The significance of the Pallava period is that it is the culmination of what had been a gradual process of assimilating the Aryan culture and the emergence of the Tamil personality.
During this period, the political relations among powers of the Deccan and further south were based on the geo-political interests, which led to conflict between the Pallavas of Kanchipuram, the Chalukyas of Badami and the Pandyas of Madurai.
By the beginning of the 7th century AD, the Pallavas with Kanchipuram as their capital emerged as an important power after replacing the Kalabhras.
A serious debate is going on about the origin and homeland of the Pallavas. Primarily there are two theories, (i) foreign, and (ii) indigenous, about their origin. Lewis Rice based on the resemblance of the words Pallavas and Pahlavas concludes that the Pallavas were the descendants of the Pahlavas, a branch of the Persians and argues that the word Pallava is a Sanskritized form of ‘Pahlavas’.
On the other hand, N. Srinivasa Ayyangar maintains that the Pallavas were of Naga origin based on a reference to Naga-Chola alliance in Manimekhalai, which appears to be more realistic given the fact that Nagas in the reference can be adduced to the Andhras and the early Pallavas ruled the region of the lower Krishna valley. K.P. Jaiswal who regards Pallavas as a branch of the Vakatakas further strengthens this theory. R. Sathianatha Iyer relying on the Asokan epigraphs and on the prevalence of the regional names like Pulinada, Puliyaraw in Tondaimandalam, considers them as Pulindas.
On the basis of the fact that the early Pallava epigraphs are found in Andhra region, K.A.N. Sastri, R. Gopalan and C. Meenakshi consider them as chieftains under the Satavahanas who became independent after the decline of the Satavahanas. Contrasting the above identification, R. Raghava lyangar and S. Krishnaswamy lyangar are of the opinion that they are Tamils, basing their arguments on the information furnished by the epic Manimekhalai Tondaiyar is the name given to the Pallavas by Thirmangai Alwar.
Romila Thapar thinks that the traditions woven around the story of a young prince falling in love with a Naga princess and the story of binding the child with a creeper or twig, points a foreign origin of the Pallavas. For the last fifty years and more, the origin of the Pallavas has remained a mystery to be unlocked.
Though the Pallavas became an important political power in the beginning of the 7th century, theirs is an old power. The Pallavas, who ruled prior to the beginning of the 7th century, are known in history as early Pallavas.
The early Pallavas issued two types of epigraphs:
(i) In Prakrit, and
(ii) In Sanskrit.
There is a view that the Pallavas were the feudatories of the Satavahanas and started ruling independently after the fall of the Satavahanas. As all the inscriptions of the early Pallavas were discovered in the districts of Guntur and Nellore, it is believed that the Telugu country south of the Krishna River formed the bulk of the Pallava kingdom until the last quarter of the 6th century AD.
We come to know from Sanskrit epigraphs of the Pallavas that they ruled from AD 350 to 550. The following are the rulers of this line known through their genealogical lists: Simhavarma I, Skandavarma I, Skandavarma II, Kumaravishnu II, Buddavarman, Kumaravishnu III, Skandavarman III and Vishnuvarman II. We learn from one of the epigraphs that Buddavarman has been described a ‘submarine fire’ to the ocean of the Chola army. From this, it can be inferred that there was hostility between the early Pallavas and the early Cholas and after subduing the Kalabhras the Pallavas became the rulers of Kanchi and established a secondary lineage.
Simhavishnu, who ruled from AD 555 to 590, is considered the founder of the line of the Greater Pallavas. Simhavishnu, the founder of the Great Pallava line assumed the tide of Avanisimha or lion of the earth. He was not only a great general who conquered Cholamandalam, the kings of Ceylon and the three Tamil states and brought peace and order by subduing the Kalabhras but also a patron of Bharavi, the author of Kiratarjuniya.
The Adivaraha temple at Mahabalipuram provides the relief of Simhavishnu, his two queens and his son Mahendravarman. Mahendravarman I, son and successor of Simhavishnu, ascended the Pallava throne and ruled from AD 590 to 630. He assumed many titles like Chitrumalla, Gunahhara, Vichitrachitta, Mattavilasa, Sankimajati, Chitrakarapuli and Amnibhajana, each one reflecting his versatile accomplishments.
