How to visit the UNESCO site of Mahabalipuram in South India on a budget

Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is one of the most important ancient sites in South India. It has three main groups of stone carved monuments and temples built in the 7th and 8th centuries by the Pallava Dynasty. The sites include cave sanctuaries, carved stone reliefs, chariot temples and religiously themed sculptures. They are a UNESCO heritage site and deemed one of the 37 culturally outstanding places in India.

It is about 1 and a half hours away from Chennai by bus or you can get there by taxi or tuk-tuk. It can be done as a day trip or you can stay the night here if you’re heading south to Pondicherry or Madurai.

To get here independently from Chennai, you take a bus to Thiruvanmiyur bus station and cross over the road, to where the government bus to Pondicherry goes from. If you walk south then the Mahabalipuram bus goes from the shelter next to Marudeeswarar temple and it costs 38 rupees. It will drop you off right next to the town so it will only be a short walk from there to the ruins.

There are three clusters of sites to visit in total – Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges and other monuments in the same park, the Pancha Rathas and the Shore Temple. The rathas and shore temple are paid for under the same ticket and the Arjuna’s Penance site is free. They’re all fairly close together and easy to walk between.

The Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram
The Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram, in Tamil Nadu, South India

If you need to buy a ticket then head east to the shore temple by the beach to buy your ticket from the booth to see all the monuments. On your way to the shore temple, look out on your right to see an abandoned stepwell, so even if you don’t buy a ticket, it’s worth coming down to get a peek at the temple.

It is 600 rupees for a foreigner ticket and this gives you access to the Shore Temple and the Pancha Rathas (five chariots). Its the only ticket you need.

Once you’ve seen the shore temple, then head back towards the Main Street, turn left and follow the road southwards. This will bring you to the other group of paid monuments, the Five Rathas. The rathas are freestanding chariot temples carved from single rocks. Once you’ve seen them you can head back to town.

Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram, South India
Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram, South India

In the main town, there are pay-to-use toilets, restaurants and gift shops for anything you need – including (unsurprisingly) many stone carving workshops selling sculptures. Despite efforts to try and clean up Mahabs, there is still a problem with rubbish in the streets and park and some of the toilets leave something to be desired.

Shops in Mahabalipuram town centre, South India
Shops in Mahabalipuram town centre, South India

By to the centre, you can see the last and largest group of monuments in the park behind Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges. These ruins are free to visit but they are also quite busy and you may receive attention as a foreigner. Although the caves and monuments are quite spread out, so you can easily lose the crowds.

Arjuna's Penance/Descent of the Ganges, Mahabalipuram, South India
Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges, Mahabalipuram, South India

Enter the ruins via the gate next to Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges but first, enjoy this incredible open-air bas relief. It is the world’s largest bas relief which is an ancient sculpture technique. Then see the Panchapandava Cave Temple next to it which is one of the most impressive cave temples with pillared halls (mandapas) here.

Then turn right in order to do a big loop around the ruins – it’s very easy to miss something amongst all the people and the rocks! Some of the pathways are quite confusing as well, so it’s easy to lose your way despite the park being relatively small.

Krishna's Butterball, Mahabalipuram, South India
Krishna’s Butterball, Mahabalipuram, South India

Krishna’s Butterball is the first sight you come across when you enter and as you can see, it is very popular with tourists taking photos of themselves either holding it up or trying to push it over. Then you’ll see the Ganesh Ratha, a freestanding temple carved from pink granite.

Mahabalipuram Heritage Park, South India
Mahabalipuram Heritage Park, South India

As you can see, the landscape is very rocky, with some ruins poking out of the top which makes it a bit of a playground for archaeology and geology lovers alike! This is the view from the path around the back on our way to the lesser-seen small cave temples.

Goats at Mahabalipuram, South India
Goats at Mahabalipuram, South India

It’s so rocky that it has attracted goats who love to wander up and down the rocks as well as the stray dogs who’ve made it their home.

Viki Pandit Cave, Mahabalipuram, South India

The cave temples at the back like Viki Pandit, are a great place to take a rest, avoid the sun and have your picture taken without other people.

When you loop back towards the front of the park, you can see the bigger cave temple of Varaha which is one of the better-preserved caves, along with the Trimurti cave and closely followed by the larger Mahishasuramardini Mandapa temple.

Varaha cave temple, Mahabalipuram, South India.
Mahishasuramardini Mandapa, Mahabalipuram, South India.

Many of the themes of the figures depicted in stone include lions, bulls, elephants, Lord Krishna, Brahma, Shiva, Ganesh, tigers and serpents. The more ruins you see, the more you’re able to distinguish between them which gives you a sense of learning something while you’re tramping around trying to find things!

Olakkannesvara Temple, Mahabalipuram, South India
Olakkannesvara Temple, Mahabalipuram, South India

After the caves, wander up to the Olakkannesvara Temple which is in a bit of a state of disrepair, but you can see over the ruins, into the town and over towards the sea.

Raya Gopuram, Mahabalipuram, South India
Raya Gopuram, Mahabalipuram, South India

Across from the cave temples is the incomplete temple of Raya Gopuram, which is larger than a lot of the rock-cut temples and probably why it didn’t get finished!

Mahabalipuram lighthouse, near Chennai, South India
Mahabalipuram lighthouse, near Chennai, South India

If you want an even higher view of the park, then there is the Mahabalipuram lighthouse within the grounds that will help you do just that! You can use it to see if there’s anything you’ve missed along the way! It is 10 rupees to go to the top of the lighthouse and there are two small museums, one about the lighthouse and one about Mahabs maritime history next door that you can visit on a combined ticket for 20 rupees.

Directly outside the park is the Thirukadalmallai or Sthalasayana Perumal Temple. It’s free and open for visitors from 6-12pm and 3-8.30pm. It’s popular as it is one of Lord Vishnu’s holy temples and gets busy during the Maasi Makham festival.

If you really want to see everything and lose the crowds, there is the isolated yet beautiful Tiger Cave which is north from the main ruins, by the shore.

It’s a really incredible set of ruins and more than enough to keep you busy for your whole day in Mahabalipuram! Definitely a South India highlight for history lovers and temple junkies alike.

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Have you been to the Mahabalipuram ruins? If so, what was your favourite part and why? Let me know in the comments below.

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