Indian History Part 36: THE PALLAVA DYNASTY

Canberra, 7 Januray 2014


The Pallava dynasty originally ruled the Tondainadu dominions near Madras (Chennai) and were constantly on the lookout to increase their territorial holdings, at all times attempting to hold as much land as possible. This ambition clearly distinguishes the Pallavas from the three traditional dynasties of the Deep South—the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras—who more or less adhered to preconceived and agreed boundaries for their kingdoms. The capital of the Later Pandyas was Kanchi, also called Kanjeevaram, which was located inside Chola-mandalam the ancient territory of the Chola Empire. The obvious inference is that the Pallava kingdom overlay the power and territory of the Cholas, achieving this superior position through the use of violence. From available records it seems that the Pallavas were sort of freebooters, grabbing whatever they could, especially the territory of dynasties whose power was either waning and gradually loosing territorial control or going through some sort of internal turmoil.

The history of the Early Pallavas has already been recorded in the previous volume of this series, From Indus to Independence: Volume II, The Satavahanas to the Fall of the Guptas, pages 245-249, and covers the history of the Pallavas up to the 6th century.

From the mid-6th century, for the next 200 years the Pallavas were the dominant South Indian power with the other three dynasties having only subordinate status. The Pallava king, Simhavishnu Pallava recorded a boast in the last quarter of the 6th century that he had ‘vanquished the Pandyas, Cholas, and the Cheras as well as the ruler of Ceylon’. At the greatest spread of its territorial expansion, the Pallava kingdom encompassed the whole of Arcot, Chinglepet, Madras, Trichinapolly, and Tanjore districts and stretched from the Orissa frontier in the north to the River Pennar in the south. Its eastern border was the Bay of Bengal and in the west the kingdom bordered an imaginary line drawn through Salem, Bangalore and Berar. In the 7th century it attained the highset point in its power and fame. However, during the same period the Pallavas also lost the Vengi province to the Chalukyas, which was never recovered.

By the middle of the 9th century, Pallava power was in decline and the Cholas were ascendant. However, before being replaced by the Cholas, the Pallavas had transmitted the concept of the divine-king, or a ‘god-king’, across the eastern ocean to Fu-nan, which was already within the ambit of Indian cultural influence. Fu-nan fell to the Khmers around the same time as the decline of the Pallavas but the Khmers adopted the concept of divine kingship. King Yasovarman I (889-910) of Khamboj built the first Angkor capital based on the Indian concept of a ‘mountain temple’ with the Shiva-lingam at the centre. In addition to spreading Indian influence, the Pallavas’ claim to fame in history is the number of temples, monuments, and sculptures that they created. These structures are still visible and the Pallava rule is primarily remembered for them.

The Later Pallava Dynasty

Detailed information regarding the Later Pallavas is available from the Velurpalayam and Vayalar Plates. These Plates directly connect the Later Pallavas to the original dynasty. In some other sources there is also an oblique reference to a possible civil war after a brother of the heir apparent was given the northern districts to rule independently. However, there is no other corroborative confirmation of such a war. It is also mentioned that there were two branches of the dynasty (possibly following the same source as the civil war)—one ruling the Guntur and Nellore districts from Palakkada and the other ruling the southern districts from Kanchi. The Velurpalayam Plate mentions that Simhavishnu Pallava conquered Chola territory and that he was victorious against a confederation of all the Southern kings and chieftains. The dynastic records show that Simhavishnu from the Palakkada branch consolidated the two branches of the dynasty under his leadership. The consolidation of the dynastic holdings and the conquest indicates the rising power of the Pallavas. From this time onwards, till their decline, the Pallavas ruled as one dynasty.

The Velurpalayam Plate states, ‘He [Simhavishnu] seized the country of the Cholas embellished by the daughter of Kavira [i.e. the River Kaveri] whose ornaments are the forest of paddy [fields] and where [are found] brilliant groves of areca [palms]’.