It was Mahendravarman, who was responsible for the growing political strength of the Pallavas, and made the dynasty the arbiters and patrons of Tamil culture. He was a contemporary of Harsha of Thaneswar, and Pulakesin II of Badami. The most important political aspect to be noted is the beginning of the long-drawn rivalry for political supremacy between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas of Badami. Pulakesin II’s Aihole epigraph bears testimony to the fact of the success of Chalukyas against Mahendravarman. The epigraph proudly proclaims that Pulakesin II “caused the splendours of the lord of the Pallavas to be obscured by the dust of his army and to vanish behind the walls of Kanchipura”.
Originally a Jaina by faith, he appears to have been converted to Saivism by Appar, who himself was a convert to Saivism from Jaina faith. In spite of his defeat at the hands of Pulakesin II, Mahendravarman earned eternal flame by his scholarship, interest in music and by his patronage of art and architecture. Mahendravarman was a renowned builder of rock-cut temples in Trichinapally, Chengalpat, North Arcot and South Arcot districts. He also built temples in honour of Vishnu, Isvara and Brahma.
The Mandagapatti epigraph informs us “This brickless, timberless, metalless and mortarless temple which is a mansion for Brahma, Isvara and Vishnu, was caused to be erected by the King Vichitrachitta”. He also excavated a rock-cut temple in honour of Vishnu, on the banks of the Mahendravadi near Arkonam in the North Arcot district, which is known as Mahendra Vishnugraham. The rock-cut temples at Vellam, Dalavanur, Mahendrawadi and Mamandur are the best examples of rock-cut architecture. His reign is famous for popularization of rock-cut architecture and his title Vichitrachitta or the man with new or curious ideas is indicative of his personality.
Mahendravarman’s abiding and deep interest and love for fine arts is unparalleled. His title Chitrakarapuli is also very significant because the paintings on the ceiling of a rock-cut temple at Sittanvasal in the Pudukkottai region are attributed to him. His proficiency in music can be known from his Kudimiyamalai inscription that contains a musical tabular note. We may surmise from this that he has taken the title of Sankimajati. He composed two works in Sanskrit, Mattavilasa Prahasana and Bhogavadajjuka. His construction of a town Mahendramangalam or Mahendravadi and the tank at Mamandur known as Chitramegatatakam prove his interest in irrigation and promotion of secular engineering skills.
Mehendravarman I was succeeded by his son Narasimhavarman I, who ruled from AD 630 to 668. Narasimhavarman I followed his father’s example and raised the glory and prestige of the Pallavas by his conquests and artistic achievements. He is popularly known as Mamalla.
His reign of 39 years is full of significant events. Narasimhavarman decided to reconquer the territories lost by his father to the Chalukyas of Badami. He with the help of a King of Ceylon succeeded in defeating Pulakesin II in AD 642. He not only defeated him but also occupied Vatapi and as a mark of that assumed the title of Vatapikonda (the conqueror of Vatapi). He also undertook a successful naval campaign against the ruler of Ceylon. Besides these political victories, he made himself eternally remembered by introducing the Mamalla style of architecture.
Mamallapuram bears eloquent testimony to his style of architecture. Paramesawra Varman mentions his victory over the Chalukyas in his Kurram plates. Another event of great significance was the visit of Hiuen Tsang who provides a graphic description of the fertility of the soil, learning habits of the people, and the condition of Buddhism and Jainism in the Pallava kingdom. Narasimhavarman was succeeded by his son Mahendravarman II, who ruled only for a period of two years from AD 668 to 670.
His reign witnessed the invasion of the Chalukyas under Virkramaditya I, son of Pulakesin, who defeated him. Mahendravarman II was succeeded by his son Paramesvara Varman I. From the Udayendram plates, we come to know that he won a victory over the Chalukyas at Peruvalanallur. Paramesvara Varman was a known devotee of Siva and he built many temples for Siva and granted Parameswara Mangalam village to the Siva temple built by him at that village. Paramesvara Varman was succeeded by his son Narasimha Varman II, who ruled for 28 years from about AD 700-728.
