History of Telugu


General Information
Classical Language Status
Different types of Telugu Language
Classification of Vocabulary
Link to Sanskrit and Prakrit
Derivation of Telugu script from Brahmi
First Inscriptions
Post-Ikshvaku period
Middle Ages
Vijayanagara Empire
Tallapaka Annamacharya
Colonial period — Niccolò Da Conti
Persian/Arabic influence in the 17/18th century
Modern Telugu
First Telugu Film: Bhakta Prahlada

General Information

Telugu is a South-Central Dravidian language with the third largest number of native speakers in India (75 million). It is one of the twenty-two scheduled languages of the Republic of India and primarily spoken in the state of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It is also spoken in some neighboring states.

Classical Language Status in India

In 2004, the Government of India declared that languages that met certain requirements could be accorded the status of a “Classical Language in India”. Languages thus far declared to be Classical are Tamil (in 2004), Sanskrit (in 2005), Kannada and Telugu (in 2008), Malayalam (in 2013) and Oriya (in 2014).

In a 2006 press release, Minister of Tourism & Culture Ambika Soni told the Rajya Sabha the following criteria were laid down to determine the eligibility of languages to be considered for classification as a “classical Language”:

“High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500-2000 years; A body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; The literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.”


According to Chenchiah the name “Trilinga” was often applied to the Telugu country. This could either mean the country that contains the three shrines (liṅgas), namely at Kaleshwaram, Sri Sailam and Draksha Ramam or identify the land that lies between them as the Telugu country.

Different types of Telugu Language

The telugu language can be divided into three different types:

  1. The common conversational/colloquial language
  2. The language of prose books
  3. The language of poetry

Each of these types, but mainly the first and third, are very different from each other in terms of the choice of words and the grammatical forms. The language of prose books holds a middle position between the other two. Many teachers advise to learn the conversational telugu first before proceeding to study the language of poetry.

Classification of Vocabulary

The words in the telugu vocabulary can be divided as follows:

  1. Words of pure Telugu origin.
  2. Sanskrit words introduced into Telugu according to certain fixed rules. These words contain the crude forms of Sanskrit but they assume certain terminations, in order to be assimilated to pure Telugu words.
  3. Telugu corruptions of Sanskrit words, formed by the substitution, elision or insertion of letters.
  4. Colloquialism: These are colloquial forms, which though commonly used by all classes, are not authorized by the rules of grammar
  5. Words introduced into Telugu from foreign languages, for example Tamil or English.
  • Telugu is formed by modification of Sanskrit and Prakrit.
  • Telugu is a highly Sanskritized language.
  • This means that in Literary texts every Telugu grammatical rule is deduced from a Sanskrit canon and Telugu Literatur is heavily influenced by Sanskrit Vocabulary

Telugu was heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Prakrit. Telugu borrowed several features of Sanskrit that have subsequently been lost in Sanskrit’s daughter languages such as Hindi and Bengali, especially in the pronunciation of some vowels and consonants.

According to famous linguist Chenchiah, Telugu is Vikriti — that is, a language formed by modification of Sanskrit and Prakrit. It would appear that Andhras adopted a form of Prakrit, which, in the course of development, became the immediate ancestor of Telugu.

Literary texts in Telugu may be lexically Sanskrit or Sanskritized to an enormous extent, perhaps seventy percent or more, and every Telugu grammatical rule is laboriously deduced from a Sanskrit canon. Hence Sanskrit and its vocabulary influenced Telugu literature a great deal.

Sanskrit words and phrases

C.P Brown mentions on page 35 in his book : A Grammar of the Telugu language:

“If we ever make any real progress in the language the student will require the aid of the Sanskrit Dictionary, and cannot even talk or write Telugu with any ease or precision, unless he masters the first principles Sanskrit orthography.”

Sanskrit and Telugu alphabets are similar and exhibit one-one correspondence. The best Sanskrit pronunciation can be heard from scholars residing in the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh.

Derivation of Telugu script from Brahmi

The Andhra (Satavahana) dynasty introduced the Brahmi to the present day Kannada and Telugu regions. The earliest inscriptions found in the Tamil land belong to more or less the same period. A number of early Satavahana coins and other remains were found in Tamil Nadu. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Satavahanas introduced the script to the Tamil country as well. The Satavahanas were, for some time, vassals of the Mauryan Empire.