From the book, The Pallavas, translated by VSS Dikshitiar, p. 16.

[The dates that are given in the following description of the Pallava dynasty must be considered approximate since different sources vary in providing the dates and are not common for the reign of successive kings. Therefore, the dates mentioned in this narrative could be ‘out’ by a few years on either side.]

The Pallava chronicles only provide the description of Simhavihsnu’s victory but not any details of his rule and then goes on to mention that his son Simhavarman ruled from around 560. Detailed information of Pallava rule starts with Mahendravarman I (600-625), the first king regarding whom precise information is available. He is given a number of Telugu titles further confirmation of the Telugu ancestry of the Pallavas. There is a strong possibility that his mother was a Vishnukundin princess which could account for the high level of Telugu influence demonstrated in Pallava art and architecture of this time.

The first victory attributed to Mahendravarman is at the Battle of Pullaluru (present day Pullalur) in the Chinglepet district. Although his adversary is not named in the record, it is highly likely that the defeated king was the Chalukya Pulakesin II. Subsequently Mahendravarman was defeated and had to cede his Northern provinces (Vengi) to the Chalukyas. He spent the majority of his rule in the Tamil country and was a patron of Tamil arts. It is recorded in Sekilar’s Peripuranam, published in its modern version in Madras in 1870, that Mahendravarman was initially a follower of Jainism but was converted to the Siva cult by Saint Appar. He also built a number of rock-cut temples in his kingdom. The village Mahendramangalam is in all probabilities named after him. The king was also an author of note as well as an acclaimed musician. He wrote two books in Sanskrit, the Mattavilasa-Prahasana, meaning ‘The Delight of the Drunkards’ and Bhagavadajjukiya, a farce depicting the religious revelries of Buddhist monks.

All available information point to Mahendravarman I being one of the greatest South Indian kings of all times. Militarily he was the counter-point to the offensive ambition of the Chalukyas; by converting to the Shaiva belief system he provided a new impetus to the building up of its dwindling fortunes; being himself an artist and a litterateur, he glorified the practice of poetry and music through his patronage; and he created the rock-cut temple structures, a concept that had its origins in the banks of the River Krishna and which the king imported from his ancestral Telugu lands to the banks of the Rivers Palar and Kavery in the Tamil South. This style of construction came to be subsequently named Pallava art. Further, his reign was relatively peaceful and he opened a new era of prosperity in an otherwise difficult age.

The Chinese pilgrim-traveller Hieun Tsang visited the Pallava capital Kanchipuram in 640, during the reign of Narasimhavarman I (625-685) who succeeded Mahendravarman. This king is credited with capturing the capital of the Chalukyas—Badami—in 642, and since this defeat is also recorded in the Chalukya chronicles, it is obviously the truth. The Kuram Plate provides further details of this conflict between the Chalukyas and the Pallavas. According to this Plate Narasimhavarman defeated the Chalukya king Pulakesin at Manimangala in Saidapet taluk of Chinglepet district about 20 miles from Kanchi, and subsequently vanquished him in the Battles of Pariyala and Surmara. Since one of the battles took place so close to the Pallava capital, it can be presumed that the Chalukyas were the invaders and initiators of this particular series of battles.

Despite this defeat, the Chalukyas invaded the Tamil country a second time and was again repulsed. This time however, the Pallavas took the fight to the enemy capital and destroyed Badamai completely, with Narasimhavarman assuming the title of Vatapikonda, the conqueror of Vatapi. [Badami is also referred to as Vatapi in some texts.] After this sacking of Badami, Narasimhavarman also called Mahamalla, erected a commemorative jayastambha, or victory column.

Around 660, after the defeat of the Chalukyas, Narasimhavarman turned his attention to Ceylon, the Sinhala island kingdom in the south. He used his navy to subdue the island and was assisted by the Ceylonese rebel prince Manavamma in this battle. The Ceylon king Hatha-datta II was killed in the encounter and Manavamma was consecrated as king by the Pallavas. The Ceylon chronicles record this episode and also mention the Pallava use of ships to mount the invasion. It is possible that Mammalapuram was the staging port for this maritime invasion. It is also around the same time that the carving of the famous ‘rathas’, or chariots, of Mahabalipuram (Mammalapuram) was started.

