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History of Kannada Language

Kannada, also known as ‘Karanese’, goes as far back as 2500 years. Some scholars say that it is as old as Tamil. The language is spoken in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh. There are roughly 43.7 million native speakers (called ‘Kannadigas’) and about 12.9 million more people, using it as their 2nd or 3rd language. Owing to its dotage, the government of India has given Kannada the status of a classical language in 2008. 

Linguistic Classification

Kannada belongs to the Dravidian language family. It was part of the Southern group Dravidian languages alongside Tamil and Malayalam. Later, it evolved into Tamil-Kannada from which Kannada-Badaga had been derived. Eventually, Kannada branched off as a more distinguished language. The exact time-period of this remains uncertain but it is said that the language existed even before the 3rd century BCE; though without any written text of its own.

Script

The current script for writing in Kannada also goes by the same name, i.e. the Kannada script, and was born sometime during the 5th century. Other closely related languages such as Tulu, Kodava, and Konkani also use the same script. The Telugu script is also quite similar to the Kannada script. 

The modern day Kannada script has undergone several developments. The previous script was known as the Kadamba script which had been derived from the ancient Dravidian script, Brahmi, during the Ashoka period. 

Early Inscriptions

Before there was any sign of solid Kannada literature, many early traces of the language were sighted. The famous ‘Halmidi’ stone inscription written in full-length Kannada (Brahmi script) belongs to 450 AD. 

However, a legion of inscriptions is said to be even older than Halmidi. These include the ‘Ashoka rock edict’ (230 BCE), the inscription found at the Pranaveshwara temple in Shiramogga (370 CE), and Nishadi inscription found in Shravanabelagola (350-400 AD). 

As many as 25,000-30,000 epitaphs in Kannada were discovered. Most of these did not show any association to Tamil. 

Thereafter, many more records of Kannada were seen on copper plates (8th century), palm manuscripts (9th century), and coins (under Kadamba dynasty). In fact, Greek dramatists and geographers also seemed to have known about the Kannada language and the country. 

Evolution of Kannada Language and Literature

Kannada prides itself on having an ‘unbroken literary tradition’ that seems to have existed for more than 1000 years. It is greatly influenced by Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Pali languages. Fun fact: Kannada is the only Dravidian language to have received 8 Jnanapith awards which is the 2nd highest amongst all the Indian languages. 

Kannada’s history can be broken down into three different phases – 

  • Old Kannada (450 CE to 1200 CE): Old Kannada literature dates back to the 6th century under the Ganga Dynasty and in the 9th century under the Rashtrakuta Dynasty. The Old Kannada language (aka, Purana HaleGannada) was used by the Banavasis, Satavahanas, and Kadambas and was spoken from Kaveri to Godavari region.

The earliest poem, ‘Kappe Arabhatta’ was written around 700 AD in ‘Tripadi’ metre. The oldest existing literary work is ‘Kavirajamarga’, written in 840 AD by King Nripatunga Amoghavarsha I. This book was mainly about Grammar, with an aim to standardize the existing Kannada dialects. 

In the 10th century, another form of writing called ‘Campus’ was established. This style of writing was a blend of both, prose and verse. Some of the most popular Campu works are ‘Dharmamrita’, ‘Kabbigara Kava’, and ‘Kavana-Gella’. Andayya, a Jain poet, used only Kannada words to prove that Kannada literature could flourish even without the use of Sanskrit.

Great poets named Pampa, Ponna, and Ranna, are regarded as the ‘Three Gems of Kannada Literature’. They wrote about scenes from epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Jain legends, in Campu style. 

In the 11th century, there was a lull in Kannada literature due to attacks led by Tamil kings. By the end of the 12th century, Jainism began to fall off and ‘Veerashaivism’ pressed forward. These literary works were devoted to Lord Shiva. 

During the late classical period, many other forms of literature came into being. These included Ragale (blank verse), Sangatya, and Shatpadi. These mostly revolved around Hindu and Jain doctrines. Harihara promoted the Ragale form while Raghavanka furthered the Shatpadi. 

During the 12th century, another literary tradition called ‘Vachana Sahitya’ became popular. These were short poems written about the social, economic, and religious conditions of that period. Few of the eminent Vachana writers are Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi, and Allama Prabhu. 

By the 13th century, there was a lot of development in the arena of Kannada poems, grammar, translations (from Sanskrit), and natural science. The poems were mostly Bhakti poems, written during the Bhakti movement (lasted until the 16th century), under the rule of Vijayanagara Kings. Bhakti poets include Akka Mahadevi, Bhima Kavi, Mallanarya, Singiraja, Chamarasa, and Padmanaka. 

  • Middle Kannada (1200 CE to 1700 CE): During this period, Hindu saints belonging to the Vaishnava sect wrote devotional poems. Some of the most esteemed saints include Kanakadasa, Sripadaraya, Vijaya Dasa, Jafannatha Dasa, and Purandaradasa. ‘Ramaghanye Charite’, by Kanakadasa, points out the problems of class struggle. 

This period also witnessed a rise in ‘Haridasa Sahitya’, contributing tremendously to Bhakti literature and Carnatic Music. Purandaradasa is known as the ‘Father of Carnatic music’. 

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, there was a noticeable influence of Hinduism on Middle Kannada (language and literature). Kumara Vyasa, with his ‘Karnata Bharata Kathamanjari’, is said to be one of the greatest Kannada writers during this time. Middle Kannada was also heavily influenced by Sanskrit, Hindi, and Marathi.

  • Modern Kannada (1700 CE to Present): Modern Kannada, also known as Hosagannada, was marked by works of renowned poets like Nandalike Muddana. His writing has often been referred to as the ‘Dawn of Modern Kannada’. However, other linguist scholars suggest that works of Gulvadi Venkata Raya such as ‘Indira Bai’ and ‘Saddharma Vijayavu’ were produced even before Nandalike’s writings. 

The first published novel is ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, written by John Bunyan. Other books include ‘The history of little Henry’, ‘Bearer’, and ‘Bible Stories’. 

During the 20th century, Kannada literature had been influenced by several movements like Navodaya, Navya, Dalita, and Bandaya. Modern Kannada literature successfully reached the masses of the society. Even Christian missionaries helped by establishing the the Academy of Kannada literature in Bangalore (1914).

This period gave us many poets and writers like Kuvempu, V K Gokak, and Bendre. Other notable novelists include Kerur, Galaganatha, Rajaratnam, and Nanjanagudu Tirumalamba. A rich body of short stories and translations from English, Marathi, and Bengali were produced. 

In the present day, Kannada prevails as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is the official and administrative language of Karnataka.

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