Understanding Indian Names in Naming Conventions, Discovery, and Standardisation

“What’s in a name?”  Shakespeare famously said.

“What we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” makes us consider the simplicity of names.

In the Western tradition of names, the last part of a name is traditionally understood as a surname. However, Indian naming conventions are much more complex.

The study of Indian names brings to light some of the difficulties catalogers and indexers may come across in the course of their work. Dr. SR Ranganathan identified some of the challenges in determining the proper form of entering a personal name for non-European languages for cataloguers and indexers if they are not familiar with the language.

The diversity in the Indian naming conventions with the abundance of names affects the way in which resources are discovered. As a result, there is a need for standardization to help with the creation of uniform access points.

Major Influences on Indian names

The naming traditions of Indians vary from region to region and culture to culture with caste and religion complicating the matter further.

By Region

In most parts of India, especially in the northern region, surnames are commonly used. Northern Indian males often have two parts in the name, the first one being the personal name with the second being the family name. As for the females, the maiden name with the father’s surname is used before marriage, and once married, this name is replaced by the husband’s surname.

In Western India, a person has three names, the first one identifying the individual, the second being the father’s name and the third is the family name.

Khan (1994) observed that in Kashmir, names suggest social lineage where most of the Kashmiris use family names. For example, the surname Khan is usually associated with Pathans who settled in India at various times. Rajput converts to Islam also use this surname. Several Muslim clans utilize the surname Khan which is widely used not only in Pakistan but also in the United Kingdom for social mobility. Other common Kashmiri surnames are Pandit, Dhar, Malik, and Shah. It is also the Kashmirian naming tradition to use nicknames as family names, for instance, Tul means Mulberry, Bulbul means  Nightingale.

Khan also noted that the nomenclature of Muslim names was derived from Persian and Arabic. Jawaharlal, for example, is a Kashmiri Hindu name with Persian influence. Muslim names such as Qureshi, Ansari, and Mufti are common in Kashmir. The surname Singh, which means lion in Sanskrit is perhaps the most common surname in Rajasthan, Punjab, and parts of Uttar Pradesh. It is possible that the lion’s courage and dominance among animals in India may explain the prevalence of surnames derived from it.

The naming system in the southern part of India is even more complicated. Traditionally, Tamil names do not include a surname. Instead, both males and females use their father’s name as their first name. When a Tamil woman marries, she takes her husband’s name relinquishing her father’s. For instance, Mahalakshmi Govindasamy marries  Muthusamy,  so her name becomes Mahalakshmi Muthusamy.

Typically, South Indian names have four elements; the first denotes the village of origin, the second is the father’s name, the third is the person’s given name and the last is the caste name. For instance, in the case of  B.K.S Iyengar, B stands for his birthplace ( Belur), K represents his father’s name (Krishnamachar), S stands for his first name Sundararajan, and Iyengar is his caste name. In the Library of Congress Name Authority (LCNA), the name is established as Iyengar, B. K. S., 1918-2014.

Another convention as practiced in South India is to include the names of birthplaces in the personal names to indicate the association.  Well-known individuals such as writers, politicians, and cinema personalities often utilize the name of their birthplace as part of their personal names. In a  personal name such as Thakazhi Sivasankara Thamothiran Pillai, the first element refers to the geographic location, the second is the father’s name, the third is the given name and the last element is the caste or clan name.

The name of the former Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is an example of practice to reveal ancestry and the place of origin commonly practiced among the South Indians.

A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

  1. Great grandson of Avul

P-   grandson of Pakir

J-    son of Januladabdeen

In LCNA, the name is established as Abdul Kalam, A. P. J.  (Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen), 1931-2015.

Search results | National Library Board (nlb.gov.sg)

In the case of the Parsi community, even the grandfather’s name is included together with the village the person comes from. In the Library of Congress Name Authority (LCNA), I.J.S. Taraporewala appears  in the  following way:

Taraporewala, Irach J. S. (Irach Jehangir Sorabji),  1884-1956

The following are some examples of prominent Indian authors whose names are established in LCNA.

