The Pallavas’Foreign Connection?

May 5, 2018

The Simhavishnuvarman line of the Pallava Dynasty, which had a reign of just under two centuries, ended in 731 CE when the monarch Parameshwaravarman II was killed in battle with the Chalukyas. He left no heir to the throne. A brief period of anarchy followed and there was fear that the Pallavas will be vanquished and their capital city of Kanchipuram sacked. A delegation of religious leaders, elders, military leaders and common citizens was hurriedly dispatched to a distant land to find a successor. It was believed that a brother of Simhavishnu, Bhimavarman, moved to a faraway land in late 6th century and started a branch of the dynasty. It was to this land in Kambojadesa, in present day Cambodia, that the delegation headed in 731 CE to find their next emperor.

The ruling monarch of the collateral branch, identified as Hiranyavarman of the Kadavesa kula, a fifth-generation descendent of Bhimavarman, offered the throne to each of his fours sons. All but the youngest declined the offer. The youngest, a mere boy of 12, named Pallavamalla accepted the challenge and embarked on an arduous journey, crossing many mountains, rivers, forests and depths (gahana) to assume the throne. King Bhima was initially reluctant to allow his son to leave but was reassured by his senior advisor (agamika acharya) who understood the special significance of the elephant head hood that the delegation had brought from the Pallava land as an offering of good faith to the king.

Young Pallavamalla had to defeat a rival claimant to the throne on the outskirts of Kanchipuram as his entourage entered the city. His general Udayachandra played a major role in this battle as he would in many more battles to come. Pallavamalla would take on the name Nandivarman II at his unction. His reign would last sixty-five years, although interrupted by an extended period of exile. He would also go on to build the magnificent but compact, three-tiered, west-facing Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kanchi, notable not only for its architecture but for being a virtual visual summary of the Bhagavata Dharma, a departure in tradition from his predecessors who followed Shaiva agama. The temple originally known as Parameshwara Vinnagaram (vishnugriha), one of 108 Divyadesams, was eulogized by Thirumangai Alvar and presumably ushered in an enormously creative period of Bhagavata Dharma in south India.

Is the above narrative just folklore or could it have happened as described, especially the foreign origin of one of the great monarchs of the Pallavas? Could his temple have served as the model for the spectacular and enormous three-tiered, west-facing Vishnu temple in a faraway place, perhaps the land of his birth? We will return to these questions later.

There is a display that captivates the visitor in the ruins of one of the temples in the archeological site of My Son, about an hour’s drive south-west of the port city of Da Nang in Vietnam. Not far from this port city was the site of Indrapura, a principality of the ancient Champa Kingdom, which lasted from the 4th century to the 15th. The ruins are located near the town of Tra Kieu, known in ancient times as Simhapura. The display is of a couple of empty bomb shells placed next to a disfigured idol of a god, presumably Shiva, to whom the entire temple complex was dedicated by Bhadravarman, who ruled Champa in late 4th century. Incidentally, Bhadravarman may have been one of the first Kings in Farther India to have used the “Varman” honorific, common among the Pallavas.

It appears that the idol was “excavated” from its resting place deep under the surface by bombs dropped by US aircraft during an intense one week of carpet bombing of the area. There is no dearth of irony here; King Bhadravraman, had a stele commissioned at the time of the founding of the complex which indicated that he had dedicated the entire complex to Bhadresvara (Shiva) with a plea to his successors: “out of compassion for me do not destroy what I have given” (Georges Maspero). Drawing upon the doctrines of samsara and karma, he added, “If you destroy [my foundation], all your good deeds in your different births shall be mine, and all the bad deeds done by me shall be yours. If, on the contrary, you properly maintain the endowment, the merit shall belong to you alone”. (Ngo Van Doanh).

While the bombs reduced many of the temples in the complex to rubble, they also unearthed many buried treasures dating back to the 4th century. But more significantly, the display tells an important story, even if unintended. The bombs were instruments of the US effort to establish their way of life and political philosophy in that region, which as we know lasted less than two decades and remained confined to a limited geography. This unleashing of military power did not have a lasting effect. By contrast, the disfigured idol is an artifact from the 15-centuries long tradition of the Indian subcontinent (hereafter referred to as India for simplicity), established over a wide swathe of land in peninsular Indo-China and the Indonesian archipelago, going back at least to the beginning of Common Era. This cultural osmosis included all aspects of Hindu and Buddhist religious tenets, rituals and liturgy, architecture, common law (dharmashastra), the political system characterized by the idea of divine-king (devaraja) and the writing script (child systems of the Pallava Grantha script), among others. The absorption happened in a syncretic manner by preserving elements of the autochthonous cultures and without the use of military force or political connections to the mother culture. There were exceptions such as the Chola military intervention in SriVijaya in Sumatra and in peninsular Indochina. Also, kingdoms, falling within the vast region that came under Indian influence, did fight against each other to establish primacy but these came long after Indian cultural, social and religious traditions had taken root in that part of the world.

