The Pallava King from Vietnam

Around 1200 years ago, in 731 CE, a 12 year old boy sailed all the way from Champa, present day central and southern Vietnam, to Kanchipuram, the powerful Pallava capital of the time, and was anointed King. Few people who come across the name of the 8th century Pallava ruler King Nandivarman II, realise that he wasn't a home born heir- or that he came from so far afield.

Since ancient times, India has had close links with South East Asian counties like Vietnam and Cambodia, which were known in Indian texts as Champa (Southern Vietnam) and Kambujadesa (Cambodia) respectively. Indian merchants regularly traded with ports in Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam and often even settled there. In fact one of the oldest pieces of epigraphy found in South East Asia is the Vo Cahn inscription found in the village of Vo Cahn in central Vietnam dated to sometime in the 7th century CE. This is a Sanskrit inscription written in the Pallava-Grantha script used at the time of the Pallava dynasty from 6th to 9th century CE in South India.

Originally established by the Cham tribe, the region of Champa came under Indian influence sometime in the 4th century CE. Historians believe that the ties between the Pallava kingdom and Champa were close. They point to the fact that the Kings of Champa used ‘Varman’, from the time of King Bhadravarman I (380 to 418 CE) onward, in their name- much like the Pallavas in India.

In 731 CE the Pallava Empire was thrown into a tizzy when King Parameshvaravarman died without an heir. With the kingdom in turmoil, the nobles decided to turn for help, to the East. They selected a young boy, from among the king’s distant relatives ruling in Champa.

Little is known about the Pallavas themselves and their origins are obscure. Myths and theories abound. Theories connect them with early Chola kings. The Pallavas may have been rulers of Nagarjunakonda after the decline of the Ikshvaku dynasty. Historians point to the fact that all early Pallava texts were either in Sanskrit or Prakrit, to explain this.

Map depicting the journey of Nandivarman II
Map depicting the journey of Nandivarman II | Neha Parab

While the ‘origins’ remain a question, the general consensus among scholars is that the Pallavas were feudatories of the Satavahana Dynasty (1st century BCE – 2nd century CE) based in the Deccan and gained prominence after their decline. The Pallavas ruled large parts of Tamil and Telugu speaking regions for 600 years all the way up to the 9th century CE.

The most definitive information about the Pallavas is from the reign of King Simhavishnu (c. 575 – 600 CE) who established Kanchipuram as his capital. The copper plate found at Udayendiram in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu tells us about his conquests and how he patronised the arts. We also know that he was a great devotee of Vishnu and built several Vishnu temples. King Simhavishnu had a younger brother named Bhimavarman who travelled to South-East Asia and established a Kingdom there, probably in the area of present day Vietnam and Laos. The details of this kingdom are quite hazy.

Vo Cahn inscription
Vo Cahn inscription | Pinterest

While the Vo Cahn inscription found in Vietnam, does give important clues about the strong Pallava connection, sadly little else remains there. In the 1970s, a lot of the historic and cultural heritage of the Kingdom of Champa was destroyed when Americans carpet bombed Vietnam during the Vietnam War. With it was destroyed any memory of the descendants of Bhimavarman and their rule in Champa. The details of this kingdom are quite hazy.

In India, King Parameshvaravarman (728-731 CE) a descendant of Simhavishnu, ruled over the Pallava kingdom. However, he was killed in war by Chalukyan King Vikramaditya II in 731 CE. Since the king died without an heir, the delegation of nobles and military leaders was sent to the kingdom of Champa, where the distant relatives of Kanchi Pallavas ruled. A young boy named Pallavamalla was selected and crowned King Nandivarman II.

Vaikuntha Perumal temple at Kanchipuram | Wikimedia Commons

King Nandivarman II ruled the Pallava kingdom for the next 64 years. At the beginning of his rule, Nandivarman II was engaged in prolonged hostilities with the Pandyas. Being a minor, he owed his success majorly to his general Udayachandra. Later, the capital came under the attack of Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas, at different point of time. Though Nandivarman II was unable to stop the invaders, he always managed to re-conquer his kingdom managing to keep it intact during his long reign.

The greatest living legacy of Nandivarman II can be found in the many temples he commissioned including the Vaikuntha Perumal temple at Kanchipuram. Nandivarman died in 795 CE at the age of 78. He was succeeded by his son Dantivarman who went on to rule for the next 51 years.

Not much is known about what happened to the Champa branch of the Pallavas. There is very little on King Nandivarman II as well. However, the story of this boy who sailed from Vietnam and became King is an interesting anecdote that binds the history of India with that of Vietnam. God knows how many more such connections there are!