Pallava Dynasty

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Pallava Dynasty


The Pallavas of Kanchipuram dominated South Indian history for over five centuries. Their legacy is etched in the splendid temples of Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram, and their kings doubled up as great patrons of art and literature. Read more about the history of this great South Indian empire...

The Pallavas of Kanchipuram are considered to be one of the most powerful dynasties to have ruled over Bharatavarsha. Their architectural, cultural and administrative contributions to the Indic civilization are substantial, and this article aims at illustrating the reasons for their dominance over the Indian subcontinent for nearly five centuries.

Etymology and Origins:

The name Pallava has been subject to heated scholarly debate, some believing that it is a variation of Pahlava (or the Parthians) of North Indian provenance while others believing that it was a literal translation of the word Tondaivar. The Vayalur Pillar inscription of Rajasimha mentions Pallava after the seven mythical ancestors- from Brahma to Ashvatthama- and before naming Ashoka. Some scholars also consider Pallava to be a variant of Palada (a form of Pulindu, featured in Ashokan edicts), highlighting the terrain that may have comprised the southernmost outpost of the Mauryan Empire. [ref]

Tondaimandalam is famously recognised as the region that encompassed the land occupied by the Pallavas. Its capital, the city of Kanchipuram, was one of the richest cities in the world under the Pallavas.

 The history of the Pallavas is generally divided into two parts:

  • Early (275-550 CE)
  • Late (550-891 CE).

The Early Pallavas

The history of the Early Pallavas is not well known as it falls under a stage in Tamil History for which sources are virtually non-existent. This phase, lasting from roughly the 3rd century AD to the mid-6th century AD is often deemed to be a Dark Age in Tamil history, when certain factions convulsed the Tamil country into decadence. The Kalabhras are conventionally considered to be one of the major forces that barricaded growth in this period. Nonetheless, inscriptions too proffer evidence of Sivaskandavarman being the greatest ruler among the Early Pallavas. His dominions extended from Krishna to South Pennar and Bellary district. He performed the Ashvamedha Yajna and was a devout Brahmin.

Vishnugopa, Skandasisya, Buddhavarman and Ashokavarman are some other rulers assigned to this phase. The Early Pallavas seemingly were in constant conflict with the Kalabhras, but there is no robust archaeological or literary evidence to help characterize the society during their reign.

The Late Pallavas (575-900 CE)

Simhavishnu (c.575-600 CE)

The fortunes of the Pallavas and effectively those of the Tamil people swung dramatically with the arrival on the political scene of Simhavishnu. With him began an age of unmatched prosperity and cultural glory. He is often credited with defeating and ultimately crushing the challenge posed by the Kalabhras. Moreover, he brought nearly the whole of Tamilakam under his control. In fact, he went beyond the confines of his own territory, and organized an expedition to Malaya. It is believed that he looted Malaya and returned without establishing any Pallava kingdom out there.

Simhavishnu was a prolific poet, and a pioneer in lending traction to the great language of Sanskrit in Tamilakam. He was a great patron of the Sanskrit poet Bhairavi. As a practicing Vaishnavite, he oversaw the setting up of many temples in his kingdom.

Mahendravarman I 'Vichitra-chitta' (c. 600-630)

Simhavishnu was succeeded by another versatile and powerful ruler, Mahendravarman I. An accomplished painter, dancer and musician, he was a multi-faceted individual. He endorsed Sanskrit literature, and infact wrote a famous Sanskrit play, Mattavilasa Prahasna. He also established the Kanchi University, that disseminated knowledge of Vedas, Buddhism, Jainism etc. The Mandagapattu Trimurti temple in the Vilappuram district of Tamil Nadu contains an inscription wherein Mahendravarman calls himself as vichitrachitta. The Kudamiyamalai inscriptions found on caves near Pudukottai also furnish information on his reign. He was a devout Shaivite and built a lot of Shiva temples.

