Pallava period (Social and Cultural History)

by S. Krishnamurthy | 2017 | 143,765 words

This study examines the Social and Cultural History of the Pallava period (as gleaned through the Sculptural Art). The Pallavas (6th-9th century A.D.) mainly ruled over the Tondaimandalam (Tondai Nadu) region in the Northern part of Tamil Nadu (South-India). The Pallava dynasty ensured a golden age of architecture, arts, and spirituality and while ...

Introduction (to thesis)

Society and Culture of any region is influenced by many interdependent factors like geographical location, density of habitational area, population, political stability, religious beliefs and economical factors like mode of subsistence, material prosperity, external and internal trading activities, etc. It is a known fact that the social conditions and the cultural traditions mutually influence each other. Social factors such as class divisions, hierarchy among the various classes, status of women, certain social customs like sati, devadasi, etc. are reflected in the literary, epigraphical and artistic expressions. Similarly they also throw flood of light on cultural factors like dress, coiffure, ornamentation and past time activities like theatre, dance, music, etc. Further these primary sources also reveal the religious condition of the age. So a minute analytical study of sculptural creations is necessary for unraveling the hidden significance and for appreciating the various socio-cultural influences under which such creations are made.

Aim of study

The present study entitled “Social and Cultural History of the Pallava period as gleaned through the Sculptural Art (from Selective temples) is being done with the aim to understand two major points, namely the nature of society and the kind of cultural material it had produced for the Pallava period, especially from the 6th century A.D. to 9th century A.D., through the extant visual remains in the form of sculptures.

Study area

The main area of study is the Tondaimandalam region, which was ruled by the Pallavas. It comprised the modern districts of Chittoor and Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, Chennai, Tiruvallur, Kanchipuram, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore, Villupuram and Cuddalore districts in Tamilnadu. For the purpose of the present study select temples having sculptural remains of the Pallava period in its best preserved form and few loose sculptures preserved in various museums are taken for in situ study.

Time frame

The Pallava period can be divided into two phases namely, the Pallavas of the Prakrit and Sanskrit charters (circa 295 A.D. -610 A.D.) and the imperial later Pallavas (circa mid 6th century A.D. to 913 A.D.)[1]. Of the two phases, most of the sculptural art are available only from the later phase i.e. from the 6th century A.D. to 9th century A.D., and thus this period forms the time frame of the thesis.

Choice of the period

The Pallava period marks a transition phase in the history of Tamilnadu, when assimilation of ideas and migration of people from the northern parts of India, coupled with royal patronage could be seen in religious, cultural and social life. These are well endorsed in the literary compositions. In Tamilnadu, the Pallavas were the first to claim a Brahmanical descent tracing their roots from Brahma, Angirasa, Brihaspati, Bharadvaja, Asvattama, etc[2]., and claimed to be of Bharadvaja-gotra[3]. They were the first to use the northern languages, initially Prakrit and then Sanskrit in their copper plate grants and subsequently in stone inscriptions as well.

Mahendravarman I through his inscription in the Lakshitayatana cave temple at Mandagapattu seems to assert that for the first time stone was used for the purpose of excavating temples[4]. The inscription also implies that prior to the reign of Mahendravarman I only brick, stucco or wood seems to have been used for the purpose of making the images of deity as well as to construct a place of worship[5], as the stone was relegated for the purpose of erecting funerary monuments alone. This is supported from the references in Sangam literature like Narrinai,[6] Padirruppattu[7], Purananuru[8] Tolkappiyam[9], the compositions of which could be dated between circa 300 B.C. to 300 A.D., and post -Sangam age literature like Manimekalai[10]. These works refer to not only burial practices akin to those found from the excavation of megalithic sites in Tamilnadu but also mentions the temple as koyil, niyamam, kottam? and palli[11] dedicated to various deities and celebration of festivals in their honour.

Similarly the excavations reveal that the temples of the early historical period are made of perishable materials like brick, stucco and wood. Excavations conducted from 1962-66 and 1970-74 in Kaveripattinam (3rd century A.D. to 5th century A.D.) proves this fact[12]. Recent excavations (2005 -07) in Saluvankuppam brought to light a temple dedicated to Subrahmanya, the earliest levels of which dated to the early Pallava period (pre 6th century A.D.) has its foundation built of brick and laterite blocks[13].

The subsequent usage of stone in the Pallava period for the first time in the northern parts of Tamilnadu seems to be due to the influence of the sculptural and architectural executions of their predecessor i.e. the Satavahanas, Kadambas and Vakatakas in the Deccan and their contemporaries like Vishnukundins in Andhra Pradesh and western Chalukyas in Karnataka. Both, in the Deccan and Andhra Pradesh, and in the areas further north in and around the Magadh region, the rock-cut tradition pre-dates those of the Pallava lithic creations.

