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Understanding customs used in surnames and given names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Surnames[edit | edit source]

Indian names are based on a variety of systems and naming conventions, which vary from region to region. Names are also influenced by religion and caste and may come from epics. India's population speaks a wide variety of languages and nearly every major religion in the world has a following in India. This variety makes for subtle, often confusing, differences in names and naming styles. Due to historical Indian cultural influences, several names across South and Southeast Asia are influenced by or adapted from Indian names or words.[1]

In India, surnames are placed as last names or before first names, which often denote: village of origin, caste, clan, office of authority their ancestors held, or trades of their ancestors.

The largest variety of surnames is found in the states of Maharashtra and Goa, which numbers more than the rest of India together. Here surnames are placed last, the order being: the given name, followed by the father's name, followed by the family name. The majority of surnames are derived from the place where the family lived, with the 'ker' (Marathi) or 'Kar'(Konkani) suffix, for example, Mumbaiker, Puneker, Aurangabadker or Tendulkar, Parrikar, Mangeshkar, Mahendrakar. Another common variety found in Maharashtra and Goa are the ones ending in 'e'. These are usually more archaic than the 'Kar's and usually denote medieval clans or professions like Rane, Salunkhe, Gupte, Bhonsle, Ranadive, Rahane, Hazare, Apte, Satpute, Shinde, Sathe, Londhe, Salve, Kale, Gore, Godbole, etc.

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, surnames usually denote family names. It is easy to track family history and the caste they belonged to using a surname.

In Odisha and West Bengal, surnames denote the caste they belong. There are also several local surnames like Das, Patnaik, Mohanty, Jena etc.

In Kerala, surnames denote the caste they belong. There are also several local surnames like nair, menon , panikkar etc.

It is a common in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and some other parts of South India that the spouse adopts her husband's first name instead of his family or surname name after marriage.

India is a country with numerous distinct cultural and linguistic groups. Thus, Indian surnames, where formalized, fall into seven general types.

Origins[edit | edit source]

Surnames are based on:

  • Patronymics and ancestry, whereby the father's name or an ancestor's given name is used in its original form or in a derived form (e.g. Baranwal or Barnwal or Burnwal derived from the ancestor Ahibaran).
  • Occupations (Chamar, Patel or Patil, meaning Village Headman, Gandhi, Kamath, Kulkarni, who used to maintain the accounts and records and collect taxes, Kapadia, Nadkarni, Patwardhan, Patwari, Shenoy, etc.) and priestly distinctions (Bhat, Bhattar, Sastry, Trivedi, Shukla, Chaturvedi, Twivedi, Purohit, Mukhopadhyay); Business people: Shetty, Rai, Hegde is commonly used in kshatriya castes of the Karnataka coastal belt. In addition, many Parsi, Bohra and Gujarati families have used English trade names as last names since the 18th and 19th centuries (Contractor, Engineer, Builder).
  • Caste or clan names (Pillai, Gounder, Goud, Gowda, Boyar, Parmar, Sindhi, Vaish, Reddy, Meena , Nair, Nadar and Naidu) are not surnames but suffixes to first names to indicate their clan or caste.
  • Place names or names derived from places of ancestral origin (Aluru, Marwari, Gavaskar, Gaonkar, Mangeshkar, Kapoor, Wamankar, Kokradi, Karnad, Sandhu, Medukonduru, Rachapalli).
  • The father's first name is used as a surname in certain Southern states, such as Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Spouses and children take on the first name of the father as their last name or 'surname'.
  • Muslim surnames generally follow the same rules used in Pakistan. Khan is among the most popular surnames, often signifying Afghan/Central Asian descent.
  • Bestowed titles or other honorifics: titles bestowed by kings, rajas, nawabs and other nobles before the British Raj (Wali, Rai, Rao, Thakur, Gain/Gayen, Panicker, Vallikappen, Moocken, etc.) and those bestowed by the British (Rai, Bahadur).

Conventions[edit | edit source]

  • The convention is to write the first name followed by middle names and surname. It is common to use the father's first name as the middle name or last name even though it is not universal. In some Indian states like Maharashtra, official documents list the family name first, followed by a comma and the given names.
  • Traditionally, wives take the surname of their husband after marriage. In modern times, in urban areas at least, this practice is not universal and some wives either suffix their husband's surname or do not alter their surnames at all. In some rural areas, particularly in North India, wives may also take a new first name after their nuptials. Children inherit their surnames from their father.
  • Jains generally use Jain, Shah, Firodia, Singhal or Gupta as their last names. Sikhs generally use the words Singh ("lion") and Kaur ("princess") as surnames added to the otherwise unisex first names of men and women, respectively. It is also common to use a different surname after Singh in which case Singh or Kaur are used as middle names (Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Surinder Kaur Badal). The tenth Guru of Sikhism ordered (Hukamnama) that any man who considered himself a Sikh must use Singh in his name and any woman who considered herself a Sikh must use Kaur in her name. Other middle names or honorifics that are sometimes used as surnames include Kumar, Dev, Lal, and Chand.
  • The modern-day spellings of names originated when families translated their surnames to English, with no standardization across the country. Variations are regional, based on how the name was translated from the local language to English in the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries during British rule. Therefore, it is understood in the local traditions that Baranwal and Barnwal represent the same name derived from Uttar Pradesh and Punjab respectively. In the modern times, some states have attempted standardization, particularly where the surnames were corrupted because of the early British insistence of shortening them for convenience.[2]

