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 ...

Structural Temples and Sculptures (of the Pallava period)

From the present extant temples, it is known that in Pallava period stone came to be used completely for building structural temples only from the time of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. However the existence of structural temples prior to the time of Rajasimha, mostly built of brick and rarely of stone is known through inscriptional and archaeological evidences. The earliest such evidence pertaining to the Pallava period is from a stone inscription of king Simhavarman I (circa 295 A.D.) from Manchikallu (Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh), which mentions about a temple of Kihatti-devakula[1]. Similarly an inscription of the time of Vijayaskandavarman refers to Kuli-Mahataraka temple dedicated to god Narayana at Dalura[2]. Another similar evidence comes from the the Pallankoyil plates[3] of Simhavarman III and the Hosakote plates of the Ganga king Avinita (circa 600 A.D.)[4], both of which give earliest reference to Jaina temples in Pallava period. Similarly from the Tevaram it is known that the Nayanmars have sung about 274 temples and they additionally mentioned 249 temples in their hymns[5]. Most probably majority of these temples are built of brick and stucco. The Mandagapattu inscription of Mahendravarman I give ample proof to the existence of temples built of materials other than stone. The king proudly proclaims in his inscription that he built the temple of Lakshitayatanam for Brahma, Vishnu and Siva without the use of bricks, timber, metal and mortar[6].

The full text of the inscription is given below:

Nirmmapitan-nripena Brahma-isvara-vishnu lakshita-ayatanam

Such an assertion indicates that the causing of the cave temple at Mandagapattu is something unique, appealing the title Vichitrachitta (one with a curious mind) to the king. It also gives supporting evidence to the hypothesis that there existed structural temples built using the materials he mentioned in the inscription.

The excavations at Saluvankuppam[7] revealed about the existence of a brick temple dedicated to Subrahmanya. The temple has undergone several structural modifications and its earliest phase was dated to early Pallava period i.e. pre-6th century A.D. The dating was based on certain archaeological evidences like the discovery of a conical jar in the bottom most level of the laterite course, a Roman coin of Arcadius (395 A.D.–400 A.D.) at the top levels of the same course and large size of the bricks (40x21x7cms). It was also opined that the temple was in existence during the reign of Mahendravarman I, based on the finding of a Pallava coin with the legend lakshita, the title of Mahendravarman I. Similarly the lack of granite slab at the plinth level, a feature adopted in the structural temples built by Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha was also taken as an evidence for fixing the anterior limit for dating this temple. During this phase the temple was built of bricks on a platform formed of four courses of dressed laterite stones.

Jouveau Dubreuil[8] mentions about the discovery of six pillars of Mahendra style reused for erecting a mandapa called the Paurnima mandapa (now no longer in existence), near the thousand pillared hall to the west of the Palli gopuram of the Ekambranatha temple at Kanchipuram. One among them bear inscriptions on the upper saduram portion on its four sides reflecting the titles of Mahendravarman I viz., Abhimuka, Chitrakarapuli, Kurrambu, Mahamegha, Drudabhakti, Brantahkari etc[9]. These pillars are now preserved in the Government Museum at Chennai. However, the inscriptions on the pillar speak of only the titles of the king and nothing is known regarding the temple, which it supported. Overall it is certain that these pillars of the time of Mahendravarman I, supported either a brick or stone temple. Another inscription (fragmentary) written in Pallava -Grantha characters of 7th century A.D. found engraved on a slab built into the outermost prakara of the Ekambranatha temple[10] also hints at the antiquity of this temple. It only gives the epithet of the king as Nripachudamani. Another inscriptional evidence for the existence of a structural temple during the reign of Mahendravarman I comes from Siruvakkam[11] in Kanchipuram district. The inscription is in Tamil language, engraved in the characters of 7th century A.D. on a loose slab lying in a ruined Vinayaka temple of the village in It records the construction of a temple (devakula [devakulam]) by the physician of the king Mahendrapottarasar. Thus, these inscriptions are the only evidence for the prevelance of structural temples in the midst of the numerous rock-cut cave temples that flowered during the reign of Mahendravarman I. From the Chitrur copper-plate grant of Nrpatungavarman[12] it is known that Narasimhavarman I Mamalla caused to construct a sleeping chamber with stones in the midst of the ocean for Vishnu. Probably it refers to the image of abhicharika form of Vishnu carved on the boulder in between the Rajasimhesvara and Kshatriyasimhesvara temples (i.e. the Shore temple) at Mamallapuram. The veracity of this claim is further proved as the next line of the inscription refers to Rajasimha as the builder of a temple of stone to Siva at Kanchi equivalent to mount Kailasa, possibly referring to the Kailasanatha temple. Thus, this inscription for the first time in Pallava period gives direct evidence for the construction of a structural temple out of stones during the reign of Narasimhavarman I. During the reign of his grandson Paramesvaravarman I, as known through the Sirrambakkam stone inscription and Kuram copper plate grant, further evidence for the construction of temple using brick and tiles can be found. The inscription at Sirrambakkam[13] in Tiruvallur district was found engraved on a stone slab in the Selliyamman temple. It records the construction of a temple by the sister’s son of certain Somasiyar in the 1st regnal year (circa 670 A.D.) of the king. Unfortunately the said temple is at present no longer in its original condition. The second evidence found in the Kuram copper plate grant of the same king mentions the construction of the temple of Vidyavinita Pallava Paramesvaragriham? and the grant was made to facilitate supplying of bricks and tiles for the construction of the temple[14]. However, the temple at present retains only its basement, formed of brick core and stone veneering. Above the adhisthana the temple seems to be of brick as the inscription itself says. The present garbhagriha and mandapa wall above it, is without any provision for the pyramidal superstructure and is a recent construction.