The usage of stone as raw material in the Pallava period for the first time in Tondaimandalam region thus gave scope for the artists and patrons to express their feelings and beliefs with more zealous. Because stone is long lasting than the materials like wood, paint and stucco that they have used before. Thus both the patrons and the artists alike began to pay more attention to produce great sculptural works of art. It also gave them a natural medium to express their ideas, which resulted in the creation of cave temples all over the northern parts of Tamilnadu in places like Mandagapattu, Pallavaram, Mamandur, Vallam, Mahendravadi, Dalavanur, Singavaram, Siyamangalam, Vilappakkam, Aragandanallur and extending as far as Tiruchirappalli, the southernmost outpost of the Pallavas. The subsequent development over the cave temples was the monolithic rathas as one can find at Mamallapuram.

The Tondaimandalam region is a stronghold of various religious sects like Jainism, Buddhism, Vaishnavism and Saivism at different periods. Each of these sects had their heyday and declining phases. It seems that by 640 A.D., when Yuan-chwang[14] visited the region, the Jains were numerous and both Buddhism and Brahmanism, appears to be more or less equal in strength. Even though this period is regarded as a classical example of religious tolerance as can be seen from the presence of deities belonging to various faiths, yet this period also witnessed sectarian rivalry, especially between the brahmanical and heterodox sects and also between the Saivites and Vaishnavites. The inscription in the upper cave temple at Tiruchirappalli[15] suggests conversion of Mahendravarman I from Jaina to Saiva fold. The references in the hymns of alvars and nayanmars contending each other, the wanton alterations in the Mahishasuramardhini cave temple[16] and a Saiviate ‘curse’ inscription in the Adivaraha cave temple at Mamallapuram[17], bears testimony to the sectarian strife of this period. This period thus gives a strange mixture of both tolerant and intolerant activities in the field of religion.

Thus the Pallava period for the first time gave an opportunity to study the life of the those times through the visual medium in the form of sculptures in stone and bronze created either directly under the supervision of the kings of the imperial Pallava dynasty or under their subordinates. Even though we have other type of artistic mediums belonging to the pre -Pallava period in the form of terracotta or references about the socio-cultural life in literature and inscriptions, the study of sculptures give new insights as they provide visual evidence in a more permanent medium. These sculptures help in understanding certain contemporary social and cultural aspects as well as appreciating the religious beliefs of the age.

Finally, it has to be mentioned that majority of previous researches in Pallava period concentrated more on political and administrative history. The study of cultural history through the sculptures as a primary source has been attempted in partial by only a few scholars like J. Ph. Vogel, Dr. C. Minakshi and Gift Siromoney. It is limited to few articles or chapters only. An exclusive study particularly dealing with social and cultural history of the Pallava period with sculptures as the primary source is much needed.

Scope of study

Majority of sculptures available for the present research work could be dated from late circa 6th century A.D. to 9th century A.D. Among the temples built by the later Pallavas, it is found that some of them got later additions or alterations or completely renovated in the subsequent periods. In some cases only inscriptional references to the existence of a temple of the Pallava period could be traced without any actual remains. So taking all these aspects into consideration important temples with sculptures having original features of Pallava period are selected for the present study purpose.

Even though secular sculptures are few, with the help of corroborative evidence from literature and inscriptions, some of the sculptures of the Pallava period could be studied from the social angle as well, thereby providing a visual enrichment to the already known social history of the period. When compared to the social aspects, the sculptures throw varied and rich light on the material culture of the period on the aspects like dress, ornamentation, household objects, furniture, weapons, musical instruments, flora and fauna. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the religious belief of the age through the myriad depiction of various forms of gods and goddesses. Artistic work done under the patronage of the feudatories of the Pallavas is not included in this study.

Problem of research

The main intention of this research work is to analyze the fabric of the society, religious practises and progress of material culture in the sphere of dress, ornamentation, weapons, musical instruments, household articles in the day to day life of the mankind, flora and fauna, etc., by utilizing the data retreived from the sculptural remains of selective temples and corroborate the same with inscriptional data wherever feasible.


The general objective of the thesis is to investigate the available sculptural work of the Pallava period for a better understanding of the social and cultural life of those times. In order to achieve this objective, collection of all available data on sculptural work of the period under study, was attempted by undertaking field study to various selective temples. The published works of various scholars were used as a corroborative source.

The specific objectives of the research are furnished below:

-) To minutely study the various sculptures of the Pallava period with a view to unfold the social aspects such as the day to day life of the royal persons and commoners, different occupations professed by the people, position of women, traditional practices, religious beliefs, etc.

