We saw the two major empires of South and Central India earlier, the Badami Chalukyas and the Pallavas of Kanchi.
Their major bone of contention between these two powers was the fertile Krishna-Godavari coastal region on the East Coast, with it’s capital at Vengi.
While the rulers of Vengi were closer culturally to the Chalukyan empire, they had established marital relations with the Pallavas.
Besides the agrarian wealth of Vengi, it also afforded a seaboard to the predominantly land-based territory of the Chalukyas. The Western coast was well protected by the Western Ghat mountains, which offered a natural barrier to any power trying to establish itself on the Western Coast and the central Deccan.
The Pallavas were not really concerned with Vengi for its own sake, but mostly as a counterweight to the Chalukyan might.
At the time the tale begins, the Chalukyan armies had already occupied Vengi and Pulakesin II’s younger brother, Kubja Vishnuvardhana, had been crowned King of Vengi.
For their part, the Pallavas, too, had a few strategic projects underway. An earlier Pallava ruler, Simhavishnu, had already brought the stretch of the Kaveri from the sea to Uraiyur ( modern-day Trichy) under his direct control. He had made minor branches of the Chola dynasty pay tribute to him. He had established marital relations with the Western Ganga dynasty who ruled from Ganguvadi, and diplomatic relations with the Kadambas. The Kadambas and Gangas ruled the borderlands between modern-day Karnataka and Tamil nadu, which positioned them as front-line states in the Chalukya-Pallava power struggle.
The other neighbours of the Pallavas were the Pandya rulers, who ruled the entire stretch of old Tamilaham from the Kollidam (Coleroon) to the southern tip at Kanyakumari. When the story opens, there was neither direct conflict nor any positive relationship between these two pre-dominant powers of the Tamil country.
The Pallavas had established diplomatic relations with the Kings of Sri Lanka, but at the time of the story, a succession struggle was underway there, which made any intercession from Sri Lanka in the political affairs of South India impossible.
During the reign of Mahendravarman, the port at Mahabalipuram was first developed. The earlier ports on southern Coromandel coast were Poompuhar/Kaveripatnam ( near today’s Nagapattinam, at the mouth of the Cauvery delta) and Korkai, further south, closer to modern Tuticorin. A possible explanation for the active development of this new port was the need to have a trading port closer to the capital of Kanchi, rather than Kaveripatnam (traditionally Chola country) and Korkai ( never left the hands of the Pandyas). Why they selected Mahabalipuram, in spite of the presence of a natural harbour 60 km to the North (today’s Chennai) is an interesting mystery to us.
Thus, at this point time, there was a even balance of power. Slight shifts could tilt the balance either way.
So much for the political conditions of the time.
Let’s look at the other common historical reason for wars – religion.
There was an even balance in number of adherents and state sponsorship for various dominant religions of the time – Jainism, Buddhism and Vedic religion. Besides these, there were many sects and cults such as the Bhagavata, Shakta and Pashupata. All of these would merge together to form the complex amalgam of Hindu belief, but that would come some centuries later. At this time, each of these had their own separate adherents who would be surprised to see all of their beliefs clubbed together today under the label of Hinduism.
The earlier Tamil rulers, an obscure dynasty(oligarchy?) called the Kalabhras( Kalappirar in Tamil) were Jain. So was Mahendravarman I, the Pallava ruler of the time, until the Tamil Shaivite saint Appar converted him to Shiva worship.
Kalki portrays Buddhism as being under retreat at the time, due to the disorganized nature of the Buddhist Sangha. The rock edicts of the Kind Ashoka and the chaityas established under his rule, are shown to be in dis-repair. The order of bhikshus is also depicted as being too involved in political affairs and in seeking political patronage.
The pre-dominant faiths in the Chalukyan region were Buddhist and Jain. There was no state sponsorship for any religion. However, the Jain monks are supposed to have left Kanchi after Mahendravarman’s conversion and gave their support to Pulakesin, who was nominally Jain, though lapsed.
Pulakesin II was naturally ambitious, and the Pallava king’s conversion was his pretext for launching an invasion.