Reign of Narasimhavarman I Mahāmalla Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla was the fourth Pallava king and a brilliant military leader, but he is primarily remembered as the patron and builder of the many rock-cut caves and temples and monumental sculptures at Mahabalipuram.

Summary of Event

Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla was the fourth king of one of South India’s most glorious dynasties. The Pallavas of Kanchipuram claim descent from Simhavarman Simhavarman (r. c. 550-575), but the true founder of the dynasty was his successor, Simhavishnu Simhavishnu (r. c. 575-600), because it was he who rose above the political confusion of the late sixth century in Tamil Nadu and began to shape a strong political state. The third king, Mahendravarman I Mahendravarman I (r. c. 600-630), extended Pallava control southward as far as the Kaveri River. In doing so, he came into conflict with the Pāṇḍyas Pāṇḍyas[Pandyas];Pallavas and and the rulers of Ceylon who mounted regular resistance to the Pallavas. [kw]Reign of Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla (630-668) [kw]Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla, Reign of (630-668) Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla Pallavas India;630-668: Reign of Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla[0330] Cultural and intellectual history;630-668: Reign of Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla[0330] Government and politics;630-668: Reign of Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla[0330] Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla Mahendravarman I

Mahendravarman, a talented genius, was originally a Jain who converted and made Śiva his patron deity after he met Appar Appar , the great Shaivite Shaivites saint. After his conversion, the king boldly inaugurated the creation of temples in south India that were dedicated to Hindu deities and carved from stone rather than formed from the traditional materials of wood or brick. His first rock-cut cave temple at Mandagapattu bears an inscription stating that the king “caused to be constructed a temple of Brahma, Iśvara and Viṣṇu without using bricks, timber, metal, and mortar.” Mahendravarman also wrote plays in Sanskrit, two of which have survived. Mattavilāsa prahasana (seventh century) is a delightful farce full of wit and satire about a dispute between a Buddhist and a drunken Kāpālika (Tantric Shaivite worshiper). The second play, Bhagavadajjuka prahasana (seventh century) is another hilarious farce that makes fun of hypocrisy and extreme religious behavior. Mahendravarman’s creativity and originality were inherited by his son Narasiṃhavarman I. Theater;India India;drama

In his early reign, Mahendravarman extended Pallava rule northward into modern Andhra Pradesh as far as the Krishna River. The Pallavas’s rivals, the Cālukyas Cālukyas[Calukyas];Pallavas and , feared the increasing strength of the Pallavas. The Cālukya king Pulakeśin II Pulakeśin II , ruling from the capital at Bādāmi, began a formidable assault on Mahendravarman’s kingdom as early as 616. Some time later (although the exact date is unknown), Pulakeśin II led a campaign far into the Pallava realm, seizing Pallava lands no more than a few miles north of the capital city at Kanchipuram. It was the beginning of protracted warfare between the two powers.

Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla, on assuming the throne, retrieved land lost to the Cālukyas. Narasiṃhavarman’s rule marked the summit of Pallava power; it was a time of unrivaled prestige for the Pallavas. Sometime after Narasiṃhavarman ascended the throne, the ambitious Pulakeśin made a second attempt to overthrow the Pallavas, and once again threatened the capital. However, the Cālukya king was defeated at Manimangala about 20 miles (30 kilometers) east of Kanchipuram and in several other battles. Narasiṃhavarman, who had the help of the Sinhalese prince Mānavaram in the battles, decided to seek revenge. Known in the annuls of Indian history as the mighty king who captured and destroyed the Cālukya capital at Bādāmi, he was given the title Vāṭāpikoṇḍa or conqueror of Vāṭāpi (Bādāmi); the destruction of the capital took place around 641.

A declaration regarding Narasiṃhavarman’s successful campaign is recorded in an inscription at the Mallikārjunadeva Temple at Bādāmi in the florid Pallava Grantha script. In this inscription, dated to 642, Narasiṃhavarman I Mahāmalla states that in his thirteenth regnal year, after he captured the city, he created there a victory pillar (dvajaṣṭhambha).

Although Pulakeśin was killed defending his capital, the Cālukyas eventually were able to take back their traditional land holdings. The two powerful rivals continued to engage in warfare for generations. Ancient records show that Narasiṃhavarman vanquished the neighboring Cōlas, Cheras, Kalabhras, and Pāḍṇyas. The Pallavas were probably a maritime power at this time because the Sinhalese epic, the Mahāvaṃsa (fifth century; The Mahāvaṃsa, 1837, 1909) mentions two successive naval expeditions by Narasiṃhavarman to take back the Sinhalese throne for his friend, the disenfranchised prince Mānavarman.

During Narasiṃhavarman’s reign, the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang Xuanzang (Buddhist Monk) (Hsüan-tsang; c. 602-664) visited the Pallava capital, Kanchipuram, possibly in 640 sometime before the expedition against Bādāmi. The pilgrim spent the rainy season in the capital city before he embarked on a planned journey to Ceylon. While in Kanchipuram, the Chinese monk studied the works of the great Buddhist theologian Dharmapāla whose teachings on metaphysics and logic were to influence Xuanzang’s life and work. The monk also reported that the capital was about 6 miles (10 kilometers) in circumference. He described the people as being courageous, trustworthy, and public spirited. In addition, he reported that there were more than one hundred Buddhist monasteries with more than ten thousand monks. Xuanzang never realized his dream of visiting Sri Lanka; before leaving for that region, he encountered three hundred Sinhalese monks who had fled a civil war at home and who implored him to abandon his plan.





