Written children’s literature in India has been called “perhaps the greatest paradox of all,” for India is simultaneously home to “thousands of children . . . doomed to illiteracy” as well as “the greatest living oral narrative tradition in the world” that can fulfill the need of every Indian child for a story (Kamal Sheoran). However, written literature for children in India is far older than what is normally acknowledged.
The Sangam literature which flourished in Tamil Nadu from 3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE contains references to literature produced for children. Manorama Jafa calls the Panchatantra, written in 1st century CE, “the oldest collection of stories for children in the world”. It was translated into Kannada by Durga Simha in 1035 CE and constitutes the first book in Kannada for children. In Telugu literature, the Śataka Sāhitya, a collection of a hundred poems by an individual writer based on a particular theme, has always been popular with children. Two Śatakas ̶ Krishna Śataka and Sumathi Śataka ̶ which are seven to eight centuries old are still studied by school children.
In Assam, in the pre-Vaishnavite period stretching from 1300 to 1490 CE, Sreedhar Kandal wrote a secular work for children titled Kankhowa and Ramasaraswati wrote Bhimacharit for the child reader. Indira Goswami writes of this book that it “is narrated in an atmosphere of overflowing rustic humour. The book is so popular among the children that it has been reprinted several times”.
Amir Khusro, who lived from 1253 to 1325 CE, wrote riddles and a dictionary in verse called Khaliq Bari for children in Urdu. Another seventeenth-century Urdu didactic poem for children, Maa Baap Nāma, was composed by Shah Hussain Zauqui. The Shree Krishnacharitam Manipravalam and Pancatantram Kilippattu were written in Malayalam in the eighteenth century for women and child readers (!).
However, only a few such instances of pre-colonial written literature for children exist in India. Prior to the establishment and growth of print culture, Indians were noted for their oral literacy. Oral narrations enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the community. The joint family system also ensured that there was always an adult to be found to narrate a tale.