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The Pallavas: Southern India’s First Great Dynasty (3rd to 9th CE)

The Pallavas: Southern India’s First Great Dynasty (3rd to 9th CE)

God forbid! God forbid! Those sinners who torment living beings by forcing them to practice celibacy, shave off their hair, wear filth, fix time for meals and don impure garments, should not be referred to even by way of reproach. Hence, I would like to wash by wine my tongue, made impure by the reference to the heretics.

-Satyasoma, a drunken Kapalika (Shaivite mendicant), referring to Jain monks as heretics

But why is it that possession of women and drinking of liquor not prescribed by the Tathagata [the Buddha]? How could the omniscient fail to see that? I am sure that those lazy, wretched elders must have blotted out from the canonical books the ordinances regarding women and of liquor to spite us, the youngsters. From where can I procure an uncorrupted original text? Then by making known to the world the complete teachings of the Buddha I shall do service to the congregation of the Buddhists.

-Nagasena, a Buddhist monk

Satyasoma and Nagasena were among the main characters in the 7th-century CE Sanskrit play Mattavilasa Prahasana.* Set in Kanchipuram, it is a satire commenting on the various religions and religious practices of the time and was widely enacted in the temple theatres of present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu during festivals. 

But what’s more surprising is that the play was written by Mahendravarman I, an exceptional ruler of Southern India’s first great dynasty, the Pallavas. Besides being a celebrated piece of literature, the play also offers us glimpses into life during those times. There is a mention of corrupted courts, temple towers, Buddhist monasteries and flower shops. More importantly, it points towards the decline in Buddhism and Jainism in the region against the backdrop of a strong revivalist movement of Hinduism that was taking place during the time. 

In the 3rd century CE, somewhere between history and legend, the Pallavas emerged as a force to reckon with, and over the next 600 years, they set the stage for a great cultural outpouring and building spree that forged the template for much of the South.

But their origin is highly disputed. Since the name ‘Pallava’ appears to be a Sanskritised form of the Middle Persian ‘Pahlava’, i.e. Parthian, epigraphist and historian Rai Bahadur Venkayya initially traced the dynasty back to the Parthian adventurers, who came to India during the 1st century BCE. However, this theory has been debunked recently.

Historian R Sathianathaier considered the Pallavas natives of ‘Tondaimandalam’ (the region between the Penna and Ponnaiyar rivers, which formed the core region of the Pallavas). Historian and folklorist D C Sircar points out that the family legends of the Pallavas speak of an ancestor descending from Ashwatthama, the legendary warrior of the Mahabharata, and his union with a Naga princess.

However, most of the scholars, including K A Nilakanta Sastri, believe they were feudatories of the Satavahanas in the Andhradesa (the region north of the Penna River in present-day Andhra Pradesh), the south-eastern part of their empire, and became independent when the Satavahana power declined. This theory is also supported by the fact that the early Pallavas used Prakrit as their official language.Extent of the Pallava Empire c. 645 CE | LHI

Extent of the Pallava Empire c. 645 CE | LHI

The Pallava dynasty can be divided into early, middle and late. Their territories at the height of their power extended from the northern part of Andhra Pradesh to the Kaveri River in the south. And the first king is speculated to be Simhavarman I. We know this because of the Hirahadagali copper plate inscription, believed to be the earliest-known Pallava inscription, found in Bellary district in Karnataka. It was issued by Sivaskandavarman in 283 CE, to add a new grant of a piece of land to an already existing grant of a garden to Brahmins issued earlier by his father, who is mentioned merely as ‘Bappa’ in the inscription.

Very little information is available about the early Pallava rulers apart from the fact that they put an end to Ikshvaku rule in the Eastern Deccan and conquered the region by the middle of the 4th century CE. Samudra Gupta’s (r. 330 – 375 CE) famous Allahabad Prashasti also mentions a Pallava ruler, Vishnugopa of Kanchi, who was defeated and then liberated by the Gupta Emperor of Magadha. For the next 200 years, the Pallavas continued to rise in power and expand their base. However, this was a time when political demarcations in early historic Tamilakam were not rigid or well-defined. But in the 6th century CE, according to archaeologist V Selvakumar, the Pallavas brought about the first actual state formation in the South, in the traditional sense.

Simhavarman III (c. 550 – 560 CE) is believed to have maintained a cordial relationship with the Western Ganga dynasty and entered into a matrimonial alliance with them, as can be seen in the Hosakote plate inscription (in present-day Bangalore district), issued by the Ganga king Avinita.