-) To observe and study the various types of dress depicted on the sculptures of men, women and children belonging to various strata of the society. Dress includes the lower garment, upper garment, head-dress, foot-wear and other accessories attached to the dress.

-) To note different hair-styles of men, women and children, belonging to different social groups like royal persons or upper-class, represented rarely through portrait sculptures or in the form of various images of gods, goddesses and celestials, commoners, saintly personages, etc.

-) To study and document various types of ornaments adorning different parts of the body, starting from head to feet. And also to study the various ornaments with which the people took interest to decorate their domesticated animals.

-) To document and analyze the various kinds of dwelling places, furniture, household items, weapons, musical instruments, flora and fauna.

-) And to understand the various kinds of performing arts that existed during the Pallava period.


For achieving the above said objectives, the primary sources for the present study are the various sculptures modelled out of stone. But not all the sculptures are useful for the purpose of study. Majority are either plastered or became worn-out due to the delicate nature of the material used for carving them. Another problem that is faced was that, many temples and sculptures of this period got either reconstructed or plastered in the subsequent periods, which resulted into the loosing of their original character. However, in spite of some lacuna, this period for the first time gives ample scope for understanding the then lifestyle through the study of sculptures. Thus, these sculptural depictions give an opportunity to know the thinking process of the people of those times. But, social conditions were less discernible from sculptures due to less representation of secular sculptures. Even then, an attempt is made to analyze the social background of the people in corroboration with epigraphical and secondary literary sources. Material culture of the period is studied with the presumption that the artists have executed on stone only those objects which they have come across in their day to day life, even though there could still be an exaggeration.

Previous works done by various scholars not only helped in understanding the political, cultural and religious life of this period, but also facilitated in the proper interpretation of the sculptures. For example the various deities carved in the niches and walls of the temples are regarded by many scholars[18] as representative of the ruling elite and this paved way in interpreting the material culture associated with the deities as used by the upper classes. For the purpose of interpretation where ever necessary, feasible data from reliable sources like the literature and inscriptions, are also taken into consideration to substantiate the research findings.

Footnotes and references:


The approximate regnal periods of the Pallava kings given in this thesis is based on T. V. Mahalingam’s Inscriptions of the Pallavas, Delhi, 1988.


Earliest such reference can be found in the copper-plates issued by the later Pallavas of the line of Simhavarman III and his sucessors like Pallankoyil plates of Simhavarman III (Transactions of the Archaeological Society of South India, 1958–59, pp. 41–83), Kuram plates of Paramesvaravarman (South Indian Inscriptions, Vol. I, no. 151), etc.


Such an assertion can be found even in the earliest of the inscription issued by the Pallavas like, the Manchikallu stone inscription of Simhavarman I (Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XXXII, p. 87–90).


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. XII, p. 7; Epigraphia Indica, vol. XVII, pp. 14–17.


Etad-anishtakam-adrumam-aloham-asudha-vichitrachittena Nirmmapitan-nripena Brahma-isvara-vishnu lakshita-ayatanam (E.p. Ind., Vol. XVII, pp. 17ff.)


Narrinai, no. 271.


Padirruppattu, no. 44.


Puram, nos. 228, 238, 364.


Tolkappiyam, Porulatikaram 2, 60


Suduvor-iduvor-todu kulippaduppor Talvayinadaippor-taliyirkavippor (Manimekalai, Chapter VI, ll. 66 -67).


Silappadikaram, Urkankadai, ll. 7 -11.


K. V. Soundara Rajan, Kaveripattinam Excavations (1963-73), New Delhi, 1994, pp. 129–134.


Sathyabhama Badhreenath, Saluvankuppam Excavations (2005 –07), New Delhi, 2015, pp. 89–90.


Thomos Watters, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India (629–645 A.D.), vol. II, London, 1904-05, p. 227.


South Indian Inscriptions, Vol. I, pp. 29–30.


Vidya Dehejia, “Addition, Erasure and Adaptation: Interventions in the Rock-cut Monuments of Mamallapuram”, in Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 60, pp. 6–8.


The inscription is engraved on the floor of the cave temple in Pallava-Grantha characters of 7th –8th century A.D. It reads: Dhik tesam dhik tesam purnarapi dhig dhig dhigastu dhig tesam yesam na vasati hridaye kupathagati-vimokshako rudrah. Its translation can be give as: “Cursed be those, cursed be those, once again cursed, cursed, cursed, cursed be those in whose heart does not dwell Rudra, deliverer from walking the evil path”, (Epigraphia Indica, Vol. X, pp. 9–11; Vidya Dehejia, op.cit. pp. 4–5).


Michael Lockwood, Susan Huntington, Joanna Williams, Lutzker, M. Hirsh, Padma Kaimal, etc.

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