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 ...

During the reign of Narasimhavarman I Mamalla and Paramesvaravarman I considerable progress in plan and elevation, with large bas-relief panels carved on the side and rear walls of the mandapa can be seen. The rear wall of the shrine-cell also began to display large bas-relief sculptures of the respective gods and goddesses with attendant figures and devotees. Apart from the rock-cut mandapa type temples, monolithic temples in the form of rathas and huge base-reliefs like the Bhagiratha penance and the Govardhanadhari can also be seen in Mamallapuram. Even though K. R. Srinivasan[1] assigned the various rock-cut mandapa type temples, monolithic rathas and the huge bas-reliefs to the time of Narasimhavarman I and Paramesvaravarman I, there are contradictory views as well. For example Dr. R. Nagaswamy[2] after examining all the available inscriptional evidences suggests that all “the monuments of Mamallapuram were the creations of Rajasimha a king of unlimited fancies”.

The important features of the Mamalla style of rock cut temples and sculptural depictions can be described as following:


These cave temples of the Mamalla style represent different plans and designs. The mandapas are either divided or undivided into frontal and distal halves (mukha and ardhamandapa) by an inner row of pillars parallel to the fçacade, with one or more shrine cells behind. In case of the Trimurti cave temple at Mamallapuram, the cells are cut straight into the natural rock face without any porch. The unfinished Panchapandava mandapam at Mamallapuram is another variant having a circumambulation around a central shrine.


The pillars of the Mamalla style assume elegant and proportionate forms. Mamalla introduced pillars with taller and quite slender shafts with capitals. The capital contains various parts such as the phalaka, padma or pali, kumbha, tadi and kalasa. In a rare instance such as in Koneri-mandapam and Ramanuja-mandapam at Mamallapuram, the phalaka and padma are absent. The shafts are essentially circular and are faceted with sixteen sides, while the corresponding shafts of the pilasters have four sides.

The potikas are not so large and are quite proportionate. They have curved arms with taranga or roll ornamentation with a median band or patta. Next to potika is the virakantha which is actually a peg or metal rod or tenon projecting from the top of the shaft for insertion through the capital members and corbel in order to hold them together and ultimately into the lower face of the beam. Thus the virakantha in a structural temple has a functional purpose. According to the Silpa texts the virakantha irrespective of the shape of the shaft and its members should always be square. However in Adivaraha cave temple, Ramanuja mandapa and Panchapandava mandapa at Mamallapuram it is octagonal. The base of the pillar is frequently shaped in the form of a squatting lion or vyala. In some case such as, in the Yali-mandapam at Saluvankuppam, the base of the pillars has the prancing or rearing form of lion. The intervening space between the capital and the base is seen decorated with malasthana formed of creeper and beaded flourishes.


The kapota is well formed with it’s under surface scooped to give a curved flexure. It is carved with kudu arch designs and sometimes even kona-pattas can also be seen. In some later examples the under surface of the cornice is given a ribbed finish, reflecting the rafters of a structural edifice. A frieze of hamsa or bhuta appears below the kapota on the valabhi course and above the kapota a vyala frieze can also be seen. Over this vyala frieze, a parapet or prastara is provided forming a sort of enclosure over the edge of the flat roof of the mandapa. This prastara contains series of alternating miniature shrine called salas with interconnecting harantara in between them. Thus the facade of the mandapa, by the addition of the parapet over the kapota gives an exact copy of the frontal elevation of contemporary structures made of perishable materials. Dr. Dayalan[3] opines that such an arrangement may “suggest a copy of a type with a central open court over the roof (chandrasala) or a hall (harmya) surrounded by a series of pavilions (salas and kutas) connected together by a cloister-walk (harantara) running peripherally”.


The mandapa contains one or more shrine-cells and its facade projects more or less into the mandapa. At Mahishasuramardhini cave temple at Mamallapuram, the shrine cell has a monolithic pillared porch. The shrine-fronts are provided on top with the kapota, however they do not carry the hara or the string of miniature shrines. The shrine entrance is flanked by door-jambs and dvarapalakas. The shrine cells on their back wall often carry a bas-relief of Somaskandamurti. It is to be noted that the Somaskanda panel in the Mahishasuramardini-mandapa at Mamallapuram also depicts a Nandi seated below the main group in the panel.


Similar to the Mahendra style of rock-cut cave temples, the shrine-cells in the earlier examples of the Mamalla style also do not enshrine any principal deity. Representation of the principal deities are portrayed either in samabhanga pose, as can be seen in the Trimurti cave temple or seated as in the Somaskanda panel in the Mahishasuramardini cave temple at Mamallapuram. For the first time in the time of Mamalla, depiction of large sized bas-relief panels can be seen occupying the entire space on the lateral walls of the mandapa at Mamallapuram. Probably the softer variety of raw-material, coupled by influence from the art of the Chalukyas of Badami resulted into the creation of this new addition. The Mahishasuramardhini cave temple at Mamallapuram has two bas-relief panels i.e. Durga in the act of killing Mahishasura and Seshasayi. Similarly the Varaha mandapa contains panels depicting Bhu-Varaha, Gajalakshmi, Durga, Trivikrama and a pair of celestial like figures. The Paramesvara-mahavaraha-vishnu-griha contains bas-relief sculptures of Gajalakshmi, Durga, Vishnu, Harihara, Adisesha, Gangadhara and portrait panels of king along with his queens[4]. Spanning over the niches is a garland of ornamental frieze called as makara-torana. The Durga niche of the Trimurti cave temple has a makara-torana with a simha-mukha as lalata-bimba. The flanks of the shrine cells, carry figures of dvarapalas and the outer side of its lateral wall as in the Varaha-mandapa depict celestials figures.

Footnotes and references:


K. R. Srinivasan, op.cit., pp. 37ff.


“New light on Mamallapuram”, in Transactions of the Archaeological Society of South India, 1960–62, Silver Jubilee Volume, pp. 1-50.


D. Dayalan, Cave-temples in the region of the Pandya, Muttaraiya, Atiyaman and Ay dynasties in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Part I, New Delhi, 2014, p. 20.


K. R. Srinivasan, op.cit., pp. 25–46.

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