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 ...

Conclusion (Religious Beliefs and Customs)

Sculptural remains for understanding the religious beliefs of this period are available only from 6th century A.D., around the time, when Mahendravarman I started his innovative rock-cut creations. Society in Pallava period continued to receive inputs from the past as well as existing belief system and the same is reflected in the sculptural art in the form of myriad images of gods, goddesses and celestial figuries illustrating scenes from various puranas and epics. Some of the sculptures also throw light on the then existing religious customs and ceremonies like, initiation into Vedic studies by performing the upanayana ceremony and rituals connected with it, coronation of the king, performance of asvamedha and navakandam sacrifice, performing daily ablations to god, undertaking religious vow in the form of penance, meditation, ritual dancing, the ceremony of vasodaka, which is part of a rite while giving oblation to dead ancestors and observance of the practice of burning the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband i.e. sati.

The study of various sculptures of this period along with the contemporary literature and inscriptions, show the prevalence of various religious faiths viz., Jainism, Buddhism, Saivism and Vaishnavism, though the last two succeeded to become more popular in due course of time.

Several vestiges of Jaina sculptural and inscriptional remains can be found at Kanchipuram[1], Tirupparuttikunram, Tiruvadigai (Cuddalore district)[2], Santhome[3], Mylapore[4], Pulal, Villivakkam[5], Poonamalle[6], Tirunagesvaram[7], Mangadu[8], Vilappakkam (fig. 42)[9], Sattamangalam and Vedal[10] (Vandavasi taluk). The Pallankoil plates of Simhavarman III (circa 546 A.D.)[11] give the earliest epigraphical reference to the presence of Jaina faith at Tirupparuttikunram as early as the 6th century A.D and it continues to be popular as a famous Jaina centre in the reign of Narasimhavarman II, when the Chandraprabha temple was built and also in the reign of Nandivarman II as known through inscriptional evidence[12]. However, Jainism seems to have received set back due to the onslaughts of the nayanmar and alvar saints during the Bhakti movement. Tevaram[13] refers even to the persecution of Jainas in places such as Madurai, Tiruvarur, Tiruvorriyur, etc. Contemporary alvar Tondaradippodi[14] applauds a policy of religious persecution towards the heretic sects and recommends chopping off of the heads of Jaina and Buddha monks. Accordingly a panel on the western wall of Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kanchipuram (fig. 40) depicting corporal punishment inflicted on two men, by piercing them through a spike can be interpreted as scene of impalement. Nothing with certainty can be said about the depiction, as it could also be a portrayal of some corporal punishment inflicted on a criminal person. The fact that, Jainism continued in the Pallava country even after Nandivarman II, is attested by an inscription[15] from Perumandur (Tindivanam taluk) dated in the 19th regnal year of Nandivarman III (circa 865 A.D.) and from an inscription[16] from Sattamangalam of the reign of Kampavarman (circa 875 A.D.).

The earliest reference to Buddhism in this period is the fragmentary Amaravati pillar inscription[17] of Simhavarman I (circa 5th century A.D.), an early Pallava ruler, who visited Dhanyaghataka (i.e. Amaravati) and probably made some donations there. The Chinese pilgrim Yuan-chwang[18] who visited Kanchi during the reign of Narsimhavarman I at about 638 A.D. mentions the existence of nearly hundred monasteries in the capital city and especially refers to the huge monastery, where learned men used to congregate. Probably this monastery can be identified with the Rajavihara mentioned in the Mattavilasa-prahasana[19]. Similarly, from the accounts of Fa-Hien[20] it is known that Narasimahvarman II Rajasimha built a Buddhist monastery for the purpose of the visiting Chinese merchants and pilgrims, who alight at the port-city of Nagapattinam. A number of Buddhist metal images unearthed from Nagapattinam, belonging to different periods[21] give testimony to this fact. Similarly the discovery of number of images of Buddha and other related antiquities from places like Mangadu[22], Kuvam[23], Kanchipuram, Arpakkam, Tiruvadigai, Kanikiluppai near Pallavaram, Pallur, Tiruvalanjuli, Pattisvaram, Manganallur, Elaiyur, Tenkarai, Perunjeri and Mannargudi[24] hints to the existence of Buddhist monasteries and vihara in the locality.

