The Art of Writing Language and Literature in Ancient India


The Indian Vedic scholar Pandit S.D. Stavalekar has proved from the internal evidence of the Rig Veda that the Aryans in the early Vedic times were studying the written works and they knew and preached the art of writing. But unfortunately, we do not have any traces of the evidence of the writing in ancient India upto the time of Emperor Ashoka. His Rock and Pillar Edicts of the period 273- 233 B.C. are the first evidence of the practice of the art of writing by the ancient Indians.

The historians generally hold that since during the time of Ashoka (3rd century B.C.) the Indians fully practiced the fully developed. script for inscriptions, they must have been knowing it some few centuries earlier. Some historians are of the view that the Indians learnt the art of writing from the people of Sumeria in the 6th century B.C. when they traded in Sumeria. It is also held by others that the Indians learnt the art of writing from the people of Persia (who had learnt it from Sumeria) when the king Darius I conquered territories upto Punjab in India in the later part of the 6th century B.C.

From the art of writing which developed during Ashoka’s time was the Brabmi script. It is read from left to right. Its origins are not known. Some trace its origins to Harappan script. Since the Harappan script has not been deciphered its origins remain disputed. Along with practising the art of writing in this script, they also practised the Kharoshti Script which is derived from the Armaic language of the people of Armenia (near Pheomcia in Asia Minor). Like Arabic, it is written from right to left. The Kharoshti script was gradually given up by the Indians after the 3rd century A.D. The Indians developed the Devnagari or Brahmi script in which Sanskrit, Hindi and Marathi are written in the present form.
As the 270 sign marks found on the seals of the Indus Valley Civilization have remained undeciphered and cannot be related to any of the scripts of writing in India, they have remained a great problem in the history of ancient India.


Dharainshastras: Manu Samriti is one of the oldest Dharamshastra. It deals with all aspects of domestic life of an orthodox Hindu. The Hindu law being administered today by the Indian courts is based upon the principles laid down by Manu.

The Mauryan Age: Literature made much progress during the Mauryan period. The Edicts issued by Ashoka the Great and the inscriptions on the pillars occupy a significant place in the history of literature of this period. It seems that these were written by Ashoka himself. V.A. Smith remarks that the style of Ashoka’s inscriptions is not wanting in force and dignity. Two types of scripts have been used in Ashoka’s inscriptionsJe. Kharoshti script and the Brahmi script.

Arthashastra and Kamasutra: Many famous literary works were written during the Mauryan period. Kautilya, the minister of Chandragupta Maurya, wrote his Arthashastra. It is a standard work on politics and art of governance and is compared to the Italian statesman Machiavelli’s work the “Prince”. Yatsyana wrote his celebrated work Kamasutra during the Mauryan period.

Buddhist Literature: The Buddhist literature also made some progress during this period. A Buddhist monk wrote his work Katha Vayu. The Buddhist religious text Thitzka was also codified during this period.

Jain Literature: Jain literature also progressed along with the Buddhist literature. The famous Jam scholars Bhadrabahu and Jambuswami belonged to this period. Their works are valuable from literary point of view. Bhasa’s work “Apa Suba” is of outstanding merit. It is also said that Achartmg, Bliagwati Sitira, Samvayaangsutra etc. and Jaina religious texts were written during the Mauryan period.

The Gupta Age

The Gupta age was a period of great literary activity in the cultural history of ancient India. Much of what is best in almost all the branches of Sanskrit literature was written in this era. This is evident from the fact that great poets and playwrights like Kalidasa, Bharvi Visakha datta, philosophers like Isvarakrishna, Vatsyana and Praspada and astronomers and mathematicians like Aryabhatta and Varahamihra all flourished during this age. It was a golden age of Sanskrit literakire and learning. It was now the language of the inscriptions and coin legends and was used for all literary compositions.

