The history of Gujarati literature can be divided into three broad periods: Early period (upto c.1450 A.D.), the Middle period (up to 1850 A.D.) and the Modern period (1850 A.D. onwards). It is claimed that the earliest writings in Gujarati was by Jaina authors. These were in the form of Rasas, Phagus and Vilasas. The rasas were long poems which were heroic, romantic or narrative in nature. Salibhadra Suri’s Bharatesvara Bahubalirasa (1185 A.D.), Vijayasena’s Revanagiri-rasa (1235 A.D.), Ambadeva’s Samararasa (1315 A.D.) and Vinayaprabha’s Gautama Svamirasa (1356 A.D.) are the best examples of this form of literature. The other notable Prabandha or narrative poems of this period include Sridhara’s Ranamalla Chanda (1398 A.D.), Merutunga’s Prabodhachintamani, Padmanabha’s Kanhadade Prabandha (1456 AD) and Bhima’s Sadayavatsa Katha (1410 A.D.). The phagus are poems which depict the joyous nature of the spring festival (Vasantha). Rajasekhara’s Neminatha-phagu (1344 A.D.) and Gunavanta’s Vasantha-vilasa (1350 A.D.) are best examples of such texts. Neminatha Catuspadika (1140 A.D.) by Vinayachandra is the oldest of the baramasi genre of Gujarati poems. The earliest work in Gujarati prose was Tarunaprabha’s Balavabodha (1355 A.D.). Prithvichandra Charita (1422 A.D.) of Manikyasundara, which is a religious romance, is the best representation of Old Gujarati prose and is reminiscent of Bana’s Kadambari.
During the 16th century, the Gujarati literature came under the strong influence of the Bhakti movement. Narsimha Mehta (1415-1481 A.D.) was the foremost poet of this period. His poems very spiritual and mystical and were a deep reflection of the philosophy of Advaitism. His Govinda Gamana, Surata Sangrama, Sudama Charitra and Sringaramala are outstanding specimens of devotional poetry. Another poet, Bhalana (1434-1514 A.D.) rendered Bana’s Kadambari into Gujarati. He also authored other important works like Dasama Skandha, Nalakhyana, Ramabala Charitra and Chandi Akhyana. Yet another poet, Mandana, produced great works like Prabodha Battisi, Ramayana and Rukmangada Katha. In this period, the Ramayana, the Bhagwad Gita, the Yogavashistha and the Panchatantra were all translated into Gujarati.
The 17th and the 18th centuries were dominated by three great Gujarati poets – Aksayadasa or Akho (1591-1656), Premananda Bhatta (1636-1734) and Syamaladasa Bhatta or Samala (1699-1769). Akho’s Akho Gita, Cittavicara Samvada and Anubhava Bindu are emphatic works on the Vedanta. Premananda Bhatta, who is considered as the greatest of all the Gujarati poets, was instrumental in raising the Gujarati language and literature to new heights. Of his several works, the important ones are Okha Harana, Nalakhyana, Abhimanyu Akhyana, Dasama Skandha, Sudama Charitra and Sudhanva Khyana. Samala was also a prolific poet who produced great works like Padmavati, Batrisa Putali, Nanda Batrisi, Simhasana Batrisi and Madana Mohana. This period also witnessed the Puranic revival which led to the proliferation of devotional poetry in Gujarati.
Dayaram (1767-1852) produced religious, ethical and romantic lyrics called garbis. His important works include Bhakti Posana, Rasika Vallabha and Ajamila Akhyana. The Ramayana was composed by Giridhara in Gujarati in the middle of the 19th century. Parmanand, Brahmanand, Vallabha, Haridas, Dhira Bhagat and Divali Bali were the other important saint poets of this period.
From the middle of the 19th century, Gujarati, like other Indian languages, came under strong Western influence. Dalpat Ram (1820-1898) and Narmada Shankar (1833-1886) are considered as the pioneers of modern Gujarati literature. Dalpatram’s Venacharitra depicts his mastery over humour and wit. Narmada Shankar has to his credit a Gujarati dictionary (Narmakosa), a history of the world and a book on poetics. He also attempted various varieties of poetry and adapted a few English poems into Gujarati. His Rukmini Harana, Vana Varnana and Virasimha are excellent collection of poems. The other great works in Gujarati poetry include Bholanath Sarabhai’s Ishvara Prarthanamala (1872), Narsimharao Divatia’s Smarana Samhita, Kusumamala, Hridayavina, Nupura Jhankara and Buddha Charita; Manishankar Ratanji Bhatt’s Devayani, Atijnana, Vasanta Vijaya and Chakravaka Mithuna and Balwantrai Thakore’s Bhanakara. Nanalal was another important poet of this period who excelled in his apadya gadya or rhyming prose. He has to his credit two poetic collections – Vasantotsava (1898) and Chitradarsana (1921), an epic called Kuruksetra and several plays like Idukumara, Jayajyanta, Viosva Gita, Sanghamitra and Jagat Prerana. Other important modern Gujarati poets include Umashankar Joshi, Sundarram, Sundarji Betail, Rajendra Shah, Niranjan Bhagat, Benibhai Purohit and Balmukund Dave.
The modern Gujarati prose was pioneered by Narmada Shankar (Ragrang), Mansukhram Tripathi, Naval Ram, K.M.Munshi and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji’s Daksina Aphrikana Satyagramo Itihasa and Atmakatha are his two outstanding works in Gujarati. K.M.Munshi was one of the most versatile and towering literary figures of Gujarat of the modern times. His voluminous works include dramas, essays, short stories and novels. His famous novels are Gujratano Natha, Prithvi Vallabha, Jaya Somanatha (1940), Bhagavan Parasurama (1946) and Tapasvini (1957). Nandshankar (1835-1905) and Govardhanram Tripathi (1855-1907) were among the outstanding novelists in Gujarati whose famous novels are Karana Ghelo (1866) and Sarswati Chandra respectively. The Gujarati novel was also popularised by G.G.Joshi (‘Dhumaketu’), Chunilal V. Shah, Gunvantrai Acharya, Jhaverchand Meghani, Pannalal Patel and Manubhai Pancholi. Ranchhodbhai Udayaram (1837-1923) pioneered the art of play-writing in Gujarati with his Lalita Dukha Darsaka Nataka. The other important dramatists were Dalpat Ram, Naval Ram (Bhat Nun Bhopalun), B.K.Thakore, Chandravadan Mehta, Jayanti Dalal and Chunilal Madia. Among the important essayists, mention may be made of Kaka Kalelkar, Ratilal Trivedi, Lilavati Munshi, Jyotindra Dave, Jayendrarai Durkal and Ramnarayan Pathak.