He assumed the titles of Rajasimha (lion among kings), Agamapriya (lover of scriptures) and Sankarabhakta (devotee of Siva). True to his tide of Sankarabhakta, he built the Kailasanatha temple or Rajasimhesvaram at Kanchi, the Siva temple at Penamalai and a famous shore temple at Mamallapuram. We know from the inscription available at the Kailasanatha temple that he had a queen by name Rangapataka and the crown prince Mahendravarman III.
He patronized the famous poet Dandin. He sent an embassy to China. Interestingly the Chinese annals provide information regarding his efforts to counter act the efforts of the Arabs. Paramesvara Varman II, one of the sons of Narasimha Varman succeeded him and ruled for a short period of three years from about AD 728 to 731.
Once again, he had to face the invasion of the Chalukyas of Vatapi led by Vikramaditya, who was helped by a Ganga prince Nandivarman Pallava Malla, the next great Pallava ruler who ruled from AD 731 to 796. It is said that the Pallava kingdom was plunged into crisis after the death of Paramesvara Varman II. In that period of crisis, the officials of the court chose a twelve-year-old boy Nandivarman as the ruler. He had to fight against the contemporaneous Chalukya, Rashtrakuta and the Pandya kings.
Vikramaditya II of the Chalukyas of Vatapi appears to have gained a short-term victory over him. Rajasimha I, the Pandya king at Pennagadem, also defeated him. In these difficult days, the Pallavas entered into matrimonial alliance with Dantidurga of the Rashrakutas. Because of the marriage Dantivaman was born, who became the successor of Nandivarman Pailavamalla.
The construction of Vaikunta Perumal temple at Kanchi and patronage of Tirumangai Alwar suggest that he must be a Vaishnavite. He is also said to have built a temple at Kanchi known as Paramesvara Visnagaram and a Kesavaperumal temple at Karam. Dantivarman, the son and successor of Nandivarman Pallava Malla ruled from AD 796-847. He had to face the invasion of Govinda III of the Rashtrakuta line. The decline of the Pallava power set in during his reign.
The disintegration of the Pallava political power structure accelerated during the reign of Nandivarman III, who ruled from AD 847-849. He had the title of Avanivaranam and was defeated by the Pandyas at Kumbakonam. After his death, his three sons began to quarrel over succession and it gave scope for the Cholas and the Pandyas to participate in the civil war. In this civil war, Nrupatunga, one of the sons of Nandivarman III died and Aditya Chola and Kamavarman defeated Aparajita, another son. The last became a feudatory of the Cholas. The Pallava power ended.
Theoretically, the king was the sole source of authority. The Pallavas maintained that as they were the descendants of Brahma, the kingship was of divine origin and was hereditary. We find the election of a king when there was no direct heir to the throne, as happened in the case of Nandivarman Pallava Malla.
Generally, kings assumed high-sounding titles like Maharajadhiraja, Dharmartiaharajadhiraja and more unusual Agnistoma-Vajapeya-Aswamedhayaji. All these titles indicate the impact of the Aryan culture and the process of assimilation that took place during that period. As we are aware, the performance of Vedic sacrifice does not have any special significance as in the days of later Vedic age; but during this period these performances appear to have had special political connotation as they served to legitimize the right to rule independently of the Pallava overlords. Owing to the change in religious milieu, we find a change in the ideal of kingship and performance of the Vedic sacrifices by kings disappear.
A number of ministers who appear to have gained more powers during the later Pallava rule assisted the king. These ministers also bore semi-royal titles and at times, they were appointed from among the subordinate allies or feudatories. These kings followed the practice of appointing a Yuvaraja or crown prince and generally, he played an active role in the administration or in wars as we come to know from the epigraphs of the period. Besides the ministers and the Yuvaraja, we come across a number of officials of various ranks who performed many duties on behalf of the king.
For administrative convenience, the kingdom was divided into a hierarchy of administrative units. The provincial administration was entrusted to a hierarchy of offices. In the Pallava kingdom, the Nadu the equivalent of the modern district emerged as the main unit of administration. Below the Nadu, we have villages. In the villages, the basic assembly was entrusted with matters relating to the village, like endowments, irrigational activities, cultivable land, and punishments of crime, census records and all other necessary activities. The Sabha that was a formal institution worked very closely with the Ur, an informal gathering of the entire inhabitants of the village.
The village headman acted as both the leader of the village and mediator with the government and was the link between the village assembly and the royal administration. As the king was regarded as the owner of the land, he had the right to make revenue grants to his officers, religious establishments, or get the land cultivated by small farmers and big property owners.