Simhavarman III had two sons, of which the Pallava throne at Kanchi was ascended by Simhavishnu, while Bhimavarman seems to have travelled to South-East Asia and established a kingdom there, probably in the area of present-day Vietnam and Laos. Bhimavarman ruled over the country of Kambhojadesa (present-day Cambodia) with Bhimapura as the capital. But more on this later.Sculpture of Simhavishnu at Mahabalipuram

Sculpture of Simhavishnu at Mahabalipuram | Wikimedia Commons

Later Pallavas: Expanding the Kingdom

The era of the Later Pallava rulers in India starts with Simhavishnu (c. 575 – 600 CE). He overthrew the Kalabhras and extended the Pallava rule by conquering the region up to the Kaveri River, from the Cholas. He also dispatched a naval expedition and occupied Malaya and Sri Lanka and established Kanchipuram as his capital. This was the beginning of the spread of Tamil culture beyond the seas into the colonies of the East. A stone portrait of Simhavishnu I flanked by his queens can be seen in the stone engraving at the Adivaraha Mandap in a rock-cut cave temple in Mamallapuram.

Simhavishnu was succeeded by his son Mahendravarman I (c. 600-630). According to a French archaeologist with a specialisation in Southern India, G Jouveau Dubreuil, he was the son of a princess from the Vishnukundin dynasty of Andhra Pradesh.

A scholar, painter, poet, architect and musician, it was under Mahendravarman I that the  Pallavas reached even greater heights.

Mahendravarman I gave considerable impetus to art and architecture during his reign. Temples decorated with paintings began to be carved from solid stone for the first time. The inscription at the rock-cut Mandagapattu Tirumurti Temple hails him as ‘Vichitrachitta’ and claims that the cave temple was built without wood, brick, mortar or metal. The temple, in Viluppuram district of Tamil Nadu, is notable for the earliest known rock-cut Sanskrit inscription written in the Pallava Grantha script.Olakkanath temple cum lighthouse

Olakkanath temple cum lighthouse | Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, Mahendravarman I is also credited with building a lighthouse called ‘Olakaneswar’ or ‘Olakkanath’ (which translates to ‘flame eye’) at Mamallapuram. Designed as a Shiva temple on a hilltop, the roof of this temple has a shallow depression where a pot 1.5 feet tall was kept, filled with oil. The oil was set on fire every evening, transforming the temple into a lighthouse to help ships navigate by night.

It is widely believed that Mahendravarman I was a Jain, who later converted to Shaivism. This was thanks to the famous Nayannar Tamil saint Appar. This had led scholars to point out that the seeds of the Bhakti movement, a widespread religious revival movement, were sown in Kanchipuram. As a result, his reign saw the fall of Jainism and Buddhism in the south. It was also during his reign that Tamil came to be widely used, besides Sanskrit.Coin of Narasimhavarman I, found from Badami | https://www.vcoins.com/

Coin of Narasimhavarman I, found from Badami | https://www.vcoins.com/

Narasimhavarman I: The Great Builder

Mahendravarman I’s rule also witnessed the start of Pallava-Chalukya and Pallava-Pandya conflicts, which became stronger when his son Narasimhavarman I (r. 630–668 CE) took the throne. Pulakesin II, the Chalukyan King, had over time raided various northern Pallava provinces and forts. Both the kingdoms fought several battles without conclusive results. Around 642-43 CE, an army led by Narasimhavarman I and his General Paranjothi invaded Vatapi (later Badami), defeated and probably killed Pulakesin II and managed to create such havoc that the city was never a capital again. 

The Pallava occupation of Vatapi is attested to by an inscription found at the Mallikarjunadeva temple in Badami, dated to the 13th regnal year of Narasimhavarman I.

However, Narasimhavarman I’s most significant contribution has been what is considered to be the physical legacy of Pallavas today – the grand Mamallapuram complex.

Mamallapuram was developed from a small fishing village called Talacayanam. The Pallavas constructed a fortified citadel on a hill and a royal fleet was organised to guard the harbour from attack.

The town itself takes its name from ‘Mamalla’ or ‘Mahamalla’ (‘the great wrestler’), which was one of the epithets of Narasimhavarman I. The royal custom of using a series of descriptive honorific titles, or ‘birudas’, was particularly prevalent among the Pallavas. Pancha Rathas

Pancha Rathas | Wikimedia Commons

This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to the extraordinarily intricate rock relief titled Descent of the Ganges, the monolithic Pancha Rathas and the mysterious Shore Temple and the Seven Pagodas. Scholars believe that a tsunami in the 13th century swallowed parts of Mamallapuram. Ironically, a modern-day tsunami in 2004 and the retreating sea in its aftermath revealed the presence of structural temples underwater, which are now being studied.

What makes Mamallapuram so culturally resonant are the influences it absorbs and disseminates. While Kanchipuram was the Pallava capital, the port city of Mamallapuram was the primary source of all their wealth.