Siva continues to be a popular deity during this period. Of the twelve rock-cut cave temples excavated during the reign of Mahendravarman I, majority are Saivite and even in the cave-temples dedicated to Trinity 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. Initially the shrine cells are empty without any rock-cut Siva linga or sculptural panel and for the first time anthropomorphic representation of Siva in the form of Vrishabhantika (fig. 45) and Nataraja (fig. 46) is seen in the Avanibhajana-pallavesvara-griham at Siyamangalam, and as Gangadharamurti (fig. 10) in the Lalitankura-pallavesvara-griham at Tiruchirappalli. During the reign of Narsimhavarman I Mamalla, both Saivite and Vaishnavite sects seems to have received patronage and the sculptures in the various monolithic rathas and mandapas sculptured during his reign, show that even by late 7th century A.D., the worship of Siva and Vishnu has not got isolated and the shrines and sculptures of Vishnu and Siva are found side by side at every place. Best example of this feature can be seen in the Arjuna and Dharmaraja ratha at Mamallapuram. Both the rathas show the popularity of different forms of Siva like, Vrshabantakamurti, Somaskandamurti, Kevala Chandrasekhara, Kapardin, Harihara, Ardhanari, Kankalamurti, Chandesanugraha, Gangadhara, Kalari, Andhakavadha and Vinadhara. The association of Siva with Nandi and Tandu is also known and depicted in the Dharmaraja-ratha. The Somaskanda form of Siva also became popular in this period, especially from the time of Paramesvaravarman I (circa 669A.D.–690 A.D.), and the earliest aniconic representation of Siva in the form of linga can be seen depicted in the panels on the structural temples built by Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. His period (circa 690 A.D.–728 A.D.), witnessed growth of Saivism which resulted into the building of numerous temples dedicated to Siva 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 object of worship. Of all the temples built by Rajasimha, the Kailasanatha temple gives a macroscopic view of various forms of Siva known to 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, Kshetrapala, Somaskanda, Ardhanari, etc. It appears that at the far end of Rajasimha’s reign linga as an object of worship came to be introduced and a common characteristic feature noticed is its fluted cylindrical part. A glance into the available icons show that by 7th century A.D., depiction of Siva in His various forms as described in the Puranas was attempted. Worship of Siva in His five-fold aspect viz., Aghora, Vamadeva, Tatpurusha, Sadyojata and Isana also seems to have been popular in this period as can be assumed from the five-celled Panchapandava cave temple at Pallavaram and the Koneri mand/apam at Mamallapuram. The existence of Kapalika form of Saivism is also proved from the sculptural remains in the form of Mahakala and Mahakali (fig. 44) carved on the hind wall of the Valisvara shrine in the Ekambranatha temple at Kanchipuram and its popularity is corroborated by its reference in the contemporary literature Mattavilasaprahasana[25] and in the hymns of Appar[26]. The sculptural art of this period also depicts three Saivite saints viz., Kannappa-nayanar (fig. 34) in the apsidal temple (Tirumulasthanattup-perumanadigal) within the Bhaktavatsala temple complex at Tirukkalukunram, Sankara (fig. 52) in the Iravatanesvara temple at Kanchipuram and Karaikkar-ammaiyar (fig. 38) at Kaverippakkam (now preserved in Government Museum, Chennai).

