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History of Marathi Language

One of the 22 scheduled languages of India, Marathi boasts of about 83 million speakers and is rated as the 3rd highest language to have the most number of native speakers. This gender-inclusive language, blusters other modern Indian languages since its literature (especially ‘saint-literature’) dates as far back as 900 AD (approximately). In fact, Marathi has a strong influence on other Indian languages such as Konkani and Koli. Though there are several dialects of the language spoken across the country, the two main dialects are Standard Marathi and Varhadi. 

Linguistic Classification – 

Marathi is the southern most Indo-Aryan language. Indo-Aryan (or, Vedic Sanskrit) derived from the Indo-Iranian language group which in turn branched out of the Indo-European family of languages. 

Origin of the Marathi Language – 

Indo-Aryan (or, Vedic Sanskrit) is one of the most ancient languages of India. With time, Sanskrit degenerated into several ‘Prakrits’ which were basically corrupt forms of the Sanskrit language. There were about 21 prakrits, spoken across the country. These included Ardhamagadhi, Magadhi, Shauraseni, Gandhari, and Maharashtri. 

It is believed that many centuries ago, ‘Ratta’ or the Dravidian natives resided in present-day Indian states of Maharashtra and Karnataka. When the Aryans migrated further South, there were many who settled in the aforementioned region. These Aryans came to be known as ‘Rashtriks’, and the larger area of their settlement was later named as ‘Maharashtra’. 

These Aryans borrowed several words and elements from the Ratta language which gave rise to the Maharashtri Prakrit. Maharashtri was spoken until 875 AD, and it is from Maharashtri that Marathi was born. 

Further Evolution of the Marathi Language – 

Marathi has undergone many changes over the years. To understand its development better, we have divided the language into various time-periods. Let’s take a look:

  1. Early Records: The oldest record in Maharashtri was found in Naneghat (Pune) and dates back to around 3rd century BCE. Marathi language was first sighted in 739 CE, on a copper-plated inscription. Thereafter, several inscriptions were discovered in the latter half of the 11th century. However, these texts were supplemented with either Sanskrit or Kannada. 

The earliest inscription that was written entirely in Marathi dates back to 1012 CE (when the Shilaharas ruled). It is a stone epitaph that was found in Akshi, situated in the Raigad district of Maharashtra. Few other inscriptions in Marathi were also uncovered under the Shilahara dynasty. These also included a land-grant (1118 CE) which was found in Shravanabelagola and was written by the Hoysalas. 

These records tell us that Marathi was used as a written language in the 12th century. However, there was still no sign of literature. Marathi literature came into being only later, in the 13th century. 

  1. The Seuna/Yadava Dynasty: 1187 CE onwards, the Yadava Kings began using Marathi in their inscriptions and later adopted it as the language of the court. In the 14th century, Marathi became their primary language.

Later on, two religious sects namely, Mahanubhava and Varkari Panthans were formed. They used Marathi to speak about their tenets of devotion. Authors from the former sect mostly contributed to prose, while those from the latter sect contributed to poetry (especially, saint-poetry). Though both the sects put in equal efforts for the advancement of the language, it is the Varkari Panthans who are considered as the homesteaders of Marathi literature. 

This period marked the beginning of the Old Marathi literature period which spanned across 8 centuries, i.e. from 1000-1800s. The earliest prose work in Marathi Mukundaraja’s ‘Vivekasindhu’. 

  1. Medieval and Deccan Sultanate: Between 1275 to 1649, many saint-poets like Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Mukund Raj, Eknath, Mukteshwar, and Tukaram wrote ‘Abhangs’, or devotional songs and poems in Marathi. However, it was Tukaram who metamorphosed Marathi into a lush literary language. His works were devoted to God Vishnu (or, Vitthala). 

Some of the most popular works include Dnyaneshwar’s ‘Dnyaneshwari’ (an essay on Bhagavat Gita) and Eknath’s ‘Eknathi Bhagavat’ and ‘Bharud’. 

Under the Muslim rule, Marathi got slightly Persianized. That said, majority of the population, including the land-lords, were Hindus. Hence, Sultans were pushed to use Marathi. 

  1. The Maratha Empire: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s rule marked the beginning of the Marathi Empire. During this time, Marathi gained further importance and became less Persianized. Samarth Ramdas, who was an associate of Tukaram and Shivaji, wrote ‘Dasabodha’. His work was more militaristic in nature. 

In the 18th century, several other great poets called ‘Pandit poets’, composed works under the Peshwa rule. Some of the most eminent Pandit poets are Vaman Pandit, Raghunath Pandit, and Shridhar Pandit. Later, Moropant, the last of the Pandit poets, wrote famous poems like Aryabharat, Marathi Ramayan, and Kekavali. 

Different forms of Marathi literature took shape during this period. This included saint-biographies, ‘Powadas’ (songs dedicated to Maratha warriors), and ‘Lavani’ (traditional folk songs). 

  1. The British Rule: During the British colonial era, modern Marathi literature came about. Also, thanks to a Christian missionary called William Carey, Marathi grammar got standardized. William also translated the Bible into Marathi in 1811. Later in 1817, the Raja of Tanjore translated the first English book to Marathi. 

In this time-period, not many original Marathi poems were written. Instead, most of the poems were a translation of Sanskrit poems. 

Many of the ‘firsts’ in the realm of of Marathi literature materialized under the British rule. These included the first Marathi newspaper called ‘Durpan’, the first Marathi periodical called ‘Dirghadarshan’, and the first Marathi novel called ‘Madhala Stithi’. The ‘father of modern Marathi poetry’, Keshavasut, put out his first poem in 1885. 

The 19th century also witnessed the emergence of Marathi drama and musicals (known as ‘Sangeet Natak’). Later, many essayists started more periodicals. Some of the most famous essayists included Jyotibha Phule, Gopal Hari Deshmukh, and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar. 

The early 20th century witnessed a steady rise in modern Marathi prose and socio-political activisim. Also, several books on Marathi grammar were published. 

  1. Post Independence Period: Until 1960, the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat were a single state called the Bombay state. Then, the state was re-organized, and Maharashtra became a separate state. This is when Marathi made even more developments. 

In the latter half of the 20th century, Khandekar’s ‘Yayati’, and Vijay Tendulkar’s plays became popular. Furthermore, ‘Dalit literature’ emerged by virtue of the efforts of social reformer Jyotibha Phule and a Dalit leader, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Baburao Bagul was the pioneer of Dalit literature in Marathi. One of his most notable works is ‘Jevha Mi Jat Chorali’. 

Today, Marathi stands as the official language of Maharashtra and the co-official language of Goa. 

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