Among Kalidasa’s famous works are Rilusamhara, Malvikagizimiram, Kumarasarnbahva, Megliauta, Sirakuntala and Raghuvansha. His masterpiece Shakuntala is “among the hundred best books of the world.” Sudraka was another great scholar of this Age. He wrote Mrichhacatika or the Little Clay Cart. Dandin wrote his Kavyadarsa, a work on the art of poetry. Panchianfra, the most remarkable storehouse of fairy tales and fables was also composed during the Gupta period. Its influence on the literature of the world is astonishing. This work has been translated into more than 50 languages of the world.

The Puranas, “a storehouse of ancient Indian traditions, myths, legends, rituals, moral code and religious principles” were recast in the present form in the Gupta period. The Mahabharata and Ramayana were also finally revised and given the present form. Various laws of Dharamshaslras of Manu were also finally codified.

South Sangam Literature

In the South, considerable Tamil literature called ‘Sangam Literature’ was produced in the early centuries of the Christian era, although it was finally compiled in the 6th century A.D. A considerable quantity of literature in Tamil was written by innumerable Tamil poets. The entire collection includes, 2279 poems by 473 poets besides 102 anonymous poems. These are found grouped in eight anthologies (Ettutgai) and Ten songs (Pottutatta). One of the important poetical works is Kural, a collection of brie verses. It is the chief source of moral ideas of the Tamils. The Sangam was a college or assembly of Tamil poets held probably under the royal patronage. We do not know the number of Sangams or periods of which they were held. There used to be a great academy or college of poets and pandits from Madurai. Th literature produced by the scholars of this academy forms the principal source of information about the
activities of common men and women and the conditions of the kingdoms of the south.

Many literary and religious works were translated from Sanskrit into the Tamil language and became popular among the people of the south. The Telugu writers like Nannja and Tikhhan are excellent adaptations of the Mahabharata.

The Kannada literature also made progress. Niriputanga wrote his work Kavira Jamarga. Pampa wrote his famous work Adztrnrana and the Vzkramarajuna friya. The former book deals with the life of the first Jaina Tirthankara and the other is based on Mahabharata. Ponna wrote his work Shantivurana, a legendary history of the sixteenth Jaina Tirthankara. Ranna was another eminent Karinada writer. His famous works are the Ajitapunana and the Gadayauddha. These three writers Pampa, Ponna and Rana are known as the three Gems of the early Kannada literature. Another writer Kamban wrote the epic of Ramayana in Tamil which is read with great delight even now-a-days. During this period, great Tamil compositions of the great hymns of the A/vans and the Nayananas were produced. The hymns of the Alvars were collected into the Nalayina-Ditya Prabandham.

Philosophy: Indian speculative philosophy also made great progress. Many Hinayana philosophers like Buddhaghosha and Buddhadatta and the great Mahayana teachers and philosophers like Asanga, Vasubandhu and Digana flourished during the Gupta Age.

Vardhana Age: Harshavardhana was a great patron of learning. His court was adorned by poets and scholars like Bana, Matanga, Ewakar, Jayasena and Bharatrihari. The poet Bana wrote the Harishchanilna, a historical romance describing in high flown language the exploits of his hero. Bharatrihari’s three Shauakas are superb in their literary çxcellence. Harshvardhana himself was a poet. His drama Nagananda is considered one of the best dramas written in Sanskrit. He also wrote two other literary works namely, Ratnavaui and Prlyadarshika.