Names by Culture[edit | edit source]

Bengali[edit | edit source]

  • Bengali Brahmin surnames include Banerjee, Bagchi, Bhaduri, Bhattacharjee, Chakraborty, Chatterjee, Ganguly, Goswami, Ghoshal, Lahiri, Maitra, Mukherjee, Sanyal, etc. A Brahmin name is often the name of the clan or gotra, but can be an honorific, such as Chakraborty or Bhattacharya.
  • Common Baidya surnames are Sengupta, Dasgupta, Duttagupta, Gupta, Sen-Sharma, etc.
  • Bengali Kayastha surnames include Basu, Bose, Dutta, Ghosh, Choudhury, Guha, Gain, Mitra, Singh/Sinha, Sen, Pal, De/Dey/Deb/Dev, Jana, Palit, Chanda/Chandra, Das, Dam, Kar, Nandi, Sarkar,Nag, Som etc.
  • They use first name, middle name and surname. E.g. Subhash Chandra Bose.[3]

Goan[edit | edit source]

  • Konkani people inhabiting Goa, and also Konkan regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra, are traditionally patriarchal. *Many of the originally Hindu residents were converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese. Generally, the first name is followed by the father's name, though this is now mostly observed by Hindus.
  • Village names were used only after the arrival of the Portuguese, when the people migrated from their ancestral villages. A suffix kar or hailing from was attached to the village name.
  • Almost all the Konkani Catholics have Portuguese surnames like Rodrigues, Fernandes, Pereira and D'Souza.[4][5] Catholic families belonging to the Roman Catholic Brahmin (Bamonn) caste use lusophonised versions of Hindu surnames like Prabhu, Bhat, etc.[3]

Gujarati[edit | edit source]

  • Gujarati family names follow First name, Father's first name, Last name. The last name is commonly a caste name. For example: Narendra Damodardas Modi - Narendra is his first name, Damodardas is his father's name and Modi is his last name, denoting the Teli caste.
  • Upon marriage, the wife takes on the husband's first and last names as middle and last names respectively. For example, if Jessica Amber Smith married Sanjay Bharat Vadgama her name would become Jessica Sanjay Vadagama.[3]

Northern[edit | edit source]

  • Northern naming patterns follow a standard pattern - First name, Middle name, Surname.
  • Many times the middle name will be appended onto the first name, or not exist at all. Sometimes middle name would even be father's first name.
  • The surname is most commonly a caste name however, there are some caste-neutral surnames like Kumar. For example: Manohar Lal Khattar (Manohar is his first name, Lal is a middle name and Khattar is a caste surname).
  • Many women, especially in rural areas, take on the surname Devi (meaning Goddess) or Kumari (princess) when they are married (ex. Phoolan Devi, known as Phoolan Mallah before marriage).
  • Muslims in North India use Islamic naming conventions.[3]

Kannada[edit | edit source]

Kannada names vary by region as follows:

  • North Karnataka surnames are drawn from the name of the place, food items, dresses, temples, type of people, platforms, cities and profession and so on.
  • Katti as a suffix is used for soldiers while Karadis is related to local folk art.
  • Surnames according to trade or what they traditionally farm include Vastrad (piece of cloth), Kubasad (blouse), Menasinkai (chili), Ullagaddi (onion), Limbekai, Ballolli (garlic), Tenginkai (coconut), Byali (pulse) and Akki (rice). *Surnames based on house include Doddamani (big house), Hadimani (house next to the road), Kattimani (house with a platform in its front), Bevinmarad (person having a big neem tree near his house) and Hunasimarad (person having a big tamarind tree near his house).
  • A carpenter will have Badigar as a surname while Mirjankar, Belagavi, Hublikar and Jamkhandi are surnames drawn from places. Angadi (shop), Amavasya (new moon day), Kage (crow), Bandi (bullock cart), Kuri (sheep), Kudari (horse), Toppige (cap), Beegadkai (key), Pyati (market), Hanagi (comb) and Rotti (bread) are some other surnames.
  • In coastal Karnataka, the surnames are different in different regions. Surnames like Hegde and Hebbar belong to the Brahmin community, while other titles like Ballal, Shetty, and Rai are mostly used by the landed Bunt community.
  • The system of keeping the First name, Father's first name, Surname is found in Karnataka also.
  • Names in South Karnataka follow village name, father's name, personal name. For example, take H. D. Kumaraswamy. H refers to Haradanahalli (his native) D refers to Devegowda (his father's name) and his first name is Kumaraswamy.
  • For married women, it is husband's name, first name or the opposite (ex. Sumalatha Ambareesh, Ambareesh is her husband's name).
  • In South Karnataka, caste names are not common except among the higher castes.
  • Kannada Brahmins have surnames like Rao, Murthy, Poojari, Bhat.
  • The title Gowda was a title given to any village headman, irrespective of caste, and was written as an appendage to the person's name. For example Siddaramaiah's father belonged to the Kuruba community but was called Siddarame Gowda. Nowadays it is mostly used as a Vokkaliga surname.
  • Most people in South Karnataka, irrespective of caste, do not use caste surnames.[3]

