Understanding surnames in India: A cross-cultural analysis

Abstract: A surname is one of the most common pieces of information that we can use to discern one’s identity. However, in current times, thanks to globalisation, it is quite identifiable that certain marginalised cultures of the world are forced to present their identity to suit the patterns of dominant cultures. This idea is very observable when it comes to giving names to people.

Understanding surnames in India

The Indian nomenclature of persons is very fascinating, but has several controversial connotations in the present society. While the system of nomenclature, that is, the system of choosing names, is quite complex in India, their emergence for the longest time has followed a very political trajectory. Consequently, there seems to be a need to study this trajectory in a critical manner.

What is a surname?

Usually, a surname is simply a name that gets attached to one’s first name. According to an explanation in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Lotha, 2018), a surname which may alternately be known as ‘last name’ is the name that is often attached to an individual’s ‘first name’. This surname is usually carried down from ancestors and held common among the members of a family. Thus, they usually denote some identity aspect of the family in question, such as the ancestral name of the family, place of origin or even the occupation that the members of the family have engaged in for a long time.

Although the concept is not exactly foreign to most communities, the idea of a surname as it is understood today, is a colonial addition in most cultures around the globe such that it has always been a part of Western naming systems. Therefore, even in India, the need for a ‘surname’ as such, is believed to have emerged with the influence of the British Raj and other colonial powers.

Origins: Caste-sensitive, religious and patriarchal nomenclature of Indian surnames

The naming of persons as soon as they are born is something that almost all communities in the world consider an important ritual. This is not quite different from the scenario in India. Also, one’s name is indicative of one’s religion, caste, place of birth and a myriad of other such identity factors. The extensive work of Raja Jayaraman (2005) on the same topic, traces the origin of Hindu caste-based surnames of the Indian subcontinent in the then-prevalent social institutions and rules of social interactions. According to him, as mentioned in the Samskara Vidhi or the Rules of Life-cycle Rituals in Hinduism, names like ‘Sharma’ are usually reserved for Brahmins, ‘Varma’ for Kshatriyas, ‘Gupta’ for Vaishyas and ‘Das’ for Shudras.

Similarly, there are distinct surnames like ‘Mathur’, ‘Srivastava’, ‘Nair’, ‘Menon’, ‘Nadar’, ‘Gaikwad’, etc, that point to the caste locations of various individuals. However, it is not necessary that the correspondence between surnames and caste names is rigid. For example, the surnames Gaikwad and Yadav are found between both upper and lower caste communities. The manner in which adoption of surnames differ across cultures is also very unique.

For many Muslims in India, their surnames mark the influence of an Indo-Arabic ethnicity as well as some traces of caste in various parts of South Asia. For example, various surnames like Khan, Pathan, Afridi, Shaikh among several others are believed to have origins in Afghan communities in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent. Christians and Jewish people in India also have a unique surname style depending on the various factions and denominations. For example, several Christians in Kerala who have the surname as ‘Oomen’, ‘Kurian’, ‘Varghese’, ‘Koshy’, etc. are identified as belonging to the Saint Thomas faction of south- Asian Christians. (Bromiley & Barrett, 2008)

Another source of origin or rather, determining factor for the emergence of surnames in India is whether a particular family, sect or community follows patriliny, that is, tracing of lineage through the male line of descent or matriliny, that is, tracing of lineage through the female line of descent. Except for a select few like the Nairs from Kerala or the indigenous tribal communities of north-eastern India such as the Khasi and the Garo, most communities in India have historically followed a patrilineal system of family wherein surname, property and birth lineage is traced along the male line.

Accordingly, for a male child or even a female child, the surname that gets taken up, is that from the child’s father’s family. In the case of matriliny, the same is traced from the mother’s side of the family or the maternal uncle’s family. In most instances, before her marriage, a woman takes her father’s surname and post marriage, she is expected to take her husband’s surname. Over time, for the purpose of unification, even the matrilineal system in many cultures came to be diminished, thus completely eliminating any traces of identity passing through the female line.

The dichotomy of North Indian and South Indian surnames

Just as culturally there is a visible dualism between northern and southern India, there is a considerable amount of difference in the manner of surnames too. For example, most northern Indians often tend to use their caste names or varna names as surnames especially in post-Independence India. On the other hand, in southern Indian communities, the most common last names for male and female children are the names of their fathers. For example, if one’s name is Radha and their father’s name is Jayadevan, then that individual’s full name would be Radha Jayadevan.