Literature-Sultanate Period

The reign of Delhi Sultans witnessed the development of modern Indian laruages and literature. Persian which was the court language was learnt both by the Hindus and Muslims. Both the communities contributed to the growth of Persian literature. The beginnings of Persian literature are to be traced from the Turkish rule in India. Amir Khusrau, surnamed the “parrot of India”, belonged to this age. He was a famous poet and the author who wrote in Persian, Urdu and Hindi. He also composed music. He
adorned the courts of Balban, Ala-ud-Din Khilji and Ghias-ud-Din Tughlaq. His notable works were Ashza, the Nub, Szvihr, the Qfranal Sadayan and the Khazain-ul Futah. A historian Zia-ud-Din Baruni wrote
Tarikh-Firoze Sizahi in Persian. It gives a detailed account of the reigns of the Khaljis and Tughlaqs. Minhas-us-Siraj and Isam were also well-known historians of this age. Lahqre and Delhi, the centres of Muslim political authority attracted writers and scholars from other parts of the country. The evolution of Urdu, a new mixed language, also took place in the Sultanate period. The origin of the Punjabi literature is also traced back to this period. Baba Sheikh Farid sang both in Punjabi and Persian. He was the first Sufi poet who used standard literary Punjabi.
Krishna Deva Raya, the ruler of Vijayanagar empire, was a distinguished scholar and poet. He made efforts to promote the Telugu language and literature. Eight Telugu poets adorned his court who made a valuable contribution to the growth of Telugu literature. Famous scholar Maclhvacharya was the author of Sarvadrashna Sangrairam, a work on philosopy in Sanskrit. His brother wrote commentaries on the text
of the Rig Veda San1hita. Nacanna, Somnatha Kavi, Sirimati Sarda and Nandi Malla wrote creative works f of high merit in Telugu. The Tamil language too had its share, on royal patronage. The famous poet
Thaumanvar belonged to this period. Kannada literature was also encouraged by the Rayas.

Like the rulers of Vijayanagar, the rulers of Bijapur and Golkunda also took interest in the development of regional languages. For instance, the Sultans of Golkunda were patrons of Telugu literature. Besides,
the Marathi in Ahmednagar, Kannada in Bijapur, Telugu in Vijayanagar and Malayalam in the far south received encouragement.
The Bhakti reformers also contributed much to the development of regional languages. They adopted the language of the people to spread their message of love and devotion to God. In Bengal, Kiritivasa wrote Ramayana and Chandi Dasa wrote hundreds of lyrics. Narsimehta wrote devotional songs in Gujarati. Namdeva and Eknath wrote in Marathi.

Literature Under the Mughale

During the Mughal period, the country made a tremendous progress in the sphere of literature. The Mughal emperors were themselves scholars and patrons of learning and literature. Besides the Persian
literature, the vernacular literature— Hindi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Punjabi and Urdu made mighty strides during the two centuries of Mughal nile. There were several reasons for it. In the first place, there was peace and order in the country especially during the reign of emperor Akbar which helped in the growth of literature. Secondly, most of the Mughal rulers were learned men. They liberally patronised poets
scholars. Thirdly, the policy of religious toleration adopted by Akbar continued in the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Babur had a brilliant set of scholars in his court of whom the names of Ghias-ud-Din Mohammad, Khawaja Mir, Shahab-ud-Din and Mir Ibrahim were notable. His cousin Mirza 1-laider Doughiat was an eminent Persian scholar of his time. Emperor Humayun was also a lover of learning. Hurnayun was so fond of books that he used to carry with him a library even during his expeditions. He had founded a Madrasa or school at Delhi of which Sheikh Hasan was an eminent professor. Humayun’s sister Gulbadan Begum wrote a great prose work Humayun Namah. Humayun’s servant Jauhar also wrote a historical work Tazkarat-ul-Waqiif. But the greatest work of Humayun’s period is Haff Ak/fm written by Khawand Mir.