Kashmiri[edit | edit source]

  • Kashmiri names often have the following format: first name, middle name (optional), family name. (For example: Jawahar Lal Nehru)
  • Nicknames often replace family names. Hence, some family names like Razdan and Nehru may very well be derived originally from the Kaul family tree.[3]

Malayali[edit | edit source]

  • Malayali surname includes Nair, Menon, Pillai, Nambootri, Panikkar and Kurup.
  • Malayalis follow similar customs to Tamils and people in South Karnataka of village name, father's name, personal name.
  • Muslims also follow this system, though their first names follow the Islamic system.
  • Malayali Christians usually use Western names.
  • Many Malayalis have instead given name, father's name as a name. For example, Diana Mariam Kurian, Diana is her first name, Mariam is her middle name and Kurian is her father's name. Her father's family name is Kodiyattu but she does not use it.
  • Members of the Menon, Nair and related communities often use their mother's house name or directly add their caste name. For example, Kannoth Karunakaran, Karunakaran is his given name and Kannoth is his mother's house name, P. K. Vasudevan Nair, Vasudevan is his given name and Nair is his caste surname.[3]

Marathi[edit | edit source]

Marathi people of Hindu religion follow a partially Patronymic naming system. For example, it is customary to associate the father's name with the given name. In the case of married women, the husband's name is associated with the given name. Therefore, the constituents of a Marathi name as given name /first name, father/husband, family name /surname. For example:

  • Mahadev Govind Ranade: Here Mahadev is the given name, Govind is his father's given name and Ranade is the surname.
  • Jyotsna Mukund Khandekar: Here Jyotsna is the given name, Mukund is the husband's given name, and Khandekar is the surname of the husband[12]
  • Marathi Hindus choose given names for their children from a variety of sources. They could be characters from Hindu mythological epics such as the Ramayana or Mahabharat, names of holy rivers such as Yamuna and Godavari, Hindu historical characters from Maratha or Indian history such as Shivaji and Ashoka, Marathi varkari saints such as Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar, Janabai, popular characters from modern Marathi literature, names of fragrant flowers for girls (e.g. Bakul, Kamal/Kamla for lotus), senses such as Madhura for sweetness, precious metals such female name Suwarna for gold, heavenly bodies such as the Sun and the Moon, Vasant and Sharad for spring and autumn respectively, names of film stars (e.g. Amit after Amitabh Bachchan) or sportsmen, and after virtues (e.g.,Vinay for modesty). Nicknames such as Dada, Bandu, Balu, Sonya and Pillu for males and Chhabu and Bebi for girls have been popular too.
  • A large number of Maharashtrian surnames are derived by adding the suffix kar to the village from which the family originally hailed. For example, Junnarkar came from town of Junnar, Waghulkar comes from the town of Waghul.
  • Names like SINGH, Kumbhar, Sutar, Kulkarni, Deshpande, Deshmukh, Patil, Pawar, Desai, and Joshi denote the family's ancestral trade or professions.
  • Families of the historical Maratha chiefs use their clan name as their surname. Some of these are Jadhav, Bhosale, Chavan, Shinde, Shirke, More, Nimbalkar, Pawar, and Ghatge.
  • Members of the numerically largest Maratha Kunbi cultivator class among Marathi people have also adopted some of the Maratha clan names, whether to indicate allegiance to the Maratha chief they served, or as an attempt at upward mobility.[3]

Sikh[edit | edit source]

  • Sikh names often have the following format: First name, religious name, family name.
  • The religious name is always Singh for males, example "Ravinder Singh Sahota"; and Kaur for females, example "Harmanpreet Kaur Bhullar", "Harleen Kaur Deol" and "Manjeet Kaur Bhullar".
  • Since Sikhism opposes castes, they do not traditionally use family names.
  • Upon marriage, a Sikh woman will take the family name of the husband.
  • Sardar for males and Sardarni for females are sometimes prefixed as titles. A lot of Sikh first names can be used by both sexes.[3]

