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 ...

Shaivism during the Pallava period

[Full title: Religious Beliefs (during the Pallava period): Shaivism]

Siva has been and still continues to be one of the favorite deities worshiped in Tamilakam, not as the destroyer, but as the architect of creation, preservation and

destruction–the three natural cyclic phenomenons. The inscription engraved on the temple of Tirumulasthanattup-perumanadigal (apsidal shrine within the Bhaktavatsala temple complex) at Tirukkalukunram[1], though of the reign of Aditya Chola I, hints at Saivite temple activity during the early Pallava period. It records that after conquering Tondaimandalam region, Aditya Chola I renewed the grant to the temple, which was originally endowed by an early Pallava ruler Skandasishya (circa 5th century A.D.) and subsequently renewed by the Pallava king Vatapikonda-Narsimha-pottaraiyar (i.e. Narasimhavarman I).

From the extant architectural, sculptural and inscriptional remains it is known that during the reign of Mahendravarman I, twelve rock-cut cave temples and probably two structural temples were built[2]. Unfortunately, except the Ekambaranatha temple at Kanchipuram, which retains some architectural remains of his times (fig. 43), the other one at Siruvakkam is known only from inscription and its sectarian affiliation is also difficult to ascertain. The Mattavilasa-prahasana[3] authored by the king mentions the Ekambranatha temple at Kanchipuram by the name Ekamba and describes it, as a stronghold of the Kapalika sect of Shaivism. As though validating the literature, there is one sculptural panel indicative of the existence of the Kapalika sect, set into the hind wall of a shrine now known as Valisvara (corrupt of Kapalisvara) engulfed within the premises of the Ekambranatha temple complex. Unlike the saumya-rupa of Umasahitamurti, here the panel consists of Siva and Parvati in their ugra form namely Mahakala and Mahakali (fig. 44). Both are seated on a simhasana with their right leg bent and placed on the seat and left leg hanging and resting on a foot-rest. They are shown having four arms, carrying sula and khatvanga in the back right and left hands, khadga and kapala in the front right and left hands respectively. Kala and Mrityu are seen standing on either sides of the pedestal. K. V. Raman[4] who described this panel in detail, mentions that the iconographical features of this panel agrees with the description given in Lalitopakhyana text[5]. Tirumular (circa 6th century A.D.) in his work Tirumandiram also refer to the temple as Ekambam at Kanchi and lists six branches of Shaivism that were prevalent during his period in the land of Tamils viz., Pasupata, Mahavarta, Kapalika, Vama, Bhairava and Shaivism[6]. There are even sculptural and inscriptional references to the existence of these sects in places like Mamallapuram, Tiruvorriyur, etc datable to the period between 6th and 8th centuries A.D[7]. However it is known from literature like Mattavilasa-prahasana[8] and hymns of Appar[9] that the followers of Kapalikas, Kalamukhas and Pasupatas were leading a disreputable life by the beginning of 7th century A.D.

Of the twelve rock-cut cave temples excavated during the reign of Mahendravarman I, majority are Saivite viz., the Vasantesvaram cave-temple at Vallam, Satrumallesvaralaya at Dalavanur, Avanibhajana-pallavesvara-griham at Siyamangalam and Lalitankura-pallavesvara-griham at Tiruchchirappalli. Soundara Rajan[10] assigns the five-celled Panchapandava cave temple at Pallavaram to the five-fold aspects of Siva viz., Aghora, Vamadeva, Tatpurusha, Sadyojata and Isana, with the central shrine dedicated to the Tatpurusha. Even in the cave-temples dedicated to all the three gods viz., Brahma, Isvara and Vishnu as seen at Mandagapattu, Mamandur (cave no. 02) and Kuranganilmuttam, prominence seems to have been given to Siva by allocating his shrine at the centre. This shows the religious zeal of the king, who under the influence of Tirunavakkarasu alias Appar abandoned his earlier faith in Jaina and became a devout Saiva. Some scholars opine that the tradition of worshipping three primordial gods under a single roof is due to the concept of Trimurti form of worship[11]. It is also said that Mahendravarman I, demolished the Jaina temple at Tiruvadigai and utilized the material for the construction of a temple dedicated to Siva. For the first time anthropomorphic representation of Siva is seen in the Avanibhajana-pallavesvara-griham at Siyamangalam and in the Lalitankura-pallavesvara-griham at Tiruchchirappalli. At Siyamangalam on the top saduram of the northern pilaster, Siva is depicted as Vrishabhantika, along with Parvati (fig. 45). The earliest dancing form of Siva as Nataraja (fig. 46) can be seen here carved on the top saduram of the southern pilaster. Here Siva is depicted as dancing in Anandatandava or Bhujanga-trasita posture, without the Apasmara-purusha. At Tiruchchirappalli the finest and earliest representation of Siva as Gangadharamurti (fig. 10) can be seen.