Under Akbar. Though Akbar himself was not educated yet he patronised scholars of various languages. Many historical works were written during his period. Faizi wrote Akbar Narnali. Abul Fazal wrote Ain-i-Akban The historaians have praised its style of writing. Abul Fazal was at once a poet, essayist, critic, historian and a man of letters. His Ain-i-Akbari is the most extensive and dependable record giving statistics and even minor details of Akbar’s administration. Badauni’s work Mien/uk/ia/i,e/-Itvarrkh is of great historic importance. From his account we know the views of those who opposed the tolerant religious policy of Akbar.
Some original literary works in Persian were written during Akbar ‘s reign. Abul Fazal writes, “A thousand poets are continually at court and many among them have completed a Dewan or have written a Masnavi (a form of poetry). Ghazali was the most eminent poet of Akbar’s court. Flis great scholarly works are Mfraf-u-Kaima4 Naqush bat/rd and Asrar Makf rib. Faizi was Akbar’s poet laureate for some years. He was an excellent poet and a great expert of the science of medicine. His important works are Masnavrf Na? Dam/anti, Markaz-i-Adwer and Swati ul I/ham. Other eminent poets of this period were Muhammad Hassan Naziri and Saiyyad Jamal-ud-din Urfi or Shirazi.

During the reign of Akbar, a large number of works of other languages were translated into Persian. The eminent scholars who undertook translation work were Abdul Rahim Khan Khana. Badayuni, Abul
Fazal, Faizi, Naqib Khan and Haji Ibrahim Sirhindi. The important works translated into Persian were Mahabharata, Ramayana, Atharva Vedas, Lilavati, Rajatrangani, Nal Damyanti, Kalitya Daman, Bible, Quran etc. Abdul Rahim Khan Khana translated Babur’s Memoirs Tuzzik Ba/in into Persian from Turki. All these considerably enriched Persian literature.

Under Jahangir: Jahangir was also a patron of learning. He was himself and eminent writer. He wrOte his autobiography Tuziik-f-Jahangiri which is a work of great literary merit. Other historical works written during his period were Iqbalnamah-i-Ja/rangrnr, Masi i-i-/a/rang/n/and Zabduf Tawarilch. The prominent scholars who adorned his court were Ghyas Beg, Najib Khan, Mutmad Khan, Niamatwallah and Abdul Haqi Dehlvi.

Under Shah Jahan: Emperor Shan Jahan was a learned man. He extended patronage to the learned. Many historical works were written during his time, notable among them being Pads/ia/i Namah of Abdul Hamid Lahore, another Padshithnamah of Amin Qazvini, Shah/a/ran Namah of Inayat Khan. These works supply us much information about the reign of Shah Jahan. Under the patronage of his liberal son Dara Shikoh, many Sanskrit works like Bhagvat Gita, Yog Vashishta and Ramayana were translated into Persian by the scholars. Shah Jahan encouraged learned men by giving them rewards and stipends. He also established a centre of learning near Jama Masjid at Delhi. He repaired several Madrasas which were in poor condition.

Under Aurangzeb: Aurangzeb was a great scholar of theology and Islamic law. But he had no taste for poetry and disliked the writing of historical works. But still some historical works were written during his period, notable among them being Muntakhab-ul-Tawarilth by Khafi Khan, A?amgiri Narnah by Mirza Muhammad Kazim and Fatuhat-i-Alamginiby Ishwar Das and the Khulasa-u?-Tawanrkh by Munshi Sajjan Rai.

Hindi Literature

Before Akbar, the Bhakti reformers and the Sufi saints in the 15th and early 16th centuryies had contributed to the growth of Hindi literature. But under Akbar, the Hindi literature made unique

