In southern India, the journey from Puducherry to Chennai is without question one of the most pleasurable travel experiences to be found in all of south Asia. The biggest highlight of this trip lies in the scattered ruins of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the remnants of a once-mighty empire that influenced the Indian psyche and much of South-East Asia. All the Mahabalipuram structures are the work of the Pallava dynasty (275 AD to 897 AD), who started temple building with rock-cut structures and then moved on to individual temple buildings. The Pallava dynasty created the architectural style that has made south Indian temple architecture so unique and famous around the world today.
While visiting Mahabalipuram a few years back, I was simply astounded by the geometry of the famous Shore Temple architecture. The Shore Temple is the only surviving temple that is completely “intact,” while the other six original temples of the site are not in great condition. These seven temples were called the Seven Pagodas by European colonists in India.
In addition to the Pallava dynasty’s influence on temple architecture in Southern India, the Pallavas were influential and important in other areas. It is said that the early Pallava script provided the basis for the later Grantha script, which spread across South East Asia and influenced the written languages in other cultures.
The Pallava script, which was influential in various parts of South Asia. (Dekoelie / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Pallavas, more than any other Indian empire , were also known for having the most frequent trade interactions and contacts with Southeast Asia . And Mahabalipuram was specifically developed as a coastal trading town that would focus on regional trade and commerce. Through maritime trade and commerce, the cultural strengths of the Pallavas reached and influenced many cultures in the region.
The Early Origins Of The Pallava Dynasty Are Unclear
The origin of the Pallava dynasty is obscure. Many stories about their origins exist but Indian mythology is probably the best place to begin. In Indian mythology, the Mahabharata warrior Ashwathamma had a descendant who married a Naga princess. Their union resulted in the birth of a son who may have become the grand patriarch of the Pallavas. There is also mention of Simhavarman who came into prominence from in the early years of Pallava dynasty. Though he might not have been their first leader.
However, practically, the Pallava dynasty existed from around the late 3 rd century or early 4 th century AD to the 8 th century AD. And the peak of their power and influence was from the 6 th century AD onwards. Ultimately, the Pallava empire reached its peak under their monarch Simhavishnu. Initially, they might have been a minor clan or a feudal territory of some other Indian dynasty, which, as the map below shows, included many nearby powerbases.
India in the 7th century AD was divided into many “empires and dynasties” and the Pallavas were only one of them. (Talessman at English Wikipedia / CC BY 3.0 )
One other Pallava origin story is worth noting. Due to the similarity between the words Pallavas and Pahlavas (Iran), some scholars argue that the Pallavas are descendants of the Parthians who descended from West-Central Asia to North-West India and eventually to the south of the Indian sub-continent. In her work, the historian Romila Thapar has stated that this connection is improbable. The name Pallava was likely derived from the Sanskrit word “pallava,” meaning a new tree leaf or twig.
The Rise Of The Pallava Dynasty Is Historically Much Clearer
The rise of the Pallava dynasty in history is synonymous with the rise and fall of that part of India, namely the Deccan sultanates south of the Vindhyas. The Deccani rose to prominence after the Gupta Empire peaked and consequently vanished into the sands of time.
In the aftermath of the Gupta and Deccani empires, the Vakatakas, a feudal state of the Guptas, initially rose to power and then gave away to the Chalukyas who were centered in Vatapi (known as the Badami in modern times).
However, towards the end of the 6 th century AD, Simhavishnu defeated the Kalabhras of the Tamil region and this was truly the beginning of the rise of the Pallava dynasty. The Tamil or Tamilaham region lies on the southwestern border of what became the Pallava empire.
The victory of Simhavishu over the Kalabhras was well described the famous historian, KA Nilakanta Shastri:
“There was a political confusion in the South centered on the Tamil country towards the end of the 6 th century CE, which were checked by two new growing monarchs of that time – Simhavishnu of the Pallavas and Kadungon of the Pandyas. Both these kingdoms had their capitals at Kanchi and Madurai respectively. Simhavishnu defeated the Kalabhras and also conquered a region till Kaveri and hence came into conflict with the Pandyas and the then monarch of Ceylon.”