The seventh century in south India was an exhilarating and creative time. The Tamils were undergoing a period of Hindu revivalism that swept through the region in response to the very successful spread of Jainism and Buddhism in previous centuries. The early saints of the south, the Shaivites Appar Appar and Sambandar Sambandar and the Vaishnavites Peyar Peyar , Poykai Poykai , and Pūtān Pūtān , spearheaded the bhakti (devotion) movement Bhakti cults . They created poignant devotional literature that professed total surrender to the deity. Poykai in particular created beautiful and moving linked verses (groups of one hundred) called antāti in which the final verse became the beginning of the next verse. Poetry;India India;poetry The verses were regarded as “garlands” of devotional songs that honored the deity. Kanchipuram had long been an important religious center, and by the seventh century, the temples and monasteries had become illustrious centers of advanced philosophical speculation, a fact confirmed by Xuanzang.

Among Narasiṃhavarman’s many great feats, the creation of the marvelous architecture Architecture;India India;architecture laden with splendid ornamentation and sculpture at Mahābalipuram Mahabalipuram was his crowning achievement. Originally called Māhamallapuram after its founder, the port city of Mahabalipuram was located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of the capital at Kanchipuram. It was once a thriving trading center and undoubtedly the home of the Pallava navy. The port city was not only a strategic military and mercantile center but also a remarkable religious center. Narasiṃhavarman instructed his craftspeople to sculpt unique houses of worship from the enormous natural boulders of granite located along the shore. Included are ten rock-cut caves and six monolithic temples called rathas Rathas (chariots).

Cutting from the top and working downward, the artisans sculpted rather than constructed life-sized temples. The sculptures covering the façades of the rathas are memorable for their youthful grace, elegant and slim proportions, and soft, rounded faces. The rathas are examples of the southern or Dravidian style of architecture, which had previously used less durable materials. The many sculptures at Mahābalipuram are some of the earliest representations of Hindu divinities in the Tamil region. In addition, the clothing and ornaments worn by the deities provide a glimpse of courtly Pallava fashions and are a valuable resource for historians.





At Mahābalipuram is a monumental sculpted panel measuring approximately 90 by 25 feet (30 by 8 meters). In an excellent state of preservation and formed from a single massive rock, the surface is sculpted to exhibit a crowded assembly consisting of representatives from the divine, human, and animal world.

The subject of the work is controversial. Some scholar have contended that it relates to the hero Ārjuna from the epic Mahābhārata (400 b.c.e.-400 c.e., present form by c. 400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896), who assumes a yogic posture as he does penance while praying to the god Śiva for a powerful weapon for destroying his enemies. Others argue that it portrays the Hindu myth about the descent of the celestial River Gaṇgā (Ganges) as it plunges to Earth. According to the legend, an ascetic king named Bhagīratha prayed to Śiva for the divine river Gaṇgā to wash over the cremated remains of his ancestors. Lending support to the second identification is a great stone tank positioned at the top and just behind the wall of sculpture. Scholars speculate that water may have been released and allowed to flow over the panel’s central crevice, which is filled with sculpted water creatures, to enhance the realism of the myth.

Whatever the event portrayed, the artists have created a great assembly gathered to witness it, including a family of monumental elephants, a newborn elephant just rising to its feet, a family of monkeys grooming themselves, and a scrawny ascetic cat performing a one-legged yogic stance accompanied by worshipful mice. Such original and charming subjects are unusual in Indian art.


The brilliant reign of Narasiṃhavarman ended with his death in 668; his son Mahendravarman II Mahendravarman II succeeded him but spent no more than two years on the throne. The impact of Narasiṃhavarman’s life and reign are incalculable. Like his father, he was highly creative and original as well as a devout Hindu. His patronage resulted in the creation of some of India’s finest and most memorable art and architecture, works that were seminal in the region and were to inspire the magnificent Hindu temples of south India. His heroic defeat of his aggressive enemy, Pulakeśin II, ensured him a prominent position as a great warrior king. The diary of the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang and many other contemporary records attest to the breadth and wealth of Narasiṃhavarman’s vast empire and his able administration. Although he was a superb warrior who maintained an impressive empire, one that endured as a model for later rule in south India, he will be remembered most of all for his stunning monuments at Mahābalipuram.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, Michael. Māmallapuram and the Pallavas. Madras, India: Christian Literature Society, 1982. An excellent work that includes a series of articles on Pallava art and inscriptions at Māmallapuram. Extensive notes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, Michael, Gift Siromoney, and P. Dayanandan. Mahābalipuram Studies. Madras, India: Christian Literature Society, 1974. An important work on Pallava art in general and the authorship of the intriguing monuments at Mahābalipuram. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nilakantha Sastri, K. A. A History of South India from Prehistoric Times to the Fall of the Vijayanagar. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1966. An important and careful reconstruction of the history of Tamil Nadu from earliest times through its last great dynasty. Bibliography.

Categories: History