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Pallava Art and Architecture

Pallava Art

Pallava Art and Architecture mark an early phase of Dravidian art and building design, reaching its pinnacle during the Chola Dynasty. The initial stone and mortar temples in South India were constructed under the Pallava rule, inspired by older brick and timber structures. The Pallava kings were enthusiastic patrons of the arts and construction, credited with introducing the Dravidian architectural style. Temple design evolved during their era, transitioning from rock-cut temples to standalone structures. This article explores the key facets of Pallava Art and Architecture, shedding light on the Pallava Dynasty’s significant role in shaping the artistic and architectural landscape of South India.

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Pallava Dynasty

  • The Pallava Dynasty, a powerful Indian monarchy that thrived from 275 CE to 897 CE, played a significant role in shaping the cultural and architectural landscape of southern India. Initially serving as feudatories under the Satavahana Dynasty, the Pallavas rose to prominence after the overthrow of their predecessors. Mahendravarman I (571–630 CE) and Narasimhavarman I (630–668 CE) were key figures in the dynasty, marking a period of flourishing creativity.
  • One of the iconic legacies of Pallava patronage is the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Pallavas were instrumental in developing medieval South Indian architecture, leaving a lasting impact with their intricate statues and temples. They not only constructed cave and structural temples but also contributed to the study of art, laying the foundation for the two prominent forms of architecture – rock-cut and structural.
  • Mahabalipuram stands as a testament to Pallava artistic endeavors, showcasing monolithic rathas and stone carvings depicting legendary themes. Notable examples of Pallava art and architecture include the Kailasanathar Temple in Kanchipuram, the Shore Temple, and the Pancha Rathas of Mahabalipuram. During this era, the renowned sculptor Akshara emerged as a master of his craft, leaving behind a rich legacy that endured for nearly 600 years until the end of the ninth century.


During this time of religious revival, people got really into architecture. The Pallavas were like the rockstars of Indian architecture and art. They basically kickstarted the whole Dravidian architectural vibe in southern India. It’s like they went from cool cave temples to these awesome monolithic Rathas and finally ended up with these solid structure temples. They were basically the trendsetters of their time!

  • The Pancha Pandava Rathas (Rock-cut Rathas), also known as the Five Rathas, in Mamallapuram have five distinct architectural styles.
  • The outstanding examples of Pallava structural temples are the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchi and the Shore temple in Mamallapuram. The Kailasanatha temple is the greatest architectural achievement of Pallava art.
  • The Pallavas contributed to the development of sculpture as well. The Mandapas’ walls are adorned with lovely sculptures.
  • A masterwork of classical art is the sculpture at Mamallapuram that shows the “Descent of the Ganges or the Penance of Arjuna.” Under the Pallavas’ patronage, the arts of music, dance, and painting had all blossomed.
  • The Sittannavasal caves’ paintings originate from the Pallava era.

Pallava Architecture

Pallava architecture can be sub-divided into two phases:

The Rock Cut Phase

During the rock-cut phase, which spanned from 610 to 668 AD, two significant sets of monuments were created—the Mahendra group and the Mamalla group.

Mahendra Group (610 – 630 AD):
  • Under the rule of Mahendravarman I, the Mahendra group emerged, featuring monuments primarily consisting of pillared halls carved into mountain faces.
  • These pillared halls, resembling Jain temples of that era, showcase intricate craftsmanship.
  • Notable examples of Mahendra group structures include the cave temples in Mamandur, Pallavaram, and Mandagapattu.
Mamalla Group (630 – 668 AD):
  • The Mamalla group, dating from 630 to 668 AD, introduced a different style of rock-cut monuments.
  • In addition to pillared halls, this phase saw the construction of free-standing monolithic shrines known as rathas.
  • The Pancha Rathas and Arjuna’s Penance at Mahabalipuram exemplify the unique architectural style of the Mamalla group during this period.

Structural Phase

  • Back in the day (690 to 900 AD), people were really into building these cool free-standing shrines using fancy stones and mortar. The Rajasimha group (690 to 800 AD) and the Nandivarman group were all about it.
  • The Pallavas were like architectural trailblazers when it came to their early temples. They went all out with experimentation, especially in the Rajasimha group. The Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram and the Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple in Kanchipuram, thanks to Narasimhavarman II (aka Rajasimha), are like the rockstars of this era.
  • If you want to see the Nandivarman group’s masterpiece, check out the Vaikunta Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram. It’s like their crowning glory.
  • The Cholas were big fans of Pallava architecture. The Brihadeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, and other awesome structures were basically inspired by the Pallavas, who were killing it in the architectural game during that time.

