Pallavas of Kanchi


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Prelims: India History

Mains India Culture-Salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times.

Emergence of Pallavas of Kanchi

  • Simhavishnu defeated Kalabhras and inaugurated the rule of imperial Pallavas.
  • The Pallavas rose to power during the reign of Mahendravarman and Narasimhavarman-I. 
  • Throughout their reign, they were in constant conflict with the Chalukyas of Vatapi in the north and the Tamil kingdoms of Cholas and Pandya in the south. 
  • Region: The Pallavas established their authority over south Andhra Pradesh and north Tamil Nadu, with the capital at Kanchi.
  • Kanchi: Under them became an important temple town and a centre of trade and commerce.






Pallavas of Kanchi - Rulers and their Contributions

Period: 575- 897 AD

Capital: Kanchi

  • Pallavas are noted for their patronage of Hindu temple architecture.
  • By the time of Pallavas, south India was contested by the other two kingdoms of Chalukyas of Badami and Pandyas of Madurai.

Simhavishnu (575-590 AD)

  • The real founder of the Pallava dynasty.
  • Rise: Defeating Kalabhras inaugurated the rule of imperial Pallavas.
  • Royal Titles: Avanisimha (lion of the Earth) and Simhavishnupottarayan.
  • Bharavi: Court poet.
    • Wrote Kirat Arjuneeya (Duel between Siva and Arjuna).

Mahendravarman I

(600-630 AD)

  • Under him, the Pallavas became a major political power.
  • Titles: 
    • Mattavilasa-  Addicted to pleasures
    • Chitrakarapuli- Tiger among the painters
    • Lalitankura- Charming offspring 
    • Gunabhara- Virtuous
    • Chattakari- Temple builder, and 
    • Vichitrachitta- Curious-minded.
  • Battle of Pullalur, AD 618-19: Killed by Chalukyan King Pulakesin II.

Art, Architecture, and Literature under Mahendravarman I

  • Tamil literature: flourished under his rule
    • For example, Appar and Sambandhar wrote Tevaram.
  • Mattavilasa Prahasana (Sanskrit satire): Written by Mahendravarman I.
  • Mahendra Style: He added a new style to Dravidian architecture.
  • Bhagwatajjukam (Satire): Written by Bodhayan. 
    • King Mahendravarman mentioned this on a stone inscription in Mamandur along with his own Mattavilas Prahasan.
  • Monuments at Mamallapuram: Those dedicated to Shiva were constructed under his rule.

Narsimhavarman I (630-668 AD)

  • He is considered the greatest Pallava ruler. 
  • He took the title of Mamalla (great warrior).
  • Vatapikonda: He defeated and killed Chalukyan ruler Pulakesin II and destroyed the Chalukyan capital Vatapi. He took the title Vatapikonda (conqueror of Vatapi).
  • Mahabalipuram: It was a Port city founded by Narsimhavarman I.
  • Seven Ratha Temple under his reign.
  • Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas also suffered defeat at his hands. 
  • Ceylon Invasion: He invaded Ceylon (Sri Lanka) twice to help Manavamma, an exiled Ceylonese prince who had come to him seeking his support in securing the throne of Ceylon.
  • Hsuen Tsang: The Chinese traveller visited Kanchipuram in 642 CE during his reign.

Narsimhaavarman II (Rajamalla) (695-722 AD)

  • Peaceful Reign: The reign of Narsimhaavarman II was peaceful as battles between Chalukyas and Pallavas came to a halt.
  • He sent embassies to China.
  • He is credited with the construction of Shore Temple and Kailashnath Temple.


Art and Architecture under Pallavas of Kanchi

  • Dravidian Style: Rock-cut architecture laid the foundation for the Dravidian style of architecture in south India. The Pallavas are credited with the introduction of this style. 
  • Evolution: Pallava architecture progressively evolved from rock-cut temples to monolithic rathas, and finally, it gave way to structural temples.
  • The evolution of Pallava architecture can be divided into four different stages or styles, viz. Mahendra Style, Mamalla Style, Rajasimha Style, Nandivarman Style.
  • Influence of Pallava Architecture: It influenced Southeast Asian temple architecture.

