Pampa, called by the honorific Ādikavi ("First Poet") was a Kannada poet whose works reflected his philosophical beliefs. A court poet of Chalukya King Arikesari II, a feudatory of the Rashtrakuta dynasty king Krishna III, he is most known for his epics Vikramārjuna Vijaya or Pampa Bharata, and the Ādi purāṇa, both written in the champu style around c.939. These works served as the model for all future works in Kannada. The works of Jain writers Pampa, Sri Ponna and Ranna, collectively called the "three gems of Kannada literature", heralded the 10th century era of medieval Kannada literature.
Pampa belonged to a Brahmin family of ancient Kammanadu in the Guntur district of modern Andhra Pradesh. The family later adopted the Jain religion. According to the Kurkiyala inscription of Pampa's younger brother Jinavallabha, their father Bhimappayya and grandfather Abhimanachandra belonged to the Brahmin caste and hailed from Vangiparru in Kammanadu. According to the Gangadharam inscription of Jinavallabha, his father was Abhimanadevaraya (also known as Bhimappayya) and mother was Abbanabbe.
They were a Kannada-speaking family and must have migrated to the Kannada-speaking country of Banavasi when Pampa was a young boy. In fact, Pampa's mother hailed from Annigeri which was a part of the Kannada country. The beautiful town of Banavasi, located in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, with thick forests, mountains, streams and waterfalls, must have made a great impact on this poet at a very young age. Through the lines aarankusamittodam nenevudenna manam banvaasi deshamam and puttidirdode maridumbiyaagi men kogileyaagi nandanavanadol banavaasideshadol he has expressed his deep attachment towards Banavasi.
It is very evident from his works that he had mastered Sanskrit and Prakrit and that he must have had a good all-round education including Vedic literature and Jain philosophy. He may have studied and mastered various subjects like music, philosophy, dance, economics, medicine, kamashastra (the science of sensual pleasure).Sensitive, modest and imaginative, Pampa has earned a veritable place in the world of Kannada literature, which has remained unquestioned even today.
A well-traveled man, he settled down as the court poet of King Arikesari II. Flattered by his knowledge and poetic abilities, Arikesari (who possessed the title Gunarnava) conferred on him the title Kavita Gunarnava. At the age of 39 he wrote his first masterpiece, Ādi purāṇa, in 941, and a little later he completed Vikramarjuna Vijaya popularly known as Pampa Bharata. These two works have remained unparalleled works of classic Kannada composition.
Though there were several Kannada poets centuries prior to him, the quality of their works does not seem to have matched his. Such was the greatness of his literature that Pampa himself proudly proclaims that his works stamped and crushed all the other existing literature in Kannada. Rightly so, he is called the Ādikavi "first/original poet" of Kannada literature. He is also first of "the three pearls" of Kannada poetry.
The Ādi purāṇa, written in the champu style, a mixed form of prose and verse, is a Kannada version of the Sanskrit work by Jinasena and details in sixteen cantos the life of the first Tirthankara of Jainism, Rishabha. The work focuses in his own unique style the pilgrimage of a soul to perfection and attainment of moksha. In the work, Pampa describes the struggle for power and control over the entire world of two brothers Bharata and Bahubali, sons of Rishabha. While Bahubali wins, he renounces the worldly pursuits in favour of his brother. Many Jain puranas of Middle Ages found a role model in this work.
Vikramarjuna Vijaya, also known as Pampa Bharata, is a Kannada version of the Mahabharata of Vyasa. Several poets prior to Pampa had composed poetry based on parts of the epic but had not translated it in its entirety. Pampa's work was written in praise of his patron king Arikesari. He compares the king with Arjuna's character in the epic and centers his work around Arjuna. Vyasa's original work, however, does not portray any particular character as the hero of the epic.
Pampa made several modifications to the original story. While some of his modifications seem absurd and even erroneous, some others seem to blend perfectly and add shine to the original story. In Pampa's version, Arjuna is the only husband of Draupadi. As polyandry is not considered a virtue, this goes well with the story. On the other hand, to please his king, he refers to Arjuna with the titles of Arikesari at some places. The titles Chalukya Vamshodbhavam "of the Chalukyas" and Samanta Choodamani "jewel among the feudatories" among others to the greatest archer of the world from the Kuru clan does not seem to go well. After the war of Kurukshetra, it is not Yudhishthira who is crowned king but Arjuna, and his wife Subhadra becomes the queen royal. It is said that Bhima who played such a big role in Vyasa's epic and Draupadi who suffered much humiliation are not given much credit in Pampa's work.