Historians use different descriptors for this gradual process of assimilation of Indian culture. Some like RC Majumdar call it colonization. But the term may be inappropriate because there were no political ties to the mother culture. George Coedes, the doyen among historians who studied this subject, uses the term Indianization even though India did not exist as a single polity at that time. Indianization (sometimes referred to as Brahmanization or Sanskritization) is the continuation overseas of a process that spread from the northwestern parts to the rest of the Indian sub-continent. This process at its core had the concept of devaraja, was characterized by the Hindu or Buddhist cults, the mythology of the puranas, the observance of the dharmashastras, all expressed in the Sanskrit language. Even though the term Indianization is criticized now, it is useful in describing the complex cultural process of interaction between India and Indianized southeast Asia (Coedes refers to this geography as Farther India).

The most ancient inscriptions found in Farther India are not that much later than the earliest inscriptions found in India. The Vo Canh stele from the Champa kingdom, for instance, with inscriptions in Sanskrit written in the Cham script (although there is some dispute about this) found near Nha Trang in Vietnam has been assigned to the 4th century. The inscription records that the kingdom was founded by Sri Mara (Thiru Maran?). The Cham script is a child system of the Pallava Grantha script. Interestingly, examining the Vo Canh inscriptions for the political vocabulary and Sanskrit poetic meters seems to suggest that Farther India closely followed cultural developments in India despite the vast distance separating the two.

Returning to My Son, it was a major religious and burial center of the Kingdom of Champa (Champapura or Champanagara in Sanskrit), which rather than being a single polity was a collection of four principalities besides the one in Indrapura previously mentioned. These principalities took prominence at different times as the power of the kingdom waxed and waned. The southward shift of the power center was the consequence of the pressure exerted from the north by the Dai-Viet. Thus, at the peak of their power in the 9th and 10th centuries, from Indrapura the Chams controlled an area from the Annamite range (Truon Son to the Vietnamese and Col des Nuages to the French) all the way south to Prey Nokor (today’s Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon).  This roughly corresponds to the geographical area of the future South Vietnam. By the 15th century, Champa was reduced to just a sliver of land in the very south with the capital at Panduranga, coinciding with the beginning of the end of Indianization in Farther India.

When the kingdom of Champa was set up, the process of Indianization of Farther India was already well underway. Funan, established in the 1st century in the Mekong delta (covering parts of today’s southern Cambodia and southern Vietnam) was probably the first Indianized state. Funan was a name taken from Chinese annals. Modern historians argue that it is a misnomer and there is no historical evidence for the name. Historian Claude Jacques proposed that the name be dropped in favor of Bhavapura, Shreshtapura, Aninditapura, Vyadhapura etc. which were the principal city-states in the region as identified in inscriptions.  It was, as in the case of Champa, a political formation borrowed from the Hindu-Buddhist religious concept of mandala representing the universe. The polity’s bustling port city at Oc Eo situated in the mouth of Mekong was known to the Greco-Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy in late 2nd century as Kattigara, probably from the Sanskrit Kirtinagara (Renowned city) or Kottinagara (Strong city). Oc Eo was the forerunner of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) as the premier port city and entrepot on the Mekong river. It was also Oc Eo which was the entry point for the Indian influence in the region.

The mythology of the founding of Funan bears uncanny resemblance to that of the Pallavas. The Funan founding story, taken from an inscription from Champa, goes like this: A Brahman, Kaundinya having received a javelin from the Brahman Ashvatthama, son of Drona, threw it to mark the location of his future capital, then married a daughter of the king of the Nagas, named Soma, who gave birth to a royal line. The story of “Pallava”, born from the union of the Brahman Ashvatthama with a Naga Princess, is also supposedly supported in the sixth verse of the Bahur plates which states “From Ashvatthama was born the king named Pallava”.

How did this Indianization begin? The use of the term Indianization may suggest a simple historical fact that took place in a specific epoch. However, the relations between India and Farther India developed gradually starting from prehistoric times. There has been an abundance of artifacts of Indian origin found in the Neolithic strata of Farther India to prove that maritime relations existed between the two during prehistoric times. But at some juncture in time, these relations resulted in the founding of Indianized kingdoms throughout Farther India although the settlements themselves were not entirely new creations. The trigger for this transformation from a simple commercial settlement to an organized political state was the arrival of the latest wave of immigrants from India who were not merchants but members of the elite Brahman and Kshatriya castes.

There were two possible ways that the transformation happened: either a kshatriya immigrant from India imposed himself as chief over a native population which was already impregnated with Indian cultural elements, or a native chief embraced the civilization of the immigrants, strengthening his power by becoming Indianized. The Brahmans amongst the immigrants must have wielded extraordinary powers because not only were they needed to elevate the local chef to the level of Kshatriya by means of a ritual called vratyastoma, they were also the ones to anoint a chief as devaraja, the Shaivite conception of royalty based on the Brahman-Kshatriya pairing, either entirely foreign or partly native, and expressed in the cult of the royal linga.

