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This is a small, quiet seaside resort with a unique 7th-century Shore Temple, a lovely beach, and some of the most beautiful rock-cut temples in the world. Situated on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, Mahabalipuram was already a famous seaport in the 1st century AD at about the time Tamil Nadu’s recorded history begins. It was later adopted by the empire-building Pallava kings (AD 600-800), who turned it into a major trading port to service their nearby capital of Kanchipuram. They also used the town as a workshop for their temple-building schemes. The 7th century AD marking a move away from monolith rock-cut cave architecture to free-standing, structural temples.

The seven ‘rathas’ or temple chariots, and the seven pagoda-style shore temples they built here at Mahabalipuram are the earliest known examples of Dravidian architecture, and were constructed in a single century-long burst of creative enthusiasm, starting in the reign of Narasimbavarman I (AD 630-68). For some reason, the large complex of caves, temples, bas-reliefs and friezes covering a huge hump-back hillock in the town centre was never finished. As at Ajanta and Ellora, the architects suddenly and inexplicably deserted the site, and its rich treasure of ancient art and sculpture lay lost and forgotten.

Now a small, thriving township, Mahabalipuram has become very popular with tourists needing a break from busy Madras; it is an ideal spot to wind down, switch off and relax. It has a year-round season, but is most pleasant from November to February.

From Mahabalipuram, there are regular buses from the bus-stand opposite Mammals Bhavan hotel to Kanchipuram (from 5 am to 7.30 pm; 21/2 hours) and express buses to Madras (6 am, 12 noon, 2.30 pm, 3.45 pm and 5.15 pm; 11/2 hrs). There are also buses daily to Bangalore (7/8 hrs) and one bus to Madurai (10 hrs). There’s no need to advance-book tickets; you can buy them on the bus.

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