Characteristics of Pallava Architecture

During the era from A.D. 600 to 900, the Pallava dynasty showcased diverse architectural styles across two distinct periods.

  1. Rock-Cut Marvels (A.D. 610-640):
    • Mahendra Group: In the seventh century, the Pallava dynasty initiated its architectural journey with fully rock-cut creations under the reign of Mahendra.
    • Mamalla Group: Following Mahendra, the period from A.D. 640 to 690, known as the Mamalla Group, continued the tradition of impressive rock-cut structures.
  2. Structural Splendor (A.D. 690-900):
    • Rajasimha Group: Transitioning into the eighth century, the Pallavas shifted their focus to entirely structural designs, marking the Rajasimha Group’s era from A.D. 690 to 800.
    • Nandivarman Group: The final phase, approximately from A.D. 800 to 900, led by the Nandivarman monarch, sustained the excellence of structural architecture.

Throughout these four distinctive phases, the Pallava dynasty, guided by four notable kings, left an enduring legacy through their architectural prowess.

Pallava Art

The Pallava kings were big fans of the arts, especially music. You can see their love for tunes in the Kudumianmalai and Thirumayam music inscriptions. Back in the Pallava era, they jammed out on instruments like the Yaazhi, Mridhangam, and Murasu. Mahendravarman I and Narasimhavarman I weren’t just rulers; they were also pretty skilled musicians. If you stroll through the temples from that time, you’ll notice that dance was all the rage. Mahendravarman I even had the cool nickname “Chittirakkarapuli,” and his artwork at Chittannavasal gives us a taste of Pallava painting style.

Mahendravarman was a man of many talents – he wrote the Thatchina Chitram and the witty play Maththavilasam Prakasanam. So, drama, music, and dance were the real stars of the show during the Pallava era.

Pallava Painiting at Conjeevaram

  • About 45 miles west-southwest of Madras lies Conjeevaram, the former Pallava capital, boasting several temples and shrines. Notably, the Kailasanatha and Vaikunthaperumal temples hold historical murals.
  • The Kailasanatha temple, constructed during the rule of Pallava king Narasimhavarman (Rajasimha) from 680 to 722 AD, features paintings from the 7th and 8th centuries AD. These murals adorn the inside walls of small cells along the courtyard. They depict images from Hindu mythology.
  • Unfortunately, most paintings in the Kailasanatha temple, believed to be created in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, have faded away. However, remnants of paint can still be found under the eaves and in the niches of the main tower.
  • The foundation supporting the paintings is composed of the inner walls of cells in the Kailasanatha temple courtyard, as well as the eaves and walls of the niches of the Vaikunthaperumal temple’s Vimana.
  • The Kailasanatha and Vaikunthaperumal temples feature a color palette including Yellow ochre, Red ochre, Terre Verte, Carbon, and Lime.

Pallava Paintings at Kailasanatha Temple

  • Rajasimha’s sculptures at the Kailasanatha temple are still standing, but unfortunately, the vibrant paintings that once adorned its walls have disappeared.
  • Rumors suggest that the pradakshina-patha of the Kailasanatha temple was once covered in beautifully colored murals, but now only traces of them remain.
  • Sadly, there are no complete paintings left at Kailasanatha; only fragments have managed to survive over time.
  • The Talagishwara temple in Panamalai and the remnants at Kailasanatha are crucial because they are the last two examples of Pallava mural paintings.
  • These surviving fragments not only serve as a link to the past artistic glory but also play a vital role in understanding the evolution of South Indian painting during a critical period.

Pallava Art: Sculptures

  • The Pallava Dynasty, active from the fourth to the ninth centuries, played a key role in shaping the artistic and architectural landscape of South India.
  • Between 610 and 690 AD, there was a notable surge in the creation of rock-cut sculptures, marking a distinct era in Pallava art and architecture.
  • During this period, the Pallavas witnessed a flourishing development of rock-cut caves, showcasing a departure from the traditional South Indian temple architecture.
  • The popularity of rock-cut constructions soared between 690 and 900 AD, highlighting a shift in the predominant style of temple construction during the later years of the Pallava Dynasty.
  • Notably, the unique charm of rock-cut caves and sculptures became a dominant feature, replacing the once-prominent elements of South Indian temples during this period.

Read Also: Preserving Cultural Heritage

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