Do Surnames Carry Signatures Of Migration?


Surname is a very involved subject, which encompasses caste, profession, language and native place. For example, you need not be told where your colleague Bandyopadhyay hails from or why your neighbour Agarkar is not a Bihari. As long as surnames are unique — Rao, Gowda, Chaturvedi, Mukherjee or Kulkarni — everything is fine. However, whenever there is an overlap — obvious or apparent — new questions arise. An example could be Trivedi. Today we would discuss few such cases. Note that here our aim is not about the classification and nomenclature per se, nor do we attempt at understanding the logic behind surname and its distinction from Jati, Varna, or Gotra. Here we are only concerned with the migration or movement of people as reflected in their surnames.

Pursuit of career and development makes people migrate to other places. Hence, it is understandable that instead of remaining confined to one particular place, the community spreads out over a larger geographical region, especially if the areas are adjacent. For example, you would find Misra/Mishra among Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. Similarly Joshi is a common surname all the way from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Sometimes you would also notice that existence of similar surnames or customs or both among communities, which are geographically distant, is associated with some historical event or development. The best example of similarity in customs is that between Rajasthani and Garhwali cultures. The surname Rawat is an example. This is generally explained as due to migration of communities of warlords and priests to the Garhwal hills during the time of Muslim invasion. Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on Garhwal (clan) makes a note that during that same time “. . . Garhwals were able to repel the army of Prithvi Raj Chauhan but the circumstances of that time forced them to move out from there and migrated to Rajasthan”. In other words, the movement took place in the opposite direction as well. Strangely, this Wikipedia page seems to have been deleted recently, so I would leave this subject here itself, for want of appropriate references.

Such similarity in customs is also seen between the cultures of Kumaon and Maharashtra. In this case, movement of community seems to be more explicit. One theory attributes this to the story of Nana Saheb and his army. After defeat at the hands of the British, Nana Saheb had escaped to Nepal while his commanders migrated to the Kumaon hills and settled there. These commanders adhered to their native systems and customs, and taught their new wives and offspring the culture of their roots. Hence we see a lot of similarity in Kumaoni and Peshwa cultures, especially in terms of religious customs. The reasoning seems very plausible. I explored the issue further, and found that this similarity in the two cultures is already known and accepted; it is also the case that the movement was from Maharasthra to Kumaon. However, the movement was not necessarily related to Nana Saheb’s army. For example, Pant which is one of the most common surnames among Kumaonis has origins in the migration of Jai Deva Pant and Dinakar Pant from Ratnagiri in 1303 AD, which was 500 years before Nana Saheb episode. In my opinion, even if there is some weight in the theory related to Nana Saheb’s commanders, it is not the whole story. Though some communities in Kumaon might have ancestry in those Peshwas, surely not all communities share that ancestry.

Then there is a possibility that there is no other connection except in etymological sense. Few years back, there was a lecture by one professor from Mumbai University on languages and linguistics, with focus on German language. In the course of his talk, he mentioned that a common surname among Rajputs/Kshatriyas is Singh, which means ‘lion’. The same word is pronounced in Bengali as Singho. He argued that this latter transformed into the Hindi surname Sinha. Singh is one of the most common surnames in India and is found among different castes and communities. It means that the evolution of the surname in this case is a linguistic one and not confined to the development of a particular community only. In addition to Singh and Sinha, another surname that shares the same root is Sinhala in Sri Lanka.

When you dig into the chaos of innumerable surnames and customs, even more information comes out. But interestingly, certain patterns start to emerge, which tell you some story from distant past — stories about people, their customs, their languages.

Do you know any such story or theory? I would love to listen.


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photo credit: quinn.anya Last documentation via photopin(license)

15 thoughts on “Do Surnames Carry Signatures Of Migration?

      1. Amit Misra Post author

        Yes, hands are fine now. Another good news is that the condition of my legs is also improving. After about one year in bed, I am now able to walk short distances. I would write to you soon.

  1. Animesh Bordoloi

    I love the observation. Now that I think of it, I cannot think of more defining factors for similar sounding or exact surnames in different cultures, than mass migration (might be triggered by immediate or gradual change in the political, geographical or cultural scenario) and linguistic variation or evolution. The vastly mixed urban landscape of today, where caste and communal barriers are vaporizing so quickly, the relationship between surnames and one’s state, region or community will be pretty foggy in a few decades, in my opinion.
    Truly, an intriguing topic and very well written. Have a great day!

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      This is a very beautiful remark Animesh! Yes, even at the natural pace of evolution, a lot of change occurs in society and culture. To add to it, the fast paced lifestyle of these days has even more accelerated that change. We shouldn’t be surprised if all the differences in society are erased in a few decades from now. An example — do you know that the original word for the surname ‘Joshi’ was ‘Jyotishi’?

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Yes sir. I would discuss the concept of surname in future posts. Ideally that should have been posted first, but it is a very involved subject and my study is not yet complete, so you would have to wait. Here I have primarily discussed (geographical) movement.

  2. swatisinha09

    Very interesting. I never corelated my suname to Singh ! I am also particularly intrigued by the village names that people still carry in their surnames, decades after having left the place !

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Yes Swati, Singh, Sinha, Sinhala, and Singal/Singhal all share the same word root — ‘Simha’ (lion). You may check the corresponding Wikipedia pages.

      Yes, there are several examples of place names appearing as surnames — Padmini Kolhapure, Hasrat Jaipuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri.

  3. Travel, Food and Fitness By Sapna

    wow..such a descriptive post..never thought reading about surnames can be so fascinating.

  4. Pingback: How To Watch A Movie Scene — Look For The Basic Rules Of Photography! | Pradyot

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