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 Ruling elite]

Next to the brahmanas in the social ladder can be seen the Kshatriyas or the royal elite. From the pedigree of the rulers given in the inscriptions, it can be understood that the Pallavas traced their genealogy from divine or legendary personage popular in the epics and puranas. Vishnu is regarded as the progenitor of the Pallavas and there are also instances, when a Pallava ruler and his queens compare themselves with Vishnu or Siva or Skanda and Parvati or Lakshmi respectively. Indeed there are many inscriptional references in which, the king was equated with one of the gods or puranic figures. Thus, the Kuram copper-plate grant of Paramesvaravarman I (7th century A.D.)[1] expresses several such statements, which equated the king with divinity -whereas Paramesvaravarman I himself was equated with Siva, his grandfather Narasimhavarman I is stated to be the very human incarnation of the god Narasimha (Vishnu) and Mahendravarman I is equated with Mahendra. Similarly the Atiranachandesvara cave temple inscription (late 7th century A.D.)[2] from Saluvankuppam describes both the king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha and Siva by the name Atiranachanda, i.e. the lord of the kings of the earth. Thus, the composer of this prasasti has cleverly played with the name of the ruler and attributed them a divine status. Some of the inscriptions, like the Udayendiram plates (circa 752 A.D.)[3] describe the qualities of the king (in this case Nandivarman II Pallavamalla) as reflecting those of the divine and Puranic figures. The Kasakkudi plates of Nandivarman II Pallavamalla (circa 754 A.D.)[4], describe Narasimhavarman I as the one who surpassed the valour of Rama by his conquest of Lanka (Lanka jaya=dharita Rama parakrama). Further the Bahur plates of Nripatunga (circa 877 A.D.)[5] compares the king with Rama and describes that like the god, the king was renowned not only on the earth but even in the other worlds.

Many sculptural parallels to the epigraphical double enterndre can also be seen in the period under study. The inscription in the Lalitankura-pallavesvara-griham at TirichchirappallI (7th century A.D.)[6] refers to the setting up of a statue of Satyasanda (probably the king Mahendravarman I) on the hill. Probably the image of Gangadhara, carved on its lateral was modeled after the patron king Mahendravarman I by a clever ambiguity of words and depiction[7]. Thus, here Gangadhara (fig. 10) is depicted as a royal personality wearing necklace, armlets and dress befitting a king. The depiction of the theme of Gangadhara in Pallava art in general seems to indicate the political meaning that like the river Ganga, the descent of which, purified the world and revitalized the dead ancestors of Bhagiratha, the rise of the Pallavas also led to ushering in of new life into the region they ruled. Another such dual interpretation of a king and god can be seen in the Govardhanadhari panel at Mamallapuram (fig. 11). Here the depiction of Govardhanadhari in a royal grab coupled with the portrayal of a seated bull (the royal insignia of the Pallavas) at the far right end, indirectly conveyed the meaning of the king as a protector of the people in distress and savior from all calamities, be it natural or caused by man in the form of warfare. Thus, the artist has cleverly integrated in the story of Govardhanadhari a political message to the inhabitants as a whole and to the traders in particular who docked their boats and ships in the port-town of Mamallapuram. Even the significance and attraction behind depicting Varaha and Trivikrama form of Vishnu, by the two political rivals viz., the Chalukyas and the Pallavas, seem to contest the credit of proclaiming oneself as the protector of their respective territories. According to Sivaramamurti[8] “Narasimhavarman, who raised the Pallava honor like Varaha traversed and laid his foot with his inscription (circa 642 A.D.) of victor on the hill at Badami like Trivikrama and ordered his sculptor to carve on either side in the Varaha cave, the Varaha and Trivikrama panels that attracted his eye in the Mangalesa’s cave temples at Badami.” Thus, it seems that the Varaha cave temple at Mamallapuram sculptured during the reign of Narasimhavarman I is a monument of victory over Badami, which is symbolically conveyed to the onlooker in these panels. Further, it stands as a fine example of cultural exchange in spite of political rivalry between the two neighboring states.

