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What's in a Name?

By K. R. Banerjee Email By K. R. Banerjee
November 2012
What's in a Name?

A lot. And if you happen to have an Indian name, the answer would be: clues to your native place in India, your caste, your father’s name, and even your profession. As K. R. BANERJEE writes, India’s multifarious languages and cultures have also produced a broad—and confounding— variety of naming styles.

A chance sighting of the South Indian name M. Anantanarayanan caused the American poet John Updike to wax lyrical:
… his name -- that sumptuous span
Of ‘a’s and ‘n’s more lovely than
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan” …

The name might have tickled the poet’s fancy, but try spelling it on the phone to someone unfamiliar with it—you’ll realize it can be a daunting task. Chances are, if you are of Indian origin and live here, you’ll have at least a couple of anecdotes about the responses your name has evoked.

Our names are often confounding not just to others but even to our own countrymen. Thanks to the many languages, dialects, and religions that abound in India, a variety of naming conventions have evolved in the country, resulting in names and naming styles that can be quite bewildering as well as fascinating. While North Indians may be brought up short by the multi-syllabic South Indian names, the Tamilians might be puzzled to know that Ravinder is often a female name in Punjab.

Names are the result of conventions that evolved thousands of years ago. In ancient India, a man generally went by a single name, such as Vasishtha, Agastya or Vibheeshana. Using several such single names for important figures was common. Lord Krishna is a prime example. He has been known by an endless number of names such as Muralidhar (possessor of the flute), Gokuleshwar (the one from Gokul), Dwarka-dish (Lord of Dwarka), Gopala (cowherd), Madhusudan (one who vanquished Madhu, the demon), Morari (Killer of Mora, the demon), Giridhari (one who lifted the Govardhan hill), and on and on…

Some bases for ancient names were the father’s name (as in Vaasudeva, son of Vasudeva, or Daasaratha, son of Dasaratha, or Jaanaki, daughter of Janaka, or Draupadi, daughter of Drupada); mother’s name (Raadheya, son of Radha, or Kounteya, son of Kunti); description of physical features (Lambodara, he of the large stomach, or Visalakshi, the wide-eyed one); achievements (Meghnad, the son of Ravana, was called Indrajit because he vanquished Indra); or even a distinguishing feature (such as the parasu or the axe which gave Jamadagni’s son Rama his full name of Parasurama).



Muslim and Christian influences
With the advent of Islam and Muslim migrations, Arabic and Muslim names made their inroads into India. In Arabic, ibn means “son of.” In the Middle East, it is spelled bin. Thus came Muhammad bin Tughlak, which means Muhammad, son of Tughlak. When indicating a daughter, bin becomes bint and sheik becomes sheikah. Titles such as “Khan” (commander or ruler) and Arabic names such as Ansari, Abdul, and Jalal-ud-din also became popular among Indian Muslims.

With Portuguese and British incursions, Christian names began to appear in India. Portuguese names like Fernandez, De Costa (one who came from the coast), De Souza (coming from a salty place) or De Mello (originating from Mello in Portugal) also became common among Goans. Earlier, Indian Christians used to adopt English names completely, but current trends show that many of them prefer to retain an Indian first name, so that we see names such as Anil De Souza, Mohan Williams and Arvind Matthew.

Under British rule, English and Scottish names such as Johnson (son of John), Macarthur (son of Arthur) became popular among Anglo-Indians and Indian Christians. Due to the influence of the British, some Parsis also adopted their trade names as surnames. We’ve all heard of Parsi names like Major, Merchant, Engineer, Contractor and Banker. Some North Indians also adopted professional names like Pilot as surnames.

TSSVPSVP – “Prasad,” for short
Telugu names begin with inti peru, literally “house name,” which is equivalent to a surname, followed by personal names. And the surname could have many sources—name of the place, the family name, or even the caste. Not too long ago, elders from both sides of a child’s family would insist that their ancestors be celebrated in the newborn’s name, with the result that the child would often totter under a moniker like Tumuluri Sri Sai Venkata Poornanjaneya Subrahmanya Vara Prasad.