The predominant practice of this time was entrusting collection of land revenue right to big landlords. There existed both crown lands and private lands. Crown lands were rented out to tenants at will. Grants of lands were given to officers in lieu of salaries. We do not come across the practice of supplying troops or giving revenue to the state as was in the regular feudal structure.
As such, there is a controversy regarding the nature of relationship between the sovereign and minor rulers and chieftains or important royal dignitaries. There is one view that it was the ritual status of the anointed king that made minor chieftains or royal dignitaries obey him. Some others consider the minor rulers as feudatories but as we do not find feudal relation between the two, this view is discarded.
It is suggested that it would be better to designate them as subordinate allies instead of feudatories or ascribing ritual status to powerful rulers. A striking feature of the Pallava polity was the importance attached to innumerable local groups based on caste, craft, profession or religious faith.
We come across associations of artisans; association of merchants, of ascetics, of temple priests each with its own samayadharma or code of conduct. In Pallava polity, we notice three important territorial assemblies: Ur, Sabha and Nagaram. Generally, the Ur was a non-Brahmanical assembly while the Nagara was an assembly of mercantile groups. All these local assemblies or bodies used to meet regularly every year while the day-to-day tasks were taken care of by a small executive body.
Every group had its autonomy in accordance with its own constitution based on custom and usage and solved the problems of members at the local level itself In matters of common interest affecting the lives of more than one group, decisions were arrived at after mutual consultations. By giving powers or accepting the decisions of the local autonomous corporate groups to resolve their problems at local level, the burden of the government was lessened largely and this strategy adopted by the Pallavas minimized the opposition of the people towards the government.
Though the Pallava rulers did not involve themselves at the local level, they seem to have strengthened their base by creating more and more Brahmadeya or Agrahara or Devadana villages. Interestingly, these Brahmana settlements were created throughout the core area of the kingdom, which depended on rice cultivation for its prosperity, and sustainability. In due course, the Sabha or Mahasabha of the Brahmin settlements evolved into a system of governance through committees.
This is known as Variyam or committee system, which became a hallmark of self-government in the Brahman settlements. The Sabha through its Variyam system supervised the maintenance of roads and tanks, management of charitable donations, regulation of irrigational rights and temple affairs. Consequently, the Brahmadeya and Agrahara villages became predominant during the Pallava period.
The people knew rice, coconut, palm plantations, palmyra and areca palm, orchards of mangoes and plantains. Many of the villages depended on tank irrigation and this land was known as Eripatti or tank. Besides tanks, they knew well-irrigation. Fitting of sluices regulated water flow through canals.
Two types of taxes were collected:
(i) Land revenue at the rate of one-sixth to one-tenth of produce value from each cultivator was collected and paid to the state and
(ii) A tax collected and utilized for local needs.
They also collected taxes on draught cattle toddy tappers, marriage parties and professions. The amount of tax levied on these was not known. Romila Thapar thinks that as there were no large areas under cultivation, the land revenue income of the Pallavas was small. There is a view that during this period the state did not receive substantial amount of income from trade and commerce.
Much of the royal revenue was spent on maintaining the army. The Pallavas appear to have depended on the standing army rather than on troops supplied by the subordinate allies.
The army consisted of infantry and cavalry alone. Chariots and elephants were almost absent. The Pallavas appear to have classified their officers as civil and military. They also developed navy and built dockyards at Mahabalipuram and Nagapattanam and developed maritime trade with South-East Asia, in particular with Kamboja, Cambodia, Champa (Annam), and Srivijaya, the southern Malay Peninsula and Sumatra seems to have flourished in the period.
The social structure of the Pallava period witnessed the growing impact of the Aryan culture. Because of this impact, a pre-eminent position was assigned to the Brahmins both in status and in grant of lands. Further, Aryanization was evident in the sphere of education.
During the Pallava period, the Brahmins superseded the Jains and the Buddhists in formulating policies. Though the Jaina and the Buddhist centres of education continued to exist, they lost the royal patronage. Ghatikas, the educational institutions catering to the needs of resurgent Sanantana Dharma were pervading. Every temple in general had a Ghatika attached to it.
