The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
.India's Parthian Colony
On the origin of the Pallava empire of Dravidia
Dr. Samar Abbas, India
Abstract: This paper reveals the ancient Pallava Dynasty of Dravidia to be of the Iranic race, and as constituting a branch of the Pahlavas, Parthavas or Parthians of Persia. It uncovers the consequent Iranic foundations of Classical Dravidian architecture. It also describes a short history of the Pallavas of Tamil Nadu, including the cataclysmic 100-Years' Maratha-Tamil War. The modern descendants of Pallavas discovered amongst the Chola Vellalas of northern Tamil Nadu and Reddis of Andhra. (Some names in this text are garbled. The Word document characters could not be converted.)
1. Pallavas, Pahlavas, Parthavas, Parthians and Persians
The Pallava Empire was the largest and most powerful South Asian state in its time, ranking as one of the glorious empires of world history. At its height it covered an area larger than France, England and Germany combined. It encompassed all the present-day Dravidian nations, including the Tamil, Telugu, Malayali and Kannada tracts within its far-flung borders.
The foundations of classical Dravidian architecture were established by these powerful rulers, who left behind fantastic sculptures and magnificent temples which survive to this very day. Initially, the similarity of the words "Pallava" and "Pahlava" had led 19th-century researchers to surmise an Iranic origin for the Pallavas. Since then, a mountain of historical, anthropological, and linguistic evidence has accumulated to conclusively establish that the Pallavas were of Parthian origin.
1.2. Occurrence of Parsas across the world
The wide occurrence of the Iranic root-word Par in various place-names proves the dispersion of the Pars or Persians across much of Asia in ancient times. Thus, Persia, Persepolis, Pasargadae ("Gates of Parsa") and "Parthaunisa (ancient city, Parthia)" or Nisa (Enc. Brit., vol.9, p.173) are all constructed from the ancient Iranic root-word Pars.
In this regard, the learned Prof. Waddell notes in his masterpiece The Makers of Civilization: "Barahsi or Parahsi [of Akkadian inscriptions] now transpires to be the original of the ancient Persis province of the Greeks, with its old capital at Anshan or Persepolis, the central province of Persia to the East of Elam and the source of our modern names of 'Persia' and 'Parsi'. And it is another instance of the remarkable persistence of old territorial names" (Waddell 1929, p.216).
The Parsumas mentioned in Assyrian annals are also generally identified with the Persians, and the Zoroastrian Parsis of Maharashtra are clearly of Persic descent. Moreover, the word Parthian is itself derived from Parsa, as the Encyclopedia Britannica notes: "The first certain occurrence of the name is as Parthava in the Bisitun inscription (c.520 BC) of the Achaemenian king Darius I, but Parthava may be only a dialectal variation of the name Parsa (Persian)." (Enc.Brit. Vol.9, p.173)
Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard University has further identified the Parnoi as the Pani mentioned in the Vedas:
Thus, the Persians, Parthians, Pashtos, Panis and Perizzites are all offhoots of the ancient proto-Persians. This testifies to the achievements of the Persian branch of the Iranic race in civilizing and colonizing Southern Asia. All this, of course, is well known and the subject of numerous books (cf, eg. Derakhshani 1999). Less famous is the fact that the magnificent Pallava Dynasty of Southern India was also of Iranic descent.
1.3. Pahlava History in Iran
The Pahlavas made important contributions to Iranian civilization. The modern Farsi tongue is derived from the Old Parthian language, as noted by the Encyclopedia Britannica: "Of the modern Iranian languages, by far the most widely spoken is Persian, which, as already indicated, developed from Middle Persian and Parthian, with elements from other Iranian languages such as Sogdian, as early as the 9th century AD." (Enc.Brit.vol.22, p.627) Furthermore, "Middle Persian [Sassanian Pahlava] and Parthian were doubtlessly similar enough to be mutually intelligible." (Enc.Brit.22.624); a statement which further confirms the identity of the Pahlavas and the Parthians.
Moreover, the Pahlava alphabet is the ancestor of the Sasanian Persian alphabet: "The Pahlava alphabet developed from the Aramaic alphabet and occurs in at least three local varieties: northwestern, called Pahlavik or Arsacid; southwestern, called Parsik or Sasanian, and eastern" (Enc.Brit. vol.9, p.62).
Some authorities seem to insist that it was the Semitic Aramaic alphabet which gave birth to the Parthian alphabet. This is not so; it was actually the Assyrian variant which developed into the Pahlava characters, just as it was Assyrian art, not Aramaean, which inspired later Achaemenid culture. The Achaemenid empire was in many ways the successor-state of the Assyrian empire.