Many Telugu surnames are descriptive of the region/location of the person, such as the ones ending in wada, palli (village), veedhi (street) or giri (hill) etc. Thus you have surnames like Vemulapalli and Venkatagiri. Telaganyulu sect of Andhra Brahmins have surnames which are mostly the names of villages such as Rayaprolu, Devarakonda, Devulapalli, Vangara, Vattyam etc.

Andhra Niyogi Brahmins generally have surnames ending with raju, like Annamraju, Machiraju, Dronamraju, and Kotamraju. Many people of Kamma caste have surnames ending in neni like Devineni, Pinnamaneni, Thammineni, Tatineni and Machineni. Some of them also have surnames such as Vasireddy and Kommareddy. The Reddys are further distinguished by prefixes such Adireddy, Madireddy, Kasireddy, Kotamreddy, and many more. Caste names are also common to add, e.g. the names of castes such as Choudhary, Naidu, Reddy, Yadav, Goud, Setty, and Gupta.

Some names, such as Deekshitulu, Somayajulu, or Pantulu ended with the Telugu plural suffix of lu, either out of respect for the person or because they marked the names of gods in the plural. And the common Telugu surname of Rao/Rau/Row probably came from the influence of neighboring Maharashtra.

Tamil names
Many older Tamil names had four parts to them. Take, for example, a not atypical name like Kancheepuram Srinivasan Venkataraman Iyengar. While most North Indians would find it hard to decipher it, a South Indian could tell you that it simply meant the person has ancestry in Kancheepuram, was the son of Srinivasan, belonged to the Iyengar caste, and had been given the name Venkataraman. And now, your turn. Figure out Arcot Ramanathan Krishnaswamy Chettiyar.

In modern times, however, many Portuguese names like Fernandez, De Costa (one who came from the coast), De Souza (coming from a salty place) or De Mello (originating from Mello in Portugal) also became common among Goans. Tamils have taken to dropping the castes from their names. Those in all-India services or those who have worked in northern India have been adopting their personal names as surnames for their families. For example, Ramanathan Krishnan, where Ramanathan was the father’s name, would become Mr. R. Krishnan, and his wife would be, say, Mrs. Santha Krishnan, and his son, Madhusudan Krishnan.

Malayali names are somewhat similar to Tamil names, with castes like Namboodiri, Nair, and Pillai coming at the end of the name. The communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad’s initials, for instance, stood for Elamkulam (his place of birth), Manakkal (house name), and Sankaran (given name). Malayalis of earlier generations also adopted a matronymic naming system, taking on the mother’s house name, while the newer practice seems to be to use the father’s name.

In Karnataka, Kannadigas, like Tamils, write the name of their village or town and then their father’s name, followed by their personal name. Haradanahalli Doddagowda Deve- gowda is the full, ringing name of former Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda. In northern Karnataka, there is a noticeable influence of Maharashtrian names and naming styles.

Culture (Names) (4) FINAL.jpg


Names in Western India
The Western Indian communities of Konkanis, Maharastrians, Gujaratis (including Parsis), and Sindhis follow a naming pattern similar to that of the Slavs or Eastern Europeans, writing their personal name first, then their father’s name followed by their surname. Daughters also write their names the same way, changing from the father’s name to the husband’s after marriage.

Konkanis have names like Baliga, Shenoy, Pai, Kamath, Paha, Hegde, Nayak, Bhat, Sanbhog, and Kini.

Many Maharastrian names end in the suffix “kar,” meaning “inhabitant of,” – such as Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Savarkar. Some throw light on the professions that those families followed long ago. Tendulkars, for instance, were once moneylenders and goldsmiths.

