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 ...

In the early cave temples executed under the patronage of Mahendravarman I, the shrine-cells are empty without any presiding deity. Probably in these cave temples the object of worship was of stucco, wood or painted. Even if it is a Saivite shrine the shrine-cell is conspicuous by the absence of rock-cut Siva linga. It is most likely that Siva was worshipped in the form of Somaskanda, albeit modelled out of wood or stucco or painted on the back wall of the shrine cell. Such bas-relief panel of Somaskandamurti became a common feature in the temples built from the time of Paramesvaravarman I and his successor Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. Evidence from contemporary literature shows that the practise of worshipping images painted on the back wall of the garbhagriha is prevalent in those days. Poygai Alvar, one of the early Vaishnava saints, states that people used to worship their personal gods by depicting them on the walls or installing their form against the walls. Similarly Dandin, in his Avantisundarakatha=[1] narrates, how a Pallava queen offered worship to Guha in the guhalaya and saw the wall picture (bhitti-chitra) of Guha playing beside his parents. In the absence of any presiding deity, the religious affiliation of a cave temple is known only through inscriptional evidences and attributes of the dvarapalakas. Thus, the only sculptures in the early cave temples of the Pallava period are the dvarapalakas and dvarapalikas. Just like the kings, who were the rulers of the earth, employ door-keepers to guard their chamber, the temples executed under them were also provided with dvarapalas. But a point of interest is that, the dvarapalas instead of guarding seems to be resting at ease on their clubs. Perhaps, such a portrayal of attitude on part of the dvarapalas is to send message to the devotees, who visit the temple that god is supreme and no guards are needed to protect them, but they are just carrying the duty assigned to them. Thus, even though the portrayal of dvarapalas is religious in appearance, yet it reflects the contemporary practise of appointing a pair of guards at the entrance of the palace gates and outside the private chambers of the kings and queens.

Portrayal of sculptures other than dvarapalas can be seen in cave temples such as the Avanibhajana-pallavesvara-griham at Siyamangalam, Satrumallesvaralaya at Dalavanur and in the Lalitankura-pallavesvara-griham at Tiruchchirappalli. These sculptures are seen either adoring the pillars and pilasters as in Siyamangalam or on the either side of the facade as in Dalavanur or on the lateral wall of the mukhamandapa as in Tiruchchirappalli. The source of inspiration for these sculptures is mostly religious, depicting various forms of Siva as Nataraja, Umasahitamurti and Gangadhara along with their attendants. Apart from these figures, several decorative motifs formed of makara, heads of gana, convoluted floral and creeper designs are also seen adoring the various architectural members of the temple.

In the next phase i.e. from the time of Narasimhavarman I Mamalla, sculptural panels became varied and more in number as can be seen in the rock cut mandapa and ratha type of temples at Mamallapuram. The rear wall of the shrine cell consists of a bas-relief image of the deity carved in samabhanga pose accompanied by the attendants and devotees. On either side of the shrine cell dvarapalakas or dvarapalikas can be seen. The lateral and rear walls of the mandapa are embellished with sculptural panels depicting various gods and goddesses. Representation of goddesses is found mainly in the form of Gajalakshmi, Durga and Mahishasuramardhini. The cave temples and monolithic rathas of this period are rich in depicting various forms of gods. Vishnu is depicted not only in his usual vyuha form but also as other avataras like Bhuvaraha, Govardhanadhari, Kaliyamardana, Narasimha, Seshasayi and Trivikrama. Brahma is either portrayed individually or as a subordinate deity in the panels. Along with Brahma, the portrayal of Skanda as Brahmasasta is also seen in this period. Siva is popularly depicted in his various forms such as Ardhanari, Andakasuravada, Bhikshatanamurti, Chandesanugrahamurti, Chandrasekhara, Dakshinamurti, Gangadhara, Harihara, Kalari, Kankalamurti, Kapardin, Kaliyadamana, Somaskanda, Tripurantaka, Vinadharasiva and Vrsabhantakamurti. It seems that for the Saiva iconography the Pallava artists followed the Kasyapa Silpasastra[2], which according to O. C. Gangooly[3] enumerates all the sixteen forms of Siva as found on the Dharmaraja ratha and it formed as a model which inspired the future artists of Tamilakam. For Vaishnava iconography they followed probably Vaikhanasa Agama and Bhagavata Purana. The idea behind the portrayal of Vishnu as Anantasayi and Durga as Mahishasuramardini in the Mahishasuramardini cave temple at Mamallapuram seem to follow the description given in the Devi Mahatmya part of Markandeyapurana and these depictions are also narrative in nature.

Apart from the major deities, we also have depiction of Surya, Chandra, Indra, Ganas, Kinnari, Gandharva, chauri-bearers, saints and sages. Of exceptional importance in revealing the secular aspects of Pallava art of the time of Mamalla and Paramesvaravarman I are the Govardhanadhari, major and minor Bhagiratha penance and minor elephant panel at Mamallapuram. Also of interest are the so called portrait sculptures, which adore the walls of the Adivaraha cave temple, Dharmaraja and Arjuna rathas at Mamallapuram.