There are many southern Indian communities that retain their caste surnames like Iyer, Iyengar, Reddy, Nambudiri, etc. who are all noticeably from upper caste communities. However, while several upper caste individuals showcase pride in their surnames and its association with their identity, several Dalit communities are forced to bear the onus of having surnames that give away their marginalised identity, leading to ostracism. (Rani & Muralidharan, 2018)

Owing to the fact that there was a robust anti-caste campaign in south India, many communities collectively decided to renounce caste-based surnames. However, this is not quite the case with northern Indian communities. In fact, for a very long time, many south Indian communities did not even have a designated surname and instead added an initial against their given names, for example, R. Madhavi indicating Ranganathan Madhavi, wherein Madhavi would be the given name.

Another way that surnames in southern India differ from that in north India is that many communities may simply use the name of the city or village that they hail from as their surname. Jayaraman’s account (2005) gives examples of the village name accompanying the first name, father’s name and also a caste-based surname, in the form of Alladi Chinasami Ramasami Iyer or A.C.R Iyer, wherein Alladi refers to the village name, Chinasami refers to first name, Ramasami refers to the father’s name and ‘Iyer’ becomes the caste-based surname.

The politics of Indian surnames: a critical analysis

Considering the fact that surnames carry real information about the religion, caste and the social status of individuals and also owing to the plurality of Indian society, surnames have political implications as well. For example, in present society, where a multitude of upper-caste individuals like to believe that they are ‘not casteist’, they do use their surnames to assert their caste identity. There have been instances where people providing simply their first or given names has not sufficed in order to establish an identity. (Ghosh & Kumar, 2020)

To assume that surnames depicting caste and varna-based division of labour is a simple functionality of Indian society is a gross misjudgement. There are some very easily identifiable implications that arise when people are asked to present their full name. For example, since caste and religion can be determined through one’s surname, there have been instances where individuals with Dalit persons were discriminated against, even in scientific research institutes and similar establishments that claim to be ‘liberal’ and ‘free-thinking’. (Kondaiah, Mahadev & Wahlang, 2017)

A similar experience is seen in the case of individuals belonging to religion-marginalised locations. Many Muslims, Christians, some of whom also are from marginalised caste locations, have reported being barred from seeking accommodation at ‘Hindu-only’ apartment complexes. (Khan, 2016) There have also been instances of several Dalit and Muslim individuals in India attempting to change their surnames in order to escape social injustice or persecution. (Parmar, 2020)

Moreover, since in most cultures in India, surnames are derived from the male line, often women are by default expected to take up and even forgo their surnames in the event of their marriage. This kind of rigid kinship pattern clearly highlights the inequality of women’s social status, leading to the complete diminishing of their identity.

Conclusion

Surnames are an important detail to know about people and they do highlight the uniqueness of not only each individual, but also each community in the world. However, upon critical interrogation of the nature of surnames, one can also understand that they play a huge role in segregationist and exclusionary politics.

It is crucial that we attempt to highlight the variety and uniqueness of each surname and its associated identity, rather than using it to perpetuate reductionist and prejudiced behaviour towards the different communities that exist in the world. Instead on focusing on overt identity factors that give rise to judgemental ideas, we must learn to embrace the many differences among us and rejoice in their individuality.

­­­References:

  1. Bromiley, G., & Barrett, D. (2008). The Encyclopedia Of Christianity (1st ed.). Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  2. Jayaraman, R. (2005). Personal Identity in a Globalized World: Cultural Roots of Hindu Personal Names and Surnames. The Journal of Popular Culture, 38(3).
  3. Khan, T. (2016). No Muslims, no single people: Anyone who rents in Mumbai has to follow an unspoken code of conduct. Retrieved 18 March 2021, from https://scroll.in/article/808343/why-anyone-who-rents-in-mumbai-has-to-follow-an-unspoken-code-of-conduct
  4. Kondaiah, B., Mahadev, S., & Wahlang, M. (2017). Production of Science. Economic And Political Weekly, 52(17), 77.
  5. Lotha, G. (2018). Surname. Retrieved 19 March 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/
  6. Parmar, R. (2020). Transacting Caste in Modern Times: Changing Social Identity through Surnames in Urban Gujarat. Contemporary Voice of Dalit, 12(2), 220-233. DOI: 10.1177/2455328×20922439
  7. Rani, J., & Muralidharan, K. (2018). So the Term ‘Dalit’ Can’t Be Used But ‘Brahmin’ and 6,000 Other Caste Names Can. Retrieved 20 March 2021, from https://thewire.in/caste/dalit-brahmin-caste-names
  8. Ghosh, A., & Kumar, A. (2020). Casteism continues to thrive among Indians abroad – through surnames. Retrieved 19 March 2021, from https://scroll.in/global/970262/casteism-continues-to-thrive-among-indians-abroad-throug

Yamini is a student of Sociology with aspirations for a global career as an academic researcher and pedagogue. She is deeply passionate about social justice and welfare, intersectional feminist epistemology, accessible academia, human rights and self development through self determination with an interest in digital sociology, data privacy and internet democracy. She wishes to hone her passions through the art of academic writing.