Apart from a few earlier monuments, the history of art and architecture in South India begins in the 7th century and can be connected with the increasing popularity of the Shakti cults. The Pallava kings, especially Mahendra Varman II, Rajasimha, Narasimha Varman II, and Narasimha Varman I, were great patrons of the arts. The remains of the architecture of the Pallava period are mostly found at Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram. They comprise cave temples, monolithic temples, and structural temples. Pallava sculptures have a distinctive style that is different from the Gupta period sculptures of North India. The faces of the human figures are oval with high cheekbones, and the bodies are slender with tapering limbs.
According to Prof. Percy Brown, “Of all the great powers that together made the history of Southern India, none had a more marked effect on the architecture of their reign than the earliest of all, that of the Pallavas, who provided the foundations of the Dravidian styles.”
The temples of the Pallavas’ architecture can be divided into two categories: i. Rock-cut temples and ii. Structural temples. There was a regular evolution of the Pallava art and history buildings within different styles. It can be divided into four different styles: i. Mahendra Style, ii. Mamala Style, iii. Rajasimha Style, iv. Aparajita Style.
Mahendra style: Mahendravarman I laid the foundation stone of Mahabalipuram’s grandeur and reputation by starting the technique of excavating stone temples out of solid rocks. This style, known as Mahendra’s style, flourished from about 500-625 AD. Through his architectural contributions, he made it “the birthplace of South Indian architecture and sculpture.” The excavated shrines of Mahendravarman are simple pillared holes cut into the back or side wall. He probably introduced the cave style from the Krishna district. Sri KR Srinivasan has attributed the following Mandapas to Mahendravarman:
I) Lakshitayatana at Mandagapattu.
II) Pancha Pandava at Pallavaram.
III) Rudratalisvara at Mamandur.
IV) Kal Mandakam at Kuranganilmuttan.
V) Vasantesvara at Vallam.
VI) Mahendra Vishnu Griha at Mahendravadi.
VII) Vishnu at Mamandur, etc.
The important feature of the Mandapa is the row of pillars with octagonal shafts, plain and heavy brackets, sometimes with horizontal flutings. As for the sculptures, mention may be made of Duar Palakas.
Mamala Style: Narasimhavarman I was responsible for “a new and more ornate series of cut-in temples, cut-out shrines (Vimanas or Rathes), and some open-air relief compositions of considerable size.” This style introduced by Narasimhavarman I is known as Mamala style, which flourished from about 625-675 AD. The greater part of the work on cave temples, namely “Descent of the Ganges” and the five Rathas at Mamallapuram, seems to have been built during this period. The Trimurti, Varaha, Durga, and the five Pandavas are the most important cave temples. The Varaha temple has a veranda with pillars supported by a sitting lion. In the Varaha cave, there are many reliefs representing the Varaha Avatara, Surya, Durga, Gaja Lakshmi, etc. The five Rathas are all monolithic, cut from a series of boulder-like granitic outcrops on the foreshore. They all belong to the first half of the seventh century.
They are all in the same style and named after the five Pandavas. They appear to be Saiva shrines. The Draupati Ratha is a small square shrine, the Arjuna Ratha is a simple Dravidian temple, and the Dharmaraja, Bhima, and Sahadeva Rathas have pyramidal roofs with three distinct storeys and Chaitya window niches. Apart from their beauty and grace, these buildings form an interesting link between the Buddhist cave temples and the structural Dravidian temple. The Descent of the Ganges is a unique masterpiece of the Mamala style, representing one of the remarkable compositions of all time. It portrays the Ganges coming down to the Earth with gods, animals, and all creation in adoration.
Rajasimha Style: The third style is the Rajasimha style, named after Narasimhavarman II, also known as Rajasimha. This style developed in Kanchi, and the Shore temples at Mahabalipuram belong to the 8th century A.D. Rajasimha substituted bricks and timber for stone in the temples. Six temples belong to this period, but the most important among them are the Kailashanatha and Vaikuntha Perumal temples in Kanchi and the Shore temples at Mahabalipuram. The Kailashanatha temple is the largest among the Pallava temples. Its main features are the pyramidal tower, the flat-roofed pillared hall, the vestibule, and the ramparted lion plaster. Percy Brown views this temple as well-proportioned, substantial, rhythmic in its mass, and elegant in its outlines.
The Vaikuntha Perumal temple is slightly larger than the Kailashanatha temple and represents the most mature example of the Pallava temple complex. The sanctum is square with nearly 90 feet on each side. Its front extends 28 feet on the eastern side to provide a portico, which is also square in plan with sides of 12.5 feet. The vimana (tower) is square in plan and has a height of 60 feet from the ground. It consists of four storeys, each with a passage around its exterior, a cella in the center, and a corridor encircling two of those for circumambulation. The architecture of the Shore temple conforms to the principle of the Dharmaraja Ratha. The shrines of these temples face east, allowing the first rays of the sun to illuminate the shrine and making them clearly visible to those approaching the harbor by ship.
Aparajita Style: The fourth Pallava style of architecture is named after Aparajitavarman and developed around 900 AD. There was a further evolution of Pallava art during this period, bringing it closer to the Chola style. The lingas became cylindrical, and the abacus above the capital became more prominent. The monument representing this style is the Shrine of Bahur. The Mukteswara and Matungeswara temples in Kanchi, the Vedamalliswara temple in Oragadam, the Virattaneswara temple in Tiruttani, and the Pack Perasurameswara temple in Gudimallan belong to this period of the Pallavas when their power was declining. These temples are mere copies of the earlier temples and are not remarkable in any way.
According to the view of Prof. K.A. Nilakanta Shastry, the Pallavas made significant contributions to the art of South India. In the beginning, there were moderately sized pillared halls with front-faced rows of pillars and plastered walls. The pillars had square sections at the base and top, with an octagonal middle section. Over time, the pillars were refined in shape and proportion and provided with moldings. One of the modifications made by Narasimhavarman Mahamalla and his successors was the conversion of the pillar base into a squatting lion or vyala, which later transformed into a prancing or roaring lion. It cannot be denied that the Pallavas deserve credit for initiating a movement in temple architecture that elevated ancient Indian architecture to a higher position.