (25km) is a must. Both are conveniently located in between Mahabalipuram and Chennai.
Mahabalipuram is an ideal weekend getaway from Chennai as it is just 60km by road from the city. You can either hail a prepaid taxi costing approx. Rs 1,000 or hitch a bus ride for about Rs 30-80.
If you are concerned about the accommodations, don’t worry. Hotels and resorts in and around Mahabalipuram are as good as Chennai hotels. The luxurious Sheraton Grand Chennai Resort and Spa is located on the shore and is an ideal place for a peaceful weekend getaway, an important MICE event or a grand or small scale family function.
I recently spent five days attending the ‘Experience France’ MICE event organised by Atout France here. The location, food and facilities were ideal for foreign and Indian delegates. While I personally didn’t get a chance to explore a lot, you can either do sightseeing on your own or ask the hotel to arrange it for you with prior notice. However, please do note private taxis or booking an uber is a costly affair. Sometimes the drivers ask for as high as 1000 INR for a 5 kms journey.
When to go
The best time to visit Mahabalipuram or other tourist places in Chennai is winter, preferably from November to March.
So, what are you waiting for? If you are looking for places to visit near Chennai within 100 kms, Mahabalipuram is a perfect choice for a weekend getaway trip. Book now and get bedazzled by one of the most beautiful jewels of ancient India.