Aadi Kavi

Nannayya Bhattaraka is known as Aadi Kavi (the first poet).  His Andhra Mahabharatamu is the earliest available literature in Telugu.  The advanced and well developed language used by Nannayya suggests that Nannayya Mahabharatamu may not be the beginning of Telugu literature.  Unfortunately, any Telugu literature prior to Nannayya is not available, except royal grants and decrees, though Telugu or Andhra language started to develop even before Christ.

Even though Brahmins and their Sanskrit were respected during and after the Satavahana Dynasty, Sanskrit and the Brahmin traditions remained  limited to Brahmins, temples and king's court because they were not  imposed and were alien to the common man.  When Satavaahanas commenced their rule, the official language was Prakrit.  Gautamiputra Satakarni (78-102 AD), one of the outstanding rulers of the Satavahana Dynasty, was hailed as a 'Unique Brahmin.'  Though they were of Brahmin origins they continued to patronize Prakrit and Paisachi. Satavahana queens patronized Buddhism and Jainism.  Srimukha Satakarni (221-198 BC) the founder of Satavahana empire, patronized Jainism, the dominant religion of the time. Gunadhya wrote Brihat Katha in Paisachi during the period of Kuntala Satakarni (38-30 BC).  Hala (19-24 AD), the eighteenth king of Satavahana dynasty, wrote Gadha Saptasati in Prakrit.

Before Buddhism, in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere in the Indian Continent the religious education was in Brahminical literature such as Vedas and Vedangas that was limited to Brahmins, warrior castes and business castes of North Indian (Aryan) origin. The local populations continued to  have their own tribal religions and traditions, unaffected by Brahminism.

The spread of Buddhism changed this to a large extent because Buddhism, like modern day Christianity and Islam, was a missionary religion and would take anyone into its fold, whereas Brahminism was a non missionary religion and never showed interest in converting others.   This universal appeal of Buddhism broke the barriers between various tribes in Andhra Pradesh and also throughout the Indian Continent.  In Buddhist Vihaaras and Araamas all tribes and castes were allowed to study.   The University of Nagarjunacharya at Nagarjuna Konda or Sri Parvatam was a famous educational center which attracted students from all over the world.  Thousands of Buddhist Bhikshus used to learn at the University.  This University of Nagarjuna had a huge library.  Buddhists and Jains of this period propagated their respective religious teachings in the local languages like Paisachi and proto-Telugu languages.  It is very unfortunate that no Telugu literature of this age that spanned almost ten centuries of Buddhist and Jain learning is available today.

Brahmins maintained and continued their religion during the wave of Buddhism and Jainsim.
In Andhra Pradesh the Buddhist and Jain influences started fading around 6th and 7th centuries,  with the advent of new missionary religions like Shaivism. Many Brahmins converted into the new religions and contributed tremondously to the development of these new religions, while continuing their distinct Brahmin identity and Sanskrit.

At the same time political situation was also changing.  Pulakesin II (609-642) of Chalukya Dynasty, the ruler of Vatapi (Badami of Karnataka) conquered Vengi (Andhra) and sent  Vishnuvardhana, his brother, as viceroy for the Vengi region.  Later in 634 AD, Vishnuvardhana declared himself independent and established Eastern Chalukya Dynasty in Andhra Pradesh that lasted for five centuries.  Rajaraja Narendra of Eastern Chalukya Dynasty ascended to the throne in 1022 AD.  At the time of Rajaraja Narendra,  two literary works in Kannada language, viz., Vikramarjuna Vijayam and Gadayuddam already popularized the story of Sanskrit Mahabharat in Karnataka.  Tamil translations of Mahabharat were available by the Seventh and Eighth centuries.  But, Puranaas were not available in Telugu.  Brahmins used to recite Puranaas such as Sanskrit Mahabharat in Temples and courts.

Eastern Chalukya Dynasty supported Jainism and Shaivism (Vaishnavism became popular later during the Reddy Dynasties).  Rajaraja Narendra was a Shaivite.  He respected Brahmins, their Sanskrit  language and religion.  He learned from the success of Jains and Buddhists that the only way to popularize the new religions and Puranaas was to translate them into Telugu. Even a thousand years before, Buddhism and Jainism became very popular using local languages for their sermons and teachings.  So, Rajaraja Narendra requested his Brahmin teacher, adviser and court poet  Nannayya Bhattaraka to translate Sanskrit Mahabharat into Telugu for his subjects.
Nannayya Bhattaraka took the challenge very seriously.  He scrutinized all the Telugu vocabulary that was in usage at that time,  introduced Sanskrit vocabulary, and  took characteristics of already well developed Kannada literature.  Thus he developed a distinct literary style, meter and grammar.  Nannayya translated about 142 verses of  Aadi, Sabha and Aranya chapters of Sanskrit Mahabharat.  But, he didn't stick to the original.  He almost created his own version of Andhra Mahabharatamu by modification, addition and deletion, while maintaining the story line.  His language was very sanskritized and was pleasurable to the reader.

It took 300 more years and two more Brahmin writers, Thikkana and Errana, to complete the work started by Nannayya.  This period was known as period of translations, because during this period various Sanskrit texts and Puranaas were translated into Telugu by Brahmin scholars.  This resulted in a very long lasting impact of Sanskrit on Telugu language and literature and the beginning of a new era in the history of Telugu literature.  Nannayya was the first to translate a Sanskrit text into Telugu language and he rightly holds the titles Aadi Kavi (the First Poet) and Vaaganusaasanudu (the dictator of the language).

1) History and Culture of Andhra Pradesh, P. R. Rao
2) Andhrula Saanghika Charitra, Pratapareddy Suravaram
3) Andhra Vagmaya Charitramu, Dr. Venkatavadhani Divakarla
4) Andhra Pradesh Darshini, Parts 1 and 2, Chief Editor Y. V. Krishnarao

Sreenivasarao Vepachedu, May 6, 1999

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