progress. Among the courtiers of Akbar, Todar Mal, Bhagwan Das, Man Singh, Birbal and Abdul Rahim Khan Khana were eminent poets. Birbal was awarded the title of Kavi Raj by the emperor. Rahim’s Dohas have won for him universal fame. They are still read and praised all over the country. Other notable luminaries of Hindi literature in the time of Akbar were Tulsi Das, Surdas, Nabhaji, Ras Khan, Karan, Narhari, Harinath, Parma Nand, Kumbhan etc. Goswami Tulsi Das was the greatest Hindi poet of Akbar’s time. His Ramcharitmanas is the most celebrated book of the Hindus of the Northern India. This book gives story of Rama’s life. It is read and heard and appreciated alike by every class of the Hindus. George Gierson calls it “one Bible of the hundred million people.” Surdas, a blind bard of Agra wrote “Sur Saga/’ in which he describes the sports of Krishna in his early life. Among the Muslim writers of Hindi literature, Abdul Rahim Khan Khana was prominent. He wrote his work Rahimsattasai. Another Muslim poet Ras Khan wrote Premvalika.
Under Jahangir and Shah Jahan, the Hindi literature continued to make progress. The most prominent writers of their times were Sunder Kaviraj, Senapat, Benarsi Das, Bhushan, Nat Rai, Chintamani and Bihari. Sunder, a well known poet of Gwalior wrote his famous work Sunder Sa’ar in 1631 A.D. Shah Jahan gave him the title of Maha Kavi Rai. Bihari was patronised by Raja Jai Singh of Ambar. His book Bthari Safsai and his Dohas are the “daintiest pieces of art in any Indian language”. In the time of Aurangzeb, the Hindi literature began to decline. With the withdrawal of royal patronage, the era of great Hindi poets came to close.

Sanskrit literature

The occupation of a large part of India by the Muslim invaders gave a setback to the growth of Sanskrit literature. But Akbar ‘s religious policy helped in the growth of Sanskrit. His court was adorned by Sanskrit scholars like Ganga Dhar, Mahanand, Devi Misr, Madhusudan Misr and Mahesh. They produced some Sanskrit literature of merit. A Persian Sanskrit dictionary named Parsi Prakash was compiled in Akbar’s time. Jahangir and Shah Jahan gave grants to some Sanskrit scholars. Among them Jagannath Pandit, Ravindra Acharya, Vedangacharya, Banshidhar Misr, Harinarayan Misr were notable. Jagannath was the poet laureate of Shah Jahn’s court. He wrote Rasganga Duzra and Gangasari and enriched Sanskrit literature.

Regional Literature

Regional languages like Punjabi, Kashmiri, Oriya, Bengali, Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Urdu etc. flourished. The Sikh Gurus greatly contributed to the growth of Punjabi literature. Guru Aliun Dev compiled the Adi Granth, the scripture of the Sikhs. Bhai Mani Singh wrote Gianratnawali and the Sufi Saints wrote K7fi5. It was also in the Mughal period that Damodar Gulati, Warns Shah and Piloo wrote the story of Hir Ranjlia. The legend of Mirza Sahiban was also written in this period. All these works occupy an important place in the Punjabi literature. Krishan Dev Kaviraj, Lochan Das, Narhari Sarkar, Kaitak Das, Khem Chand, Gopal Das etc. contributed to the growth of Sanskrit poetry. Narsi Mehta and Prema Nand, the Guj4rati poets helped in the growth of Gujarati literature. In Maharashtra two great poets Eknath and Tuka Ram enriched Marathi literature with their poetic works. In the progress of the Oriya literature, Dinkrihna Das and Ram Chandra Patnaik contributed much. Haba Khatun, a celebrated poetess of Kashmir, made a remarkable contribution to the development of Kashmiri language. The other eminent Kashmiri poets were Khwaja Habib Bulandshahri, Sahib Kaul etc.
Urdu language also made much progress during the Mughal period. It was due to the social and intellectual intercourse between the various communities and Akbar’s liberal educational policies.Urdu made a popular language. Urdu is a Turkish word meaning military camp. Urdu is the offspring of Hindi and Persian which became the common language of the people. The prominent Urdu poets of this period were Maulana Muhammad Afzal of Panipat , Munshi Wali L. Nasir Au Sirhindi was a poet of great fame.

British Period

During the British rule, there was astonishing development of all branches ( literature in India. Besides Hindi, English and Urdu, all regional languages of the country progressed. Literature in all these languages was produced on a large scale. India is the first Asian country w national spirit was awakened through the medium of literature.