Under Pallava rule, cotton cloth was exported to China, Babylonia and Egypt. Spices and precious stones and medicinal plants were sent to Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, China and Burma.

Merchants from surrounding regions came to Kanchipuram to trade – they had to seek a licence to trade, and the merchants created organizations called Manigramam. Many Pallava coins had the image of a two-masted ship to denote their maritime activities, besides images of a bull which was the dynasty’s symbol.Vo Canh Inscription | National Museum of Vietnamese History

Vo Canh Inscription | National Museum of Vietnamese History

Founding Kingdoms in South-East Asia

And it wasn’t only products that were exported. It is believed that the South-East Asian kingdoms established in Champa (present-day Central and Southern Vietnam), Funan (parts of present-day Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia) and Chenla (present-day Laos) were offshoots of the Pallava dynasty. 

One of the oldest pieces of epigraphy found in South-East Asia is the Vo Cahn inscription found in the village of Vo Canh in Central Vietnam, dated to the 7th century CE. This is a Sanskrit inscription written in the Pallava-Grantha script.

In the 8th century CE, recognising the Pallavas as a major power, the Tang dynasty of China forged a military alliance with Narasimhavarman II (r. 700 – 729 CE) and made him the General of South China as a safeguard against the expanding Tibetan Empire. When a Pallava ambassador visited the Chinese Emperor, the ambassador was given a robe of flowered silk, a golden girdle, a purse with an emblem in the form of a fish and seven other objects before his return.Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple

Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple | Wikimedia Commons

Sanskrit litterateur Dandin was patronised by Narasimhavarman II and spent several years in his court. Narasimhavarman II was also a great devotee of Shiva and built the magnificent Kailasanathar Temple at Kanchipuram. And he embellished the base of the temple with his 244 birudas, the most popular one being ‘Rajasimha’.

Pallava architecture formed the basis of temple architecture in Tamil Nadu and the region’s great temples, like Brihadeeswara (built by Raja Raja Chola between 1003 and 1010 CE) at Tanjore, as well as others, were based on Pallava models. In fact, the earliest-known metal images of the Dancing Shiva and Nataraja, dating back to the 7th-8th centuries CE, have also been credited to the Pallava dynasty.

Around 642 CE, the celebrated Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited Kanchipuram and said that “the soil was fertile and produced an abundance of crops… The people were courageous and deeply attached to the principles of truth and highly esteemed for their learning”. Though Buddhism and Jainism were on the decline during the reign of the Later Pallavas, cultural exchanges seem to have still been prominent in the palace. In fact, it is believed that Bodhidharma, a monk who laid the foundation of Shaolin kung fu in China in the 6th century CE, was the son of a Pallava king. He renounced royal life and adopted Buddhism. The Chinese called him ‘Damo.’Sketch of Bodhidharma by Japanese artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Sketch of Bodhidharma by Japanese artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi | Wikimedia Commons

The administration of the State during the Pallavas was well managed. The Prakrit term ‘alonagulachchobham’ found on some inscriptions is deduced to mean ‘free from troubles about salt’ by language scholar J G Bühler. This implies that digging for salt was a royal monopoly. Also, weaving was one of the chief village industries. The Pallavas also had an advanced irrigation system with a network of canals, tanks and wells, and special committees were appointed for their maintenance.

In 731 CE, another conflict between the Pallavas and Chalukyas resulted in the death of Pallava ruler Paramesvaravarman II. He left no heir. To save the kingdom from disintegrating, a delegation of nobles and military leaders was sent to the kingdom of Champa (present-day Central and Southern Vietnam), where the distant relatives of the Pallavas ruled. A 12-year-old boy named Pallavamalla was chosen and crowned King Nandivarman II. Map depicting the journey of Nandivarman II

Map depicting the journey of Nandivarman II

He was a descendant of Bhimavarman, the son of Simhavarman III, who had travelled to present-day Vietnam around the 6th century CE and fathered a new line of the Pallavas in the region.

But the extinction of the Simhavishnu line can be regarded as the beginning of the end of Pallava supremacy. The following rulers had to face attacks from the Rashtrakutas, Pandyas and Cholas, resulting in a reduction of Pallava territories and economic instability. In c. 897 CE, Aparajita Varman was killed in a battle against Chola ruler Aditya I. He was the last ruling member of the house, and with his death, the Pallava dynasty’s power came to an end. 

*Dialogue translated by Dr N P Unni, 1974

Cover image: Watercolour of the rock sculpture of Descent of the Ganges (also called Arjuna’s Penance) by John Gantz, c. 1825

This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

Find all the stories from this series here.

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