During the reign of Narsimhavarman I Mamalla, both Saivite and Vaishnavite sects seems to have received patronage. In the Sikhari-pallavesvara-griham at Melacheri ascribable to his period (7th century A.D.), aniconic form of worshipping Siva is found for the first time in the Tondaimandalam region. Here the shrine cell consists of a rock-cut insitu linga along with the rock-cut avudaiyar. This is rather strange in the land of the Pallavas at such an early stage. The inscription[12] engraved in this cave temple mentions that this abode of Siva (Saivan-dhama) named Sri Sikhari-Pallavesvaram was caused to be made at Simhapura by the king Chandraditya. The place name Simhapura may indicate its naming after a Pallava king. However, the king Chandraditya is unknown in Pallava dynasty. K. R. Srinivasan[13] rightly identifies him with Chandraditya, son of Pulakesin II, perhaps born of Vijayamahadevi, who according to Gochre plates[14] seems to have the title potti (femine of the Tamil pottan i.e. Pallava) and hence a Pallava princess. Thus, it is probable that Chandraditya had followed the Chalukyan practice of including a rock-cut Siva linga in the shrine cell. If this identification is correct then it can be said that the practice of erecting a stone linga in the subsequent periods in Tondaimandalam region could be due to the influence of the Chalukyan artistic tradition.

The sculptures in the various rock-cut rathas and mandapas sculptured during the reign of Narasimhavarman I Mamalla shows, that even by late 7th century A.D., images of Siva and Vishnu have not got isolated into water-tight compartments and actually the shrines and sculptures of Vishnu and Siva are found side by side at every place. Indeed the early Alvars prior to Tirumangai (8 -9th century A.D.) composed their hymns[15] about the inseparable nature of Vishnu and Siva. Even the form of Harihara is celebrated exquisitely by Poigaiyar (5th -6th Century A.D.), who was considered as the first of the alvars. Thus the Arjuna-ratha has the sculptures of standing images of Siva, Vishnu, and Skanda (fig. 47) along with their respective mounts Nandi, Garuda and Elephant, carved in the principle bhadra niches on its outer walls. It is to be noted here, that the main dedication of the temple is to Siva as suggested by the Saivite dvarapalakas and the monolithic Nandi at the back of the ratha. From the monolithic temple, now known as Dharmaraja ratha, which was originally intended to be a temple dedicated to Siva, is found one of the earliest representation of his various forms such as -Somaskandamurti, Kevala Chandrasekhara, Kapardin, Harihara, Ardhanari, Kankalamurti, Chandesanugraha, Gangadhara, Kalari, Andhakavadha, Vinadhara, Siva with Nandi and Siva with Tandu. All the five shrine-cells in the Koneri mand/apam at Mamallapuram has been identified on the basis of dvarapalakas, as dedicated to Siva in his five aspects viz., Isana, Tatpurusha, Aghora, Vamadeva and Sadyojata. Similarly, the Mahishasuramardini cave temple at Mamallapuram with three shrine cells on the basis of similarity of dvarapalakas was attributed to enshrine three forms of Siva[16].

Royal patronage to Shaivism continued during the reign of Paramesvaravarman I, who was described as a staunch follower of Mahesvara in the Vunna Guruvapalem plates[17]. From his Kuram copper plate grant[18], it is known that he built a Siva temple at the same place and states that the deity in the temple was worshipped by providing bath (snapana). It may indicate that the main object of worship was of stone, which facilitated for the ritual ablations. The influence of the concept of Trimurti can be seen again in the carvings of triple shrine cells in the Ramanuja and Dharmaraja-mandapa at Mamallapuram. He was also the creator of the Ganesa-ratha (originally a Siva temple as indicated by the trident on its sikhara) at the same place, in the inscription (7th century A.D.)[19] of which, he is described as the one, who bears Siva in his mind. It is most possible that in the panels of Somaskandamurti, which gained popularity from his time, the same Trimurti concept is followed, with more importance given to Siva, where he is shown seated with his consort Parvati and child Skanda. The images of Brahma and Vishnu, in contrary stands at the back of Somaskandamurti giving an impression of attendant deities. Thus, the superiority of Siva over Brahma and Vishnu was again established.

