Ancient History: Pallavas Dynasty

By Naveen Singh|Updated : April 24th, 2020

For more than four centuries, Pallavas was a prominent force in India between the 6th & 9th centuries.

Origin of Pallavas 

There are no records of Pallavas in the local legends. They were forgotten until 1840 when archaeologists discovered a copper plate grant. 

There are several theories of the origin of Pallavas. Pallavas, according to one theory, were feudatories of the Satvahanas.

Another theory suggests they were descendants of Eelam (Sri Lanka) rulers of Chola and Naga.

They are linked by another hypothesis to Pahalavas (Indo-Parthians). This theory indicates that the Indo-Parthians were further settled in Tondaimandalam and developed as Pallavas from northern India to the south.

They took Saivism from the local religion and became Dravidians. Based on the arguments below, this theory is endorsed:

Pallavas were prominent in second century AD in northern parts of India and they had struggled with other outfits for survival.

Many sculptures in Mahabalipuram have a remarkable affinity with Persian features. This includes the lion symbol and tall cylindrical headdresses wore by Iranians in those times. Further, the pillars resemble with Persepolis and the roofs of Pancharathas and tower of Kainashnath temple in Kanchipuram shows affinity with the shrines of Babylon.

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Political History

  • Sirnhavishnu (560-90)
  • He is regarded as the first significant ruler of Pallava, although Pallavas existed during the invasion of South India by Samudragupta.
  • He is credited with capturing the Cholas land and humiliating his other neighbours to the south, including Ceylon.
  • As is obvious from archaeological proof, he pursued Vaishnavism.

Mahendravarman I (590-630)

  • His reign began with the long-drawn struggle between the Pallavas & the Chalukyas.
  • He was defeated by Pulakesin II due to which a part of his kingdom was occupied.

Narasimhavarman I (630-68)

  • He is regarded to be the greatest of the rulers of Pallava and was credited with repelling Pulakesin II's second invasion, murdering him and capturing Badami, the Chalukian capital. Therefore he took the title of ' Vatapikonda ' (Vatapi Conqueror).
  • He also defeated the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas, making himself supreme in southern India.
  • He sent 2 naval expeditions to Ceylon (presently Sri Lanka) who helped his ally, which was a Ceylonese prince who helped him to capture the throne of Ceylon.
  • He was an excellent builder who built the city of Mamallapuram, presently Mahabalipuram.
  • Hieun Tsang visited to Kanchi during his reign.

Mahendravarman II (668-70)

  • He ruled for a very short time as Chalukya king, Vikramaditya I (Pulakesin II's son) killed him.
  • Paramesvaravarman 1 (670-700)
  • He had to face Vikramaditya I's invading troops, but after repeated attempts, he lastly succeeded in defeating and driving them away.

Narasimhavarman II (700-28)

  • There were peace and prosperity during his reign. During his reign, large and beautiful temples like the Shore temple at Mamallapuram and the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchi was built.
  • He is also said to have sent an emissary to China and also focussed on maritime trade which flourished during his reign.

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Paramesvaravarman II (728-31)

  • During his reign, the kingdom of Pallava again had to face defeat and humiliation.
  • The Chalukya, Vikramaditya II attacked the Pallava capital and Paramesvaravarman had to conclude a humiliating treaty with him.
  • When the Pallava ruler tried to retaliate, he was killed by the Ganga ally of the Chalukyas.

Nandivarman II (731-96)

  • The Chalukya, Vikramaditya II again invaded and captured the Pallava capital during his reign, but Vikramaditya showed consideration and restraint in treating the vanquished, the only instance of restraint in the whole of the suicidal Chalukya-Pallava conflict, and withdrew from Kanchi without destroying it.
  • Nandi soon strengthened himself and defeated the Chalukya ally, the Gangas. But he had to meet defeat at the hands of the Pandyas. And after this defeat, he concentrated on domestic matters.
  • He was a worshipper of Vishnu and a great patron of learning.
  • During his reign, several old temples were renovated and new ones like the Vaikuntaperumal temple at Kanchi were constructed.
  • Successors of Nandivarman II were Dantivarman (796-847), Nandivarman III (847-69), Nripatunga (869-99) and Aparajita (899-903).
  • The last nail in the coffin was driven by Aditya Chola by defeating Aparajita Pallava towards the end of the ninth century AD.
  • However, the Pallava chiefs continued to exist till the end of the 13th century AD as feudatories.

Administration of the Pallavas

  • The Pallavas had an administrative scheme that was well structured.
  • The Pallava state was divided into Kottams.
  • The Kottam was administered by officers appointed by the king.
  • The king was at the centre of administration in which he was assisted by able ministers.
  • The king was the fountain of justice.
  • The king maintained a well-trained army.
  • The king provided land-grants to the temples known as Devadhana and also to the Brahmans known as Brahmadeya.
  • It was also the responsibility of the central government to provide irrigation facilities to the lands. A number of irrigation tanks were dug by the Pallava kings.
  • The irrigation tanks at Mahendravadi and Mamandoor have dug during the reign of Mahendravarman I.
  • Detailed information on the tax system could also be traced from the Pallava inscriptions.
  • Land tax was the primary source of government revenue.
  • The Brahmadeya and Devadhana lands were exempted from tax.
  • Traders and artisans such as carpenters, goldsmiths, washer-men, oil-pressers and weavers paid taxes to the government.
  • The Pallava inscriptions throw much light on the village assemblies called sabhas and their committees.
  • They maintained records of all village lands, looked after local affairs and managed temples.