Mauryan Emperor Asoka the Great (reign: 269 — 232 BC) and the rise of Buddhism played stellar roles in championing this spread of writing. Thus, Telugu and all the other south Indian languages had developed from the proto-dravidian language of the Indus valley, while their scripts descended from the Brahmi.

The Brahmi script used by Mauryan kings eventually reached the Krishna River delta and gave rise to the Bhattiprolu script found on the urn containing Buddha’s relics. Buddhism spread to east Asia from the nearby ports of Ghantasala and Masulipatnam (ancient Maisolos of Ptolemy and Masalia of Periplus). The Bhattiprolu Brahmi script evolved into the Telugu script by 5th century AD.

First Inscriptions (400 BC — 500 AD)

  • First Inscriptions with Telugu words were found in Bhattiprolu in Guntur District (400 BC).
  • Ashoka inscriptions with use of Telugu words in spoken Prakrit were found 200 BC.
  • From Prakrit/Sanskrit inscriptions with Telugu places and names we know that Telugu was the language of the people and Prakrit was the language of the rulers.

Telugu is an ancient language. Inscriptions containing Telugu words claimed to “date back to 400 BC” were discovered in Bhattiprolu in Guntur District. The English translation of one inscription reads:

“Gift of the slab by venerable Midikilayakha”

Ashoka inscriptions of 3rd century BC with references to Andhras, use of Telugu words in spoken Prakrit from 200 BC to 6th century AD, and the Kothur inscription recovered recently in which a Telugu-Prakrit word “Thambhaya Dhaanam”, prove that Telugu has a rich history to be an ancient language.

The discovery of this Brahmi label inscription engraved on the soap stone reliquary datable to 2nd century BC, on paleographical ground reveals the ancient nature of the language and proves the fact that the Telugu language predates the known conception in Andhra Pradesh. Other primary sources are Prakrit/Sanskrit inscriptions found in the region, in which Telugu places and personal names are found. From this we know that the language of the people was Telugu, while the rulers, who were of the Satavahana dynasty, spoke Prakrit. Telugu words appear in the Maharashtri Prakrit anthology of poems (the Gathasaptashathi) collected by the first century BC Satavahana King Hala. Telugu speakers were probably the oldest peoples inhabiting the land between the Krishna and Godavari rivers.

Post-Ikshvaku period (500 AD — 1100 AD)

  • First inscription entirely in Telugu was found in the Rayalaseema region (575 AD)
  • Beginning of Telugu Literature as inscriptions and poetry in the courts of the rulers.
  • First written work in Telugu Literature is Nannayya’s Mahabharatam (1022 AD) which is a translation from Sanskrit to Telugu.

The first inscription that is entirely in Telugu corresponds to the second phase of Telugu history, after the Ikshvaku dynasty period. This inscription dated 575 AD was found in the Rayalaseema region and is attributed to the Renati Cholas. They broke with the prevailing fashion of using Sanskrit and introduced the tradition of writing royal proclamations in the local language.

Ancient inscription from Lepakshi
Ancient inscription from Lepakshi

During the next fifty years, Telugu inscriptions appeared in the neighboring Anantapuram and all the surrounding regions. The first available Telugu inscription in coastal Andhra Pradesh comes from about 633 AD. Around the same time, the Chalukya kings of Telangana also started using Telugu for inscriptions. Telugu was most exposed to the influence of Sanskrit, as opposed to Prakrit, during this period. This period mainly corresponded to the advent of literature in Telugu. This literature was initially found in inscriptions and poetry in the courts of the rulers, and later in written works such as Nannayya’s Mahabharatam (1022 AD). During the time of Nannayya, the literary language diverged from the popular language. This was also a period of phonetic changes in the spoken language.

For more information on the ancient telugu inscriptions, please see: Ancient Telugu Inscriptions

Middle Ages (1100 AD — 1400 AD)

This phase is marked by further stylization and sophistication of the literary language. Ketana (13th century) in fact prohibited the use of spoken words in poetic works. During this period the separation of Telugu script from the Kannada script took place.

Vijayanagara Empire (1350 AD — 1650 AD) — The Golden Age of Telugu Literature

Vijayanagara empire(Rayalaseema region) gained dominance from 1336 till the late 17th century, reaching its peak during the rule of Sri Krishnadevaraya in the 16th century, when Telugu literature experienced what is considered its golden age.