The Gadaval Plates were issued by Vikramaditya Chalukya Vallabha while he was camped in the Chola kingdom in preparation for the third major incursion into the Pallava kingdom. Paramesvaravarman (670-95) the ruling Pallava king initially managed to keep the Chalukya army at bay. However, in a decisive battle fought in 674, the Chalukyas were victorious and Paramesvaravarman escaped north to Andhra country, the original home of the Pallava dynasty. The Chalukya army marched through the heartland of the Pallava kingdom unmolested and captured the capital Kanchi. Vikramaditya celebrated his victory by inscribing the date and details of the capture of Kanchi at the base of the Kailasanatha temple there. Subsequently, in the long-drawn battle of Peruvallanattar, Paramesvaravarman put Vikramaditya to flight, forcing him to return to his own kingdom.

In the Pallava records, Paramesvaravarman is described as ‘Ugradanda, the destroyer of the city of Ranarasika’, obviously a reference to Vikramaditya who is referred in the Gadaval Plate as Ranarasika. Some sources maintain that this victory over the Chalukyas was orchestrated by a Confederacy of Tamil kings under the leadership of the Pallava king and that the Ceylon king Manvamma also took part in the battle. [This is possible since Manavamma was beholden to the Pallavas for placing him on the throne of his island kingdom after defeating the incumbent king.]

Paramesvaravarman was followed on the throne by Narasimhavarman II (695-728), surnamed Rajasimha, and the only Pallava king to have a long and peaceful reign. He was a great temple builder and is credited with extensive renovations of the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchi and building the shore temple in Mahabalipuram; the Panamalai temple; and the Airavatesvara temple in Kanchipuram. In 740, the then Pallava king Nandivarman (ruled 730-95) was decisively defeated by the Chalukya king Vikramaditya II. This defeat could be construed as the true beginning of the end of the Pallava dynasty.

Nandivarman had come to the throne as a minor, at the age of 12, and was only 22 when the Chalukyas set out to avenge their previous defeat at the hands of his grandfather. The war was initiated by the Chalukyas who achieved total surprise, arriving at the gates of Kanchi unexpectedly. The young king, who was left without any allies to call upon, fled to a fort leaving his capital unprotected—the Chalukya army captured Kanchi with ease and the Pallava kingdom was open to the invaders, left without protection. However, the Chalukyas did not annex the territory, but withdrew to their country with a sizeable booty. It is possible that they left a member of the Royal family as the de facto ruler of the Pallava territory, who acknowledged Chalukya suzerainty. The mention of one Chitramaya, as the Pallava king around this time gives credence to this story.

Nandivarman overthrew this Chalukya ruler and reclaimed his throne. However, he could not even attempt a revenge attack on the Chalukyas for his defeat, mainly for two reasons. One, the Pallava kingdom was by now a tired enterprise, war-weary and without the resources necessary to embark on a major campaign. Two, its southern borders were being constantly troubled by the harassment of the Pandyas whose growing power was becoming obvious. The southern incursions had to be countered through military might, leaving no spare capacity to plan or conduct a campaign against the Chalukyas. In combination, these two factors gradually brought the Pallava dynasty to a state of continuous decline. Nandivarman was followed on the throne by a number of ineffectual kings who continued to lose territory and ruled an ever-shrinking kingdom.

