Things to do in Chennai – including a trip to Mahabalipuram

Chennai is rich in history and culture. If you have a few days in Chennai – a must-do itinerary is a visit to Mahabalipuram. For the ladies, it would not be right to leave Chennai without a single saree!

I have been going to Chennai over seven years for work, and I managed to squeeze in a few outings here and there – I thought I’d share some of Chennai highlights.

Mahabalipuram is listed in UNESCO’s heritage list. It takes about 1.5 – 2 hours drive from Chennai city centre. So plan well. Also as I discovered on one occasion when I was already like 15 minutes away – the roads to Mahabalipuram was closed on certain festival days – so do find out first if there is any event happening before you happily start the long-distance drive.

You have to pay a fee to visit the Shore Temple. Ticket prices differ for locals/foreigners. If I recall correctly, the ticket for foreign visitors was between INR500-600. And I think they accept only cash, at least up to end 2018. We went towards the end of a workday – so there is less crowd, which is great because there are many locals who go there to visit the temples etc. especially on weekends. Also, it is less hot towards the end of the day. But the sites are closed after 6 pm – so plan well! Anyway, there are lots to see, so expect to spend some time here.

What is this place anyway? In Mahabalipuram, located on the Coromandel Coast on the Bay of Bengal, you can find 7th to 8th-century monuments and temples carved out of rocks – built during the Pallavan dynasty. I think you would do well with a good of reading of its history if you want to go on your own just like we did, i.e. not as part of a tour. The town Mahabalipuram was previously known as Mamallapuram. “Mamallapuram” is likely to have been named after the Pallava King Narasimha Varman I, who was a great warrior, who was also known as “Mamallan” which means a great wrestler. Mahabalipuram was a busy trading port back in the Pallavan era.

The Shore Temple

The shore temple complex is a great place to start your tour. It comprises of 3 shrines/temples – 1 large and two smaller ones. The shrines are dedicated to Lord Shiva and Vishnu. The temple pyramid-like design/structure referred to as “pagodas”, is a typical architectural design of places of worship in South Asia. The shore temple is one of seven temples – and is the only one that is still standing/visible – others have submerged in the sea. Back in the day, Mahabalipuram town was often labelled as the “Seven Pagodas” by the European travellers who passed by the port/town.

Pandava Rathas

Pandava Rathas or the 5 Rathas were each a monument carved over a single rock or monolith. They are known as Dharmaraja Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna and Draupadi Rathas, and Nakula Sahadeva Ratha – representing the 5 Pandava brothers. These monuments were somehow associated with the brothers over time. However, they were never built in dedication to them in the first place.

Dharmaraja Ratha

The name refers to the eldest of the Pandava brothers. The structure was never completed and used as a temple – but it was dedicated to Shiva. This is the tallest of the 5 Rathas.

Bhima Ratha

Next to the Dharmaraja Ratha is the Bhima Ratha – a 2 storey structure and quite long in length.

Arjuna Ratha

This Ratha design is similar to the Dharmaraja Ratha but with one storey less. There are 14 panels with sculptures carved on the walls – one of Vishnu, Shiva, and possibly Indra.

Draupadi Ratha​

Both Arjuna and Draupadi Rathas are on the same platform. Draupadi Ratha (just behind the Lion statue) is dedicated to Goddess Durgha.

Female statue guarding the Ratha entrance

Nakula Sahadeva Ratha

The Ratha faces South – it has the least embellishments compared to the other Rathas.

Descent of the Ganges

This is an enormous open-air rock relief, also known as Arjuna’s Penance. The relief is carved on two rock boulders. At the top of the cleft of the two stones, there used to be a collecting pool and the water would flow through symbolising the river Ganges.

I went to DakshinaChitra in the afternoon. It was a bit hot, but most of the footpaths were covered with trees, and you also spend a fair bit of time indoor in the museums, so it was not too bad. For foreign visitors, you have to pay about INR250 per person admission fee.
What is this place? It’s a living museum of arts and crafts and architecture of South India. 

You can find displays of original traditional houses that were brought in from the various regions and reconstructed at the site. I also attempted a bit of pottery. I was terrible at it. Even the kind “Uncle” trying to teach me shook his head and gave up in the end. 

Unfortunately, when I was there, there were no events/shows. You should check in advance what is on and the timing etc. Expect to spend slightly more than 2 hours here.

Mayan Handicraft

A friend took me to a sculptor’s workshop one time – this was along the road to Mahabalipuram. There were some very elaborate and impressive stone sculptures/carving. These sculptures can be seen in the many temples around Chennai.  

Shopping

Scene outside store
My beautiful saree from Nalli Silks

Chennai is famous for Chennai sarees and silk, silver and gold jewellery, stainless steel and copper kitchenware.

For solo female travellers – if you are going for sarees, I suggest sticking to the big shopping malls like Spencer Mall (next to Taj Connamera – you can practically walk to the mall from the hotel), and Express Avenue Mall. However, the selection of sarees here are quite limited, and they can be quite pricey.

An alternative is to go for the big saree outlets. A friend took me to Nalli Silks at Usman Rd. They have other branches too. But this one is quite good because they have parking at the side (although limited) and there are other saree stores along the road that you may want to check out. I didnt bother though. This Nalli branch is huge! You will go crazy – there is just simply soo many to choose from! I went there with a local so that kind of helped – so we got a bit of discount.

Outside the store compound is quite busy (see picture below). Along this road you can find more saree stores, jewellery stores, and kitchen/housewares. A lot of of outsiders especially Malaysians come to Chennai to buy these items – you can get them in the other Asian countries but they are super expensive.

Food! Glorious Food!

I love Indian food! I usually eat at the hotels – check out my review of Hotels in Chennai. I cannot comment on street food – I have never tried them.

But if you want options other than hotel food, Chennai has got the usual fast food joints like Subway and Pizza Hut. I usually take the vegetarian options – they’re not too bad. One restaurant that I like is Barbeque Nation. The food is delicious, and their outlets are nicely set up and clean. 

Must try dishes in Chennai – “dosa” for breakfast, seafood chowder for starter, lamb/chicken biryani, chicken tikka masala for mains, paneer masala or cooked in various style… oh my goodness I can go on and on and on…

Have fun on your trip!

Well that’s my list! Hopefully this will give you some ideas if you have a few days in Chennai…

Click here for my review of hotels in Chennai.

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