Mahendravarman style of Architecture

  • The Pallava architecture began from the time of Mahendravarman I.
  • It did not use bricks, iron, lime, wood, etc.
  • Temples built in the Mahendravarman style of Architecture were termed ‘Mandapas’. These Mandapas were the pillared Varandas which consisted of Garbhagirha at the end.
  • Examples:
    • Rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram.
    • Trimurti Mandapa of Mandaggapattu.
    • Panchapandava Mandapa of Pallvaram.
    • Mahendravishnu Mandapa of Mahendravadi.
    • Lalitankur Pallavaveshwar Griha Mandapa of Trichinapalli.

Mamalla style of Architecture

  • Two styles of temples can be seen in the Mamalla style of architecture: Mandapas and Rathas.
  • The Mandapas are more ornamental, with pillars built on lions' heads. 
    • Examples: Varaha Mandapa, Mahisasur Mandapa, and Pancha Pandava Mandapa, etc.
  • The second component of the Mamalla style of architecture was the free-standing monolithic shrines called ‘Rathas’ (chariots) built of granites which were constructed alongside pillared halls.
    • Western architects call these rathas ‘Seven Pagodas’ or ‘Seven Rathas’ as they are seven in number.
  • Examples:
    • Draupadi Ratha.
    • Dharmaraja Ratha. 
    • The Bhim Ratha 
    • Ganesha Ratha.

Rajasimha style of Architecture

  • Rajasimha style of Architecture began under the reign of Narsimhavarman II.
  • Temples were built using bricks, wood, stones, etc. 
  • Examples:
    • Ishwariya temple.
    • Mukunda temple.
    • The Shore temple of Mahabalipuram.
    • The Kailasha temple of Kanchi.
    • Vaikunthaperumal temple.

Nandivarman style of Architecture

  • Pallava architecture began to decline once the Rajasimha style of architecture declined.
  • The temples of this style were comparatively smaller in size, less ornamented, and lacked innovation
  • Examples:
    • Mukteshawara temple
    • Matangeshwara temple of Kanchi.





Temples and Structures under Pallavas of Kanchi

Shore Temple (Mahabalipuram)

  • Architectural creations that were initiated by King Narasimhavarman II.
  • Called Seven Pagodas by Marco Polo and European Travellers.
  • Difference from Dharmaraja Ratha: It is a structural temple and not a rock-cut one. 
  • Built with blocks of granite.
  • The temple is a combination of three shrines. 
    • The main shrine is dedicated to Shiva, as is the smaller second shrine.
    • A small third shrine is dedicated to a reclining Vishnu.
  • Lion Monolith: 
    • Partly carved and partly sculpted lion.
    • A miniature image of Durga is sculpted on the back of the image, depicting Durga as Mahishasuramardini. 
    • The open mouth of the lion is inferred as a representation of its role as the favourite lion.
  • A UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • The architecture of the Shore Temple was continued by the Cholas (in the temples they built), who ruled Tamil Nadu after defeating the Pallavas.

Kailashnath Temple (Kanchipuram)

(Along Vedavati River

  • It was Built by Narasimhavarman II shortly after the construction of Shore Temple in the 8th century A.D. 
  • Kailashnath Temple is more extensive in dimensions as compared to the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram..
  • It is situated in a rectangular courtyard surrounded by a peristyle compos, noncontinuous series of cells resembling rathas.
  • It is the biggest sandstone temple in the world.
  • The foundation of this temple is made of granite.
  • The main shrine (sanctum sanctorum) has 16-sided Shivalinga made in black granite. 
  • There are two sculptures of Shiva here, which are seen holding the alapini veena (musical string instrument).
  • Unique Feature: 58 devakulikas (mini-shrines) that run around the main temple. 
    • Frescoes that portrayed scenes from the Sivalila and sculptures of Uma Mahesvara, Parvati, Ganapati, and Kartikeya, among others. 
    • The inscriptions in Pallava grantha on the temple walls include the various titles of Narasimhavarman II, such as Rajasimhan, Ajiranakanta, Srithara, Ranathira, and Kshatriya Simhesvara.

