Want to enjoy the beach atmosphere but can’t get to the west coast of India? Mamallapuram is perhaps the most popular beach on India's east coast. It has UNESCO World Heritage listed monuments and a thriving backpacker scene but is frequented by tourists who go to relax at the resorts there as well.
The town was a major 7th century seaport during the reign of the Pallava dynasty and is now an interesting open-air gallery of the dynasty's architecture. It's also known as Mahabalipuram (town of Mahabali), after mythical King Mahabali who was vanquished by Lord Vishnu. However, the Tamil Nadu government has officially called it Mamallapuram (town of Mamalla) in honor of the renowned Pallava ruler Narasimha I, who had developed the town as a seaport and trading center. He had the title of Mamalla, meaning "great fighter".
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: Mamallapuram has a hot and humid climate, with summer temperatures in late May and early June often reaching 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). The town receives most of its rainfall during the northeast monsoon season, from mid-September to mid-December, and heavy rains can be a problem. The temperature decreases to an average of 25 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit) during winter, from November to February, but doesn't drop below 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). The best time to visit is from December until March when it's dry and cool.
- Language: Tamil and English.
- Currency: Indian rupee.
- Time Zone: UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) +5.5 hours, also known as Indian Standard Time. India does not have daylight saving time.
- Getting Around: Hire a bicycle or a motorbike. It's also possible to walk, as Mamallapuram is not a large town.
- Travel Tips: The ocean at Mamallapuram can have particularly strong currents, so care should be taken if swimming. This is particularly the case to the right of the Shore Temple. Climb the lighthouse for a bird's-eye view. Combine your trip with a visit to French-influenced Pondicherry, and consider continuing on to the off-beat Dutch colony of Tranquebar.
The town is easily reached in under two hours from Chennai, along the East Coast Road. It's possible to take a local bus, cab or auto rickshaw there. App-based Uber operates intercity services for as little as 1,000 rupees one way. Local buses are excellent in Tamil Nadu and highly recommended for budget travel. The fare is about 30 rupees from Chennai. The nearest railway station to Mamallapuram is at Chengalpattu (Chingleput), 29 kilometers (18 miles) northwest.
Tamil Nadu Tourism runs an inexpensive one-day bus tour from Chennai to Mamallapuram. Numerous travel companies also offer private tours, such as this day trip by Chennai Magic. A Hop On Hop Off Bus used to operate between Chennai and Mamallapuram. However, the service stopped in 2013 due to lack of patronage.
Things to Do
The beach itself isn’t particularly special, but the town is full of interesting temples such as the windswept Shore Temple right on the water’s edge. This temple, which dates back to the 8th century, is considered to be the oldest significant standalone stone temple in Tamil Nadu. It's illuminated at night.
Mamallapuram is also known for its stone sculpture industry (yes, you can buy them!) and rock-cut monuments. Two of the main attractions are the Five Rathas (sculptured temples in the shape of chariots, carved from single large rocks) and Arjuna's Penance (a huge carving on the face of a rock depicting scenes from The Mahabharata). Most carvings were done in the 7th century during the reign of the Pallava kings
You'll need an entry ticket to visit Mamallapuram's UNESCO World Heritage group of monuments (which includes the Shore Temple and Five Rathas). The cost is 600 rupees for foreigners and 40 rupees for Indians. Tickets can be purchased online here (select Chennai and then "Group of Monuments, Mamallapuram") or at ticket counters.
The hill on the west side of town is worth exploring, and is open from sunrise until sunset. It has diverse attractions including a huge precariously-balanced boulder called Krishna's Butterball, some exquisitely carved monuments, temples, and a lighthouse.
Experiential tour company Storytrails has an informative app that you can download to discover more about the meaning behind Mamallapuram's monuments. The company's award-winning walking trails are available as audio tours on the app. Alternatively, historical walking tours (with professional photo shoot) of Mamallapuram are available on AirBnb Experiences.
If you're feeling energetic, take a Village Bicycle Tour to nearby Kadambai Village to experience rural living. The village is notably plastic-free.
Mamallapuram is one of the best places to surf and get lessons in India. June and July produce perfect waves, and they last quite well until the end of September. After that, they fall flat in October and November. Stand-Up Paddle and kayaking lessons are possible as well.
The Mamallapuram Dance Festival is held during late December to late January at Arjuna's Penance.
If you really want to relax and unwind, choose from the many natural therapies on offer around town.
What to Eat and Drink
Don't miss Mamalla Bhavan for your fill of authentic, local South Indian fare at a pocket-friendly price. It's located next to the bus stand.
The traveler hub of Othavadai and Othavadai Cross streets are brimming with cafes and restaurants. Instant Karma is one of the better ones. Moonrakers has been in business since 1994 and is iconic. Try the family-run, airy rooftop Gecko Cafe for a beer (sample the local Chennai brew) and seafood. Le Yogi, owned by a French-Indian couple, has delicious seafood too. Babu's Cafe is surrounded by trees and attracts travelers from all over the world. Sea Shore Garden Restaurant has beach views (and English celebrity chef Rick Stein once said he had the best fish curry in India there).
For great coffee, Freshly n Hot Cafe next to Silver Moon Guesthouse is the place!
Head to Eli's Kitchen in Mamalla Beach Resort for yummy soulful fusion food. It's also possible to get a cooking lesson there.
Want to go upmarket? Try Water's Edge Cafe by the pool at the Radisson for global cuisine. The hotel also has a gourmet seafood restaurant called Wharf.
Where to Stay
Mamallapuram doesn't have a wide range of hotels but there are options to suit all budgets from inexpensive to luxury. The beach resorts are generally located to the north of the town center, where the beach is better. However, if you want to stay closer to the action, you'll find a number of inexpensive places in town.
Travelers make a beeline to the lively backpacker district around Othavadai and Othavadai Cross streets, which lead down to the beach near the Shore Temple. The Fishermen's Colony fronting the beach also has some cheap accommodations. Another popular area is East Raja Street, the town's main street.
Culture and Customs
As always in India, there are scams you should be aware of. Where there are temples, there are so-called guides offering to share their knowledge for a high fee.