1.4. Pallavas of Dravidia as Pahlavis
The Pallavas are first attested in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, precisely the geographical region expected for an invading group. This, together with the evident phonetic similarity between the words "Pallava" and "Pahlava", has long led researchers to advocate a Parthian origin of the Pallavas:
As Venkayya notes,
Philogists concur in connecting the names Pahlava, Parthava, Parthian and Pallava:
2. Evidence for Parthian Descent of Pallavas
A whole mountain of evidence from various fields of science support the Parthian, and hence Iranic, origin of the Pallavas. It would be of interest to summarise the evidence here.
Archaeologists note the occurrence of oblong earthenware coffins in sites coinciding with the region of Pallava hegemony:
Pallava administration was based on the Maurya pattern, which was in turn based on that of the Achaemenid Empire.
The dress of the Pallavas is cleary Parthian. Thus, Nair notes,
The entire city of Mamallapuram or Mahamallapuram in Tamil Nadu is named after the Pallava King Mahamalla who is celebrated as the founder of this city. This original Prakrit name "Mahamallapuram" was later corrupted in the Sanskrit into "Mahabalipuram". In this regard, Venkayya notes the origin of the name "Mamallapuram":
Surviving contemporary sculptures of this celebrated King Mamalla depict him wearing a typical cylindrical Iranian head-dress:
Furthermore, the elephant-head crown used by Pallava kings resembled those worn by Bactrian kings (cf. Appendix I).
2.4. Prakrit Language
The Pallavas initially propagated Prakrit, a language containing a much higher percentage of Indo-European words compared to Sanskrit as it represented a later, and hence purer, heliolatric Indo-European invasion. "These three Prākṛt grants prove that there was a time when the court language was Prākṛt even in Southern India." (Venkayya 1907, p.223) That they initially did not propagate Sanskrit or Tamil is significant as it rules out a Vedic or Dravidian origin for the Pallavas.
2.5. Toponyms and Personal Names
Evidence from toponyms (place-names) corroborates the Iranic origin of Pallavas. For instance, the Pallavas named a city in Tamil Nadu as Menmatura or Men-Matura, after Mithra, the ancient Iranic Sun-God, formed from tbe consonantal root MTR. The large town in southern Tamil Nadu, Madurai, is named after the Sun-temple city of Mathura in Oudh, which is also based on "Mithra". Further, the Pallavas had a fondness for Iranic Prakrit personal names such as Ashoka:
The Pallavas thus sought to emulate the Maurya kings, who were of Iranic origin (Spooner 1915, p.406ff). It is important to note that the Iranic root-word "Mor" occurs all across the Iranian world: consider the "Mardian" tribe of Persians mentioned by Herodotus; "the Avestan name Mourva, the Marga of the Achaemenian inscriptions" (Spooner 1915, p.406), and the city of Merv, also known as "Merw, Meru or Maur", whose inhabitants are known as "Marga and Mourva" (ibid.), the legendary "Meru" mountain, the "Amorites" or "Amurru" of Syria and Palestine who possessed an Iranic ruling caste, the "Amu-Darya" river, "Amol" town just south of the Caspian, "Marwar" in Rajputana, the Oudh towns of "Mor-adabad" and "Meerut", the "Maurya" dynasty of Ashoka, and the "Marut" warriors in India.
2.6. Official Symbolism
To this evidence we may add that the Pallavas had as their crest the lion, just as the Achaemenids carved lions at Persepolis. Describing the cave at Siyamangalam, Venkayya notes:
The depictions of Pallava nobles on sculptures further confirms their Iranic origin, for they are depicted as tall and dolichocephalic (long-headed) along with clearly Iranic features.
The long-headedness of these sculptures rules out an Outer Indo-Aryan origin for the Pallavas, while their leptorrhine noses rule out a Dravidian origin.
The architecture of the Pallavas was clearly based on Iranian forms, down to the last detail. Pillars especially were copies of Persepolitan originals (see Fig.4 and Fig.3).
2.9. Legendary Descent
The traditional genealogy of the Pallavas also points to their Parthian origins:
The above evidences, taken together rather than singly, provide almost conclusive proof of the Parthian origin of Pallavas.