Similar to Siva, worship of Vishnu and His various avatars are also equally popular in this period. Indeed many of the copper-plate charters of the early Pallava kings refer to the king as a devout worshipper of Vishnu. The earliest extant architectural edifice, which can be definitely regarded as exclusively dedicated to Vishnu is the Mahendravishnu-griha at Mahendravadi (fig. 53), as can be attested by the inscription[27]. Similarly, the fragmentary inscription in the northern cave temple (no. 01) at Mamandur[28] points to the possibility of its dedication to a form of Vishnu. However, these early cave temples of the time of Mahendravarman I are devoid of any sculptural forms. From the Chitrur copper-plate grant of Nripatungavarman (circa 875 A.D.)[29], it is known that his son and successor viz., Narasimhavarman I Mamalla was primarily responsible for carving the image of abhicharika form of Vishnu and built with stones ‘a sleeping chamber (sayyagriha)’ (i.e. the Narapatisimhapallava-vishnu-griha at Mamallapuram), which was later on cramped between the twin temples of Siva (Shore temple) during the reign of Narasimhavarman II. By the time of Narasimhavarman I, it is known that Vishnu was worshipped in three forms viz., standing, seated and reclining as referred to by the contemporary alvars. It is known through an inscription[30] in the Adivaraha cave temple at Mamallapuram that people also had knowledge about His various incarnations. However, sculptural remains of only standing and reclining forms are found during the time of Narasimha I and among the other forms of Vishnu, only Bhu-Varaha, Trivikrama, Krishna as Govardhanadhari and Kaliyamardhana and Balarama are found. The association of Garuda as a mount of Vishnu was also well known and was depicted in the Arjuna and Dharmaraja-ratha at Mamallapuram. However, Vishnu as Narasimha got represented in sculptural art much earlier and can be seen carved along with other deities in the sati panels (fig. 58) found from several places like Munnur, Tenneri, Uttaramerur, Ukkal and Brahmadesam, dated variously from 3rd –4th century A.D. to 9th century A.D.[31] Similar panel from Manimangalam depicts additionally an image of Srivatsa by the side of Narasimha, thus, making it the earliest representation of the concept of Lakshmi-Narasimha. Inspite of Saivaite leanings of Rajasimha, the temples built during his period also accommodates various forms of Vishnu and it shows the catholicity of the age. Indeed the earliest known sculptural representation in Tamil Nadu[32] depicting Narasimha in the act of killing Hiranyakasipu (fig. 63) can be seen in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram. A rare portrayal of the story of Samudramadhana, indicative of Kurmavatara can also be seen in this temple. Apart from these incarnations he was also shown in his aspects as Garudharudha-Vishnu and Jalandharavadha (fig. 64). The second mentioned was popularly depicted even in the niches of other Saivite temples of the period, like the Iravatanesvara and the Piravatanesvara. However, at the same time the growing disparity between the Saivites and Vaishnavites can also be seen for the first time here in the depiction of Varaha as a sub-ordinate deity in the Lingodbhava panel. For the first time, Vaishnavism has received tremendous boost in the time of Nandivarman II (circa 731 A.D.–796 A.D.). The Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kanchipuram, which can be regarded as a repository of Vaishnavite iconography is a creation of his times. In this temple, Vishnu in his three postures viz., standing, seated and reclining are enshrined in the garbhagriha of the successive three tiers of the vimana. The walls of the vimana display His myriad forms like, Garudharudha, Jalandharavadha, Ashtabhujasvami and other anugraha forms like Rishyanugraha, Bhaktanugraha, Gajendramoksha, Brahmanugraha and Sivanugraha. The most interesting of them is the Brahmanugrha and Sivanugraha, which hint at the sectoral strife that existed during the period of Nandivarman II, between the Saivites and Vaishnavites and the attempt made by the followers of Vishnu to elevate His status over Brahma and Siva. For the first time in Pallava period sculptural representation of Rama as Kodandapani, miniature depiction of scenes from the Ramayana (fig. 65) and Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu can be noticed in this temple. It seems that the hymns of the alvars glorifying the various heroic deeds and childhood pranks of Krishna as well as the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata inspired the king and the artists to depict his various lilas like: His journey to Akura’s house on a chariot, His killing of the demon Dhenukasura, de-crowning of Kamsa, Kaliyamardhana, etc. Minor avatars of Vishnu like Mohini and Hayagriva (fig. 66) also gets rare expression in this temple. The Sundaravaradaperumal temple at Uttaramerur, which could be dated to the time of Pallavamalla on the basis of inscriptional evidence[33] is also another fine example which gives fascinating glimpse into the growing popularity of Vaishnavism. It is interesting to note that it temple was modeled by strictly implementing theVaikhanasa-agama. This period also witnessed the growth of Panchavira cult, the reminiscence of which can be noticed in the Parthasarathi temple at Tiruvellikeni and in the Venugopalasvami temple at Tiruchchhanur[34]. The five Vrsni heroes traditionally worshiped in north India are Sankarsana (Balarama), Vasudeva (Krishna), Pradyumna, Aniruddha and Samba.

