Getting There & Away
Mahabalipuram is 2 hours south of Chennai, on the East Coast Highway. Buses from Chennai arrive and depart every half-hour from the suburban Koyambedu bus stand (state-owned buses at Mofussil and private buses at Omni stand). Pondicherry is around 40 minutes away by road.
En Route to Mahabalipuram: The East Coast Road Hop -- Travelling between Chennai and Mahabalipuram along the East Coast Highway, you may want to schedule enough time for a number of interesting stops along the way. First up is Cholamandalam Artists' Village (Injambakkam, 13km/8 miles south of Chennai; tel. 044/2449-0092; daily 9am-7pm), established in the 1960s and home to a community of some 20 artists, with a permanent exhibition of their paintings, sculpture, graphic arts, and batik. Further south is Kalakshetra ("Temple of Art"), a celebrated school for traditional music and dance "with the sole purpose of resuscitating in modern India recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country and of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, devoid of vulgarity and commercialism." It was set up in 1936 by the celebrated Rukmini Devi Arundale, who studied ballet under Russia's great ballerina Anna Pavlova; on her return to Chennai she studied dasi attam (also known as Bharatnatyam), traditionally restricted to temple dancers, and regenerated interest in this classic dance form. Visitors interested in observing day classes are welcome by prior arrangement (the school has produced some of the country's most revered modern-day dancers) and performances are regularly staged in the school's auditorium. Visit www.kalakshetra.net for the calendar of events (Thiruvanmiyur, 29km/18 miles south of Chennai; tel. 044/2491-1169 or -1836).
Next stop (about halfway mark to Mamallapuram) is DakshinaChitra, a nonprofit heritage center showcasing different living styles of India's four southern states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala. It has relocated or rebuilt real 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century houses and re-created village streets and workplaces typical of each state, and there are goods for sale as well as artisans (weavers, potters, glassblowers, puppeteers) demonstrating their skills. Informative guided tours of the reconstructed heritage villages are available; alternatively there is a good map given out with the entry fee (Muttukadu, East Coast Rd., 30km/18 miles south of Chennai; tel. 044/2747-2603; www.dakshinachitra.net; entry Rs 200; child Rs 20; Wed-Mon 10am-6pm).
DakshinaChitra has plenty of activities for kids but beleaguered parents with overactive kids will find the most successful stop just 15km (9 miles) north of Mahabalipurum, the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (www.madrascrocodilebank.org; Rs 30; children under 10, Rs 15; photo with croc or python Rs 50; feeding crocs Rs 30; Tues-Sun 8am-6pm) was set up by the famous New York-born herpetologist Romulus Whitaker in 1976. It is today an extremely successful breeding and research center that sustains around 2,500 crocodiles, including 14 of the world's 26 species, and puts these much maligned creatures in a new light. Did you know for instance that it is not chromosomal configuration but temperature, timing, and incubation duration that determines the sex of crocodile offspring?
The Government of Tamil Nadu Tourist Office (Kovalam Rd.; tel. 04114/242-232; Mon-Fri 10am-5:45pm) can supply you with limited information (like a map of Tamil Nadu) and a few booklets on the town. Peak season is December to February; July and August, when the French are on vacation, is also busy.
All of the town's attractions can be reached on foot, or you can catch an auto-rickshaw.