None of us have a say with what we are named as, do we?
It depends entirely on what our parents (or whoever else had a say in this matter) wanted to name us. But sometimes, even the parents (or whoever else had a say in this matter) do not have a choice in choosing their child(ren)’s name(s). For instance, the Tamil Brahmin (a.k.a. TamBrahm) Iyer community from Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, follows certain pre-ordained rules. You wouldn’t find these rules in any book or magazine, as it is part of the oral traditions of the community passed down from generation to generation.
I make an attempt (albeit a tongue-in-cheek one) here to codify these “scientific”, and quirky, rules on naming children born to the TamBrahms of Tirunelveli district. My qualifications for doing so are due to my being (i) a TamBrahm from Tirunelveli District, and (ii) a recipient of this oral tradition.
1. The first-born son is named after his paternal grandfather.
So, if grandfather is named Sivaramakrishnan, the child is named Sivaramakrishnan. Just imagine, ready-made names for the asking, leaving no scope for dispute.
2. The first-born daughter is named after her paternal grandmother.
If the grandmother is named Tripurasundari, the baby is named so. I can imagine at least one unhappy face—the child’s mother’s face. After all, I am not sure how many women would like to have their daughter named after their mother-in-law!
I was named after my paternal grandmother, Meenakshi. Sometimes, when my mother feels that I nag her too much about her eating on time, or taking her vitamins and calcium tablets regularly, she calls me ”Mamiyaar”, which is the Tamil word for mother-in-law!
3. The second-born son is named after his maternal grandfather.
Suppose the maternal grandfather’s name is Sitapathi, the newborn second son is named Sitapathi.
4. The second-born daughter is named after her maternal grandmother.
Suppose the maternal grandmother’s name is Rajarajeshwari, the newborn second daughter is named so. It is entirely possible that it is the child’s father’s turn to sulk at his baby being named after his mother-in-law.
5. From the third-born son or daughter onwards, the parents can name their child as they wish to as long as it is the name of a God or a Goddess.
What parents usually do here is to name their son or daughter after the local deity or their ishta devta or favourite God. My mother’s youngest sister, who was the fourth-born daughter of her parents and was born in Mumbai, was named Mahalakshmi after the reigning deity at the Mahalakshmi Temple in Mumbai.
6. In rare cases Rules 1, 2, 3 & 4 need not be followed. If special pujas or prayers have been undertaken for the well-being, health, longevity, prosperity, etc., etc. of the yet-to-be conceived/born child, then the child should be named after the God or Goddess prayed to.
My mother’s name can be cited as an example here. She was the first grandchild to be born on both sides of her family. Her grandparents (all four of them) prayed at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Tiruvananthapuram (then known as Trivandrum) for the safe delivery, good health and well-being of the child. The
bribe promise made was that the yet-to-be-born child would be named after the reigning deity there—Padmanabhan, if it was a boy, and Padma if it was a girl.
7. A suitable prefix or suffix can be added to the original name of the child to distinguish him or her from his/her grandparent.
My eldest brother was initially named Narayanan, after my paternal grandfather. Then someone in the family (nobody is sure who) said that adding “Venkata” to his name would be a good idea. So the poor guy has a 16-letter first name — Venkatanarayanan ! Apparently, my father wanted to add the prefix “Vijaya” to my name. He dropped the idea after vociferous protests from the grandmother after whom I am named.
8. Shortening the child’s name, for use as a nickname, is strongly encouraged.
Some examples are:
Srinivasan → Chinu
Vishwanathan → Vishu
Gomathi → Coma (don’t even ask why)
Meenakshi → Meena
Nagalakshmi → Nagu
Subbalakshmi → Chuppu
Subramanian → Subbu
9. If the parents wish, they can also give a contemporary name for their son/daughter, in addition to naming their child as per Rules 1–5, wherever applicable. This name may be used for official purposes like school, college, passport, ration card, PAN card, voter’s card, etc.
So, while I was named Meenakshi as per Rule 2, I was also named Sudha as per this very Rule.
10. However, in the case horoscopes and pujas, only the names given vide Rules 1–5 are to be used.
I recently attended the grihapravesh or housewarming ceremony of Anita, a distant cousin. Just before beginning the puja, the priest asked my cousin’s husband for his name.
“Ajay,” my brother-in-law replied.
The priest glared at him and said, “I asked for your real name.”
After a moment’s hesitation, came the rather diffident reply, “Hariharaputran”.
The priest gave a rather smug nod, and turned towards my cousin. “And what is your name?” he asked.
“Akhilandeshwari,” came the quick reply.
The priest beamed at her and turned towards the gathered guests and said, “Never forget your real names.”
The assembled guests, all extended members of either my cousin’s or her husband’s family, snickered as every one of them had been through a similar question and answer experience with a priest at one time or the other.
Over the years, the Rules have become a formality—especially Rules 1–5. In fact, I would even say that it has become something of a joke as the names are considered to be old-fashioned and difficult to pronounce in an increasingly globalising world. Some of my cousins are quite embarrassed with the names they have and absolutely refuse to acknowledge it in any form. They can do so as they also have contemporary names.
Both my maternal and paternal families followed the above Rules strictly. This has given rise to a rather peculiar and funny situation—we have too many Meenakshis in the family. Since both my grandmothers were named Meenakshi, this has resulted in 2 Meenakshis on my father’s side (including your’s truly) and 4 on my mother’s side (including your’s truly). Luckily for all the Meenakshis concerned (both sides put together), only one of us uses the name in an official capacity (and that’s not me !). Just imagine the confusion if all the Meenakshis actually used the name !
If my parents had a second daughter, I wonder if they would have also named her Meenakshi, as per Rule 4. I did ask them. Both of them refused to answer.
P.S. It is entirely possible that the TamBrahms from other districts of Tamil Nadu, or for that matter any other community also have similar rules for naming their children. I do know that some Syrian Christian families follow the tradition of naming children after their grandparents.