Tamil[edit | edit source]

  • Tamil names usually follow this pattern: Initial (Village name), Initial (Father's name), First Name, Caste name (Example: E.V. Ramasamy, where E stands for Erode, and V stands for Venkatappa, the father's name. Another example is R. Karthik, where R stands for Ravichandran, the father's name).
  • There is a widespread usage of a patronym (use of the father's first name as the second name). This means that the first name of one generation becomes the second name of the next. In many cases, the father's name appear as an initial and thus the first name may be presented as a second name. When written in full (for example, on a passport), the initial is expanded as last name. For example, a name like "R. Ramesh" or "Ramesh R.", will be written in full as "Ramesh Ramaiah", and refers to "Ramesh son of Ramaiah". If Ramesh then has a son named Vijay, then his name would be "R. Vijay" or "Vijay Ramesh" as it would be in the West.
  • There is also a general custom for Tamil women to adopt their husband's first name as their second name. Saravanan Sunitha (Sunitha daughter of Saravanan) might change her name to Ram Kumar Sunitha (Sunitha wife of Ram Kumar) after marriage. However, these customs vary from family to family and are normally never carried on over successive generations.
  • More common among women, making the patronym or husband name the last name is a custom adopted by people migrating to the West who want to be called by their first names without having to explain Indian naming conventions.
  • In earlier times a caste name or village name was used by the Tamils as their last name, but due to the influence of the Dravidian movement, Tamils of all castes have mostly given up caste surnames. However, frequently adopt their father's or husband's name and take it for successive generations.
  • The various Tamil caste names include Paraiyar, Vishwakarma, Aachari, Konar, Idaiyar, Reddiar, Udayar, Yadhavar, Iyengar, Iyer, Pillai, Mudaliar, Thevar, Nadar, Chettiar, Gounder, Naicker etc. The naming is therefore done in the fashion: Sunitha Ram Kumar Pillai.
  • Hindus in Tamil Nadu view the practice of adding the full family name to an individual's name to be a heretic practice, as according to their beliefs, the individual's heritage does not trump his or her own identity. And hence they are known to only use initials besides their name except for when caste names are given more preference by certain families rather than the family name itself.[3]

Telugu[edit | edit source]

Telugu people have a different naming style from rest of India. The family name is a genitive case, hence stands first, which followed by personal name. This practice of placing family name first is also seen in Chinese and Hungarians. Thus "Family name (surname), Given name" format is contrasted from North India where family name typically appears last or other parts of South India where family names are little used. This might cause confusion to varying degree within India and rest of the world.

  • Occasionally, caste name is also suffixed at the end. For example, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, where Neelam is the family name, Sanjiva is the given name and Reddy is the caste name.
  • Telugu people are often named after Hindu gods or goddesses.
  • Nearly all Telugus possess family name called "Inti peru" (lit. 'House name'), which are the most unique of all the linguistic groups in India.
  • Telugu family names are often named after a place. For example, Pasupaleti after Pasupaleru, Kondaveeti after Kondaveedu, Kandukuri is named after Kandukur etc.
  • Unlike western names, where family name is well known over personal name, it is contrary among the Telugus, where person is well known by given name, without ever hearing their family name.
  • Telugu family names are often abbreviated and written, e.g., P. V. Narasimha Rao, D. Ramanaidu, etc. unlike the western names where given name is abbreviated.[3]

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • For some Indians, their birth name is different from their official name; the birth name starts with a randomly selected name from the person's horoscope (based on the nakshatra or lunar mansion corresponding to the person's birth).
  • Many children are given three names, sometimes as a part of religious teaching.[4]
  • Most given names in India are intentionally chosen with a specific meaning, and many are acutely aware of the meaning of their name. It is common for people (particularly Hindus) to be given names on the basis of horoscopes, usually provided by an astrologer. The astrologer determines the sound a name should begin with and the family will choose a name based on that sound.
  • It is common for people to have nicknames among close friends and family. Nicknames may be designated from a young age and follow someone through adulthood.
  • Some people may have a religious name. For example, people who formally become part of the Sikh community may adopt a ‘Khalsa’ name, usually ‘Singh’ (‘Lion’) for men and ‘Kaur’ (‘Princess’) for women.[5]

For Further Reading[edit | edit source]

FamilySearch Library[edit | edit source]

Additional sources are listed in the FamilySearch Catalog:

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Indian name", in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_name, accessed 8 March 2021.
  2. "Surnames by country", in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surnames_by_country#India, 8 March 2021.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 "Indian name", in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_name, accessed 14 March 2021.
  4. "Indian name", in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_name, accessed 8 March 2021.
  5. "Indian culture:Names", in Cultural Atlas, https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/indian-culture/indian-culture-naming, 8 March 2021.