What’s in a name?

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. :-)

Some common TamBrahm names. Designed with the help of Wordle

———-
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.

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37 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Am afraid I am one of those people who doesn’t like the “real name”. I felt that I was reading about my own family here, only both my GFs are named Ramaswamis, and 8 grandsons have that name, and all of them use it officially. The confusion it creates is legendary in our families.

    Great post.

  2. You have me in splits, Sudha. I cannot tell you just how much i laughed after reading through this post of yours. I am a great fan of all things Tamil- the food, the traditions, the lovely customs and many more, yet, somehow i never knew of this aspect of the great culture.
    Love the humor which trickles through every line of carefully explained detail..
    Great piece of writing…look forward to more..

    • As I mentioned in my post, guidelines for naming is part of the oral traditions of the community. Like most oral traditions, it is taken for granted and never discussed. That is why I feel that such traditions need to be documented, particularly the quirky, wacky ones. ;-)

  3. Real funny. The only logic I see behind this naming business is to get an idea of the lineage of the person by his/her name during old times. There are some very funny and atrocious surnames in Maharashtra. I don’t find anything scientific in it.

  4. I know a friend- a proud TamBrahm if ever there is one, whose schoolmate comes from a family that is collectively named the “Siva” series. Apparently, the patriarch of of the family was a devotee of Lord Siva. It all began with Sivaraman marrying Sivakami. Together they begat Sivasubramanian, Sivashankari( the name leaves very little doubt about object of the parents devotion) and Sivasundari. Now, I think there is a strong case of putting oral traditions on record.

    Post Scriptum: I am the Venkatanaryanan referred to in this post. I was a little diffident about the name during my teen years. Now, nearly forty years on, I am rather proud of my monikker.

    • i recently came across a “Rama” series. It is this family’s tradition to have “Rama” in their name. Incidently, this family is from Kumbakonam district.

      And yes, I do agree that oral tradions and stories need to be recorded for posterity.

  5. LOL I am also named after my paternal grandmother with the addition of a Mani to it as you have observed — to distinguish me! but fortunately there is no one else in the entire family who has been given her name, considering I have more than a dozen cousins and three elder sisters. So i guess, it was not so strictly observed in our family, both sides of it.

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  7. Good one. I am from the old – united Tirunelveli district too. My place comes under Tuticorin district now. This custom is there with most of the communities in our region though it’s not adhered to with so much rigor in other communities as done in Brahmin families. People have started bending the rules to their convenience now. They try to modernize the names by using only the first letter or a part of it. For example, Ramaswamy’s grandson becomes just Ram or Rahul. :)

    Even I wrote something on the same thing sometime back though it’s from a different perspective. It’s in http://bharchive.blogspot.com/2011/08/funny-people-funny-names.html. Check out if you find some time and find it interesting beyond the first paragraph. :)

    • Welcome here, Bharathiraja, and thank you for stopping by and commenting. Seeing all the comments on Zephyr’s post, the new traffic that I am getting, and after reading your post makes me feel that there is an opportunity to do an entire research study on names, its origins and the way it has changed over the decades. :-D

      An interesting thing that I would like to share with you here is how my almost 18-year old niece does not like her “modern name” and is waiting to turn 18 before changing it her “TamBrahm name”–which is the same as that of my mother. The reason? Her current name is too common and she wants something unique.

      I am now heading over to read your post. :-)

      • Wow… that’s interesting. I am very happy about what your daughter wants to do. This is a different case study. Thanks for the reading. Hope you could go beyond the first paragraph! ;-)

    • Reminds me of many Fiction/fantasy novels / series / trilogies where the real name of the magician/elf/dwarfs are hidden by a call name. Well this is done so to avoid magicians to direct the evil spell on you. Hence always hide your real names ;) lol

      • 3 Annapoornis? And how many of you use it officially? Names are such complicated fun, aren’t they? I like the idea of a given name and a chosen name–the former given by parents and the latter chosen by you.

        Welcome here Archana/Annapoorni :-P Very nice to see you here and hope you’ll keep visiting.

  8. Your post was amazing! I have always wondered why South Indians have these kind of names. No offense meant. I am a North Indian and was named so by my father for no reason except it being a nice name :). There was no rashi, pandit, rules followed thankfully. But, it is interesting understanding the traditions behind names.