From the time of Rajasimha we have many structural temples built of stone. The prominent among them are the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram, the twin Rajasimhesvara and Kshatriyasimhesvara with the intervening Narapatisimhavishnu-pallava-griha, popularly known as the Shore temple, the Mukundanayanar, the Olakkanesvara at Mamallapuram, the Talapurisvara temple at Panamalai, the Piravatanesvara and the Iravatanesvara temples at Kanchipuram. During the days of Nandivarman II was built the Vaikunthaperumal, the Muktesvara, the Matangesvara and the Tripurantakesvara temples at Kanchipuram. Subsequently in the reign of Dantivarman was built the Sundaravaradaperumal temple at Uttiramerur and the Pundarikakshaperumal temple at Tiruvellarai. His successor Nandivarman III was the builder of the Kailasanatha temple at Tirupattur. The latest of the Pallava temples can be seen built during the reign of Aparajitavarman at Tiruttani and Alambakkam. By this time the usage of sandstone is completely abandoned and instead chose granite for the temple construction. It also has comparatively fewer sculptures on their walls. Alongside these temples, mention should be made of the apsidal Mulasthana temple in the Bhaktavatsala temple complex at the foothills of Tirukkalukunram, renovated during the reign of Aditya I and the Jalanathesvara temple at Thakkolam, which seems to have been constructed by the Bana feudatories during the reign of Aparajitavarman. These structural temples and its sculptures mark a deviation from the rock-cut creations, not only in plan, elevation and execution; but also in the multiplication of iconic representation of various gods and goddesses and modeling of the sculptures.

In the structural temples of the Pallavas two types of temple plan and elevation are found. However, these two types exist side by side and may not always be detrimental to the evolutionary stage of a temple. The two types can be basically classified as simple and complex.

To the simple type belong those temples which have a garbhagriha either of the sandhara or nirandhara type (i.e. with or without circumambulatory passage), followed by an antarala in the sandhara type or an ardhamandapa in the nirandhara type and fronted by a mukhamandapa. Examples of this type can be seen in the twin temples of Kshatriyasimhesvara–Rajasimhesvara and Mukundanayan/ar temple at Mamallapuram, Matangesvara, Muktesvara, Iravates`vara, Airavatesvara, Valisvara, Tripurantakesvara temples at Kanchipuram. All these are of nirandhara type having no circumambulatory passage around the garbhagriha and are fronted by a mukhamandapa. A separate nandimandapa is also seen in front of the main shrine. A fine example of a sandhara type is the Kailasanatha temple at Uttiramerur [Uthiramerur].

To the next category i.e. complex variety, belongs those temples which are more elaborate in their plan. For example, the Talagirisvara temple at Panamalai has three subsidiary shrines abutting the garbhagriha wall of the main shrine on its three sides and shares a common adhisthana with the main central shrine. The fourth side at the front connects to the mukhamandapa. An elaboration of this plan is seen in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram with a total of seven such sub-shrines. Three of them, rectangular in plan with sala-sikhara abuts the middle portion of the main central shrine and the remaining four having square plan and kuta-sikhara adjuncts the four corners of the main shrine. The entire temple is placed in a prakara, with its inner face having series of cells (angalaya) with pillared portico. Except the two rectangular shaped cells with sala-sikhara built in the middle, facing south and north dedicated to Vishnu and Brahma, along with their consorts, all others cells are square in shape adored with a kuta-sikhara and enshrining within a Somaskanda panel. The exterior walls of these shrines and inner face of the prakara wall carry various sculptures of gods and goddesses. The prakara wall at its east and west is adorned with a gopuradvara.

