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 ...

[Full title: Socio-Religious Life of the Pallava Period: The priestly class]

From the inscriptions it can be gleaned that the Pallavas strictly adhered to the religious injunctions as prescribed by the Dharmasastras and performed many Vedic sacrifices like Agnistoma, Asvamedha, Vajapeya[1], Bahusuvarna[2], Hiranyagarbha, Tulabhara[3] and sumptuously gifted the priests with presents and land grants after performing sacrifices. The inscriptions refer to the brahmanas as of religious minded, highly educated in various Vedas, Vedangas and Sastras and led a pious life[4]. However, the contemporary literarture viz., Bhagavaddajjukam[5] authored by Mahendravarman I, mentions about some brahmanas, who were no longer following the injunctions as laid down in the sastras, neglected their samskaras, education and are living in abject poverty. The play mentions one Sandilya, who oscillates between Brahmanism and Buddhism simply to get a morsel of food for his survival. He is portrayed as a brat with degraded character, interested in gaining the attention of a courtesan.

Previous researches done by scholars like Srinivasan[6] and Minakshi[7] reveal that in the sculptural art, a brahmana is portrayed mostly having a matted hair, sometimes with mustache and beard, wearing yajnopavita and occasionally holding an umbrella. However, there are also some such depictions, who can be identified either as a brahmana or an ascetic. Thus, the pair of ascetic like figures flanking the shrines dedicated to Brahma in various rock-cut temples, like the Trimurti cave temple at Mamallapuram (fig. 1), can be regarded as belonging to the priestly class. Similarly, the Bhagiratha penance panel portrays a group of ascetics near a temple dedicated to Vishnu observing their daily rituals like fetching water in a pot for offering daily ablation to God, performing the madhyahna-sandhya, performing the vasodaka ritual, worshiping the image enshrined in the temple and engaged in meditation (fig. 2). This group can be regarded as depiction of a perfect ashrama life on the bank of a river or water source like tank, lake or pond. The sage like figure offering salutation to Bhu-Varaha in the panel depicted in the Varaha cave temple at Mamallapuram may be again identified as a brahmana. The Dharmaraja-ratha at Mamallapuram[8] gives the earliest clear depiction of a Saivite priest (second tala, eastern face) with a tonsured head and a tuft of hair at the apex (purvasikha) (fig. 3). He is shown carrying a long basket of flowers (pushpaputa) in his left hand and picking them out with the fingers of his right hand, as if performing worship (archana) to the figure of Somaskandamurti carved in relief in the garbhagriha. From the inscriptions it is known that majority of the brahmanas were appointed as priests for conducting the daily worship in the temple. Those appointed to Saiva temple are called variously as Archaka[9], Gurukkal[10], Saivacharya or Sivabrahmana[11] and those of Vaishnava temples were designated as Bhattar[12]. These priests were also sometimes appointed as in-charge of the temple and are known as Kulangilar[13]. The ascetic figures depicted along with Dakshinamurti may also be regarded as representing a brahmana, though actually as per the agamas they are rishis eager to learn the Sastras[14].

In the panels depicting coronation scenes in the Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kanchipuram the king can be seen seated on a throne, anointed by two male persons holding the kalasa or sankha by pouring the abhisheka-jala on his head. These persons can be identified as the officiating priests. Some of the brahmanas are also depicted as elderly persons having beard and carrying an umbrella (fig. 4). They can be interpreted as poor brahmanas, who perhaps visited the court to seek some favor from the king. C. Minakshi[15] identifies several bearded men as brahmanas. It is to be noted here that the brahmanas in most cases are seen either seated along or in front of the king either on the floor or on a raised platform, whereas, the other officials are seen standing. Such a depiction may be interpreted as a show of respect towards the brahmanas.

However, there are also a few inscriptional references, by which, it is learnt that not all the brahmanas professed religious vocation. There are also some, who are employed by the king as ministers in the court of the Pallavas. Thus, the Pallur copper plates of Nandivarman II Pallavamalla (circa 764 A.D.)[16] refer to one Brahmadhirajan alias Nagasarman, highly proficient in Kshatravidya, as his minister. It is most probable that, some of the aristocratic figures accompanying the king in these panels could be the brahmana ministers.

Footnotes and references:


Hirahadagalli plates of Sivaskandavarman, Epigraphia Indica, Vol. I, pp. 1 ff.


Sivanvayil inscription of Narasimhavarman I, Epigraphia Indica, vol. XXVII, pp. 59–62.


Tirukkodikkaval inscription of Nandivarman III, South Indian Inscriptions, vol. XII, no. 55


Kasakkudi plates, vide Subrahmanyan, T. N., op.cit.


Veturi Prabhakara Sastri, Bhagavadajjukam. Hyderabad, 1986, pp. 4–5.


K. R. Srinivasan, The Dharmaraja Ratha and its sculptures –Mahabalipuram, New Delhi, 1975.


C. Minakshi, The Historical Sculptures of the Vaikunthaperumal temple, Kanchi, New Delhi, 1941.


K. R. Srinivasan, op.cit., p. 30.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1898, no.7.


Ibid., 1892, no. 84.


South Indian Inscriptions vol. I, p. 154.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1898, no’s. 8 and 64


Epigraphia Indica, vol. VIII, p. 295; Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1904, no.168.


The names of the rishis are given differently in different works as Narada, Jamadagni, Vasistha, Bhrigu, Bharadvaja, Sanaka and Agastya in Amsumadbhedhagama; Kausika, Kasyapa, Bharadvaja, Atri and Gautama in Kamikagama; Agastya, Pulastya, Visvamitra and Angirasa in Karanagama.


C. Minakshi, op.cit., p. 14.


T. N. Subrahmanyan, op.cit., p. 87, lines 13–14.

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