Seven Ratha Temple

  • It was built under Narsimhavarman I.
  • It transitions between the earlier tradition of rock-carved cave temples and the later tradition of freestanding stone structures.
  • It attempted to imitate free-standing stone construction in the living rock.
  • The structural detailing of the Ratha temples carefully imitates wooden timber supports, pilasters, beams, and brackets.

Vaikunth Perumal Temple

  • It is the biggest sandstone temple built in the post-Rajasimha period.
  • It was built by Paramesvaravarman alias Nandivarman II (736-796 A.D.) and is dedicated to Vishnu. 
  • Chaturasa tri-tala (three-storeyed square): Functional vimana to enshrine Vishnu in three forms, standing (sthanaka), sitting (asana), and reclining (sayana). 
  • Alvars have praised the temple as Paramesvara Vinnagaram.
  • The most significant feature: Depiction of Nandivarman II ascending the throne. 
  • There is a sculpture of a visiting Chinese pilgrim too.

The Descent of the Ganges (Mahabalipuram)

  • is also called “Arjuna’s Penance”.
  • It captures the story of the descent of river Ganga to earth.
  • The penance of the sage Bhagiratha, sometimes believed to be Arjuna, brought it to earth.
  • Shiva is shown controlling the fury of the descending river through his hair locks.
  • The panel is also shown in the Kailashnath temple at Kanchipuram.

Arts under Pallavas of Kanchi

  • The Pallava kings also patronised fine arts.
  • The Kudumianmalai and Thirumayam music inscriptions show their interest in music. 
  • Musical instruments: Yaazhi, Mridhangam, and Murasu were some of the musical instruments.
  • Both Mahendravarman I and Narasimhavarman I were music experts. 
  • The temple sculptures of the Pallava period reveal that the art of dance was popular in those days. 
  • The paintings at Chittannavasal illustrate the nature of Pallava painting.
  • Mahendravarman was known as Chittirakkarapuli. 







Literature Under Pallavas of Kanchi

  • Nature: The literature during the period of the Pallavas was both religious and secular but primarily religious. 
  • Language: Both Sanskrit and Tamil literature flourished during this time. 
    • The court of the Pallava rulers granted royal patronage to Sanskrit literature.
    • Mahendravarman I was the author of Mattavilasa Prahasanam, a satirical play in Sanskrit, and Bhagavadajjuka.
  • Impetus: Tamil literature received an impetus with the growth of the Bhakti movement. 
  • Dandin:  Adorned the court of the Pallava king Narsimhavarman II. He wrote Dashakumaracharita and Avantisundarikatha in Sanskrit.
  • Kanchipuram: It was an important center of Sanskrit learning. Mayur Sarman, the founder of the Kadamba dynasty, studied the Vedas at Kanchipuram.
  • The Alvar and the Nayanmar: The devotional compositions enriched the Bhakti and Tamil literature because these were written in Tamil, expressing the philosophy of Bhakti. 
  • Nalariya Divya Prabandham: The most significant work of the Vaishnavite saints. It consisted of 4,000 Tamil verses and was written by 12 Alvars. 
    • It is also known as the Dravida Veda or the Fifth Veda.
  • Tirumurai: It was regarded as the major Shaivite canonical text. It has 12 books. The 1st seven are called Tevaram, written by the three important Nayanmar saints- Sundarar, Sambandar and Appar.


