Oral literature in the vernacular languages of India is of great antiquity, but it was not until about the 16th cent. that an extensive written literature appeared. Chief factors in this development were the intellectual and literary predominance of Sanskrit until then (except in S India, where a vast literature in Tamil was produced from ancient times) and the emergence of Hindu pietistic movements that sought to reach the people in their spoken languages. Among the Muslims classical Persian poetry was the fountainhead of a later growth in the Urdu literature produced for the Mughal court, and elaborate Urdu verse on set themes was produced in abundance. In the early 19th cent., with the establishment of vernacular schools and the importation of printing presses, a great impetus was given to popular prose, with Bengali writers perhaps taking the lead. Foreign, particularly English, literature was eagerly studied and to some extent assimilated to classical Indian modes and themes.
Today there is a written literature in all the important languages of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as a large literature in English intended to reach all the university-educated public regardless of native language. Among the best-known writers of the 19th and early 20th cent. are Rammohun Roy, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Prem Chand, as well as Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal, the Muslim poets who wrote in Urdu and in Persian. Later writers include R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Bhabhani Bhattacharya, Ahmed Ali, Khushwant Singh, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, and Mulk Raj Anand in the field of fiction; Sarojini Naidu, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nazrul Islam, and the Bangladeshi Shamsur Rahman in the field of poetry; and Mohandas Gandhi, M. N. Roy, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Jaya Prakash Narayan in the field of politics.
See also Sanskrit literature; Pali canon; Prakrit literature.