The same European naming pattern is followed by Gujaratis—for instance, Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi, Govardhandas Tribhuvandas Desai, Narendra Damodardas Modi, Ushaben Bhanubhai Mehta, and Smita Kirtilal Zaveri. Surnames based on professions also figure in. Gandhi (grocer), Modi (merchants), Patel (land owner or village leader), Mehta (bookkeeper), Parikh (examiner). Gujaratis often carry the suffix bhai or ben meaning “brother” or “sister,” as in Chottubhai or Lilavatiben, but this is often used later in life by others as a term of respect rather than by the person himself as an official name.

The Parsis have Persian names such as Tata, Godrej, Nowsarvanji, Sorabji, Rustomji, etc. Depending on their occupation or business, some have surnames ending in the suffix -wala, such as Topiwala, Daruwala, Screwvala, and Cyclewala. And of course, it’s easy to spot the Sindhi names, with the -ni suffix that adorns many of their last names, like Advani, Kripalani, and Mirchandani.

Names in North and East India
Some North Indians have locational surnames like Jodhpuri and Ajmeeri. There was a trend in the 1920s and 1930s to drop surnames like Bhatnagar and Agarwal, which indicated caste. Many North Indians in the early days had Ram, Lal, and Nath as middle names, as in Ganga Ram, Ratan Lal and Ravindranath. In later years, Rams, Lals, and Naths were less common, giving way to Chandra, as in Satishchandra. Later still, Chandra gave way to Kumar. Current trends seem to favor giving up the middle name totally. Caste origins in north India are easy to spot in surnames like Dwivedi and Trivedi (Brahmin), Singh (Khetri) and Gupta (Vaishya).

Punjabi Hindus have names such as Chopra, Kapoor, Chawla, Chadda, Chibbar, Bagga, with many surnames common to Hindus and Sikhs, the latter adding Singh (lion) to male names and Kaur (lioness or princess) to female names.

Bengalis have surnames such as Ghosh, Sen, Biswas, Bose, and Bhattacharya. The British, finding many Bengali names like Mukhopadhyay, Chattopadhyay, Bandopadhyay and Gangopadhyay unpronounceable, anglicized them to Mukherjee, Chatterjee, Banerjee and Ganguly.

The impact of globalization
Names play a big role in Indian interactions with Americans and other Westerners in both social and business settings. Following the American convention of writing first, middle, and last names in that order is not a problem for most North and East Indians, but is something of an issue for South Indians who traditionally write their given or personal names last. Many young South Indians who apply for visas to the American Consulates write their surname (last name) in the first name column and their first name in the last name column, or omit the first name column totally, opting to write their given name in the middle name column. As it is mandatory to have the first name, middle name, and last name put down in that order, the American Consulate records FNU (First Name Unknown) in the field meant for first name. And when Rayaprolu Laxmi arrives in an American university, she is exasperated to find herself addressed as FNU, when she is the possessor of the glorious name of the Goddess of Wealth!

After a few months in this country, Vaidyanathan Balasubramanyan sees the wisdom of becoming Bala Vaidyanathan (since the latter was his father’s name), and Edakkandiyie Viswanathan finds liberation as Ed Viswanathan. Men with compound first names like Laxminarayan and Gaurisankar get used to the female names of Laxmi and Gauri—the computer would always truncate it to Laxminara or Gaurisank anyway! And did you hear of the musician named Lakshmi Narasimha Vijaya Rajagopala Seshadri Sharma Rajesh Raman? No? Not many knew him, but he wisely took the name BlaaZe, and fame and fortune followed! Not surprisingly, many Indian-Americans today go with “easy” names like Sid(dartha), and Jay(dev), which are acceptable in both cultures.

To sum up, our multiple naming systems are confusing enough even to fellow-Indians from other states, and often confound those from other cultures. Clearly, Indians who have chosen to live abroad are aware of this, and are opting to westernize their names with easier spellings and fewer syllables.


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