His son Rajasimha, continued to be a loyal devotee of Siva, as seen through his several epithets found in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram like Isanasaranaha, Devadevabhaktaha, Sankarabhaktaha, Isvarabhaktaha, etc[20]. His inscription also gives the earliest datable evidence of the antiquity of the cult of Saiva Siddhanta[21]. Similarly his titles like Agamapriyah and Agamanusari[22] show that the Agamas had become popular by his period. His period witnessed the execution and completion of the Atiranachandesvara temple at Saluvankuppam. It gives inscriptional evidence[23] of dedicating the cave temple, called as Sambor-bhavanam and Atiranachandesvara to Siva, Uma and Skanda. Thus, it gives the earliest inscriptional reference in Pallava period (7th century A.D.) to the Somaskanda form (fig. 48), which is found, carved on the hind wall of the shrine-cell and also on the hind wall of the ardhamandapa flanking the shrine-cell. It also gives the earliest epigraphical reference in Pallava period to the Ashtamurti concept of Siva. These Ashtamurti’s or eight forms of Siva are narrated in Satapatha Brahmana and Vishnu Purana in connection with the birth of Rudra[24]. It is said that Brahma with a desire to have a progeny had created a son. As the son wailed for recognition, he was given the name Rudra. However, Rudra cried for seven more times and thus, got seven more names and forms, such as Bhava, Sarva, Isana, Pasupati, Bhima, Mahadeva and Ugra. These eight forms of Siva or Rudra came to be recognized as ruling over eight elements namely earth (prithvi), water (apaha), fire or light (tejas), air (vayu), ether (akasa), Surya, Chandra and yajamana -the Lord of all creations. These Ashtamurti forms of Siva were also sung by the Nayanmars like Appar[25], Sundarar[26], Sambandhar[27] and Manikkavasagar[28]. Thus, from this inscription in the Atiranachandesvara cave temple and from the contemporary hymns sung by the Nayanmars, it becomes clear that Siva was worshipped in his terrific aspect and he was been identified as the source of all the elements and ultimately the whole creation. In the centre of the shrine-cell is seen installed a dhara-linga made of black polished stone. Already the shrine cell on its hind wall carries the object of worship in the form of Somaskanda-murti, so this shows that linga could have been installed as an afterthought probably during the later period of Rajasimha’s reign.

Apart from the Sikhari-Pallavesvara-griham at Melacheri, probably a creation of the Chalukyas, though within the Pallava territory, the earliest aniconic representation of Siva in the form of linga can be seen in the structural temples of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. The Airavatesvara temple at Kanchipuram contains in its ardhamandapa, a sculptural panel depicting eight armed Vishnu engaged in the act of offering flowers to the linga with one of his hands and in the act of plucking his eye for offering it to Siva with his other hand. This can be regarded as the earliest representation of Vishnu-anugraha form of sculpture in the Pallava period, though here Siva is depicted only in the form of a linga (fig. 49). Another earliest form of Siva in the form of linga can be seen in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram, where He is portrayed in the form of Lingodbhavamurti. The same temple contains on one of the walls of the angalaya, depiction of Vali worshiping linga (fig. 50). Another figure of linga can be seen in the Muktesvara temple at Kanchipuram where Siva, seated with Parvati carries on his left shoulder a replica of a linga (fig. 51). The linga depicted in this panel and the one in the Airavatesvara temple are interesting as they appear to be a moveable one. While the one at Airavatesvara appear to have been placed on a pedestal for worship, the one at Muktesvara is like a cylindrical shaft carried by Siva. Perhaps, it may have been portrayed to identify the aniconic form of Siva with anthropomorphic Siva in the temple worship. It is also possible that the figure of Siva portrayed is a dual representation of the king and the god, which may hint at the divine origin of kingship and projects His ardent devotion towards the Saiva faith. From these panels it can be assumed that the worship of Siva in the form of linga was popular by the beginning of 8th century A.D.

