India’s name wrangler

Story in India Today

Parkarvarkar (lift your petticoat), Zurle (cockroach), Bhoote (ghosts), Makde (monkey), Undhir (rat), Gadhve (donkey), Kutte (dog), Landge (wolf). Believe it or not, these are some embarrassing surnames used in Maharashtra which one man — Gajanan Wamancharya — is trying to ensure are changed.

Wamanacharya’s organisation, ‘Adnav Sudhar Samiti’, helps people change such embarrassing surnames. “Thankfully, surnames like Parkarvarkar are not used any more but Gadhve, Makde, Zurle are equally embarrassing. Which is why I decided to form an organisation to encourage people to remove these embarrassing surnames,” said Wamanacharya whose expertise lies in radio isotopes and radiation technology.

The scientist who retired from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has made a list of all the unusual surnames. Till last count, the list had 60,000 surnames.

But what led him to go in for such an exercise?

“My fascination with names started in 1963 when people began asking about the meaning of my surname. I began doing some research and came to know that originally we were from Bijapur in Karnataka where one of our ancestors named Waman was the priest of a temple. In those days priests were called ‘acharya’, so they began calling him ‘Wamanacharya’ and from then on the name has got stuck,” said the former BARC scientist.

Later, Wamanacharya began looking into what other people’s names meant, “I had a friend whose surname was Gadhve (donkey). I asked him how his surname came to be like that. He was embarrassed and said that he did not know how. I later did some more research and found that most of these names are 200 to 300 years-old and there are different reasons for each of these surnames coming into existence,” said Wamanacharya.

For instance, the surname Gadhve (donkey) could have come into vogue after the local zamindars would have addressed those working for them as gadhve. Other surnames that are after common metals like copper (Tambe) and brass (Pitale) could have come due to their ancestors’ dealings in such metals.

“In those days there was no culture to have a surname. With a caste system prevalent all you had was people being called based on the occupation they were involved in, for example someone working in copper began to be called Tambe, and soon their children began having such surnames. Basically, in those days whatever name you were called stuck to you and became your surname,” said the retired scientist.

For instance, if a man had eight children then he would be called Ashtaputre, ‘ashta’ for eight and ‘putre’ for children, similarly if a person had 11 brothers he would be called ‘Barabhai’. Similarly, those who had health deformities too had weird surnames. One who stammered was called ‘Bobde’ (stammerer), one who was deaf was called ‘Bahire’, one who had difficulty seeing was called Andhale — ‘blind’.


Now, there are some very odd convergences, cognates and coїncidences embedded in some of the names noted here. Taking them in the order they are mentioned in the article :

Kutte (dog) – “dog” in Hungarian is kutya (which is possibly derived from a similar Slavic word).

Landge (wolf) – Not only does this name have an oddly Germanic ring to it, but one of the Gaelic circumlocutions (euphemisms uttered cautiously) used anciently for the wolf in Ireland was mac tíre, literally meaning “son of the land”. (The relatively straightforward faolchú, lit. “wild hound” and meaning “wolf”, was the term being avoided.) The wolf was a creature in former times plentiful, now extinct, on that once densely forested island, so tíre, the Gaelic genitive case of tír (“land”), conveys something of the countryside, soil, or wilderness.

Wamanacharya – The interviewee’s own surname means “Priest [named] Waman” (in that sense of occupational or vocational origin it is little different from an Italian surname such as Prestifilippo or Mastrantonio, for two Occidental examples). His given name Gajānan means “elephant-faced, elephant-headed” (gaja means “elephant” in Sanskrit, but the name’s actual explanation in context is that Gajānan is an epithet of Ganesha the elephant god, and consequently the name of a latter-day Hindu saint, Gajānan Maharaj). Incidentally, amongst many other interesting definitions the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary shows “gajanakra, ‘elephant-crocodile’ (rhinoceros)” and “gajanātha, a very princely elephant” (which might have been Babar’s name, perhaps, were Célesteville an Indian rather than African realm).

“one who was deaf was called ‘Bahire’, one who had difficulty seeing was called Andhale — ‘blind'” – Curiously, the corresponding words in the Gaelic language of Ireland and Scotland are bodhar (“deaf”) and dall (“blind”). An Dall in Irish means “The Blind One”. Dall is “blind” in the Brythonic branch as well, for MacBain’s Gaelic dictionary shows bodhar as answering to Welsh byddar, Cornish bodhar, Breton bouzar. Perhaps through the Indo-Europeans there was an etymological link to the Sanskrit synonym bahire.



See kutya under “Mammals” in this linked lexicon –

“Finno-Ugric ‘dog’ & ‘wolf'” –

“Gajānan Ganesh”

Also see the entry for gaja in the Monier-Williams dictionary of Sanskrit.




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