Mahendravarman bestowed upon himself a string of titles, that include: Chetthakari (temple builder), Mattavilasa (addicted to enjoyment), Chitrakrappuli (tiger among painters), and Vichitrachitta (myriad-minded). Mahendravarman gave up Jainism and embraced Saivism under the influence of Saint Appar. He constructed many rock-cut temples, that remain embodying his greatness.

If there was one blot in Mahendravarman's checkered career, it was his crushing loss to the Chalukyan prince Pulakesin II. The Western Chalukyas had made inroads into the country.

An inscription at Aihole records this cataclysmic event (for the Pallavas) in no uncertain terms - (The war) caused the splendour of the lord of the Pallavas ... to be obscured by the dust of his army and to vanish behind the walls of Kanchipura.

The Trichinopoly cave inscriptions suggest that Mahendravarman's kingdom extended up to the Kaveri, and by the time his successor acceded to the throne, the Pallavas remained alongside the Chalukyas, the preeminent force of South India.

Narasimhavarman I 'Mahamaila' (630-668 CE)

Mahendravarman's successor, Narasimhavarman I (c. 630-668 AD), outdid him in many ways. Most crucially, this ruler managed to accomplish what had evaded his illustrious father. He defeated and killed Pulakesin II in Manimangalam, and brought Vatapi under the influence of the Pallava empire. One of Narasimhavarmans titles- Vatapikondan- stems from this achievement. He was also addressed as Mahamaila (great wrestler) for his deftness in combat.

Narasimhavarman spearheaded a successful naval expedition to Ceylon to reinstate the prince Manavarma. His relations with Ceylon were very healthy, and both assisted each other to ward off domestic troublemakers. It was also in Narasimhavarmans reign that the renowned Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang visited Kanchipuram, and left with a fine impression of the city that had grown in prosperity under the Pallavas. However, the crowning achievement of his rule remained the subjugation of the Chalukyas, that left this powerful rival dynasty in a state of turmoil for nearly a decade.

His successors, Mahendravarman II and Paramesvaraman had short and uneventful reigns. Naramasimhavarman II (C. 695-722) Rajasimha enjoyed a peaceful reign, and built the Kailashnath temple at Kanchi that stands erect till date. [ref]

Nandivarman II 'Pallavamalla' (c. 730-796 CE)

After his successor, Paremesvaraman IIs reign came to an end (c.730), an interesting chain of events led a distant relative taking over as the sovereign. There was apparently no one to succeed Paramesvaravarman in the direct line, and the officials at Kanchi acting with a college of learned Brahmins (called ghatika) chose a prince from a collateral branch. It so happened that Simhavishnus brother, Bhimavishnu had carried forward his legacy, and four centuries down the line, his own legatees had laid claim to the throne. There is little evidence to suggest the identity of the place where this collateral branch was earlier located, but the aforementioned panels suggest that the new ruler had to make a long strenuous journey through dense forests and mountains before reaching the Pallava capital. [ref]

This ruler, Nandivarman II Pallavamalla had a long career and remained the emperor till the end of the 8th century AD, He fended off challenges to his throne, and many of his inscriptions emphasise his pure Pallava lineage. He also kept the resurging Pandyas at bay, and forged a marital alliance with Danditurga, the founder of the Rashtrakuta dynasty. He led an expedition against the Ganga kingdom, defeated Sripurusha and also handed over territory to Jayanandivarman, the Bana feudatory of Nandivarman. The Pandyas constantly threatened him right through his reign, and Nandivarman at one stage entered into an alliance with the rulers of Kongu and Kerala to keep them in check. Nandivarman is credited with the construction of the Vaikuntha Perumal temple at Kanchipuram. The bas-relief panels on the walls of this temple are an invaluable source to understand the history of the Pallavas and the importance of Nandivarman's reign.

