Thousands of years before the British first landed on the Coromandel Coast, merchants’ ships were setting sail from a city further south to ports as far afield as the Malacca Straits. Known as Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram), the town was praised by both Periplus and Ptolemy for its wealth and sophistication. Marco Polo enthused about the ‘Seven Great Pagodas’ that rose from its shore, a skyline hewn from solid granite by the Pallava Dynasty in the 7th century AD.
Numerous vestiges of this golden era survive amid the giant humpback boulders looming above the modern village. Ranging from shrines sculpted in the form of rathas (temple chariots), to mandapas (cave sanctuaries) and giant open-air reliefs, they include the world-famous Shore Temple.
The ringing of chisels on volcanic rock has been the defining sound of Mahabalipuram. You can watch the village’s stone carving tradition in action at innumerable workshops around the back lanes, where a pantheon of many-armed deities, mythical monsters and film stars are chiselled from slabs of local granite.
As well as being filled with superb antiquities, Mamallapuram is also a great place to unwind. A string of small resort hotels facing the beach make the most of their breezy location under the palms, while local restaurants do a brisk trade in fresh lobster, tiger prawns and other fresh seafood.