The “Indianizers” may have come in multiple waves and from different points of departure in India. Among Indian historians, there is some disagreement on which region of the subcontinent contributed most significantly to this emigration. But Coedes sums up all the evidence he examined as follows: “In the middle of the fourth century, the conquests of the emperor Samudragupta in the Ganges Valley and southern India provoked a new exodus to the east that resulted not only in the coming to power of an Indo-Scythian in Funan but also in a general resurgence of Indianization abroad in which southern India, especially the region dominated by the Pallavas of Kanchi, seems to have played a preponderant role.”

Returning to the questions at the top of this account, the inscriptions in the Vaikuntha Perumal temple provide an abundance of information about Nandivarman II but not enough about his antecedents. That might have been deliberate so as not to dilute his legitimacy. The two opposing narratives about this center on the meaning that historians ascribe to the word gahana. K.R. Srinivasan interprets the word to mean depths and proposes the theory that the delegation from Kanchi, tasked with finding the new king, travelled no farther than Kongunadu where a collateral branch of the Pallavas existed. But T.V. Mahalingam interprets gahana to mean the ocean and argues that they went much further afield to a Pallava domain in Kambujadesa.

It is also recorded that at the time of Simhavishnu and Bhima, the Pallavas followed the Vaishnava Pancharatra agama. This tradition continued in the land and the court Bhima established, all the way down to young Pallavamalla. In Kanchi however, at the time of Parameshwaravarman I (672-700), the patronage shifted to the Shaiva agama. So, when Namdivarman II assumed the throne, he reinstated the Vaishnava tradition that he been brought up on.

The elephant head insignia that King Hiranyavarman’s senior adviser recognized represented Airavata, Indra’s elephant. This was part of the crown of the Pallavas to signify that the consecrated monarch is Indra of men. This was the token of good faith that the delegation from the Pallava land had carried to Hiranmayavarman’s court. This scene is depicted on one of the panels in Vaikuntha Perumal temple. According to Jan Fontein, scholar of Asian art, the same scene can be seen at Borobudur, where the Pallavas had long been influential, at the Vajrayana Buddhist monument which was completed a few decades after the Kanchi temple.

The Borobudur elephant-head crown in Java further raises the possibility that Hiranyavarman’s court may have been in Farther India. The late Professor Dennis Hudson of Smith College, whose seminal work on the Vaikuntha Perumal temple “The Body of God” painstakingly goes through all the inscriptions at the temple, favors this location based on research by historians T.V. Mahalingam and T.N. Subramaniam.

Here is how Hudson makes the case for the Cambodian origin of Nandivarman II: Bhimavarman, the brother of Simhavishnuvarman the monarch of the Pallavas in late 6th century, moved to Kambujadesa, set up court there and became king (maharaja) and not emperor (parameshwara), continuing to recognize his elder brother in Kanchi as emperor, because contacts between Kanchi and Kambujadesa were well developed. Bhima’s descendants continued to rule with the help of panchratra agamika advisers imported from Bhagavata centers in India. In 731, when the Pallava delegation arrived looking for their monarch, Hiranyavarman was the maharaja of the court and his senior agamika was Tarandikonda Bhojar.

Hudson refers to an inscription of Ishanavarman (616-628) found near Phnom Penh refers to a kingdom on the north shore of the great lake (today’s Tonle Sap) and capital, both named Bhimapura, which was one of three principalities in Ishanavarman’s mandala in Chenla, a successor polity of Funan and the predecessor of the great Angkor empire. This timing fits Bhimavarman’s exit from Kanchipuram.

He also offers the following explanation for both the interpretation of gahana and the elephant-head hood that Hiranyavarman does not recognize but his adviser Tarandikonda Bhojar does. In the Bhagavata Purana account of Gajendra and Hari, gahana as depth describes the dark and deep water of dissolution. Mahalingam uses this reference to gahana to interpret it as watery depths. The elephant-hood insignia ritual is something that must have come into the liturgies in more recent times (the Bhagavata Purana is dated around the 7th to the 8th century) and the gahana acted as a barrier to the free flow of information reaching Hiranyavarman. However, it was the job of Bhojar to keep himself abreast of the latest liturgical developments with the help of Panchrathra agamikas, who crossed the ocean from Bhagavata centers in the Pallava land. The new rituals around the assumption of the throne required the Pallava monarch to surrender completely to his god as signified by the elephant-head insignia in the crown in the same sense that Gajendra acquired moksha.

On the question of whether Angkor Wat was modeled on the Vaikuntha Perumal temple, the obvious similarities are the three-tier structure and the west-facing orientation. The presiding deity at Angkor Wat is the ashtabhujaswami (eight-armed Lord Vishnu) while that is not the latter case. However, there is a similar deity in another one of Kanchi’s Vaishnava temples where Nandivarman performed Bhagavata consecration. Beyond these obvious physical features, there may be other Bhagavata representations that may be similar but that needs further research.

Finally, there is another unanswered question, one about the origin of Udayachandra, Nandivarman’s general who is featured prominently on the panels at Vaikuntha Perumal temple. He stood by his monarch through thick and thin, fought valiantly and marshalled his forces in the service of his devaraja. Was he from the court of Hiranyavarman or was he part of the delegation that went from Kanchipuram to look for the new emperor?