The Pallava dynasty’s architectural contributions left a lasting impact on South Indian temple architecture, influencing later dynasties and styles. Their unique blend of rock-cut and structural temple construction techniques, intricate sculptures, and emphasis on detailed ornamentation remain iconic features of South Indian temple architecture. Read here to learn more.
There was a major movement under Pallavas even before the imperial Cholas, and the art and architecture under Pallavas co-existed in South India along with Cholas, Chaukyas, and Pandyas. We shall see the prominent features of art and architecture of the Pallava dynasty in this article.
The Pallava dynasty existed between the 3rd and 9th centuries CE, ruling a portion of what is today Andra Pradesh (early Pallavas) and Tamil Nadu (later Pallavas).
You may note here for comparison that early Chalukyas ruled in present-day Karnataka. Kanchipuram was the capital of the Pallavas from the 4th to the 9th century. Huen Tsang had visited this city and wrote it a glorious city.
The Pallava architecture shows the transition from the rock-cut temples to the stone-built temples. The earliest examples of Pallava art are the rock-cut temples of the 7th century CE, while the later examples are structural temples built in the 8th and 9th centuries.
The lasting monolithic temples known as rathas and mandapas provided superb skill for sculptors of the Pallava period. The monolithic temples (e.g.: Five Rathas) gave way to structural temples like the Shore temple in Mammalapuram.
Major Pallava rulers who built temples
- Mahendravarman : Mandagapattu rock cut temple.
- Rajsimha (Narsimhamvaraman/Kalasamudra/Mammalla) : Kailasanathar Temple, Kanchipuram, Shore Temple Mahabalipuram (Mammallapuram)
Mantapas and pillars
The mandapas and pillars of rock-cut temples and ratha temples bear their distinctive characteristics.
The rock-cut temples of the Mamallapuram show the influence of Buddhist rock-cut caves. In ratha temples, some ratha follow the Buddhist Vihara model central square hall supported by a pillared roof. Some rates (Bhima, Sahadeva, Ganesh) follow the Chaitya model with an oblong shape bearing barrel roof and Chaitya Gabel.
Monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture
The Ratha temples or seven pagodas which are carved out in granite rock are the finest example of Indian monolithic rock-cut architecture.
The Pallava age shows the transition period from rock-cut to structural temples. The Ratha temples attempt to free themselves from the influence of rock-cut ‘Chaitya’ and ‘Vihara’. The structural detailing of the Ratha temples imitates wooden timber support and pilaster beams which are unnecessary in stone. This shows that they are not able to free totally from earlier wooden structured temples.
It is a symbolic window throughout which deities are believed to be looked out. It is found in the Chaitya arches that consist of deities below the crown of the entablature.
The base of Dravidian Sikhara
The square ground story with open verandas in Dharmaraja Rathas forms the initiation of the pyramidal square of Dravidian tradition. Pallava temples in Kanchi are prototypes of Vimana to be developed by the Cholas in the later period.
Base of Kalasa
In the pillars of the Mammalapuram group, above the Kumbha or melon capital ( a particular element in pillars that supports the below structure) a padma flares up to the palagai (abacus), and in Varaha mandapa, this flaring element is surrounded by thinnest abacus which later took the form of kalasa in Chola temples.
The base of pillars of some structural temples bears the architectural motif of a lion later depicted by Cholas and this symbol of the lion became the royal insignia of Pallavas.
In the facades of the walls, the Buddhist chaitya motif kudus is seen (later to be adopted by the Chalukya).
Decoration and ornamentation
The walls and pillars of cave temples and structural temples decorated with architectural designs are seen.
The pillars can be studied and understood as part of the three stages of development.
- First stage: This belongs to the pillars of rock-cut mandapa with 7 feet in height approximately. Here, brackets are seen towards the upper part of the pillar. Here, the pillar has a square shaft.
- Second stage: Here, pillars were around 50 feet in height with a more ornate design. It shows the combination of shaft and capital. The lion motif is seen in the base of the shaft as well as in the capital.