In the period between 700 A.D. to 728 A.D., during the reign of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha, there was a vigorous temple building activity especially dedicated to Siva. The Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram built during his reign is a veritable museum of iconography comprising in majority Saivite themes and at the same time giving space for other deities as well. It seems that two major factors paid way for this upsurgance -the bhakti movement championed by the nayanmars in the preceding century especially by the trio Appar, Sundarar and Sambandar and the peaceful reign of Rajasimha devoid of warfare. Rajasimha built many Saivite temples like Mukundanayanar, Olakkanesvara, the twin temples of Kshatriyasimhesvara and Rajasimhesvara at Mamallapuram, Vedagirisvarar at Tirukkalukunram, Airavatesvara, Valisvara, Kailasanatha, Iravatanesvara, Piravatanesvara, Tripurantakesvra and Matangesvara at Kanchipuram, Talapurisvara at Panamalai and Vyaghrapulisvarar at Vayalur. In all these temples, a common factor which can be noticeable is the presence of Somaskanda panel on the back wall of the garbhagriha as the principal deity of worship. The outer walls of the garbhagriha in its niches carry various forms of Siva. For example the Olakkanesvara temple contains images of Yoga Dakshinamurti, Tandavamurti and Ravananugraha Siva in its bhadra niches on the south, west and north respectively. The Iravatanesvara temple carries on its bhadra niches depiction of various forms of Siva like Dakshinamurti on the south; Urdhvatandava and Chandesanugraha on the west; Nrittamurti, Yogamurti and Gangadhara on the north. The Piravatanesvara temple carries the figures of Yogamurti, Nrittamurti and Dakshinamurti on the north, west and southern niches respectively. Thus, in all the shrines of the time of Rajasimha, the devakostha carry Saivite images in more or less standardized order with a particular form occupying the niche facing specific direction. This shows that the influence of agamas has a bearing on the spatial allocation of various forms of gods and goddesses.

Of all the temples built by Rajasimha, the Kailasanatha temple gives a macroscopic view of various forms of Siva known to the people like Uma-mahesvara, Lingodbhava, Sandhyanrittamurti, Urdhva-tandava-murti, Tripurantaka, Yoga-Dakshinamurti, Bhikshatana, Samhara-tandava, Kalasamhara, Siva-Yogisvara, Gangadhara, Harihara, Natesa, Vinadhara Siva, Somaskanda, Brahmasiraschetaka-murti, Kiratarjunayuddha, Daksha-yajna-samhara, Gajantaka, Chandesanugrahamurti, Vishapaharana, Kamanugraha, Bhairava, Ravana with Vali worshipping Atmalinga, Kshetrapala, Somaskanda, Ardhanari, etc. However, in spite of these myriad forms of Siva, the main object of worship continues to be Somaskandamurti, set into the back wall of the garbhagriha. It appears that at the far end of Rajasimha’s reign linga as an object of worship got introduced and all of them share a common characteristic feature by having fluted cylindrical part (Dhara-linga).

Even though it seems that Nandivarman II Pallavamalla gave prominence to the Vaishnava cult, yet he gave patronage to Saiva creed as well and many of his inscriptions (8th century A.D.)[29] contain invocatory verses addressed to Siva. The lower Siva cave temple (no. 02) at Vallam on stylistic grounds was attributed to his period[30]. The inscriptions engraved on the wall of the Muktesvara temple at Kanchipuram (circa 8th century A.D.), give evidence to the patronage given to Saivite temple during his reign, though by his chief queen Dharmamahadeviyar. The Kailasanatha temple at Tirupattur (Tiruchchirappalli district) also belongs to his reign. An interesting depiction is the one showing Markandeya worshipping the linga, carved in an inset above the mukhamandapa of the temple. These points give vent to the fact that Nandivarman II, respecting the religious sentiment of his queen, did not discriminate against the Saiva faith.

