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The welcoming old port city of Mahabalipuram is best known for its astonishing collection of rock-cut carvings and temples, as well as some of the earliest free-standing temples in southern India.

Most of the key monuments date to the 7th century and the reign of Narasimha Varman I, of the Pallava Dynasty, which ruled the northern part of modern-day Tamil Nadu. Sixty kilometres to the west was the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram, while Mahabalipuram was its main sea port, and a thriving maritime trade was conducted with Cambodia, Indonesia (where Pallava inscription has been found) and other parts of East and Southeast Asia. Building continued in Mahabalipuram into the 8th century, but the Pallava Dynasty was then in decline, and by the end of the 9th century the area had been conquered by Cholas.

Mahabalipuram has three major sites, and a number of minor sites. In the heart of the modern town there is a long and rocky hill running, with the enormous superb rock-cut relief carving known as Arjuna’s Penance, Mahabalipuram’s best known monument, and one of India’s most dramatic works of art. The 30-metre bas-relief is carved on two monolithic rock boulders, divided by a natural cleft in the granite, and depicts the legend of the descent of the sacred river Ganges to earth from the heavens led by Bhagiratha.

Some 800 metres to the east, on a spur of land sticking out into the sea, is the magnificent much-eroded two-towered Shore Temple, set in a spectacular location. Although ravaged by the elements and the pounding ocean waves, the 8th century temple is the earliest important built, rather than rock-cut, shrine in Tamil Nadu and still reflects the glorious past of these intrepid merchants.

Finally, one kilometre to the south are the free-standing 7th century Pancha Ratha temples. The Pancha Ratha, literally meaning ‘Five Chariots’, are a unique group of shrines (although they are not thought to have been used for worship) directly cut from boulders in the sand dunes. Each one is built in a different style, perhaps as architectural experiments for the Pallava temple builders, and the four shrines on the left may in fact have been cut out of one long boulder.

The sights of Mahabalipuram can be explored within a few hours, so it can easily be done as a day trip for those who are staying in Chennai. However, we would recommend staying at the nearby Fisherman’s Cove and combining the cultural highlights with a few days relaxing on the beach by the Coromandel Coast.

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I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.
Bill Bryson

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