A portrait in stone of the first known ruler of the Pallava dynasty, Simhavishnu. (Dr. Michael Rabe / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Despite the unclear origins of the Pallavas, history is clear about the victory and ascent of these people and their empire from Simhavishnu’s rule onward. He was also called Avanisimha and he probably ruled between c. 575 to 600 AD.
The Constant Battle With The Chalukyas And The Pandyas
The entire saga of the Pallavas empire in Indian history is a triangular story that always involved the Chalukyas of Badami and the Pandyas of Madurai.
- The Badami Chalukyas: An Indian Dynasty Spanning Over 200 Years
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When Mahendravarman I, the son of Simhavishnu, took over from his father he proved to be a most able ruler. He was a man of many qualities and a powerful patron of architecture, art and literature, during his time. And during his reign the prestige and strength of the Pallavas rose rapidly but not without attack from outside forces.
The empire of the Chalukyas at their peak, which also included a fair bit of the Pallava empire. (Kaja.Bhanu7 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
During Mahendravarman I’s rule the power of Chalukyan King Pulakesi II was on the ascent. He was known for rampaging over his enemies (including the great Harshavardhana). And it was inevitable that Pallava Mahendravarman I and King Pulakesi II would come into conflict.
Pulakesi’s ambition knew no bounds and he swiftly attacked Mahendravarman I with a huge army. Though the Pallava king could save his capital Kanchi, he lost some of his territories to the north of his kingdom. But this did not satisfy Pulakesi.
He therefore made another expedition into the heart of the Pallava country with his army. But in the meantime, Mahendravarman I had died and his son, Narasimhavarman I, was on the throne.
Luckily, Narasimhavarman I was one of the greatest Pallavas of all time. He was also known as Mahamalla or Mamalla, which means “great wrestler.” Narasimhavarman I also equally shared his father’s love for art and architecture and hence built the famous temple town of Mamallapuram, which was probably named after his nickname.
Pallava coin during the reign of Narasimhavarman I. Left side: A Lion. Ride side: The name of Narasimhavarman I surrounded by solar and lunar symbols. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Rule Of The Great Narasimhavarman I
Under Narasimhavarman I, the Pallavas were able to defeat Pulakesi in key battles. This was especially true of the fight that took place at Manimangala, east of Kanchipuram. This Manimangala victory boosted Narasimhavarman I’s confidence. And he decided to win back the territories in the north lost by his father.
Narasimhavarman I didn’t hesitate and in quick succession he regained those northern territories and, what’s more, conquered Vatapi (Badami), the capital of the Chalukyas. After taking Vatapi, he made himself the lord of the people of Chalukyas with the title of Vatapikonda, which means the conqueror of Badami.
During these battles, Pulakesi II probably died fighting the forces of the Pallavas. However, after some years, a Chalukya by the name of Vikramaditya I rose to power and drove the Pallavas out of his capital and territory.
In the meantime, since a Sri Lankan prince by the name of Manavarma had apparently assisted the Pallava monarch in his campaigns against the Chalukyas, and the Pallava monarch had to get involved in their politics. On his triumphant return to Kanchi, Narasimhavarman I sent two expeditions to Sri Lanka to help Manavarma in his campaigns, with the second one being successful.
According to the historian KA Nilakanta Shastri, some Pallava records showed that Narasimhavarman I comprehensively vanquished the Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas and Kalabhras during his reign. However, no records of these battles exist. Strangely enough, the great Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited these parts of India during the reigns of both Narasimhavarman I, and Pulakesi II and described them with the highest regard in his writings.
Kailasanathar Temple at Kanchipuram is one of the finest temples built by Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. (anghifoto / Adobe Stock )
Narasimhavarman I died in the year 668 CE. His son Mahendravarman II took over the throne and in his short reign, he too came into conflict with the Chalukyan Vikramaditya I. Mahendravarman II’s son Paramesvaravarman I came to power following his father’s death in c. 670 CE.