However, in the Tiruvellikeni temple, datable to the reign of Dantivarman[35], Satyaki is found instead of Samba and it enshrines an image of Rukmini as well. A study of iconography of Vishnu and the other deities of the Vaishnava pantheon in relation to the agamas proves that the Vaikhanasagama has been largely followed in this period and the major source of inspiration for the modeling of various Vaishnavite deities seems to be drawn largely from Bhagavata-purana, Vishnu-purana and several Vaishnavite Upa-puranas like Vishnudharmottara and Narasimhapurana. Sculptural deification of alvar saints can be traced in two panels (fig. 68) in the Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kanchipuram.

Apart from the main forms of Siva and Vishnu, people also worshipped various goddesses like Durga, Sridevi or Lakshmi, Jyesthadevi and Sarasvati. The association of human-sacrifice or navakandam ritual related to the worship of Durga is well known in this period. The worship of Saptamatrikas viz., Brahmi, Vaishnavi, Mahesvari, Kaumari, Indrani, Varahi and Chamundi, as a group seems to be not much popular in Pallava period until the mid 8th century A.D., as known from the sculptural remains. The image of Chamundi at Mamallapuram (fig.76), placed alongside other Saptamatrika images of later Pallava period, on the basis of its gigantic size, simple dress and ornamentation can be regarded as one of the earliest sculptural creations of this period. As no other sculpture in this group matches with Chamundi in its proportion and style, it can also be interpreted as a goddess of local importance, worshiped in solitary without any affiliation with the Saptamatrika cult.

It is found from the sculptural art of this period that the worship of Ganapati has not attained cultic following in the time of the Pallavas and initially He was regarded as one among the ganas of Siva and portrayed as such in the kudu arches and decorative friezes, as can be noticed in the Ramanuja mandapa at Mamallapuram, Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram, Kshatriyasimhesvara shrine and on the miniature shrine in the tank adjacent to the Shore temple at Mamallapuram. Later on, probably due to the influence from the Chalukyan territory, where He became popular, Ganapati was given an identity as a separate deity and therefore, came to be enshrined in the niches of the ardhamandapa of the main temple and in its subsidiary shrines.

Muruga continues to be one of the favorite gods of the people of this region. From the extant archaeological evidences, it can be said that the earliest temple dedicated to this god was built at Saluvankuppam as far back as circa 6th century A.D.[36] and it continued to receive the patronage of the Pallava kings up to the 9th century A.D. as known through the inscriptions of Nandivarman II, Nrpatungavarman and Kampavarman[37]. The earliest sculptural representation of Muruga in the period under study is in ambiguity. The deity on the back of an elephant adorning the eastern wall of the Arjuna-ratha at Mamallapuram was variously identified as Skanda or Indra, as both have elephant as their mount. The neighboring apsidal Sahadeva-ratha based on its shape, and the presence of a monolithic elephant nearby may be regarded as a Murugan shrine, but with an iota of doubt. Similarly, the deity seated in a howdah on the back of two large elephants in the Yali mandapam at Saluvankuppam and also in a smaller Yali mandapam at Mamallapuram was variously identified as either Skanda or Sakra. Initially He was more popularly depicted in the cave temples and rathas of this period in the form of Brahmasasta as portrayed in the Dharmaraja-ratha (fig. 80) and Trimurti cave temple at Mamallapuram. From the time of Paramesvaravarman I (circa 669A.D.–690 A.D.), Muruga as a child is seen depicted, either in seated or standing posture as part of the Somaskanda panel (fig. 81), which started adoring the rear walls of the cave temples and rathas and subsequently, in the structural creations of Rajasimha. Few of His loose sculptures datable to about the 9th century A.D., from places like Kaverippakkam (now in Government museum, Chennai, fig. 82), Kilperumpakkam, Tiruvamattur, Tiruvorriyur[38] and Poondi (Tiruvannamalai district)[39] hints at the existence of sub-shrines dedicated to Him. Among them, the sculpture from Kilperumpakkam is of interest and can be identified as of Subrahmanya (fig/. 83). The discovery of Tiruttani copper plate grant of Aparajitavarman (circa 904 A.D.)[40], which describes the king as a devotee of Shangmuga facilitates to take back the antiquity of the Subrahmanya shrine at Tiruttani to the Pallava period.