A glance into the available icons show how as early as the 7th century A.D., the sculptors and the patrons gave a solid visual form to the various forms of Siva described in the Puranic legends by carving them in the temples. These sculptures served as a base for the subsequent artists to experiment upon. Just as the hymns sung by the various Saiva nayanmars gave literary and emotional strength, the sculptures provided a visual medium for the devotees to concentrate and meditate upon. Even today the hymns rendered by the nayanmars are sung in the temples and the same forms of Saiva deities are adorned by the people. Indeed, the contributions of the nayanmars to the flourishing of sculptural art, especially those dealing with the various forms of Siva can be recognized by the study of the Tevaram hymns, which describes his various forms like -Ardhanari, Umamahesvara, Ekapada, Ekapada Trimurti, Gangadhara, Gangavisarjana, Kankala, Kalari, Kamadahana, Harihara, Sadasiva, Kalyanasundara, Gajari, Kirata, Chandesanugraha, Somaskanda, Chandrasekhara, Dakshinamurti, Tripurantaka, Pasupata, Bhikshatana, Bhujangatrasa, Bhairava, Rishabharudha, Lingodbhava, Vishapaharana, Jalandhara, etc.[31]

Thus, a combined study of literature, epigraphs and sculptures show that Siva was worshiped in different forms, which can be broadly classified into aniconic, saumya, ugra, anugraha and nritya forms.

Footnotes and references:


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1894, no.167.


At Kanchipuram and Siruvakkam, see chapter II of this thesis.


N. P. Unni, op.cit., p. 51.


K. V. Raman and Sasi Sekaran, B, “Some rare sculptures from the Pallava temples from Kanchi”, in Indological Essays –Commemorative vol. II for Gift Siromoney, Madras, 1992, pp. 87–89.


The Brahmanda Purana, Chapter XXXII, vv. 2–8.


C. R. Srinivasan, op.cit., p. 244.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1912, no.181; M. V. Krishna Rao, The Gangas of Talkad. Madras, 1936, p. 190.


N. P. Unni, op.cit.


Tirumurai V, vv. 3, 35 and Tirumurai VI, no. 238


K. V. Soundara Rajan, The Art of South IndiaTamil Nadu and Kerala, Delhi 1978, pp. 61–62.


K. R. Srinivasan, “Some Aspects of Religion as Revealed by Early Monuments and Literature of the South”, in Journal of the Madras University, vol. 32, no.1, Section A–Humanities, pp. 49–50.


South Indian Inscriptions, Vol. XII, no. 115; Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1916, no. 234


K. R. Srinivasan, Cave temples of the Pallavas. New Delhi, 1964 (Reprint 1993), pp. 116–117.


Indian Antiquary, vol. VII, pp. 163 -64 and vol. VIII, pp. 44 -47.


Poygai Iyarpa, 1st Tiruvandadi, v. 5 and v. 98; Pey 3rd Tiruvandadi, v. 63


K. R. Srinivasan, op.cit, p. 141, fn. 1 and 156, However there is also a view that originally the cave temple was of Vaishnavite affiliation and its was altered to Saivite faith in the Pallava period itself, vide Vidhya Dehejia and Richard Davis, Addition, Erasure and Adaptation: Interventions in the Rock-cut monuments of Mamallapuram, in Archives of Asian Art, vol. 60 (2010), pp. 1–18.


Epigraphia Indica, vol. XXXII, p. 97.


Ibid. vol. XVII, pp. 340-344


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. I, no. 18, p. 4.


Ibid., no. 25, pp. 14–15.


Ibid., no. 24, p. 12.


Ibid., no. 25, p. 17.


Ibid., no. 21, p. 7.


T. A. Gopinatha Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography, vol. II, part I, pp. 44 -47.


Tevaram, Tirumurai IV, v. 4708; Tirumurai V, v. 5270 and Tirumurai VI, v. 7163.


Tevaram, Tirumurai VII, vv. 7309 and 8043.


Tevaram, Tirumurai I, vv. 111 and 571, Tirumurai II, vv. 1948 and 2753.




Kasakudi plates, South Indian Inscriptions, vol. II, p. 346; Udayendiram plates, op.cit., pp. 365-66; Pullur plates, Epigraphia Indica vol. XXXVI, p. 152.


K. R. Srinivasan, op.cit., p. 134.


K. R. Srinivasan, “Some Aspects of Religion as Revealed by Early Monuments and Literature of the South”, in Journal of the Madras University, vol. 32, no. 1, Section A–Humanities, p. 55.

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