3. History of the Pallavas
3.1. Early History: Adoption of Dravidian Culture
After immigrating from Parthia, the Pallavas settled down in the Andhra region. From here they entered northern Tamil Nadu. Initially, the Pallava Empire was restricted to Toṇḍai-maṇḍalam, the northern part of Tamil Nadu: "It thus appears that the Pallava dominions included at the time [Sivaskandavarman, beg. 4th century AD] not only Kāñcipuram and the surrounding province but also the Telugu country as far north as the river Kṛṣṇā." (Venkayya 1907, p.222) Subsequently, the Pallavas expanded to conquer large parts of Andhra:
Tamil poets described the boundaries of Toṇḍai-maṇḍalam as follows:
After settling in Tondai-mandalam, the Pallavas rapidly adopted the Dravidian culture, religion and language of their subjects. This case was not unique in history; there are many examples of ruling classes adopting the culture of those they ruled: consider the Hellenic Ptolemies in Egypt, the Paleo-Siberian Manchus in China, the Germanic Lombards in Italy, the Nordic Visigoths in Spain, the Mongol Il-Khans in Persia, the French-speaking Normans in England, and the Germanic Carolingians, Merovingians, Burgundians and Franks of France. Thus, the Pallavas adopted the Old Tamil language and the Dravidian religion of Shaivism and became vigorous promoters of Dravidian culture.
3.2. Expansion of the Pallava Empire
From its nucleus in Tondaimandalam, the Pallava Empire expanded in all directions. The Pan-Dravidian nature of the Pallava empire is manifested through the extent of their dominions. Thus, the Pallavas vanquished the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas and conquered their territories, uniting Tamil Nadu, Malabar, Karnadu and Telingana into one giant empire:
This was the first pan-Dravidian empire in history. Perhaps they were able to unite the Dravidian nations precisely because they were outsiders, and hence did not possess any history of feuding with local clans. Thus, we find the Pallavas conquering all the three mutually warring Pandya, Cola and Cera kingdoms:
After consolidating their rule over the Dravidian nations, the Pallavas extended their empire to South-East Asia:
However, the exact extent of Pallava colonization in South-East Asia is not clear due to paucity of sources. Even so, the Pallava Empire was the largest South Asian state of its age, and served as the model for future pan-Dravidian empires such as that built by the Cholas.
3.3. The 100-Years' Maratha-Tamil War (AD 634-747) & Decline
The Indian equivalent of Europe's Anglo-French 100-Years' War was the prolonged conflict between Marathas and Tamils under the Chalukyas and Pallava dynasties which lasted well over a century.
At this point, we may note Mr. Rice's hypothesis that the Calukyas were Seleucids:
However, Mr. Rice's suggestion has not been accepted by other historians, and is merely a phonetic coincidence, for there is no other evidence of any connection whatsoever between the Calukyas and Seleucids.
Historians have found several reasons for explaining the bitterness of the Maratha-Dravidian wars. Venkayya notes the religious aspect of the conflict, with the Vaishnava Marathas on one side and the Dravidian Shaivites on the other:
Shaivism and Vaishnavism are poles apart in all details of theology. Vaishnavites revere the cow, Shaivites slaughter the cow but worship the bull; Vaishnavites uphold the four-fold caste system, Shaivites oppose the caste system tooth and nail; later Vaishnavism upholds the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmans, Shaivism rejects the Vedas and is anti-Brahmin. Thus, observers have noted that Vaishnavism and Shaivism are like cat and mongoose, theologically destined to be locked in an eternal war of opposites. Hence, religion played an important role in exacerbating the hatred on both sides.
However, a far deeper reason contributed to the conflict, namely that of ethnicity. Abstract theological formulae, on account of their nebulous definition and easily modified nature, no doubt hardly mattered to the great majority of inhabitants. Rather, it is race and ethnicity which combined to make the Pallava-Chalukya conflict especially bitter. Thus, the so-called Calukya-Pallava dynastic conflict was in actual fact a racial Maratha-Dravidian war.
On the one hand were the Marathas speaking Outer Indo-Aryan languages, of brachycephalic (round-headed) Turanoid race. The survival of Burushaski - a language isolate linked with the Transcaucasian and Finno-Ugric languages - in the Himalayas testifies to the immigration of brachycephalic Turanian peoples into India. The Turanoid Maratha is thus fair-skinned, short-statured and round-headed. On the other hand were the long-headed and taller, black-skinned Dravidians of Sudanic Negroid origin. The Dravidians, however, had a long-headed Iranic Pallava ruling class. The Iranoid longheads are fairer and taller than the Dravidoid longheads, who are in turn taller but darker than the Turanoid Outer Indo-Aryan roundheads. Thus, racial differences no doubt played, along with language and religion, a prominent role in the conflict.
