Kanchipuram – The Pallava Lion

Twelve kings. Tales tell of twelve kings throughout the history of India who never lost a battle.

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Part 1: The Lord of the South

Pulakesin sat enthroned in his splendour. His red military tent stood on a mound on the banks of river Palar. They called him Dakshinapateshwar “The Lord of the South”. The Deccan was his. The empires of Kadamba, Ganga, Konkan and Kalinga had crumpled under the might of his military. Only the fabled Pallava empire stood against him. Across the river stood their capital, Kanchipuram. The siege had gone on for months now but victory was near. The summer heat had depleted the city’s water stores. His army had laid barren the land around the city. The walls of the city were strong but the people inside were starving. It was time for the final push. He longed for the cool weather of his capital, Vatapi. He drank his sherbet and called for his Senapati. It was time for the Pallavas to feel the full force of the Chalukya might.

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The walls of Kanchipuram shook under the renewed attack. The archers on the city wall were running out of arrows. The main gate had almost collapsed under the last barrage by the elephants. The army had started moving. The end was near. The city would soon fall.

King Mahendravarman sat in his war room surrounded by his generals. He looked around at their worried faces. The heat, hunger and the war had drained them of all strength and courage. He sighed in resignation.

His son ran into the war-room and climbed on his lap. He hugged the king tightly; the noise of the war had scared him. A tear rolled across Mahendravarman’s cheek. He was never a king for battles. His love had always been art and culture. He had made Kanchipuram the centre of art and architecture in the world. The rock-cut temples in Mahabalipuram and the rock-temple at Trichy were testaments to his love for beauty. It had all come to naught. He looked with despair at his son, Narasimhavarman. Only a miracle could save the Pallava line from failing. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer.

The noise outside stopped.

A messenger came running into the war room. His helmet was dented and he was bleeding from a dozen wounds. Mud, sweat and blood stuck to his body. He fell on the king’s feet.

“Your Majesty! The Chaluka army is withdrawing. The Pulakesin has folded his royal tent and has ordered his men to march back to Vatapi.”

It was like a flash of lightning had crashed into the room. The generals and commanders rose up in attention. Mahendravarman stood up and almost lost his balance. What was this sorcery? Why had Pulakesin withdrawn when he was so close to victory? Was he feigning?

“You Majesty, King Harshavardhana of Kanauj is marching south towards Vatapi, the Chalukya capital, and has crossed the Ganges. Pulakesin has ordered to troops to march back immediately.”

Harshavardhana. One of the greatest kings of Northern India. What Pulakesin had done to the south, Harsha had done to the north. The entire north was his. The bards called him Uttarapatheshvara, “The Lord of the North”.

River Narmada was the border between North India and South India. The battle between the Uttarapatheshvara and the Dakshinapateshwar was fought there. The battle for all of India.

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Part 2: One of the twelve

The Chalukya army marched in all its glory. Songs and slogans boomed across. Glorious in battle and undefeated. Their king marched ahead on an elephant. They would talk about his battle with Harshavardhana for ages. Harshavardhana’s armies had been laid to rout. A Chinese traveller, Xuanzang come had witnessed the battle and spread the story across the world. The bards sang about how Harsha lost his harsha (joy) when he confronted Pulakesin.

King Pulakesin, the Parameswara, Satyashraya, Prithvivallabha. The possessor of all he surveyed, the abode of truth and the ruler of earth. He was now the Lord Paramount over India.

All of India except Kanchipuram.

After a decade consolidating his rule, Pulakesin turned his attention to the old thorn in his flesh. The Pallavas. His army marched across the Deccan again. It was time to raze the Kanchipuram to the ground and end the rule of the Pallavas forever.

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The fighting pits of Kanchipuram were abuzz. Two men were wrestling. One was a sinewy youth and another was the reigning champion. The young boy groaned, lifted the seasoned wrestler and slammed him on the ground. The wrestler was 20 kilos heavier than the youth but could not break his hold. The referee counted down. The crowed cheered. “Mamallan! Mamallan! Raja Narasimhavarman. Mamallan!”

Mamallan. The wrestler.

King Mahendravarman died of a weak heart soon after the Pulakesin withdrew to meet Harshvardhana. Narasimhavarman took up the Pallava crown after his death. He remembered the day he clinged to his father in fear during the siege.

He would never put himself in that situation again.

One of the first things he did after taking over the reign was to renovate and re-train his army. He the befriended the Sri Lankan prince, Manavarma, and invited him to oversee defences of his city. He strengthened the gates and walls of Kanchipuram. He heard tales about a young Shaivite monk, Paranjothi, and his knowledge about the art of war. Narasimhavarman appointed him as the General his army. “Mamallan” was ready for his fight.

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Pulakesin looked at the burning catapults and trebuchets in despair. The siege was not going as he had hoped. The Pallavas had launched a night raid and set his siege engines alight. They had poisoned the water of the river and his soldier were writhing with stomach cramps and dysentery. The Pallavas themselves did not touch the river and stockpiled water in the city.