Arundhati Roy

Jaypee, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

V.S. Naipaul

Tarunjtejpal22, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Anita Desai

Christchurch City Libraries, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/, via Flickr

Vikram Seth

Amrhelweh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cultural Trends

The trend of taking a  second name became more popular especially when modern Indian celebrities started using them. Raaj Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Manoj Kumar, and, more recently, Akshay Kumar have adopted Kumar as their surnames for marketing purposes. As the name Kumar became quite common, other celebrities began using names like Ranjan and Anand as their surnames, for example, Rajesh Ranjan or Abhishek Anand.

In other instances, a name may be broken into two parts, with one as the first name and another as the middle name. For example, the name Swami Vivekanand can be broken into “Vivek” as the first name “Anand” as a middle name. This is usually done for convenience in the Western World, where first names are typically shorter than Westernised versions of Indian names.

The caste system is a type of social stratification in which Hindu Indians were historically divided into groups based on their occupation. When they adopted their surnames, they used the caste system to obtain a family name, resulting in names that were tied to a distant ancestor’s occupation. A caste name is sometimes used as a family name and at other times as part of the name. Some of the prominent caste names are Sharma, Gupta, Patel, Desai, Iyer, Iyengar, Chettiyar, Mudaliar, Thevar, Gounder,  Pillai, Namoothiri, Nair, Menon, Naidu, and Reddy.

Religious connotations

Indians speak a wide variety of languages and nearly every major religion in the world has a substantial following in India, with  Hinduism being the most popular religion. The followers of various world religions have adopted a variety of naming conventions such as Hindu names, Sikh names, Jain names, Muslim names, and Christian names.

A Hindu will have a given name, may or may not have a middle name, and a family name. In some regions like Maharashtra and Gujarat, the father’s first name is taken as the middle name. The name Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is an example of this practice. He was the son of Karamchand Gandhi, and his own sons all had the middle name Mohandas.

Many Hindu families hold a naming ceremony based on the baby’s horoscope after the birth. The majority of Hindu names are derived from the names of gods and goddesses, as well as mythological, historical, and epic figures. Devout Hindus may add Ram as a prefix to the name. Names such as Ram Gopal or  Ram Dass are elements of personals names and the second part of the name is not a surname. Interestingly, when these two elements are joined together, it forms another variation such as Ramgopal and Ramdass with the second element of a name which may be the father’s name or caste functioning as a surname.

Many Muslim surnames are derived from the Persian and Arabic languages linked to specific Muslim religious groups outside of India. Muslim surnames such as Nahvi, Yaya, Rathar, and Peerzada are some examples of surnames found in LCNA.

With the arrival of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British to India, the Christian converts took foreign surnames,  such as Thomas, Matthew, Pereira, Fernandos, Alfonso, De Silva, and Cruz.  A few examples of nativized Biblical names commonly used in Kerala are as follows: Matthai for Matthew, Mariamma for Mary, Varghese for George, Chacko for Jacob, Annamma for Anna, Saramma for Sarah.

Without any religious connotations, the British influence is noticeable in names such as, Allen Singh, Judge Singh, Inspector Singh, Avtar Singh Judge, possibly as a result of adoption of Western names amongst the English educated families.

In conclusion

We have looked at how regional differences, religious impacts, caste affiliations, and colonial past have shaped Indian names. It is worth noting that there are also many variations in the spelling of these names complicated with the addition of whether the name elements may or may not be used as surnames.

Kidambi (2008) concurs that the British colonial rule expected Indians to use a naming system that corresponded to the British naming convention. People from various parts of India reacted differently to the requirement. The northern and western regions appeared to be more adaptable to the new conventions while in the southern region, conformity may have been less common as southern names are more complex. There are very few style guides and journal instructions to specify how to write or use complex Indian names.

The lack of adequate guidelines poses a challenge for standardization which may potentially affect the discovery of resources written by Indian authors.

One way to ensure consistency as suggested by Kidambi, (2008) would be to come up with some guidelines for authors, editors, and publishers to avoid confusion for cataloguers and indexers. The rich diversity in the repository of Indian names unmistakably reveals an individual’s identity beyond boundaries. The variety of Indian names and the conventions need to be better understood and appreciated.

Contributed by:
Malarvele Ilangovan
Senior Librarian
National Library Board Singapore

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