History of the Pallavan Era: Pioneering Studies of C. Minakshi

in Article
Published on: 24 July 2017

Amol Saghar

Amol is a PhD candidate at the department of History, Delhi University of Delhi, researching social and political processes in north Tamil Nadu, circa 4th-9th centuries CE' (corresponding mainly to the Pallavan era).

Travelling on the picturesque East Coast Road running parallel to the Bay of Bengal from Chennai to Puducherry and further south, one passes several interesting sites which hold the attention of the weary travellers. One such site is the Mamallapuram complex. This group of beautifully carved monuments dates as far back as the 8th century CE. This site is on the itinerary of most tourists who visit Chennai.


The complex contains roughly 14 cave temples, nine monolithic shrines, three structural stone temples and around four relief-structured rock panels. The complex as well as the Mamallapuram town itself takes its name from Mamalla or Mahamalla ('the great wrestler') which was one of the epithets of Narasimahavarman I, the Pallavan ruler who established this town and was responsible for commissioning the construction of most of the monuments found here. In common parlance, however, the place is referred usually as Mahabalipuram so as to correspond to a legend about the killing of a cruel and an arrogant ruler Mahabali, the mythical founder of this town, by Vishnu after a fierce and a prolonged battle. The sheer magnificence of the Mamallapuram monuments, giving an impression of rising from the ground, leaves one speechless.


The Pallavas were the first dynasty to have established a territorially large and well-developed state in northern Tamil Nadu in circa 4th century CE. They ruled for almost five centuries, till about the 9th century CE when they were replaced by the Cholas. This area had several different tribal polities prior to the rise of the Pallavas. The core of the Pallavan kingdom comprised parts of northern Tamil Nadu including places like Tiruvallur, Vellore, Kanchipuram, Tiruvannamalai, Viluppuram, Cuddalore, Perambalur, parts of eastern Dharmapuri, northern portions of Nagapattinam, Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur and Pudukkottai. The Pallavan rulers built such grand monuments as those found in Mamallapuram as well as the magnificent Kanchi Kailasnathar temple. These buildings were to provide inspiration for the grand Chola temples including the magnificent Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur.  Sadly, however, barring the few works of E. Hultzsch, V. Venkayya, G. Joveau-Dubrueil, R. Gopalan and C. Minakshi, very little historical research was available on this dynasty in the early 20th century.


Of these scholars C. Minakshi was a pioneer who worked extensively on the history of the Pallavas. Unfortunately, she died at a very young age. She passed away at the age of 34 on March 3, 1940. Minakshi had by then completed her PhD thesis, besides producing three books and several articles. She was in fact on the verge of submitting her thesis for the DLitt degree when she died.


She was born on September 12, 1905, in Madras (now Chennai) to Cadambi Balakrishnan, a bench-clerk in the Madras High Court, and Mangalammal. Balakrishanan died when Minakshi was still very young.


C. Minakshi studied at the Women’s Christian College, Madras. The College was located near her residence at Nungambakkam. She graduated in 1929. Minakshi was interested in pursuing her studies further at Madras Christian College—essentially an institution for men. In her initial attempt at getting admitted she was unsuccessful. Her determination finally paid off with the College administration granting her admission. This might have partly been due to her elder brother C. Laxminarayanan, who was a professor of Zoology at the College. Laxminarayanan gave a written assurance to the authorities, taking responsibility for her during her entire academic period there. It may be mentioned here that besides Laxminarayanan, Minakshi had two more brothers. Both were older than her. They too, like Laxminarayanan, facilitated Minakshi’s education.


As a post-graduate student at the Madras Christian College, she vindicated those who had supported her in making her wish come true. Though she had done her undergraduation in history and economics it was at the College that she developed a keen interest in history, thanks to the constant interactions with one of her teachers, Professor Ferrand E. Corley.


Completing her post-graduation studies in 1931 she enrolled for the PhD in History in the same year in the Department of Indian History and Archaeology at the University of Madras. Here she worked on her thesis on the Pallavas with Professor K.A. Nilakanta Sastri as her supervisor.


After researching extensively for three years between 1931 and 1934, Minakshi submitted her thesis to the University. Her thesis was primarily on Pallavan art and administration. She was awarded the doctoral degree for her thesis in March 1936. This was the first PhD awarded to a woman in the history of the University. It may be recalled that the University was established in 1857. C. Minakshi’s success opened doors for other women researchers in the Madras Presidency.