At the outset of the 100-year Maratha-Tamil War, it is the Marathas who gained the upper hand, defeating the Pallavas and driving them from the Vengi delta area of Andhra. However, the Pallavas later defeated the Maharashtrians and sacked their capital Vatapi, annexing it to the Dravidian Empire:
Unsung and forgotten are the countless heroes on both sides, their deeds and brave acts lost in the mist of time, yet heroes they were nevertheless. Like the knights of the 100-Years' Anglo-French War, the glorious warriors of the 100-Years' Maratha-Tamil War fought and died for their homelands, strengthening these nations' foundations with their blood and bones.
This 100-year Maratha-Tamil war had far-reaching consequences, leading to the exhaustion of both the Maratha and Dravidian states and sapping their vitality. These states started to decline after the war. Ultimately, both the Calukya and Pallava states disappeared from history.
3.4. Modern-Day Pallavas
After the Pallava Empire was annexed by the Chola Empire, the Pallavas merged into the Tamil population:
The Pudukkottai royal family is apparently descended from the ancient Pallavas:
In addition to the royal family of Pudukkottai, other groups are also probably descended from the Pallavas, such as the Reddis of Andhra and some of the Kshatriya and Vaishya castes of northern Tamil Nadu:
4. Iranian Origin of Dravidian Architecture and Contribution to Dravidian Civilization
4.1. Iranic Origin of Dravidian Architecture
The Pallava foundations for Dravidian architecture is universally accepted by scholars. For instance, a standard textbook on World Architecture states, "Mahabalipuram, the five temples (rathas), Pallava (7th century AD), are embryonic models of later Dravidian, or Southern, temple styles." (Holberton, p.55). Confirming this view, the Encyclopedia Britannica notes:
Suthanthiran summarises the views of various eminent scholars:
Venkayya agrees with the Pallavite origin of Dravidian architecture:
One of the gems of Pallava architecture is the Kailashanatha temple, which was also known as Rajasimha-Pallavesvara in ancient times (Venkayya 1907, p.234, footnote 3).
The pyramid-shaped tower or Shikara of the Kailashanatha temple is strangely similar to Babylonian step-pyramids. Babylonia was an integral part of the Parthian empire. While such innovations could have been due to independant innovation, it is more likely that the Pallavas were emulating Babylonian prototypes during the construction of Kailasanatha.
The Pancha-ratha Pallava temple at Mamallapuram consists of five temples, one having a Saka-Buddhist cupola, one an Egyptian-style pyramid, and three having ziggurat-shaped roofs reminiscent of Sumer and Babylon (cf. Fig.6) . This combination of designs is unlikely to have been independantly invented without external stimulus. These influences could only have come via Iran and the Pallavas, for the Parthians ruled over Assyria and Babylonia.
4.2. Spread of Buddhism
The Pallavas played a major role in propagating the religion of Buddhism. Buddha was known as Sakya-muni, Prakrit for "Lord of the Scythians", and was an Iranian. Thus, there is little surprise when we find Pallavas being the most ardent propagators of Buddhism: "The sect of Buddhism preached in China by Buddha Varman, a Pallava Prince of Kanchi came to be known as Zen Buddhism and it spread later to Japan and other places." (Damodaran 1980, p.70). In other words, Zen Buddhism, like its parent faith of Buddhism, was founded by an Iranian, Buddha Varman.
4.3. Dravidian Shaivism
As noted above, the Pallavas rapidly adopted the indigenous Dravidian religion of Shaivism, and became staunch propagators of the faith. Scores of Shiva temples constructed by the Pallavas remain. While the Pallavas, like the Achaemenids and Parthians, were religiously tolerant, the devotion of some Pallava kings to Shaivism went so far that they went to the extent of demolishing Jain temples:
By and large, however, the primordial tolerance of Dravidian Shaivism manifested itself, absorbing the other faiths in due course of time.
5. Refutation of Rival Theories on Origin of Parthians
Ayyar has summed up the various non-Parthian theories as follows:
We now turn to the three theories, namely Chola-Naga, Andhra and Maharashtra Aryan origins.
5.1. Refutation of the Maharashtrian and Vakataka Origin
The surviving sculptures in Tamil Nadu depict Pallavas as tall and dolichocephalic (long-headed) (Fig.3), while the Marathas are short-statured and brachycephalic (round-headed). Moreover, the Pallavas were Shaivites, as opposed to the Maharastrians, who were adherents of the Vaishnavite religion. Further, the Pallavas waged the brutal 100-year Maratha-Tamil war against the Maratha Chalukyas. Had the Pallavas been Maharashtrians, it is unlikely the conflict would have been so prolonged and of such intensity. Thus, the Pallavas were almost certainly not of Maharastrian origin. The slight Maharastrian influence amongst Pallavas is to be attributed to their migration through Maharashtra on their way from Persia to Tamil Nadu.