Society under the Pallavas

  • Tamil society witnessed a great change during the Pallava period.
  • The caste system became rigid.
  • The Brahmins occupied a high place in society. They were given land-grants by the kings and nobles. They were also given the responsibility of looking after the temples.
  • The Pallava period also witnessed the rise of Saivism and Vaishnavism and also the decline of Buddhism and Jainism.
  • The Saiva Nayanmars and the Vaishnava Alwars contributed to the growth of Saivism and Vaishnavism. This is known as the Bakthi Movement. They composed their hymns in the Tamil language. These hymns revealed the importance of devotion or Bakthi. The construction of temples by the Pallava kings paved the way for the spread of these two religions.

Education and Literature

  • The Pallavas were great patrons of learning and their capital Kanchi was an ancient centre of learning.
  • The Ghatika at Kanchi was popular and it attracted students from all parts of India and abroad.
  • The founder of the Kadamba dynasty, Mayurasarman studied Vedas at Kanchi.
  • Dinganaga, a Buddhist writer came to study at Kanchi. Dharmapala, who later became the Head of the Nalanda University, belonged to Kanchi.
  • Bharavi, the great Sanskrit scholar lived in the time of Simhavishnu. Dandin, another Sanskrit writer adorned the court of Narasimhavarman II.
  • Mahendravaraman I composed the Sanskrit play Mattavilasaprahasanam.
  • Tamil literature had also developed and the Nayanmars and Alwars composed religious hymns in Tamil.
  • The Devaram composed by Nayanmars and the Nalayradivyaprabandam composed by Alwars represents the religious literature of the Pallava period.
  • Perundevanar was patronized by Nandivarman II and he translated the Mahabharata as Bharathavenba in Tamil.
  • Nandikkalambagam was another important work but the name of the author of this work is not known.
  • Music and dance also developed during this period.

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  • The Pallavas were orthodox Brahmanical Hindus and their patronage was responsible for the great reformation of the medieval ages.
  • Most of the Pallava kings were devotees of Siva, the exceptions being Simhavishnu and Nandivarman who were worshippers of Vishnu.
  • Mahendravarman I was the first to be influenced by the famous Saivite saints of the age.
  • Besides worshipping Siva, he also showed reverence to other Hindu gods.
  • Pallavas were tolerant towards other religions like Buddhism and Jainism. However, some of the sects like Buddhism were losing their former glory to Saivism.
  • The Vedic tradition, in general, bossed over the local tradition. Sankaracharya, in fact, gave this stimulus to Vedic tradition. Tamil saints of the sixth and seventh centuries AD were the progenitors of the bhakti movement.
  • The hymns and sermons of the Nayanars (Saivite saints) and Alvars (Vaishnavite saints) continued the tradition of bhakti.
  • Saivite saints were Appar, Sambandar, Sundarar, and others. The most remarkable thing about this age was the presence of women saints such as Andal (an Alvar).

Pallava Art and Architecture

  • The Pallavas introduced the art of excavating temples from the rock. In fact, the Dravidian style of temple architecture began with the Pallava rule.
  • It was a gradual evolution starting from the cave temples to monolithic rathas and culminated in structural temples.
  • The development of temple architecture under the Pallavas can be seen in four stages.
  • Mahendravarman I introduced the rock-cut temples. This style of Pallava temples is seen at places like Mandagappattu, Mahendravadi, Mamandur, Dalavanur, Tiruchirappalli, Vallam, Siyamangalam and Tirukalukkunram.
  • The second stage of Pallava architecture is represented by the monolithic rathas and Mandapas found at Mamallapuram. Narasimhavarman I took the credit for these wonderful architectural monuments. The five rathas, popularly called as the Panchapanadava rathas, signifies five different styles of temple architecture. The mandapas contain beautiful sculptures on its walls. The most popular of these mandapas are Mahishasuramardhini Mandapa, Tirumurthi Mandapam and Varaha Mandapam.
  • In the next stage, Rajasimha introduced the structural temples. These temples were built by using the soft sand rocks. The Kailasanatha temple at Kanchi and the Shore temple at Mamallapuram remain the finest examples of the early structural temples of the Pallavas. The Kailasanatha temple at Kanchi is the greatest architectural masterpiece of the Pallava art.
  • The last stage of the Pallava art is also represented by structural temples built by the later Pallavas. The Vaikundaperumal temple, Muktheeswara temple and Matagenswara temples at Kanchipuram belong to this stage of architecture.
  • The Pallavas had also contributed to the development of sculpture.
  • Apart from the sculptures found in the temples, the ‘Open Art Gallery’ at Mamallapuram remains an important monument bearing the sculptural beauty of this period.
  • The Descent of the Ganges or the Penance of Arjuna is called a fresco painting in stone.
  • The minute details as well as the theme of these sculptures such as the figures of lice-picking monkey, elephants of huge size and the figure of the ‘ascetic cat’ standing erect show highly evolved sculpture era.

Fine Arts

  • Music, dance and painting had also developed under the patronage of the Pallavas.
  • The Mamandur inscription contains a note on the notation of vocal music.
  • The Kudumianmalai inscription referred to musical notes and instruments.
  • The Alwars and Nayanmars composed their hymns in various musical notes.
  • Dance and drama also developed during this period.
  • The sculptures of this period depict many dancing postures.
  • The Sittannavasal paintings belonged to this period.
  • The commentary called Dakshinchitra was compiled during the reign of Mahendravarman I, who had the title Chittirakkarapuli.

The spread of Indian Culture

  • Pallavas were also instrumental in spreading Indian culture in South-East Asia.
  • Till the eighth century AD Pallava influence was predominant in Cambodia. Saivism enjoyed official patronage in these countries.
  • The Pallava type of sikhara is to be found in the temples of Java, Cambodia and Annam.

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