The son and successor of Mahendravarman I, Narasimhavarman I Mamalla goes further a step and caused the carving of his portrait sculpture (fig. 12) with a label inscription[9], along the line of gods adoring the Dharmaraja-ratha at Mamallapuram. Further, as known through the label inscriptions[10] in the Adivaraha cave temple at Mamallapuram, we have fine example of two panels (fig. 13) depicting portrait figures of not only kings, but also that of their queens. Thus, these three panels give a glimpse into the physiognomy and dressing style of the royal people, though they may be just considered as a type and not exact replica as such. In an inscription in the Kailasanatha temple (8th century A.D.)[11], Rangapataka, the queen of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha, is described as the “one who as it were, a banner among women” (patakayeva narinam ramyam Rangapatakaya), that she was as dear to Rajasimha as Parvati was to Siva and she even surpassed Lakshmi (the consort of Vishnu) in having obtained the everlasting favor of her husband Narasimha. Thus, through the clever interplay of words, the composer of this inscription, most probably under the orders of the queen, equates Rangapataka with Parvati and Lakshmi and the king with Siva and Vishnu. It is known from the foundation inscription of the Kailasanatha temple (8th century A.D.)[12] that the king Rajasimha compares his own birth to that of Guha (Skanda) begotten by Siva. In the light of these inscriptions, some of the images of Somaskandamurti and Umasahitamurti adorning the niches of the miniature shrines (angalaya), forming a malika around the main shrine, in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram may be interpreted as representing the royal couple.Three such depictions as represention of the king Rajasimha and the queen can be identified. One is seen on the rear side of the Mahendravarmesvara griham (fig. 14), two in the south-west corner shrines, with the male figure hollding a heavy club (fig. 15) in one and a royal scepter in the other[13] (fig. 16). The significance of assigning the king the heavy club and royal scepter can be interpreted in the light of description about the Pallava kings in Kuram copper plate inscription[14], where the kings are said to be always resorting the danda in the right procedure. Thus, the term danda, which reflects the obligation of the king in using coercive power for protecting his people from external and internal threats, maintaining the ideal social order (varnasramadharma) and providing good governance through the maintenance of law is depicted in sculptures by portraying the club and royal scepter. This tradition of comparing the royalty with the divinity continued in the succeeding ages as can be seen in the description of Sankha, the queen of Nandivarman III where she was regarded as one who resembled the earth in her patience and described the king as an incarnation of Vishnu on earth[15].

It seems that, all the portrait sculptures of the royal personages were idealized depiction having iconographically perfect features and not exact replica of the individual. Such idealizations can also be seen in the description of the kings and queens in the inscriptions and literature. For example, in the Udayendiram[16] and Kasakudi[17] grants the king was equated to Kamadeva in beauty. Thus, through these depictions and inscriptions it can be seen how the ruling elite, who was the lord of the earth compared themselves with the lord of the universe, thereby giving a political message to the people, that they were indeed representatives of god on earth and hence their orders to be treated as divine commandment, the disrespectful of which will attract the wrath of the god.

It has to be mentioned here that this divine attributes of royalty were again in conformity with the Dharmasastras, Puranas and Kavya-natakas in Sanskrit literature. The Dharmasutras of Gautama and Apastamba says that the Creator created the king with the essential parts taken from Indra, Vayu, Yama, Surya, Agni, Varuna, Chandra and Kubera. The Naradasmriti equals the king with Indra[18].

Footnotes and references:


T. N. Subrahmanyan, op.cit., pp. 46–7, lines 4–6, 14–15 and 17–18.


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. I, no. 21.


Ibid., p. 126, l. 27.


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. II, no. 73, ll. 53 -54.


Epigraphia Indica, vol. II, p. 349


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. I, no., 33.


Michael Lockwood and Vishnu A. Bhat, “The Philosophy of Mahendravarman's Tiruchirapalli Epigraphy”, in Studies in Indian Epigraphy Vol. III, pp. 91–102.


C. Sivaramamurti, Royal Conquests and Cultural Migration in South India and the Deccan, Calcutta, 1955, pp. 6–7.


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. I, no. 1


Ibid., vol. XII, nos. 17 and 18.


Ibid., vol. I. p. 23.


Ibid., no. 24


V. Narayanaswamy, “Portrait Sculptures of Rajasimha Pallava”, in Indological Essayscommemorative volume II for Gift Siromoney, Madras, 1992, pp. 80–83.


T. N. Subrahmanyan, op.cit., p. 46.


Epigraphia Indica, vol. XVIII, p. 13.


T. N. Subrahmanyan, op.cit., p. 127, line 30.


Ibid., p. 163, lines 67–68.


P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra, Vol. III, Pune, 1973, pp. 23–27.

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