  • The time of Krishnadevaraya and the Ashtadiggajas (literal: eight elephants), who were the greatest poets in his royal court, is considered to be the golden age of Telugu Literature.
  • Krishnadevaraya wrote Amukta Malyada (A Garland dedicated to the Lord or the Giver of the Worn Garland), which is one of the Pancha Kavyas – the great five works in Telugu Literature.

Krishnadevaraya and the Ashtadiggajas

The great emperor Sri Krishnadeva Raya stated:

“దేశ భాషలందు తెలుగు లెస్స” – రాజు శ్రీకృష్ణదేవరాయ
“Desa bhashalandu Telugu Lessa” meaning " Telugu is the best/sweetest among the languages of the nation".

Literary activities flourished and the Raja/the King, a poet himself, introduced the prabandha (a kind of love poetry) in Telugu literature in his Amukta Malyada (A Garland Dedicated to the Lord – also translated as the Giver of the Worn Garland) This book is one of the Pancha Kavyas – the five great works in Telugu Literature.

Telugu literature flourished in the south in the traditional “samsthanas” (centres) of Southern literature, such as Madurai and Tanjore. This age is often referred to as the Southern Period.

Krishnadevaraya had in his royal court the Ashtadiggajas (literally: eight elephants) who were the greatest of poets of the times. Their names are

  • Allasani Peddana, (1510 — 1575 AD), who is known as Andhra Kavita Pitamahudu or Grandfather of Andhra Poetry,
  • Tenali Rama Krishna, Nandi Thimmana, Madayyagari Mallana, Dhurjati, Ayyala-raju Rama-Bhadrudu, Pingali Surana and Rama-raj-bhushanudu.

Tallapaka Annamacharya (1408 – 1503 AD)

Annamacharya is widely regarded as “pada kavita pitamaha” – the Grandfather of the Musical Literatur. He contributed many Telugu songs to this great language. Annamacharya is said to have composed as many as 32,000 sankirtanas (devotional songs) on Bhagwaan Govinda Venkateswara, of which only about 12,000 are available today.

Colonial period — Niccolò Da Conti

“Telugu is the Italian of the East”

- Niccolò Da Conti

16th century Italian explorer Niccolò Da Conti, who visited the Vijayanagara Empire, described the Telugu language as the Italian of the East, as he had found that many words are ending with vowels — similar to Italian.

“Telugu (Tenugu = tene agu = honey like) is the most melodious, sweet Italian of the East"

Persian/Arabic influence in the 17/18th century

In the latter half of the 17th century, Muslim rule, now in the hands of the Mughals, strengthened and extended further south, culminating in the establishment of the princely state of Hyderabad by the Asaf Jah dynasty in 1724. This heralded an era of Persian/Arabic influence in the Telugu language, especially among the people of Hyderabad. The effect is also felt in the prose of the early 19th century, as in the Kaifiyats.

Modern Telugu (1900 AD — Present)

  • What was considered an elite literary form of the Telugu language, has now spread to the common people with the introduction of mass media like movies, television, radio and newspapers.
  • This form of the language is also taught in schools and colleges as a standard.
  • In the current decade the Telugu language has undergone globalization due to the increasing settlement of Telugu-speaking people abroad.

The period of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries saw the influence of the English language and modern communication/printing press as an effect of the British rule, especially in the areas that were part of the Madras Presidency. Since the 1930s, what was considered an elite literary form of the Telugu language, has now spread to the common people with the introduction of mass media like movies, television, radio and newspapers. This form of the language is also taught in schools and colleges as a standard.

Literature from this time had a mix of classical and modern traditions and included works by scholars like Kandukuri Viresalingam and Panuganti Lakshminarasimha Rao.

In the current decade the Telugu language, like other Indian languages, has undergone globalization due to the increasing settlement of Telugu-speaking people abroad. Modern Telugu movies, although still retaining their dramatic quality, are linguistically separate from post-Independence films.

First Telugu Film: Bhakta Prahlada (1931 film)

Bhakta Prahlada (Telugu: భక్త ప్రహ్లాద) was the first Telugu talkie film, based on The Story of Narasimha and Prahlada made in 1931 by H. M. Reddy, a pioneer of the Indian film industry. It is a talkie about a devotee Prahlada in Hindu mythology.