Dantivarman (c.796-847) and Nandivarman III (c. 846-69)

Nandivarman was succeeded by his son, Dantivarman (c. 796-847). His rule initiated a steep downfall of the Pallavas in South India. While the Pandyas and the Chalukyas were the chief enemies, the rise of the Rashtrakutas during and especially after Dantidurgas reign reduced the stature of the Pallavas. He was followed by his son Nandivarman III (846-69) who was perhaps the last great ruler in the Pallava dynasty. He inflicted a severe defeat on the Pandya Srimara Srivallabha, fighting in a confederacy that included the Gangas, Tamil Cholas and the Rashtrakutas. He did suffer a temporary reversal of fortunes at the hands of the selfsame Pandya king in 859 in a pitched battle fought in Kumbakonam. Nonetheless, Nandivarman III had managed to restore the Pallava power to its former glory. He maintained a powerful fleet and had excellent overseas connections.

He was succeeded by his son, Nripatunga who defeated the Pandyas in a battle on the banks of the river Arisil. Militarily the Pallavas seemed to have regained their mojo, but domestically, a lot of concerns were brewing. The script for the disintegration of the great empire was ironically being written by the Pallavas themselves.

Decline and downfall

The decline of the great Pallava empire set in after Nandivarman III died in 869 AD. There were two claimants to the throne: his son Nripatunga and step-son Aparajita. Both looked for allies, and ultimately Aparajita managed to eclipse his step-brother in a battle fought at Kumbakonam in 885 AD. This fratricidal warfare continued till the end of the century, and its biggest beneficiary turned out to be one of Aparijata's allies, Chola Aditya I. He was a feudatory under Aparijata for sometime, but didn't rest content with his subordinate status. He plotted against his overlord, invaded Tondaimandalam and annihilated Aparijata's forces, killing the sovereign himself. Thus, the whole of the Pallava kingdom now became Chola territory, and the six centuries long rule of the Pallavas came to a gory end.

Pallava Architecture:

The glory of the Pallava dynasty is reflected in the splendid temples that straddle the cities of Kanchipuram and Mammallapuram. In South India, the Pallavas bridge the transition from rock-architecture to structural stone temples. The credit for having initiated the rock-architecture in the Pallava country must be given to the royal artist Mahendravarman I. The cave temple on the hill at Mandagappattu in South Arcot District bears an inscription recording the construction of the temple dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva without the use of brick, mortal timber or metal by the king Vicitrachitta, i.e, Mahendravarman I. The five-celled cave temple at Pallavaram near Madras was also his creation. An inscription in a temple at Mamandur (North Arcot district) mentions the composition of a plan, Mattavilasa Prahasana in Sanskrit. The upper rock-cut cave at Tiruchirappali is by far the best of Mahendras creations. Most of the cave temples were dedicated to Shiva, but this emperor also excaved a few Vishnu cave temples, the most important ones being the Mahendravishnugraha at Mahendravadi and the Ranganatha temple at Srigavaram (North Arcot District).

The art and architecture of the post-Mahendra period are found in the sea port town of Mamallapuram at the mouth of the Palar river. The monuments at Mammalapuram can be grouped into

  1. Cut-in cave temples: There are 15 cave temples in Mamallapuram. The biggest cave to be attempted on an ambitious plan is the Pancha-Pandava cave, that symbolically depicts The Descent of the Ganga.
  2. Cut-out monolithic temples (rathas): There are 10 monolithic temples, the most famous being the group of five temples now called Panca Pandava rathas (Dharmaraja, Bhima, Arjuna, Draupadi and Sahadeva)
  3. Bas-relief sculptures in the open air rocks
  4. Structural temples: These fall into two groups: The Rajasimha group (c. 700-800) and the Nandivartman group. The Shore, Kailashnatha and Vaikuntha Perumal temples belong to the former. The Nandivarman group mostly consist of small temples and in no way form an advance on the achievements of the previous age. The principal examples are the Muktesvara and Matangesvara at Kanchipuram.[ref]

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