Short notes on Art and Architecture of Gupta Period


In the opinion of critics, Pallava sculpture displays an impersonal, disciplined attitude, an attitude “not born of any inner experience or meditative principle or of any deep experience of life.

It is but formal acceptance of life with a cultured and aristocratic detachment. Indeed, for deeper or subtler experience. It seems to care little” (N.R. Ray in The Classical Age). That may be so, but the Pallava temple architecture is noteworthy.

The rock-cut monuments are of two types, the simple pillared mandapas of Mahendravarman I and the similar but more elaborate mandapam and rathas of Narasimhavarman and his successors.


Mahendravarman was the first in the South to raise shrines without using brick, mortar, metal and wood. These are characterised by circular lingams, peculiar forms of dvarapalas or guards and cubical pillars, and are found at Mandagapathi (North Arcot) and Thiruchirapalli.

The monolithic structures known as rathas were raised by Narasimhavarman I at Mahabalipuram. The eight rathas at Mahabalipuram have storeyed elevation of the roof, are all either square or rectangular in plan, and are pyramidal in elevation.

The Draupadi ratha, actually a small shrine for the goddess Durga, is the simplest of all. The Dharmaraja ratha is the largest and has pillars in the portico with rampant lions, the pyramindal tower and turreted roof.

The Bhima, Ganesha and Sahadeva rathas are oblong in plan and follow the architecture of the chaitya hall. Two or three storeys high, with barrel roofs and chaitya-type gable ends, the beginnings of the great Dravidian gopurams were made in these structures, to be developed and perfected six centuries or so later.


The flowering of the structural temples in dressed stone began in the reign of Narasimhavarman II Pallava and Rajasimha. The shore, Isvara and Mukunda temples at Mahabalipuram, the Pannamalai temple in South Arcot and the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchi were the shrines associated with his name.

The first significant structure in dressed stone, the shore temple complex has three shrines, two dedi­cated to Siva and the third to Vishnu. To signify the devotees longing for the Absolute Being, the emphasis is on verticality, on a rhythm of the towers.

“The shore temple is in some ways the culmination, not only of the genius of Rajasimha’s times, but also of the entire Pallava epoch” (Meister). The Kailasanadia temple at Kanchi, built entirely of sandstone, is the largest of all Pallava temples and displays a harmony and balance that has been followed in temple construction all over Western Deccan.

The Vaikunthaperumal temple at Kanchi is regarded as the masterpiece of Pallavamalla Nandivarman II.


With regard to paintings, some have been found at Pannamalai and the Kailasanatha temples of Rajasimha. Based on Saivite mythology, the Pannamalai scene depicts a dancing Siva being watched by an appreciative Parvati.

Painted stuccos in the cloistered cells of Kailasanatha reveal Siva in domestic intimacy, the affectionate lord with consort Uma and son Skanda.

Pallava sculpture is mostly bas-relief and, in the opinion of critics, formalized and abstract. The panels in Mahabalipuram show Vishnu sleeping on Seshanag and Durga fighting Mahishasura in a simple and impressive manner.

The bas-reliefs of Simha- Vishnu and Mahendravarman I depict the idealized portraits of monarchs and their queens.


It is, how­ever, in Aijuna’s Penance that the Pallava artist/ sculptor has given a free rein to his imagination and created perhaps the largest bas-relief in the world.

It is sculpted on the face of two boulders, a crack between the two representing a river. In the middle of the stream two nagas are playing.

A Brahman is going home with a pot on his shoulder in one place; a deer is coming for a drink in another. Two swans are poised above to take a plunge, below a number of ascetics are doing prayas in a small shrine.

Overseeing all this and mimicking the ascetics is a cat, its front paws raised above its head. On seeing this, mice of the forest run here and there and some even worship the cat as their god!


Grousset called it a “regular fresco in stone” and S.K. Saraswati felt that “the epic myth serves as the vehicle, not for any spiritual quest, but for depicting life in its natural surroundings.”

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