6 min to read
How well do you know about the origins of some Indian Occupational Surnames?
Know more about the Origin of some famous Indian Mercantile Surname.
“Occupational surnames” reflect the activities or jobs associated with our ancestors. These surnames and their frequency vary by region, language and social group within India. The greatest number of Indian family names were derived from Sanskrit, however few occupational family names also came from Arabic and Persian (Farsi) -Dewan, Majmudar (record keeper), Malik, Shroff, Doshi, Sarkar, and Sood. Plus adapted from western world, like Mistry (Portuguese), from mestre ‘master, expert’.
Most common occupational surnames in India provide an interesting insight into how Indian society has evolved. Occupational surnames in India reflect what individuals did for a living in order to earn an income.
Lord of the Land
People were awarded titles by native or foreign rulers, by the community, or by themselves. Some titles are simply honorific terms of address that have come down as surnames. So, we have Bhatt ‘lord’, Nair ‘leader’, and Sarkar ‘lord’. Chakraborty from Sanskrit /cakravartī/, literally ‘wheels rolling’, metaphorically a ruler whose chariot wheels roll everywhere without obstruction. Barua was another such title.
Patel and Patil derive from ‘a piece of land’ and referred to a landowner/tenant farmer. Taluqdar = Taluk (depend) + dar (holder). Desai = lord of the Desa (land). All of them were responsible for collecting taxes for the kings. Reddy was another such title. Chowdhury were also the head of a community or caste, from Sanskrit /čatus-/‘four- way, all-round’ + /dhurīya/‘undertaking a burden (of responsibility)’. Deshpande and Deshmukhs were ‘district accountant/leader’, formerly a hereditary office (from Sanskrit /deša/‘country, district’ + /pandita/‘learned man’). Mehta was another name used for the Chief (Sanskrit mahita = great and magnify) however in Gujarati it has come to mean ‘teacher’ or ‘accountant’.
Shet, Shethi & Shetty
The Community name of Shetty and Chettiar derived from the Sanskrit word Shresthi (‘head of a mercantile or other guild’ and literally a superior person), since they were the best in the community on whom you can Trust on the money matters. It becomes Seth/Sethia in northern India. The Nattukottai Chettiar community, or Nagarathars later on became a prominent mercantile caste in Tamil Nadu. What Marwari businessmen are to the north and Parsees to the west, the Nagarathars are to the south. While they migrated to many places, it was in Burma they grew tremendously as moneylenders.
We derived Shenoy from the coastal Karnataka from the word ‘Shrenipati’ or the leader of the guild. It is also interchangeable with its Sanskrit counterpart Shanbhag or Shanbhogue which means clerk. Mahajan were moneylender named after mahā ‘great’ + janas ‘person’. Another related name was Lala used for bankers, merchants and tradesmen. Sindi drevied Lalani from Lala.
Sanskrit epithet āchārya ‘spiritual guide, learned man’. Another set of surname came from the folks who were ‘scholar’, ‘expert’ and ‘teacher’. So we have Pathak and Upadhyay were ‘teacher’, Jani ‘learned one’, and Vaidya ‘physician. The equivalent Muslim name was Afzal (learned man). Chatterjee /Chatta/, the name of a village, /jhā/‘teacher’, hence ‘teacher from Chatta’. Bhattacharya were ‘learned instructor’. Bedi and Vaidik is derived from Sanskrit ‘one who knows the Vedas’. Suri were priest and sage. Dave from Sanskrit /dvivedī/‘(one who has studied) two Vedas’. Pandey and Pandya were pandita ‘scholar’.
Mughals followed a system of free minting under which anyone was free to bring metal to an imperial mint and get it converted into coins. Mints working under this were provided by a professional dealer in money = Sarraf, derived from Arabic meaning ‘treasurer’, ‘paymaster’ and money changer. Inamdar were given the land as Inam (prize).
Revenue collection of the Maratha State. The assignment of revenue rights to a rent collector (ijardar), who were accountable to a group of Sahukar/moneylenders (Potedars, Poddars). When the state needed money, it would issue a money warrant accompanied by letter of credit to them, were known as Varat.
Bajaj were ‘dealer in clothes’ (from Arabic bazzāz), Chawla were the dealer of Chwal/Rice and Doshi from Persian /dush/‘shoulder’, denoting a hawker selling cloth (because the cloth was carried over the shoulder).
Dewan In Mughal India the dewan was usually the highest official in a state after the king. Amin were government official concerned with investigation of land claims and revenue claims and ’. Bakshi came from Persian /bakhshī/‘paymaster’, was the title of an official who distributed wages in the Muslim armies. Dalal ‘broker’, Majmudar ‘record-keeper’, Shah ‘merchant’.
Dar (Kashmir Muslim name) probably came from the Persian dār meaning ‘holder, possessor, master’.
Kothari were the treasurer and caretaker of “Kotha” (godown or treasure). Bhandari were the manager of the treasure house or keeper of a storehouse, taking care of the Bhandar. Both are a surname in Marwadi communities. Parekh or Parikh were the assayer of metals and got derived from Sanskrit word pariksaka = ‘examiner’. Related surname was Soni who acted as Sunar (goldsmiths) Lunia were the salt makers. Sanghvi used to offers hospitality to groups and arrange such trips (Sanskrit sangha = Group)
Nahata were Rajput who later converted to Jain, got their name from a battle were they remain stood. Na + hata
A lot of Indian business communities picked their surname from their place of origin. While its not based on the occupational but still should be part of this list. Aggarwal came ‘from Agar or Agroha’, Ahluwalia ‘from Ahlu’, Irani ‘from Iran’, Lad ‘from southern Gujarat’, and Mathur ‘from Mathura’. Many of the Marwadis picked their name based on this like Jhunjhunwala, Singhania, etc. So did the Khatris, Arora came from Aror (now Rohri, in Sind, Pakistan).
Dhawan on the name of a clan in the Khatri (‘member of the warrior caste’ who later got into business) community. It is popularly believed to mean ‘runner’, ‘messenger’, from Sanskrit /dhāv-/‘to run’. Tandan derived from the Sanskrit dandanam or punishment, as, in ancient times, men of this caste were employed to carry out the punishments that were inflicted by the authorities upon offenders. Sawhney were the commander, Handa were into ‘cooking pot and Badal were into water. Srivastava came from Sanskrit šrīvasta ‘abode of wealth’). Mittal were Agarwal Bania community, probably derived from Sanskrit mitra ‘friend, ally’.
Dubash (duâ’ + ‘bhash’ = translator) as an occupation got started a post-European entry, but as a surname was first used by Hormasji Pestonji Shroff who migrated in 1852 and started his business in Karachi, by calling himself as Dubash. In Goa you will find Braganza from the city of Bragança in Portugal. Its the name of the royal house whose members occupied the throne of Portugal. Same way we have D’Souza minor places in Portugal or Spain named Sousa or Souza. Da Silva came name from Portuguese /silva/‘wood, thicket, bramble’.
But remember this topic has its own complexibility and one can perhaps argue for another origin, Remember a Modi surname can be a Hindu bania (Lalit Modi) or OBC (PM Modi), Jain, Muslim (Syed Modi, the 8-time National Badminton champ) or even a Parsi (Rusi Mody). Another example is Gandhi which is also an occupational name used by Hindu (Bania, Arora, Jat), Jain, and Parsi (they used it as Gandy).