The development of the Hindi literature started in the end of the 18th century. The notable writers of this penod were Sadasukh Lal, Eshallah Khan and Bhartendu Harish Chandra. Raja Lachhman Singh translated Shakuntala into Hindi. Maha Prasad Dwivedi, Ram Chandra Shukia and Shyam Sunder Das were the eminent Hindi prose writers of this age. Modern novel in India was born in the latter half of the 19th century The eminent writer of this period was Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1839-1904 A.D.). His most famous novel was Anand Math. It contains Bande Matram which is honoured as the national song of India. Ananad Math has been translated from Bengali to Hindi. Munshi Prem Chand is the foremost of those writers who took to Hindi and Urdu story writting to the heights of glory. He is the king of novel and story writing in Urdu and Hindi. His works have become an inseparable part of the Indian culture. His writings reflect the life of a common Indian and miseries of peasants. His contribution to the Hindi and Urdu literature consists of about a dozen novels and about 300 stories. His famous novels Rirngblrnmi
and Goaan have become immortal. The other Hindi scholars Jai Shankar Prasad, Maitalisharan Gupt, Sumixutranandan Pant, Suryakant Tripath,
Nirala, Mahadevi Verma, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi and Haribans Rai Bachchan have made great contribution to the development of Hindi poetry Similarly, Varindavan Lal Verma and Ellachander Joshi have enriched Hmdi literature by writing novels of great merit. The Bengali literature has also made unique progress in the modern age. 

The Bangla poets Michael, Madhusudan Dutt, Garish Chandra Ghosh, Hem Chandra Baneiji and Navin Chander also enriched Bangla literature. Rabindra Nath Tagore wrote his Gitanjzli which made him a world famous poet. In the field of Bangla prose, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterji and Debander Nath Tagore made notable contribution. Sarat Chandra Chatteijee, the author of noval Devdas occupies a high place among the Bengali novel writers.

The Marathi literature also flourished during this period. Rai Bahadur Deshmukh, Vishnu Shastri, Chiplunkar and Bal Gangadhar Tilak enriched Marathi literature Harmaryana Apte, Prof C M Joshi and Dr Ketkar wrote many novels m Marathi The Tamil prose was enriched by Thundaraiya, Mudalayar t and Visage Perumal Ayar The famous novel writers of Tamil language were VG Suryanaram Shastri, Rajm Ayar and Sarvan Pilai
During the modern age, Urdu language made remarkable progress. It produced great poets like Wali Khuraja Mir Dard, Mir Taqi Mir, Nazir Akbarabadi, Ibrahim Zauq, Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Altaf Hussian Hali and Sir Mummad Iqbal, called the poet of the East. In the early 18th century many historical Persian and Sanskrit works were translated into Urdu.

Progressive Writers Movement
After 1936, there began a Progressive Writers Movement in India which gave a new direction to poetry Among these progressive poets may be mentioned the names of Hiranand Sachdanand Vatsayan• Agay and Muktibodh in Hindi, Sahar Ludhianavi, Majaz and Faiz in Urdu, Jiwan and Das in Bengali B.S. Merdhekar in Marathi, Umashankar Joshi in Gujarati and Amrita Pritam in Punjabi. Indian Drama and Theatre. During this period, art of theatre and one-act play also witnessed considerable growth. Raj Kumar Varma is known as the Father of Hindi one act play. His first one-act play “Badal Ki Mrhyu” was published in 1930 A.D. Upendar Nath Ashk was one of the best known one act play writers. In the field of theatre, valuable contribution was made by Badal Sarkarin Bengali), Jai
Shankar Prasad (Hindi), Vijay Tendulkar (Marathi) and Girish Karnad (Kannada). Similarly, role of Shambhu Mitra, Ibrahim Alkazi, Sin Ram Laggu, Habib Tanvir and Satya Dev Dube in the development of stage theatre has been quite commendable. Indian People’s Theater has admirably encouraged theater.