The convenient location of Chennai makes it an ideal starting point for a lot of amazing road trips. A delightful way to explore the coastline of Eastern Tamil Nadu is to do a one day trip from Chennai to Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry via a hired cab.
The ancient town of Mahabalipuram is famous for its 7th century temples, a gorgeous beach and a giant rock which delicately balances itself on a slope.
Further along the East coast of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry is India’s quaint French neighbourhood. Explore the self-sustaining eco-township of Auroville on your way to Pondicherry and watch the massive golden sphere of the Matrimandir.
Observe the distinct yellow buildings in this union territory’s White Town and drop by at the tranquil Aurobindo Ashram. The drive ends at the beautiful backwaters of Chunnambar next to the pristine Paradise Beach.
Book this one day trip for a comfortable journey along the Bay of Bengal, over sun-kissed beaches and with a balmy breeze to keep you company all the way.
A Glimpse of the Road Trip Package
This epic one day cab trip from Chennai to Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry will begin at 6 in the morning and go on until 11 at night.
The first leg of the journey from the capital city of Chennai to the temple town of Mahabalipuram spans 57 km and will take around an hour and forty minutes to cover.
By 8 AM, you will arrive in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram), just in time for breakfast.
You will first explore Mahabalipuram’s shore temple complex, dating back to the 8th century A.D., and then enjoy the adjoining beach where you can participate in a number of activities ranging from surfing to swimming.
Barely a 10-minute drive away is another famous heritage site of Pancha Rathas or Five Chariots which are monolithic rock cut monuments from as far back as 630 A.D.
In a short drive from there, you’ll reach the two large monolithic rock carvings which depict stories from mythology and the Mahabharata. This monument is collectively known as the Descent of the Ganges. A particularly popular part of the carvings is Arjuna’s Penance, which tells the story of how the warrior Arjuna received a boon from Shiva.
A few steps away is a 250-ton granite ball that precariously sits on an incline – Krishna’s Butter Ball. After this tour of Mahabalipuram, you will enjoy a hearty lunch.
Next, prepare yourselves for some lovely views of the Coromandel Coast as you are driven southwards towards Pondicherry along the East Coast Road. After over 95 kilometres of road journey, you will reach Auroville.
Auroville is an interesting intentional community that runs on solar power and has its own currency. This planned township for about 3000 residents from over 40 countries has a unique attraction site – the Matrimandir. This is a metallic dome which has golden discs adorning its exterior spherical frame. People often come here to meditate.
Here on, you will be taken to the erstwhile French colony of Pondicherry. From your car, you will be able to appreciate the shoreline of the White Town and the string of government buildings built along the road.
You will alight at the Aurobindo Ashram where you can look at the tombs (samadhis) of Sri Aurobindo and the ‘Mother’ (Mirra Alfassa) who were the founders of this spiritual community. There is a library in case you wish to know more about their culture and belief system.
Sip on some coffee at one of the beachside cafes and munch on some evening snacks before your cab takes you to the beautiful Chunnambar backwaters located about 8 km away.
Relish the tropical vibes of this lesser known sight. If you arrive before 5 PM, you will be able to ride a ferry to the Paradise Beach.
After sunset, get set for a 3-hour long drive back to Chennai. You should reach the city by 11 PM, thus completing your action-packed full day of sightseeing!
Places to Visit on this One Day Road Trip From Chennai to Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry
While on this day-long cab ride, there are several points of interest that you will stop to take a closer look at:
1. Mahabalipuram Seashore Temple
Offering stupendous views of the Bay of Bengal, the Shore Temple complex of Mahabalipuram is a major part of the group of monuments which have been identified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Built by the Pallava Dynasty between 700 A.D. and 728 A.D., this group of shrines is one of the oldest of its kind in South India. There are a total of three stone temples which reflect traditional Tamil architecture.
These granite structures also have a number of Hindu idols and other sculptures that will enthral visitors and students of history and archaeology alike.
2. Mahabalipuram Seashore Beach
Easily accessible from the Sea Shore Temple is the Mahabalipuram Seashore Beach. This beach is open from 6 AM until 6 PM and the sands are warm here. This is also one of the few places in India where you can learn to surf.