5.2. Refutation of alleged Vedic Origin
It is sometimes asserted that the Pallavas were of Vedic origin. However, the Vedic and Puranic evidence itself contradicts this view:
Had the Pallavas been of Vedic origin, they would not be cursed in this manner in the Brahmanic scripture. Moreover, the Pallavas did not practice the custom of Vedic human sacrifice (purushamedha or naramedha) and horse sacrifice (asvamedha). Nor did they permit sati (widow-burning) or bride-burning. The Vedic and Brahmanic caste system was also not supported. Also, the Pallavas in their earliest times promoted Prakrit and not Sanskrit. Thus Venkayya notes, "The earliest known records of the Pallavas are three Prākṛt copper-plate charters, viz. (1) the Mayidavōlu plates of Śivaskandavarman, (2) the Hirehaḍagalli plates of the same king and (3) the British Museum plates of Cārudēvi." (Venkayya 1907, p.222) These facts disprove the Vedic origin of the Pallavas.
5.3. Refutation of the Dravidian Origin
That the Pallavas were not Dravidians is evidenced from the fact that their migration can be clearly traced via copper-plate grants as being from the Telugu to the Tamil country. The Pallavas initially promoted Prakrit, which also goes against the proposed Andhra origin of Pallavas. Had they been Andhras, they would no doubt have propagated the proto-Telugu Dravidian dialect.
In further opposition to the Dravidian origin of Pallavas, Venkayya has fittingly asked why the Andhras should have adopted a name which would lead to them being confused with the Pahlavas of Persia.
However, the Pallavas rapidly adopted the indigenous Dravidian religion of Shaivism and propagated it, just as the Germanist Lombards accepted the Roman Catholicism of their Latin Italian subjects. That the Pallavas were able to flourish in Dravidia is a testimony to Dravidian tolerance and open-mindedness, a rare characteristic in those days.
The remaining rival theories on the origins of the Pallavas having been undermined, the Parthian origin of the Pallavas remains as the sole logical alternative.
6. Consequences and Conclusion
The Parthian origin of the Pallavas was eagerly adopted by virtually all schools of Dravidologists from the very beginning. Formerly, Indo-European influence in Dravidian had been attributed solely to Sanskrit. Anti-Sanskrit Dravidianists welcomed the Iranic origin of Pallavas as it decreased the Sanskrit proportion in the Indo-European component of Dravidian civilization. Indeed, certain votaries of this school believe that Iranic influence in Dravidian is more important than that of Sanskrit.
Dravidianist evangelists have in their turn used the Pallava example to demand that the Tamil Brahmins adopt Dravidian culture. Their chief argument is that, if the Pallavas from distant Persia could so eagerly adopt Dravidian civilization, then why couldn't the local Tamil Brahmins?
Multi-culturalist Dravidianists, meanwhile, upheld the Pallavas as an example of ancient Dravidian tolerance and multi-culturalism. The South Indian Brahminist school, which is also largely multi-culturalist (often miscalled 'secularist') in character, has largely followed this path as well. The political use - and abuse - of history goes on.
The Parthian origin of Pallavas also provides an explanation for the presence of tall, fair-skinned members of non-Brahmin castes in Tamil Nadu and other Dravidian states. Formerly attacked as mixed-caste, part-Brahmin, offspring, it is observed that such persons are at present claiming a Pallava-Parthian origin instead. This is certainly true of certain Cholas, Vellalas and Reddis. Especially in case of those fair individuals who are long-headed, a Pallavite origin is more plausible than a mixed-Brahmin one, for the South Indian Brahmins are generally round-heads. The Parthian theory of the origin of Pallavas has thus helped a large number of people to be rehabilitated in Dravidian society.
It is hoped that Iranists will be inspired by this work to carry out further research on the achievements of the enterprising Pallavas in Dravidia, and bring to light the full scale of Iranic influence in Dravidian civilization.
Afsar Abbas is a professor at the Institute of Physics, Bhubaneshwar, India
The author would like to thank Prof. Shireen Moosvi and Prof. Irfan Habib (Aligarh) for their kind assistance with references. The author is also very grateful to Prof. P. Oktor Skjærvø and Prof. Michael Witzel (Harvard) for kindly sending important research material. Many thanks to Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian for fruitful discussions, and to The Iranian for publishing this paper.
The author gratefully thanks Michael D. Gunther, http://www.art-and-archaeology.com; Dr. Vandana Sinha, American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon, http://www.indiastudies.org; and Stewart Lane Ellington, http://stewellington.com for permission to reproduce their wonderful images in this paper.
Page Keywords: Parthians, Arsacids, Ashkanians, Ashakanids, Pahlavas, Parni
Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)