A king of the Pallava dynasty, Mahendravarman I ruled over parts of present-day northern Tamil Nadu and southern Andhra Pradesh between 580–630 CE. He was a patron of the arts and is also tbelieved to have authored two farcical plays in Sanskrit — the Mattavilasa Prahasanam, which satirises Buddhist bhikshus and Kapalikas, and the Bhagavadajjukam. His capital, Kanchipuram, was a major cosmopolitan centre of the early medieval period, where Buddhist, Jain, Vaishnava and Shaiva sects flourished. In later traditions, the king is depicted as a Jain who converted to Shaivism under the influence of the popular Shaiva bhakti saint Appar.
Early scholarship about Mahendravarman I tended to depict him as the prime example of a royal patron-as-artist, arguing that he pioneered the production of rock-cut architecture in northern Tamil Nadu. He is also held to have personally inaugurated a shift towards sculpture in granite instead of sandstone, a hallmark of Dravida architecture in the region; a direct line of descent has thus been drawn between Mahendravarman’s temples and those of much later rulers such as Rajaraja Chola I. Such claims are difficult to establish, owing to the paucity of written evidence associated with temple patronage and the production of sculpture.
However, two major cave temples have been definitively linked to Mahendravarman’s patronage due to dedicatory inscriptions issued by his court: the Lakshitayana cave in Mandagapattu, dedicated to the trimurti; and the Cave Temple at Tiruchirappalli, containing a relief of Shiva as Gangadhara interpreted as a depiction of Mahendravarman himself. Some scholars have used these shrines to define a “Mahendra style” of cave temple architecture, characterised by simplicity of plan and decoration, few ornamental sculptures, bulky square-sectioned pillars and the presence of dvarapalas.
Mahendravarman’s shrines usually have inscriptions referring to the king by numerous honorific royal titles or birudas, such as Lakshita (the distinguished), Vichtrachitta (the curious-minded), Vidhi (the creator) and Mattavilasa (drunken sporter) among others.
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