The Peaceful, Rich Reign Of Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha
Around this time, Vikramaditya I of the Chalukyas was still trying to avenge the losses of his father, Pulakesi II. And he marched his armies to the edge of Kanchi, which resulted in Paramesvaravarman I fleeing his capital for a safer location.
However, the Pallava monarch was not running away: he was retreating. From his exile, he gathered a considerable force and after some skirmishes here and there, he met the invading army of the Chalukyas at the now famous battle of Peruvalanallur. In spite of the Chalukyas coalition of soldiers from many forces, Paramesvaravarman I defeated them overwhelmingly.
After that, Paramesvaravarman I continued his rule from Kanchi and, later on, was succeeded by his son Narasimhavarman II. Due to his fame he is better known by the title of Rajasimha. The reign of Rajasimha was long and very prosperous. He is considered to be one of the greatest Pallava monarchs of all time. He was also a great patron of art, architecture and literature.
During Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha’s peaceful and prosperous reign, he commissioned the construction of several temples, some of them remain as stunning examples of southern Indian architecture. The most notable of his temples are the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram and the Kailashnathar Temple at Kanchipuram.
The famous Shore Temple near Mahabalipuram, which was commissioned by Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha. (Alisa / Adobe Stock )
Now Nandivarman II Of A Parallel Royal Line Takes The Throne
Rajasimha was succeeded by his son Paramesvaravarman II, whose reign was a humiliating period for the Pallava Dynasty. After his ascension, the Chalukyan King Vikramaditya II attacked Paramesvaravarman II by invading Kanchi. Paramesvaravarman II was defeated and had to buy peace at a huge price. Later on, when he tried to avenge this defeat by attacking the Chalukyas, he was defeated and killed.
Paramesvaravarman II died without leaving an heir and this led to a succession crisis in the Pallava kingdom. So, the royal officials selected somebody by the name of Nandivarman II from a parallel royal family line. Nandivarman II was a boy when this responsibility came upon him. But later on, he too was attacked by the Chalukyan Vikramaditya II.
Though the Chalukyas again defeated the Pallava monarch and regained control over Kanchi, Vikramaditya II did not harm its citizens. He also did not destroy any property and returned all the jewels and gold that had been taken from rich temples.
However, Nandivarman II proved himself to be an able general later on when he attacked the Chalukya ally Ganga Sripurusha and defeated him in battle, thereby regaining much wealth and territory.
The Vaikunta Perumal Temple in Kanchi was likely built originally by Nandivarman II. His son Dantivarman then succeeded him. Though Dantivarman ruled for many years, his reign also saw the gradual decline of the Pallava dynasty. In the words of historian KA Nilakanta Shastri:
“Pallava Dantivarman during his fairly long reign was unable to resist the aggression of the Pandyas from his South or even hold his own against the rising Rashtrakuta Dynasty to his North.”
However, the next Pallava king, Nandivarman III, proved himself to be a much better military leader than his father. He drove the Pandyas back to their original country by allying with the Rashtrakutas and the Gangas.
Nandivarman III experienced one final, minor defeat by the Pandya monarch at Kumbakonam. Nandivarman III’s son, Nripatunga, succeeded him to the throne.
Nripatunga avenged the defeat of his father at Kumbakonam by inspiring his army to achieve a massive victory against the Pandya dynasty on the banks of a branch of the River Kaveri.
The last ruler of the Pallava dynasty was probably Aparajitavarman. Thus, we come to the end of the Pallava empire and dynasty, which left its mark all over southern Asia.
Top image: Elephants carved in rock at Mamallapuram, the first area of amazing temples built by the Pallava dynasty in south-eastern India. Source: pikoso.kz / Adobe Stock
Romila Thapar – The Penguin History of Early India – From the Origins to AD 1300.
Sastri, K. A. Nilakanta – History of South India – From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar.
John Keay – India – A History.