Subsequently, a part of her doctoral thesis—the most important and detailed part—was approved for publication by the University under the title Administration and Social Life Under the Pallavas (ASLP). It was published in 1938 as the part of ‘University of Madras Historical Series’. The general editor of this series was Nilakanta Sastri. The significant monographs published as part of this series included R. Gopalan’s Pallavas of Kanchi (1928), Nilakanta Sastri’s two volume magnum opus Colas (1935; 1937), T.V. Mahalingam’s Mackenzie Manuscripts: Summaries of the Historical Manuscripts in the Mackenzie Collection, Volume 1 (Tamil and Malayalam) (1972) and N. Subrahmanian’s Pre-Pallavan Tamil Index (1966).



Apart from ASLP two other monographs of Minakshi—both based on her thesis—were also published: The Kailasnatha Temple, Kanchi, and The Historical Sculptures of the Vaikunthaperumal Temple. The Kailasnatha Temple was published sometime in 1940. We are not sure of the exact details of the publisher. The Historical Sculptures of Vaikunthaperumal Temple was published by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1941. Minakshi also wrote an important article entitled ‘Buddhism in South India’.


Whereas ASLP was published during Minakshi’s lifetime, her other two books came out posthumously. ASLP was reviewed favourably by the eminent French scholar Georges Coedès (Coedès had worked extensively on the archaeology and history of southeast Asia). The review was published in 1938 in the Bulletin de l’ Ècole Française d’Extrême-Orient.    


C. Minakshi’s writings are free from jargon and they can be read by the general reader though written for the specialists. Unfortunately, Minakshi’s books have gone out of print and are today available only in a few specialised institutions. Even though ASLP was reprinted once with the addition of new information and an updated bibliography in 1977, her two other books have been out of print for several years now. It is a pity that neither the University of Madras nor the Archaeological Survey India has made any effort to bring out new editions of these works.


Minakshi was fluent in Tamil, English and Sanskrit. She had a mastery over her primary sources which has more or less remained unsurpassed by other scholars working on the same set of sources. Minakshi also rendered an English translation of the Sanskrit play Bhagavad-Ajjuka Prahasanam ('Recluse-cum-Courtesan' or 'The Farce of the Saint-Courtesan'). It was among the few early translations of this play. The play is believed to have been written by the Pallavan ruler Mahendravarman I (circa 610–630 CE). The play is about an ascetic (Bhagavan) whose soul enters by some yogic miracles into the body of a courtesan (addressed as Ajjuka) while the latter’s soul enters into the ascetic’s body. This combination of the two souls results in a comedy of errors. A disciple of the ascetic jokingly refers to his guru as Bhagavad-Ajjuka; hence the title of the farce, Bhagvadajjuka Prahasanam.


Since the time when C. Minakshi’s monographs were first published there has been a vast improvement in our knowledge of the period. In the 1977 edition of ASLP some revisions and additions were made incorporating new research on the subject. Some of her arguments and observations for instance with regard to the historicity of the Pallavan hero stones, and also the authorship of certain cave temples like the Sittannavasal which she ascribed to Mahendravarman I have been modified in the light of new literary and inscriptional evidence. The Sittanavasal cave temple is now attributed to the Pandyas. Likewise, with the discovery of new Pallavan inscriptions the map of the Pallavan kingdom as provided by her underwent a change.


However, the several editorial interventions of K.K. Pillay, most of them not easily identifiable without a comparison with the earlier text, have greatly reduced the importance of this edition. For instance, in the original edition there is absolutely no separate discussion on the Kalabhara issue while in the 1977 edition a separate discussion on this issue has been inserted. Similary, while Minakshi nowhere takes Victor Goloubew’s views on the origins of the Pallavas for critical review and neither does she discuss the rule of each Pallavan rulers separately, in the 1977 edition these changes are there to be read. Moreover, the elaborate discussion on the issue of famine during the Pallavan age by Minakshi has been drastically abridged in the 1977 edition of ASLP. Such major alterations to the original edition, without indicating anywhere what those changes are, are not justifiable. The original edition of 1938, it may be underlined, is today virtually unobtainable.