These kings were—Dantivarman (795-846) who lost most of the southern provinces to a Pandyan expedition; Nandivarman (846-69) who battled the Pandyan king for an extended period of time but ultimately lost the conflict; Kampavarman (870-85) of whose rule very little is recorded; and the last known Pallava king Aparajitavarman (888-903) who was overthrown by Aditya Chola. With this collapse, the Pallava dynasty became extinct. [It is perhaps a quirk of fate that the last Pallava king who was overthrown and whose ultimate fate remains unknown was named ‘Aparajita’, which in literal translation would mean ‘the one who cannot be defeated’. Perhaps the naming of the crown prince as someone who is invincible was wishful thinking on the part of his predecessor who must have seen the writing on the wall that the Pallavas were hurtling towards extinction.]

The final outcome of the 100-year war between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas was the ultimate destruction of both dynasties. The Chalukyas were an inherently aggressive dynasty, raising the ire of all their neighbours and therefore being continually at war. By the middle of the 8th century, their energy was sapped and they became prey to the equally aggressive and ambitious Rashtrakutas. The Pallavas, who had arrived on the scene about a century after the Chalukyas had established themselves, survived for another century after the demise of the Chalukyas but in a state of exhausted decline. They were no match for the Pandyan ambition and went under without a whimper.

The Builders of Mahabalipuram

The modern day Mahabalipuram was originally called ‘Kadal-mallai Talasayanam’ meaning ‘the mountain near the sea called Talasayanam’. It was a natural port and the first development of this place as a port dates to the pre-Pallava times. Mahendravarman laid the foundation that would make this sleepy coastal port the birth place of what is today considered quintessential South Indian architecture and sculpture. Narasinhavarman was the king who developed the place into a show piece of Pallava patronage and a demonstration of their dynastic power. He expanded the port and renamed it Mahamallapuram, after his own title of Mahamalla. [The name in colloquial usage first became Mammalapuram and then Mahabalipuram in recent times, although both the names are still use.] There is one shore temple, numerous cave temples, a number of rathas or chariots and a large number of rock sculptures that survive to this day. The shore temple, the only structured building, is the earliest model of a purely Dravidian temple-form. The rest are cut from monoliths in situ and together create a complex of shrines and monuments.

In all there are four fully finished cave temples and numerous rock sculptures, most of which are large, life-size panels of religious importance. The five rathas are carved out of living rock and are called the ‘Pandava Rathas’. The term ratha for these structures is misleading and of recent origin. Actually they are shrines or temples with each of the five being individual temples, different from one another. The rathas have been named after the Pandavas of Mahabharata. The Dharmaraja Ratha is modelled on the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram and is obviously dedicated to Shiva; the Bhima Ratha has a wagon roof very similar to the one found in Sanchi and visibly demonstrates the Buddhist architectural influence in its construction; the Arjuna Ratha is also dedicated to Shiva and resembles the first; and the Sahadeva Ratha is a model of a temple reproducing the ancient Buddhist Chaitya. The fifth, the Draupadi Ratha, is the most original and a masterpiece of Pallava art.

More than being the primary port of the Pallava kingdom as mentioned in the tome Mahavamsa, Mahabalipuram is of immense architectural importance. It demonstrates the different stages of development of stone-building in the Tamil country and also that sculpture advanced in parallel. It also clearly shows the Telugu influence on Tamil construction technique, harking back to the origins of the great Pallava dynasty.


The Pallavas were absolute monarchs when they ruled and prided on being ‘dharma-maharajas’, righteous great kings. Their administration was remarkably similar to that established by contemporary kingdoms—the lowest level of administration being the Sabha at the village level; provinces being administered by governors called ‘Vyapritas’; and the king being assisted by a council of ministers appointed by him. While the reign of the Pallavas can at best be considered a brief interlude in the history of South India and of very limited and only indirect consequence in the broader sweep of Indian history, they left behind a remarkable legacy of architecture that is even today on display. Perhaps it is not the records numerous victorious battles, conquests and annexations that matter in the long term but the culture and beauty that you leave behind for posterity, which over a period of time transform into monuments of dynastic achievement.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “Indian History Part 36: THE PALLAVA DYNASTY”

  1. Sir could you put some light on what factors led to the decline of the Pallavas?

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