Though in the beginning, any twice-born was admitted into these Ghatikas, gradually they became the centres of Brahmanical students. The Ghatikas in due course became important centres of political activity supporting the cause of monarchy as a political institution. In those days, the University of Kanchi was the most well-known educational institution comparable to the Nalanda University.
However, by the 8th century, the Matha, a combination of a rest house, a feeding centre and a seminary began to play a crucial role in the spread of education of a particular sect. Sanskrit continued to be the court language and the language of literature, Bharavi’s Kiratatjuniya and Dandin’s Dasakumaracharita, two outstanding standard Sanskrit works were produced in the South. On the other hand, the prominent Bhakti saints of this period popularized Tamil through their hymns and songs composed and sung in praise of the popular deities, Siva and Vishnu.
Tamil devotionalism that became very popular in the 6th and 7th centuries can be known from the Tamil songs and works of the Nayanar and the Alwar saints. Of the Saivite saints, the most popular was Appar, who converted king Mahendravarman to Saivism from Jaina faith. Another feature to be noticed is that the majority of these saints came from lower castes of artisans and cultivators.
The Bhakti movement led to the popularization of musical instruments like the flute, and the dance form of Bharatanatyam at temples. During the Pallava period, we notice some prosperous temples maintaining a group of dancers. The devotionalism in turn led to the construction of temples on a large scale, which reflected the Pallava style of art and architecture.
Percy Brown, the famous art historian and critic, points out: “of all the great powers that together made the history of Southern India, none had a more marked effect on the architecture of their reign than the earliest of all, that of the Pallavas, whose productions provided the foundation of the Dravidian style”. K.A.N. Sastri aptly observes that the Pallavas bridged the transition from rock architecture to structural stone temples.
The temple architecture of the Pallavas is divided into rock-cut and structural. The rock-cut temples are further divided into excavated pillared halls and monolithic shrines known as Rathas. Romila Thapar states, “Pallava temples were usually free standing buildings, but the tradition set by the Buddhists for cave temples still continued”.
The Brahmans and the Buddhists vied with each other in cutting shrines and temples into the Deccan hills, where, by this time, worship at these shrines may have been open to anyone, the rivalry between the two religions not being particularly felt by ordinary people. The most impressive of these cave temples are the Buddhist shrines at Ajanta and the Buddhist and Hindu temples at Ellora. Even the Jains joined in and excavated a few temples at the latter site.
Mahendravarman I started the building of the rock-cut temples in South India. He built Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram, an immortal centre of artistic excellence by making it ‘the birth place of South Indian architecture and sculpture’. The excavated shrines initiated by Mahendravarman are simple pillared halls cut into the back or sides of walls.
An interesting feature of the cave temples built by Mahendravarman I am the presence of inscriptions giving details about them. For example, the cave temple at Madagapattu in South Arcot district refers to his construction of a temple dedicated to Vishnu, Siva and Brahma without using brick, mortar, timber or metal. He built a five-celled cave temple with an elaborate plan at Pallavaram near Madras. Four more cave temples were built at Mamamundur in North Arcot district.
He also built another temple for Siva at Siyamangalam, known as Avanibhanjana Pallaveswaram. The upper rock-cut temple at Tiruchiraplli is considered by far the best of his cave temples. Here in this temple, we notice the first representation of Gangadhara. Here we have direct evidence about his conversion to Saivism in the shape of an inscription treating Jainism as an alien faith.
A portrait of an individual worshipping Siva in this temple is identified as that of Mahendravarman himself He cut rock temples for Siva and for Vishnu. We find two Vishnu temples built by him in the North Arcot at Mahendravadi and Sivagaram known as Mahendra Vishnugriha and Ranganadha temple respectively. The Ekambareswara temple at Kanchi has a pillar mentioning his titles. As a Jain, prior to his conversion to Saivism, he built a cave temple at Sittanvassal.
It is said that a few sculptures found in the Gunadharmeswara temple belonged to his times. His subordinate Kandesina constructed a cave temple at Vallam, near Tirukkalakkunram. Post-Mahendravarman art and architectural pieces are found at Mamallapuram.
They are divided as:
(i) Cut-in cave temples popularly known as Mandapas,
(2) Rock-cut monolithic temples popularly called Rathas,
(3) Structural temples, and
(4) Bas-relief sculptures found in the open air on rocks.