Administration under Pallavas of Kanchi

  • Monarchy: Under Pallavas, the monarchy was the order of the day. The title “Dharma-Maharaja” was assumed by the kings.
  • Division: The Pallava state was divided into Kottams. The Kottam was administered by officers appointed by the king. 
  • Village Administration (basic administration unit): The village administration was run by various local autonomous assemblies. Sabha, Urar, etc., were the most popular assemblies of this period. 
    • Every village had got a court of justice, viz. Dharamasasana.
  • Miniature Republics: Every village had professional servants like potters, weavers, carpenters, smiths, etc. It appears that the village acted like self-sufficient miniature republics in the Pallava period. 
  • Local Autonomy: Administration by local autonomous institutions appears to be a significant feature of the Pallava polity.


Society and Religion under Pallavas of Kanchi

  • Buddhism and Jainism: Both were still very active in the Pallava kingdom.
  • Most of the Pallava kings were followers of both Vaishnavism and Saivism. 
  • Followers of Veda: The Pallava kings assumed not only the title “Dharma-Maharaja‟ and performed Vedic sacrifices. Thus Buddhism and Jainism lost royal patronage and mass support.
  • Bhakti Movement: From the 7th century onwards, the Nayanars and Alvars contributed to the growth of Saivism and Vaishnavism. This is known as the ‘Bhakti Movement’.
  • Adi Shankaracharya: The Vedic tradition was further reinforced by a movement started by Adi Sankaracharya. He advocated the Advaita philosophy


Economy under Pallavas of Kanchi

  • Major Source of Income: Land revenue was the primary source of income. 
  • Taxes: The Pallavas also levied taxes on professions, marriages, manufacture of salt, sugar, and textiles, draught cattle, etc.
  • Agriculture: It is evident from the testimony of Hsuen Tsang that the people were very hard working and the soil was very fertile, the labourers who did agricultural work were paid in kind.
  • Land Grants: The creation of the Brahmadeya villages started during the Pallava period. 
  • Trade and Commerce: The barter system of trade was generally prevalent. Later, the Pallavas issued gold and silver coins, which resulted in the expansion of commerce. 
    • The merchants had also formed their own organisations called Manigramam.
  • Eripatti (Tank Lands): These were the lands donated by individuals, the revenue from which was set apart for the maintenance of the village tank.


Decline of Pallavas of Kanchi

  • After Narsimhavarman, the Pallava dynasty started to decline.
  • The Chalukyan army invaded the Pallava Kingdom and plundered the capital Kanchipuram.
  • Their continuous wars with Chalukyas and Pandyas made them weak.
  • With the defeat of Aparajitavarman, the last King of the Pallava dynasty, by the Chola king, the Pallavas declined.


 Previous Year Questions (PYQs)



Q) Evaluate the nature of the Bhakti Literature and its contribution to Indian culture. (2021)

Q) Assess the importance of the accounts of the Chinese and Arab travellers in the reconstruction of the history of India. (2018)

Q) How do you justify the view that the level of excellence of the Gupta numismatic art is not at all noticeable in later times? (2017)




Q) In the context of the history of India, consider the following pairs:

       Term :   Description

1.  Eripatti:    Land, revenue from which was set apart for the maintenance of the village tank

2. Taniyurs:   Villages donated to a single Brahmin or a group of Brahmins

3. Ghatikas:  Colleges generally attached to the temples

Which of the pairs given above is/are correctly matched?

  • a) 1 and 2
  • b) 3 only
  • c) 2 and 3
  • d) 1 and 3



Q) The Nagara, the Dravida and the Vesara are the

(a) three main racial groups of the Indian subcontinent

(b) three main linguistic divisions into which the languages of Indian can be classified

(c) three main styles of Indian temple architecture

(d) three main musical Gharanas prevalent in India

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


Q) With whom Pallavas had flourishing trade?

Pallava rulers converted Mamallapuram as the gateway for exports and imports from South East Asian countries, including China, and thus had flourishing trade with these countries.


Q) Who were Alvars and Nayanars?

Alvars were the famous Tamil Poet Saints of South India, also called Azhwars. They praised the Hindu Supreme God Vishnu and his Avatar Krishna with their own composed songs. On the other hand, Nayanars praised the Hindu God Shiva.