- Third stage: Here, pillars come under the mandapa of ratha temples. In this case, malasthana, a motif with the bend of a pearl festoon is seen in the shaft. It rises to the pillar separated by an indentive structure called kumbha or melon capital above which a padma flares up to the palagai or abacus.
The architectural design of one ratha in Mahabalipuram with a square hall along with a curvilinear, overhanging roof shows the influence of the traditional Bengali hut. It suggests that the origin of Dravidian shikhara has had its origin from the bamboo hut.
Beginning of gopura
The architecture of Gopura begins with the Pallava dynasty as the initiation is seen in the shore temple of Mahabalipuram.
Rock cut relief
The greatest sculptural development of the age is cutting out the cleft in Mamallapuram between the two huge granite boulders as descend of Ganga with the presence of gods, demi-gods, kinnar, etc. It is variously known as penance of arjuna, kiratarjunia, etc.
Influence of Amaravati school of art
In the relief of the Mahabalipuram, the shape of gods in the form of clouds shows the influence of Amaravati art.
Evidence of earliest portrait
In the Adivaraha cave, two portraits of a Pallava king accompanied by his son and queens are believed to be the earliest portrait sculpture after the Kushan images from Mathura.
Influence of Shaivism and Vaishnavishim
In the Varaha mandapa of Adivaraha cave, a panel showing Varaha lifting the earth goddesses is seen. The Brahma and Shiva are also sculpted around the main Varaha but in small size and disposition. In the panel of a Mahaballipuram cave, Durga as Korravai is depicted. Durga as Mahismardini is also a theme of the panel here.
The Descent of the Ganges /Arjuna’s Penance
The huge sculpture of “The Descent of the Ganges” also known as Arjuna’s Penance was related to the system of water supply. There are clear traces of a carefully designed system of water supply from the Palar River to the ancient city. The large cliff, thirty yards long and twenty-three feet high, represents naga and naginis which symbolize water, adoring both sides of deities along with animals.
The animal sculpture, especially the relief of the monkey below the descent of the Ganga, is a noticeable feature of Pallava art.
Importance of Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram
Shore Temple is a granite-made temple at Mahabalipuram built during the reign of Narsimhavarman. This group of temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the oldest structural temple (in contrast with rock-cut temples) in India.
It is a beautiful 5 storyed temple, which is a combined complex of 3 shrines; 2 dedicated to Shiva and one to Vishnu. The Shore Temple marks the culmination of the architectural efforts that began with the cave temples and monolithic rathas. 7 Pagodas is a term associated with the Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram. It is said that 6 more temples were associated with it, all now submerged in water. The term ‘ratha’ corresponds to free standing temples.
The Dravidian style of temple architecture began with the Pallava rule. It was a gradual evolution starting from the rock-cut- cave temples to monolithic rathas which finally culminated in structural temples.
The Pallava period was an age when architecture showed grandeur and beauty. The period is also known as the age of “poetry in stone”. The magnificent temple of Kailashnath, which is carved out in stone, bears the testimony of the period. The monolithic seven Pagodas or rathas named after Pandavas are architectural wonders, though sea erosion has taken its toll.
Possible questions for UPSC mains from this topic
- What does the huge sculpture ‘Decent of Ganges’ signify concerning the drainage system under the Pallava rule?
- There was a mutual exchange of architectural styles between the Pallavas and Chalukyas. Explain.
- What does the term ‘ratha’ mean in Hindu temple architecture? Trace the evolution of Hindu temple architecture.
- The mystery of the 7 pagodas is linked with the Pallava rule. Explain.
- Though Chola architecture represents a watermark in Dravidian architecture, the Pallavas were equally impressive. Critically analyze.
Sample question for UPSC prelims from this topic
Qn: Which among the following statements is true regarding Pallava architecture?
- Pallava art shows the influence of Amaravathi art.
- During Pallava rule, temples were mainly rock cut, and structural temples were absent.
- Most of the Pallava rulers were devotees of Vishnu.
- There is a marked Buddhist influence in Pallava temples.
A) 1 only.
B) 1 and 4 only.
C) 1, 3, and 4 only
D) All the above
Article contributed by: Samiran Saikia