Of the first category of cave temples, only some are nearly complete and they are of modest proportion. The plan of these cave temples is not the same. At some places, the sanctums are cut at the batkwall. In others, we find them projected into the hall from the rear wall.
We also notice a pillared pavilion in front beside the sanaums, and sanctums cut in the outer wall of the rock face. Thus, we find no uniform pattern. The main factor seems to have been the convenience of the architect. While most of the caves are plain without sculptures, the Mahishasuramardini cave, the Adivaraha cave, the Varaha and the Trimurti caves have sculptures. Differing from the other cave temples, the Panchapandava cave was the biggest cave with sanctum in the centre with provision for a circumbulatory path around. In the other category, the most famous are the Panchapandavarathas or seven Pagodas, of Dharmaraja, Bhima, Arjuna, Draupadi and Sahadeva.
These are not uniform in shape. While Draupadi Ratha is a simple hut-shaped temple, the Arjuna Ratha is two storeyed, the Bhima Ratha is a rectangular Vimana and Dharmaraja Ratha is three storeyed. Their plans are also different. The Sahadeva Ratha is an apsidal temple with a portico in front. The other three Rathas are of Ganesha, Pillari and Valaiyam Kuttai.
There is a controversy regarding the ruler who built these at Mamallapuram. Some are of the view that they were built during the reigns beginning with that of Narasimhavarman and ending with Narasimhavarman Rajasimha. Some others ascribe them to Rajasimha based on the epigraphical evidence that appears to be more rational. The Pallava age saw a transition from rock-cut architecture to free-standing temples. Rajasimha was responsible for this transition.
He is credited with the construction of three structural temples at Mamallapuram. The most significant of them is the shore temple, which happens to be the earliest free-standing temples in South India. Rajasimha also built such structural temples at Panamalai and at Kanchi.
Kailasanatha temple built at Kanchi has all the features of the Pallava style, a Pyramidal Viman and a detached pillared hall or Mandapa in front. In later centuries, Arthamandapa joined the Mandapa and the other structures. His successors also continued the temple building activity.
Temples were built at Oragadam, Tiruttani and Gudimallam. Mulakeswara and Matangeswara temples were built at Kanchi. While the pillars of the Mamalla style are slender and supported by squatting lions, rampant lions support the pillars of Rajasimha style, which are also slender. K.A.N. Sastri observes that to the Pallavas, however, belongs the credit of having kept up and developed the tradition of Amaravati, and transmitted it to lands beyond the seas where in course of time there arose vast monuments that threw even the splendid achievements of the mother country into the shade.
The Pallava rock-cut caves and structural temples are filled with sculptures. The sculptures in the rock-cut cave temples display well-rounded limbs, an elongated face, a double chin, snubnose and thick lips. During the post-Mahendravarman times, both religious and secular paintings are found in abundance.
Sculptural depictions that received the acclaim of art critics were found at Mamallapuram. They are depictions of Lord Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana, Arjuna’s penance and the killing of Mahishasura. Various forms of Siva such as Lingodbhava mounts and Tripurantaka are depicted in sculptural panels. The favourite theme of the sculptors appears to be different forms of Siva.
The tiny Gopura makes its earliest appearance here. The Pallava age witnessed a lot of development in the field of painting also. The rich heritage of the Pallava paintings can be seen in the Jain cave temple at Sittanvassal, the Kailasanath temple at Kanchi and the Talagiriswara temple at Panamalai.
In these paintings, dark colours predominate and the painters appear to have used dry surface that was given a thin coat of lime. In the words of Romila Thapar “to cover the walls of deep cut caves with murals was an achievement of no mean order, considering the difficulty of inadequate lighting and poor working conditions in these caves and structural temples”. In those days, the colours were made from minerals and plants and their uniqueness is that they retain some of their original brilliance.
The paintings were both religious and secular. It is already stated how music was patronized by them. In conclusion, it can be said that during the Pallava period the penetration of the Aryan culture of North India into the South led to the assimilation of some of the patterns, ideas and institutions and rejection or modification of certain other aspects. Tamil devotional culture was one of the results of this interaction. The Pallavas consciously laid foundation for a synthesis of the broad based Indian culture and made their place in the history of India secure.