The earliest full-length Kannada inscription – the Halmidi inscription, dated 450 CE
Kannada literature is the body of literature written in Kannada: a language spoken mainly in the Indian state of Karnataka, and written using the Kannada script. The history of Kannada literature, which spans 15 centuries, is usually divided into three phases: ancient, medieval and moder.
From the 6th century beginning and up to the 12th century, the Kannada region was dominated by dynasties such as the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the Hoysalas; dynasties that were either Jain or gave ample patronage to the faith. As a result, Kannada literature of the period was almost entirely cultivated by Jains whose works were steeped in Jain literary traditions. From the 12th century, the Veerashaiva movement ushered in a new stream of literature which flourished alongside the Jain works. The rise of the Vijayanagara empire in the 14th century saw a renaissance of sorts with the arrival of Vaishnava literature — that of the Haridasas in particular.
The writings of the medieval period drew greatly from the socio-religious themes in Jainism, Veerashaivism and Vaishnavism and also included works on secular subjects. Although the oldest surviving work of this corpus, the Kavirajamarga which deals with rhetoric, poetics and grammar, has been dated to 850 CE, it is widely accepted that a considerable volume of literature had existed for a few centuries prior to it.
After the decline of the Vijayanagara empire in the 16th century, the seat of patronage shifted to the Mysore court of the Wodeyar dynasty. Kannada literature continued to flourish under the Mysore rulers, many of whom were themselves accomplished scholars of the fine arts. From the 19th century, the influence of English literature and the enthusiastic support of the Wodeyars' ushered in the era of modern literature which saw the introduction of new genre such as the prose narrative, the essay, the novel and the short story. Over the past two centuries, Kannada writers have produced works of outstanding national and international merit, resulting in numerous prestigious awards.
From the ancient period, a Greek farce dated to the 2nd century CE and called the Charition mime contains what appear to be passages in an archaic form of Kannada. The earliest example of a full-length Kannada inscription in verse can be found in a Kadamba royal edict called the Halmidi inscription, dated 450 CE; while the Kappe Arabhatta record of the 7th century forms the earliest surviving record of Kannada poetry. Evidence from edicts of Ashoka the Great written in Prakrit language and discovered in Karnataka suggests that Kannada literature may have been derived from Buddhist traditions, prompting some historians to posit a Buddhist era in Kannada literature (before 4th century CE).
Though the earliest surviving Kannada literary work, Kavirajamarga ("Royal Path for Poets") is dated to 850 CE, references are made in it to earlier writers such as Vimalachandra (c. 777), Udaya, Nagarjuna, Jayabhandu and King Durvinita (6th century) and poets like Srivijaya, Kavisvara, Pandita, Chandra, Ravi Kirti (634) and Lokapala. It also refers to compositions that were peculiar to Kannada: the chattana and the bedande (poems comprising several stanzas that were meant to be sung with the optional use of a musical instrument).
Apart from the poets mentioned in the Kavirajamarga, later Kannada writers consistently mention three poets - Samantabhadra (2nd to 7th centuries), Kavi Parameshthi (3rd to 4th centuries) and Pujyapada (also called Devanandi, 5th to 7th centuries), though no mention is made of any of their works. However, early writers of Kannada literature whose works are known are Syamakundacharya (650), who authored the Prabhrita, and Srivaradhadeva (also called Tumubuluracharya, 650 or earlier), who wrote the Chudamani ("Crest Jewel"), a 96,000-verse commentary on logic.
Ascribed to the 7th or 8th century is the Karnatheshwara Katha, a eulogy of the well-known Chalukya King Pulakesi II. The Gajashtaka, a lost ashtaka (eight line verse) composition, was authored by King Shivamara II in 800. It gained popularity in its time by its use in two folk songs, the ovanige and the onakevadu, compositions that were meant to be sung either while pounding corn or to entice wild elephants into a pit (ovam).
In the 9th century, Srivijaya, a court poet of Amoghavarsha I wrote the Chandraprabha Purana. During the same period, the Digambara Jain poet Asaga (or Asoka) authored, among other writings, the Karnata Kumarasambhava Kavya and the Varadamana Charitra. His works have been eulogised by later poets, although none of his works are available today. The earliest known prosody in Kannada, Gunagankiyam, has been referenced in a Tamil work dated to 10th century or earlier (Yapparungalakkarigai by Amritasagara). Gunanandi (c. 900) is known to have been an expert in logic, Kannada grammar and prose. Around 900, Gunavarma I wrote the Sudraka and Harivamsa (also known as Neminatha Purana). In Sudraka he compared his patron, Ganga king Ereganga Neetimarga II, to a noted king called Sudraka.