Brahma in early stages of Pallava art was never represented individually. He was associated with either Siva or Vishnu, as a subordinate deity or represented as part of the concept of Trimurti. Even Brahma was superimposed by Skanda in His form as Brahmasasta. Separate angalaya for Brahma and His consorts is seen in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram (fig. 84). He is also seen represented on the sati panels found from places such as Mangadu, Uttaramerur, etc. Later on He is included in one of the devakostha niches as subsidiary deity in the structural temples of this period.

Apart from the above mentioned major gods, minor deities like Surya, Chandra, Dikpalaka, celestial figures like Kinnaras, Gandharva and Vidyadharas were also found depicted.

Footnotes and references:


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1954-55, no. 360 and p. 16.


Marxia N. Gandhi, “Art Treasures of Thiruvadigai”, in South Indian Studies –I. Madras, 1978, pp. 150 -151.


Rev. H. Hosten, Antiquities from Santhome and Mylapore, Madras, 1936, p. 74 ff.


Two late Jaina literatures viz., Neminathan (12th century A.D.) and Tiru Nurrandadi (14th century A.D.), though of a later period are important as they refer to Mylapore as a Jaina center, where the 22nd Tirthankara Neminatha was worshipped (Vide. K. V. Raman, History of the Madras Region, Madras, 1957, pp. 189–192.). Even at present Maylapore has a Jaina temple dedicated to the Svetambar sect.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1911, no. 5.


A.S.I.–A.R. 1926–27, p. 231.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1929–30, no. 224.


Ibid., 1908, no. 358.


Epigraphia Indica, vol. IV, no. 14-A.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1908, no. 82.


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


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy, 1958–59, A 10.


Periyapuranam, vv. 2756–74.


Tirumalai, v. 8.


Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy 1902, no. 220.


Ibid. 1968–69, B. 221.


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. I, no. 32, pp. 25–38.


Watters, On Yu>an Chwang’s Travels in India (629–645 A.D.), vol. II, London 1904-05, p. 227.


N. P. Unni, Mattavilasa Prahasana of Mahendravikramavarman, Trivandrum, 1974, p. 48.


K. A. Nilakantha Sastri, Foreign Notices of South India, Chennai, Reprint 2001, p. 16 and pp. 116–17.


Indian Antiquary, vol. 7.


M. S. Venkataswamy, Baudhamum Tamizhum, Madras, pp. 19–33.


A. Aiyappan and Srinivasan, P. R., Guide to the Buddhist Antiquities. Madras, 1952, p. 53.


C. Minakshi, “Buddhism in South India”, in South Indian Studies –II. Madras, 1979, pp. 109–116.


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


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


Epigraphia Indica, vol. IV, pp. 152–53.


K. R. Srinivasan, Cave temples of the Pallavas, New Delhi, 1964 (Reprint 1993), p. 71.


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


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


R. Nagaswamy, “Sati stones from Tamilnad”, in Art and Culture of Tamilnad, Delhi, 1980, pp. 58–9.


K. V. Soundara Rajan, op. cit., p. 190.


South Indian Inscriptions, vol. VI, no. 356.


K. V. Soundara Rajan, op.cit., pp. 97–8.


Epigraphia Indica, vol. VIII, no. 29.


Sathyabhama Bhadhreenath, Saluvankuppam Excavations (2005–07), New Delhi, 2015, pp. 115 ff.


Ibid., pp. 138–41.


L’ Hernault, Francois, L’Iconograpie de Subrahmanya au Tamilnad. Pondicherry, 1978.


M. T. Saju, “Tale of a sculpture from Pallava glory to dump yard”, in The Times of India, Dated 10-07-2015.


R. Nagaswami, Thiruttani and Velanjeri copper plates, Madras, 1979, pp. 5–9.

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