Next in the line of development is the Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kanchipuram, with functional upper storey built during the reign of Nandivarman II Pallavamalla. Indeed such an idea can be seen in an incipient form in the Dharmaraja-ratha at Mamallapuram. The temple is of the tritala type and the two upper tiers are made functional by leaving sufficient space between the hara elements over the prastara and the wall of the garbhagriha in the centre (i.e. anarpita-hara). The succeeding upper storey is reached by means of a pair of flight of steps, built on either ends of the corresponding lower tala. Such a plan is attained by building three concentric walls, with its outermost wall reaching the height of the ceiling of the aditala and the innermost to that of the third storey and the intermediary one to its second tala. The aditala is also provided with a mukhamandapa and the entire main shrine along with the front mandapa is surrounded by a pillared cloister built on a raised platform. The inner wall of the cloister is adored by series of panels narrating the genealogy, court scene and warfare of the Pallava dynasty starting from its mythical origins to the time of its patron Nandivarman II. Almost in similar plan and elevation, but without the historical panels adoring the cloister wall can be seen in the Sundaravaradaperumal temple at Uttiramerur built during the reign of Dantivarman. Additionally the main niche openings on the three sides on the outer wall of the garbhagriha are provided with flight of steps, with its balustrades having niches enshrining images of Rati-Manmatha, Vakuladevi and Bhrigu.

Even though structural temples built of stone can be seen from the time of Narasimahvarman II Rajasimha, temples continued to be built of the traditional materials like brick, stucco and lime even in the post-Rajasimha times. Several such temples are known, where only inscriptional remains are available without its actual structure, which was either renovated in the subsequent periods or completely reconstructed with stone. An example of this is the recently discovered brick structure known as Vitrirundanda Perumal temple at Veppathur, near Tiruvidaimaruthur, about 35 km from Thanjavur. Dr. R. Nagaswamy opines that the temple must have been built around 850 A.D. during the reign of Nandivarman III[15].

Majority of the sculptures in the structural temples of the Pallava period are seen in the form of number of gods, goddesses, celestials, sages, saints and few portrait figures, enshrined in the niches of the vimana, mandapa and inner side of the prakara walls. Other decorative art motifs like frieze of ganas, hamsamala are also seen especially beneath and above the cornice. In some of the temples like Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram, frieze of ganas are also seen adoring the adhisthana portion and are also found in association with the niche sculptures playing various musical instruments. These sculptures give enough data regarding socio-religious life and material culture of the people. When compared to the sculptures of earlier period i.e. of the time of Narasimhavarman I Mamalla, the sculptures of this period show multiplicity of forms of various gods and goddesses and profusion of ornamental features.

Footnotes and references:


Epigraphia Indica Vol. XXXII, pp. 87–90.


Ibid., Vol. VIII, pp. 43–46.


Transactions of the Archaeological Society of South India, 1958–59, pp. 40–83.


Mys. Arch. Rep, 1938, pp. 80ff.


As listed by M. Rajamanikkam, The Development of Saivism in South India under the Pallavas of Kanci and The Imperial Colas, Ph.D. Thesis, (University of Madras, 1950), Appendix A.


Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XVII, pp. 14–17.


Satyabhama Bhadreenath, Saluvankuppam Excavations (2005–07), New Delhi, 2015, pp. 115 ff.


Jouvieu Dubreuil, op.cit., pp. V–VIII.


South Indian Inscriptions,Vol. XII, p. 8, no. 14.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1939–40, no. 347.


Indian Archaeology—A Review, 2006–07, p. 145.


Andhra Pradesh Government Archaeological Series, Vol. III, pp. 3 ff.


Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XXXII, pp. 199 ff.


South Indian Inscriptions, Vol. I, p. 144 ff.


T. S. Subrahmanyam, Neglect causes ruin of murals, The Hindu, Chennai, June 11, 2010.

Let's grow together!

I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased sources, definitions and images. Your donation direclty influences the quality and quantity of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual insight the world is exposed to.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: