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51km (31 miles) S of Chennai

A visit to this once-thriving port city of the Pallavas, a dynasty that ruled much of South India between the 4th and 9th centuries A.D., is an excellent introduction to South Indian temple architecture, and the surrounding resorts offer a much more holiday atmosphere than Chennai. Established by Mamalla, "the Great Wrestler," the tourist town of Mahabalipuram attracts thousands to view the earliest examples of monumental architecture in southern India -- incredible rock-cut shrines that celebrate Hinduism's sacred pantheon and legends. Even today, the descendents of these early sculptors continue to create carvings for temples, hotel foyers, and tourists; the sounds of sculptors chipping away at blocks of stone echo through the narrow lanes, an aural reminder of the sort of devoted craftsmanship that must have possessed the original masons who created the World Heritage monuments. It's possible to survey the best monuments in a morning, provided you get an early start (ideally, long before domestic tourists arrive en masse around midmorning). This leaves you time to unwind on the pleasant beach and dine on a plate of simply prepared fresh seafood. You could even overnight, enjoying its charming village-like atmosphere, a million miles from the 21st-century hustle that is Chennai. Alternatively, you can move on to Pondicherry after lunch and be sipping Gallic cocktails before sundown.