Minakshi’s main writings on the Pallavas are primarily descriptive in nature. It cannot be denied, however, that she did make an attempt to go beyond the traditional framework of history which had an overemphasis on political history. Along with the political aspects she brings into her writings some other aspects, including literature, coinage, revenue and taxation, weights and measures, irrigation and famine. At the same time most of these discussions are isolated. There is no attempt made by her to integrate these aspects of the period into a larger argument.


Minakshi’s researches were carried forward by T.V. Mahalingam. His major publications on the Pallavan period include South Indian Polity (1955), Kanchipuram in Early South Indian History (1968), Readings in South Indian History and the massive Inscriptions of the Pallavas (1988). In these Mahalingam tried to explore in detail various facets of the Pallavan history though the focus was largely on the political aspects, with non-political aspects getting limited attention.


In the last few decades the studies by Y. Subbarayalu, Burton Stein, Noboru Karashima, Kesavan Veluthat, R. Champakalakshmi and Rajan Gurukkal have greatly enriched our understanding of the early history of Tamil Nadu. Though most of these studies focus largely on the later periods, including those of the Cholas and the Vijayanagara, they have allowed us to comprehend the socio-economic processes of the period.


Further, studies on the bhakti movement by M.G.S. Narayanan and Veluthat have shown how the movement was intrinsically connected with the state apparatus and the manner in which the latter used it to propagate its ideology far and wide. With its roots in the Pallavan period the bhakti movement marked an important stage in the social history of Tamil Nadu. Initially it was a social protest movement. It gradually came to encapsulate the ideas of the elite. The writings of Rajan Gurukkal, R. Champakalakshmi and Manu V. Devadevan have shed some important light on the early social formations of this region. The importance of trade and trade guilds in the early history of south India has been highlighted in the writings of Kenneth Hall.


There has been a shift in the historiography in the more recent writings on early Tamil Nadu. Scholars are no longer interested in studying merely the origins of a dynasty or its genealogical history. Rather issues of the relationship between the ideology and society as well as political and social processes have received more attention. Insights from linguistics and ethnography have been used to understand the historical processes.


Nevertheless the Pallavan period remains inadequately researched. It is for this reason that Minakshi’s books remain essential texts for any study on the Pallavas. A better way to understand the Pallava period would be perhaps to read Minakshi’s texts in conjunction with the more recent studies on the various facets of early Tamil Nadu. Any scholar interested in the history of early Tamil Nadu has to rely a great deal on the writings of C. Minakshi.


Minakshi was also a keen collector of coins. She seriously devoted herself to studying numismatics. She used this knowledge extensively in her ASLP. There is an entire section in the book on various facets of Pallava coinage. For instance, Minakshi discusses the different symbols which were embossed on the coins and the manner in which they changed with each ruler. When Rajasimha came to the throne, the lion symbol was replaced by the bull figure to which the incumbent ruler attached great significance.


In addition to her academic engagements Minakshi also nurtured a serious interest in music. She was a trained musician who gave several public performances. At one time M.S. Subbulakshmi greatly admired her musical talent.  Minakshi’s in-depth knowledge of music allowed her to throw some important light on the Kudumiyamalai inscription in Pudukkottai district. The inscription was attributed by her to Mahendravarman I. This inscription is important as it throws light on the early history of classical music and gives us an idea of its evolution. An entire chapter in ASLP titled ‘The Technique of Music’ is devoted to just this one inscription.


Minakshi made it a point to travel frequently for field work to areas that were the part of the Pallavan kingdom. These included Pudukkottai, Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram. In these trips she was accompanied by her elder brother Laxminarayanan, who took time out from his hectic academic schedule to help her. Minakshi did not forget to acknowledge her gratitude for this in her ASLP where she thanks him profusely.


It is a pity that C. Minakshi was not able to get a job in any institution of higher learning in the Madras Presidency. More out of compulsion than choice she started exploring other avenues. One such avenue was music. Minakshi applied to the All India Radio Station, Trichy. Even here she was not able to get a job. She finally got a job at the Maharani College, Bangalore as a teacher of History. In this she was helped by Sir Mirza Muhammed Ismail, the then Diwan of the Mysore State (1926–1941), who had read her ASLP and was impressed by her knowledge. Sadly, before she could take up this position she passed away.



C. Minakshi was indeed a pioneer of the early studies on Tamil Nadu and her researches have provided us with the basic framework for studying the early history of the region.