    • Welcome here, Rachna, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Oh we South Indians take our traditions very seriously, or rather the priests do these days. I attended a Tamil wedding recently where the priest threw a fit as the name groom’s name was not traditional enough :-p

  9. Loved reading this post. The tradition holds true for telugu brahmin communities too. My mother’s side of family has 3-4 Sanyasi rao (grandfather’s name) and 3 Padmavathis. They are uncles and aunts in relation to us and we usually have a prefix to their name with a place or their father’s name or their degree :). My name went the other way with parents giving me synonyms of a goddess’s name as it was stipulated in their prayer that both names will be used. I have chosen a short name for my child with a longer tam brahm name (my husband is a tambrahm) for puja purposes.

  10. Hilarious post! I am one tam-brahm who has her paternal grandmother’s name as sharma name – Janaki :) I loved, loved reading this. Should write something on similar note, esp on my maternal side. There are 11 siblings to my thatha, and each of their names has a story!

    • Welcome here, Archana, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I so glad you liked this post. I think you should definitely write that post on your maternal side. :-D I would love to read all about it.

  11. I saw your blog on Shri T. Ganapati Sastry and continued reading other blogs as well. Especially the one on Pappakudi Meena attracted my attention, since my mother was from Pappakudi (I thought because of the stress on the second syllable, the name should have two ‘p’s!). This one made me laugh and I probably am the first in my extended family to sport a “modern” name (though the modern names are becoming “traditional”). Nice blog and you write very well. Incidentally, the person who mentioned Shri Ganapati Sastry happens to be my cousin’s daughter – who is related to you. I will be visiting your blog often to read later posts!

    • Welcome here, Raj Subramani, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Delighted that you have liked what you have read so far. It’s amazing how many connections I have made after writing these “family” posts, and along the way discovered more information about my mother’s side of the family.

      Everything goes a full circle, including names. So do you think in about 10 years time, we will be seeing these traditional names again. My niece has still not forgiven her parents for giving her “modern” name as the official one. She much prefers her traditional name !

      Who is your cousin’s daughter that you have mentioned, and who is also related to me?

  12. awfully hilarious…hahaha…rofl….came here from zephyr’s name post. :) OMG! how unfair that the maternal grandmom is named for the 2nd kid…grrrr..my mil’s name is alo Meenakshi. But, I wouldn’t name my daughter that for sure. Ofcourse, I’m not a Tambram though..:P hehe I like that word. Your new follower..awesome post again.

    • Welcome here, Latha. Delighted you liked the post and the idiosyncratic ways of naming children in my community. But, you know what, my niece does not like her modern name (which she thinks is very common) and is quite miffed with her parents for not making her traditional name her official one. Go figure :-D

      • Oh boy! Kids these days are….donno what. My son’s name is Rushik. He comes home one day and says, amma, why did you name me Rushik? You should have named me Rohan. I was like, already there are 6 Rohans in your school and you want to add one more. See, there is only one Rushik in the entire school and it’s unique…he kept quiet. He must have thought, it’s waste to talk to her…:)

  13. Loved this post, Sudha! In spite of being a TamBrahm, I was spared the horrors of being named after a grandmother or great-grandmother because we lived in Ahmedabad. My grandparents had given up on most traditions from Tamilnadu long before I was born. So, this was sort of educational for me. :)

    LOL @ the Meenakshi conundrum and the question you asked your parents.

    Coma for Gomathi?! This is the first time I am coming across that short form. :D Hilarious!

    My grandfather’s name is Subramanian, and he is known as Chuppani to his near and dear ones, much to his grandkids’ amusement. :D

    • Glad you enjoyed it, TGND.

      My family left behind many traditions when they left our ancestral village 4 generations ago, but not this tradition of naming children. :-)
      You know how the Tamil Alphabet and pronunciations are and “Goma” became “Coma”. One of my chitthis is a Gomathy or a Coma :-)
      We have no “Chuppani” in the family, but many “Ambi”, which for me is a funny name as well. :-D

  14. So we are from Karnataka and the family is hard-core Vaishnav’s – so having been named Sachin was always a bit of a surprise to me. Whatever little I know about my name – it is another name for Lord Shiva and to be named after him in a Vaishnava family .. I always felt my parents were expecting a lot more :-) Good thing Mom sorted this dilemma for me – I was named after Sachin Dev Burman …

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