The city seemed at peace till the attackers reached the very edges of the wall; then fire and oil fell upon them. His soldiers sick or burnt. His siege engines turned to ashes. The Lord Paramount of India felt fear for the first time in his life. He was the scourge of Harsha. He could not lose to the insignificant Pallavas.

The Chalukya cavalry and elephants geared up. They would push down the walls of Kanchipuram with their sheer numbers if need be. A cheer rang through the army. Their king was joining them.

The elephants were the first to reach to walls of the city. The horses and infantry followed them. The city did not retaliate. The Chalukyas had covered the elephants with wet sheets to protect them from fire and oil. The elephants charged towards the walls. Not a single arrow was shot in return.

As the elephants reached the walls. A black dust descended on them from above.

Pepper powder.

The elephants trumpeted in pain and ran amok. They trampled the cavalry which followed them and the unwell soldiers in the rear.

The army was routed without a single arrow shot.

Pulakeshin ordered his troops to regroup at the camp at Manimangalam, but horror awaited them. While they were attacking Kanchipuram, the Pallava soldiers had sneaked out through a tunnel and burnt the camp. The diseased and dishevelled Chalukya army lost heart and scattered.

A cheer ran through the Pallava army. The Chalukyas were defeated.

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The dancing and cheering were short lived. The soldiers noticed that the king and his commanders were not celebrating. The army fell silent. The job was not yet done.

“To Vatapi”, yelled Narasimhavarman.

The soldiers looked at him in disbelief. Defending against the Chalunkya onslaught was one thing. To take the fight to their capital was something else.

“Mamalla! Mamalla! To Vatapi”, yelled Paranjothi.

The soldiers took up the chant. The army started their march to Vatapi, the heart of the Chalukya Empire.

The scattered Chalukya army could not make it to Vatapi before the Pallavas. Paranjothi burnt the city to its foundation. The retreating Chaluka army could not believe their eyes as they saw their city turned to ashes. The Pallavas fell upon them again with renewed energy. The demoralized Chaluka army dispersed again. Narasimhavarman fought Pulakesin in single combat. He lifted the Chalukya king and slammed him on the ground. Pulakesin could not break his hold. Narasimhavarman took his sword and plunged it in his heart. The Lord Paramount of India breathed his last outside the burning embers of his city.

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There were twelve kings in the history of India who never lost a battle. Ajatashatru, Chandragupta Maurya, Karikala Chola, Cheran Senguttuvan, Kochengannan Chola, Rajasuyam Vaetta Perunarkilli of the Cholas, Nedunchezhian Pandyan, Samudragupta, Rajasimha Pallava, Rajaraja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola. None of them fought against odds so high or a foe so mighty as Narasimhavarman I of the Pallava dysnasty.

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Kanchipuram, the rustic Pallaval capital lies across the now dry river bed of Palar river. It was once the heart of Tamil culture and architecture. Its artistic reach extended till the Ajantha and Ellora caves in Maharashtra. Its religious hold extended to China. Bodhidharman, a Buddhist Pallava prince took Buddhism to China. He is credited with starting Zen Budhism. He started teaching martial arts to monks in Shaolin monastery. The current Kanchipuram is a town lost in time, stretching on its hinges pulled by both past and the future. The Kanchipuram silk is still sought after and the weaver’s village is worth visiting.

The Pallavas were masters of bending stone to their will. The Pallavaram architecture consisted of three styles:

1) Rock cut temples: These were temples hewn from a single rock, as seen in the Pandava Rathas at Mahabalipuram.

2) Bas-relief: Intricate carving on a rock face, like Arjuna’s penance at Mahabalipuram.

3) Traditional stone black temples: Shore temple at Mahabalipuram and Kalaisanthar temple at Kanchipuram.

Kanchipuram is dotted with temples and ponds. The most beautiful is the Kalaisanthar temple; one of the oldest temples in South India. The sculptures and carvings are spell binding.

Kanchi-kudil is a 100year old house built in typical Kanchipuram style and is definitely as place to visit.

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Twenty kilometres from Kanchipuram are Mamandur caves. These were built by Mahendravarman, Narasimhavarman’s father. The caves are covered with inscriptions, considered to be the earliest evidence of the Tamil script.

Mahabalipuram was the port of the Pallava empire and their financial hub. The rock cut teples and shore temples are mesmerizing. The bas-relief showing Arjuna’s penance is a piece of art which shows the past glory and splendour of the mighty Pallavas. Mahabalipuram is also called Mamallapuram in honour of Narasimhavarman I, the Pallava lion.

P.S.:

Indian history curriculum has a prominent North-Indian bias. Most people have not even heard of great southern kings like Pulakesin, Narasimhavarman, Vikramaditya, Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola.

I have just skimmed over the battle between Harshavardhana and Pulakesin. It was one of the most significant battles in the history of the subcontinent. It pitted the ruler of North India against the ruler of South India. Harshavardhana’s defeat set in turn a series of complex socio-political changes that ended the golden age of northern India; which was ushered in by the Gupta Empire.