You can catch waves between June and September, with the best ones lasting until July. The Mahabalipuram Seashore Beach is a great place for photo opportunities as you have the heritage temple complex in the backdrop. Due to strong currents in the Bay of Bengal here, one must be careful while swimming.
3. Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots)
Dating back to 630 A.D. to 668 A.D., the Pancha Rathas perfectly display India’s ancient rock-cut architecture. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also known as Pandava Rathas as there are 5 life-size carvings of chariots. Each of these granite chariots is carved from a single rock or monolith.
These monolithic pieces have been named after the 5 Pandava brothers and their shared wife Draupadi from the epic of Mahabharata – Dharmaraja Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakula Sahadeva Ratha, and Draupadi Ratha. These structures remain incomplete, as seen from the tips and the base.
4. Descent of the Ganges & Arjuna’s Penance
This gigantic pair of structure is composed of two large boulders with intricate carvings on them. Covering an area of 96 feet by 43 feet, the monolithic heritage site tells the mythological story of how the River Ganges descended from heaven to the earth.
Also among the carvings are several gods, humans and semi-humans, and the story of how the Pandava warrior Arjun performed a penance to receive a boon from Shiva. He later used that boon in the war of Mahabharata. The rocks are basically pink granite, and quite well preserved.
5. Krishna’s Butter Ball
Located on a hill in Mahabalipuram is a huge boulder measuring 6 metres in height and 5 metres in width. A peculiar feature of this rock is that it magically seems to balance on this hill.
Over the years, a couple of attempts have been made to shift the gigantic ball to ensure the surroundings are safe from a sudden mishap in case it rolls down, but to no avail.
This site is now called Krishna’s Butter Ball as this mythological Hindu god liked to eat dollops of butter and would often steal it from others to feed his friends.
Situated 10 km from Pondicherry, the experimental township of Auroville is one-of-its-kind in India. Officially established by Mirra Alfassa in 1968, this place literally means ‘City of Dawn’ in French.
Even though there are close to 3000 residents from about 40 nationalities living here, visitors are allowed to tour the planned community. French, English and Tamil are recognised as the official languages here.
Auroville generates its own electricity through solar power and produces its own organic food. They have a digital currency here, and other currencies are not accepted. This eco-village also does a lot of spiritual activities.
Located smack in the centre of Auroville is a humongous golden sphere. This metallic structure is actually a hall, but is a visual beauty in itself. Built of metallic plates, the Matrimandir runs entirely on solar power.
Natural light is allowed to filter in during the daytime, and solar power is used to light up the auditorium when it’s dark. There is an inner chamber supported by 4 pillars inside.
One needs to make an advance booking to enter the Matrimandir which is mostly used for meditation. An expansive manicured lawn named the ‘Peace Area’ surrounds this structure.
8. Pondicherry’s Aurobindo Ashram
Established on 24th November 1926, Aurobindo Ashram was initially set up for the disciples of Sri Aurobindo – a retired politician who wanted to pursue spirituality. Today, it is also a museum open to visitors who can look at the white marble samadhis (tombs) of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Mirra Alfassa), and also explore the library.
For those interested in reading, there are several books authored by Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, among certain other books. Aurobindo Ashram is open from 8 AM to 12 PM and again from 2 PM to 6 PM.
9. Backwaters of Chunnambar
8 km to the south of Pondicherry is a relatively unexplored village – Chunnambar. The backwaters of Chunnambar has a creek on one side and is connected to a beach on the other. It is possible to stay here in pretty little tree houses that dot the landscape.
This is also a great location to do some camping. You will have to carry your own tent and equipment though. You can reach here from Pondicherry through the Cuddalore Main Road.
10. Paradise Beach
This lovely beach can only be reached via ferries available in Chunnambar. There are a number of water sport activities that can be enjoyed here – sailing, rowing, speed-boating, pedal-boating and swimming. You can also play beach sports on the clean sands here.