From the time of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha structural temples in stone began to be built and his period witnessed profusion of Saiva iconography. He himself was a great devotee of Siva and assumed titles like Sankarabhaktaha, Rshabhalanchana126Sivachudamani, Sivabhaktyaradhita, etc. For the first time in the Pallava period, in the temples built by him we can see the sculptures of Lingodbhava, Ganesha, Jyestha Devi and Saptamatrka. Apart from the Anandatandava or Bhujangatrasa mode of dance, which was first illustrated in the cave temple at Siyamangalam of Mahendravarman’s time, various other dance forms of Siva like Katisama, Lalita, Lalatatilaka, Talasamsphotita, Chatura, Tandava, Nadanta, etc., can be seen for the first time in the Kailasanatha temple at Ka#nchipuram. Thus, the temples executed under the patronage of Rajasimha are rich in Saiva iconography. However, he is not a religious bigot and he equally patronized other religious cults. He constructed the Jaina temple at Tirupparuttikunram[4] and a Buddhist Vihara at Nagapattinam[5]. In spite of religious overtones of the sculptures executed during this period, a close study reveals several details of contemporary social and material culture of the people. It also reflects the codification of religious icons as prescribed by the Agamas. This shows the gradual imposition of religious codes over sculptural art and is the beginning of standardization and stagnation of new ideas in the depiction of religious art.

In contrast to Rajasimha, Nandivarman II Pallavamalla, who started a new line of kings, began to patronize Vaishnavism as can be seen in the Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kanchipuram. However, his queens are Saivite and built the Muktesvara and Matangesvara temples at Kanchipuram. Perhaps, Nandivarman II, who belonged to the collateral branch of the Pallavas wants to assert himself of his Pallava lineage and this prompted him to carve out the historical panels on the cloister walls surrounding the temple. These panels give a graphic description of various events of the Pallava kings, starting their genealogy from Vishnu. It depicts the coronation scene of various kings, court scenes comprising of courtiers enjoying the dance, music and wrestling, scenes from warfare comprising of intense fight among the various units like elephantry, infantry and cavalry, scenes of performance of asvamedha sacrifice, etc. Thus these series of panels add a rich source for the study of the contemporary socio-cultural and political events. The walls of the garbhagriha and mandapa are filled with various incarnations of Vishnu. It is interesting to take note that in Adivaraha cave temple the name of Krishna is replaced for Buddha, but here in the Vaikunthaperumal temple we have both Krishna and Buddha depicted. Perhaps, Balarama is relegated to the background. This can be attributed to the works of Nayanmars, many of whom sang in praise of Krishna. Thus, one can see the reflection of society on sculptural art.

The last phase in the development of sculptural art in the Pallava period can be seen in the temples built during the reign of Aparajitavarman, as in the Virattanesvara temple at Tiruttani. In this phase, the size of the temples diminishes and it reflects the decreasing power of the Pallavas and growing strength of their neighbouring rulers like the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Gangas and the Rashtrakutas. The sculptures are restricted to individual icons of gods and goddesses and no illustrative panels can be seen. However, influenced by the Rashtrakuta art, profusion in the ornamentation of the icons and their attributes can be seen in the sculptures from Sattamangalam and Kaveripakkam, now preserved in Government Museum, Chennai.

From the above discussion, it is clear that the sculptural art in Pallava period got mostly inspired by religious beliefs and only few of them were secular. However, even within the religious framework there is a possibility of depicting contemporary cultural life in the depiction of dress, ornamentation, coiffure, furniture, musical instruments, weapons, etc. There are also many sculptures, which include floral and faunal depictions, like in the Govardhanadhari, major and minor Bhagiratha penance and other relief panels at Mamallapuram and also in the temples at Kanchipuram. The Govardhanadhari panel, if closely studied gives lot of information regarding the then existing village life of the pastoral community. Of similar nature are the panels in the Thantonrisvara temple at Kanchipuram, which depict men and women in dancing poses. Similarly the series of gods and goddesses depicted on the numerous sati panels found from several sites also show the lack of sharp sectoral divisions in the early Pallava period and it also reflects the prevalence of the practise of sati. The Pallava kings were tolerant rulers and gave equal importance to various religious beliefs like Jainism, Buddhism, Saivism and Vaishnavism. Even Buddha was accepted as an incarnation of Vishnu, as can be seen in his inclusion among the list of ten avatars in the inscription in the Adivaraha cave temple at Mamallapuram[6] and his portrayal on the wall of the Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kanchipuram. Thus, assimilation of religious beliefs can be seen in this period.

Footnotes and references:


K. S. Mahadeva Sastri, Avantisundarikatha, Trivandrum, 1964, 2nd ed.


Section 62 to 78 describes the iconography of various forms of Siva like Somaskanda, Chandrasekhara, Vrshavahanamurti, Nrttamurti, Gangadhara, Tripurantakamurti, Kalyanamurti, Ardhanarisamurti, Gajahamurti, Pasupati, Kankalamurti, Harihara, Bhikshatanamurti, Chandesanugraha, Dakshinamurti, Kalahamurti and Lingodbhava, vide, Vinayaka Ganesh Apte (ed.), Maharshi Kasyapa pranitam Kasyapasilpam, Anandasrama Samskruta Granthavai, no. 95, pp. 206–240.


O.C. Gangooly and Goswamy, The Art of the Pallavas, Calcutta, 1975, p. 27.


T. N. Ramachandran, Tirupparuttikunram and its Temples, Madras, 1934, Reprint 2002, p. 17.


K. A. Nilakantha Sastri, Foreing Notices of South India, Chennai, Reprint 2001, pp. 16 and 116–117.


Matsya Kurmo Varahas-cha Narasimhas-cha Vamana[h] | Ramo Ramas-cha Ramas-cha Buddha[h] Kalki-cha te dasa ||, (Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1923, no. 94)

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