You can also go on special boat trips that go out for dolphin watching. Hiking is another thing available for adventure enthusiasts. This beach is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM. Do keep in mind that you may have to queue up for the ferry, so plan your itinerary accordingly.
Other Sightseeing Places In & Around Mahabalipuram & Pondicherry
If you are planning to stay for longer, there are several other places and sightseeing spots you can weave into your itinerary:
Tiger Caves: Only 5 km from Mahabalipuram, these ancient caves are located in the village of Saluvankuppam. The spot is basically a shrine made for the Hindu goddess –Durga. A particularly noticeable feature is the carving of 11 tiger heads at the entrance to the caves. The monument is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Crocodile Bank: For animal lovers, this crocodile conservation centre is a must-visit attraction. You will find both Indian and African crocodiles here, along with alligators.
Apart from watching the crocodiles, you can also watch the making of anti-venom – antidote to snakes’ venom. Romulus Whitaker set up the Crocodile Bank 14 km away from Mahabalipuram in 1976. He was a herpetologist himself.
India Seashell Museum: Open from 8 AM to 8 PM, this seashell museum in Mahabalipuram has more than 40,000 types of seashells and molluscs in its galleries. Established by Mr.Raja Mohammed, the museum is largely composed of his private collections, accumulated over 33 years of his travels around India and the world.
There is also an aquarium and a pearl museum in the premise. Tickets vary from INR 50 for the aquarium or the pearl museum to INR 100 for the main seashell museum to INR 150 for a combo offer.
Promenade Beach: Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is divided into the White Town (mainly composed of the French descendants and tourists) and the rest of the Indian population – largely Hindu Tamilians and Muslims.
The White Town enjoys a beautiful coastline and is dotted with beaches and beachside cafes. The Promenade Beach is full of rocks and boulders, but it offers a nice view of the Bay of Bengal, and is a great place to watch the sun set.
Pondicherry Lighthouse: Built in 1979, this lighthouse is a convenient landmark as it is 157 feet high. Just opposite is the Gandhi Memorial from where the ocean can be clearly seen.
A nice way to enjoy the sights is to walk along the promenade and observe the typical yellow coloured official buildings such as the French Consulate and the Police Headquarters.
While on this trip, you will have no lack of places to eat. Searock Restaurant is highly recommended in Mahabalipuram for its seafood. Water’s Edge Café is another option for buffet meals and a hearty breakfast.
There are dozens of cafés in Auroville that serve Italian, French, Indian, Japanese, Mediterranean and vegan food. Step into the highly rated casual restaurant – Naturellement, which has Mediterranean and vegetarian options.
In Pondicherry, you can enjoy the beach view better at the seafront Le Café which serves hot bakery items and breads among other Italian comfort food such as pastas and pizzas. Relish your coffee slowly to soak in the sea breeze for longer.
While in Mahabalipuram, you can indulge in some street shopping or hop into a handicrafts store. Kanchipuram bobble head dolls are quite famous here. Pondicherry has a handful of shops selling souvenirs and handmade soaps and candles.
How to Reach Chennai for the Onward Trip to Mahabalipuram & Pondicherry
If you wish to start this road trip from Chennai but stay elsewhere, here is how you can reach this capital city of Tamil Nadu:
Flights: Arriving in Chennai via air is perhaps the most comfortable. You can book your tickets to the Chennai International Airport which is only 7 km from the city centre. Most major airlines in India ply flights to this city, and it’s well connected to all other metro cities.
Trains: Chennai Central, Chennai Egmore and Tambaram are the main railway stations here. There are several trains that run daily from all major cities in India.
Buses: Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminal (CMBT) is the main bus station for all buses that arrive from outside of the city. If you are coming from one of the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu or another city within this state, a night bus is a cheap way to travel.
Car: There are 5 national highways that service Chennai, which also falls on the golden quadrilateral. The road conditions are good here and the network of roads is also sufficient to help you arrive here from most Indian cities nearby.
Chennai is 347 km from Bengaluru (or Bangalore), 139 km from Vellore, 133 km from Tirupati, 332 km from Tiruchirappalli, 463 km from Madurai, 506 km from Coimbatore and 482 km from Mysore (or Mysuru).