16 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. It all got started with the formation of the Kayastha caste in early medieval times wherein the professionals were drawn from different varnas/castes and crystallized into a caste of scribes. Soon these occupational specialization converted into hereditary and thus as the surnames.
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.
Deo was again a title used by ruling families in northern India, and the name is found in several communities. This come from Sanskrit deva ‘god, lord’.
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’.
Nath, has its origins in a Sanskrit word “natha” meaning lord. Dhar was also village chief, a warlord, or the head accountant.
Gowda derived from a Dravidian word meaning “mountain”, so is a one who owns land and holds political and social power in the village. Hegde, derived from the Old Kannada element “pergade,” meaning “chief.”
Samanta came from Sanskrit word “Saamant,” meaning “rich” or “chief.” It was also used as the title for a leader or head of a province.
The word ‘Menon’ is derived from ‘Menavan’ or ‘Melavan’ which essentially means ‘exalted person’. This was a title conferred upon the male heads of certain Nair families. When the British colonized India, many Menons were put in charge of maintaining the accounts of land.
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. Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, in his book Corporate Life in Ancient India said
Sreni is defined as a corporation of people, belonging to the same or different caste but following the same trade and industry. This organisation corresponds to that of the “Guilds” in mediaeval Europa.
The term will becomes Seth/Sethia in northern India.
While, the Nattukottai Chettiar community, or Nagarathars 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’. Many caste had their own Mahajan to administer caste affairs and to also serve as an informal link between the merchants and the state.
Another related name was Lala used for bankers, merchants and tradesmen. Sindi drevied Lalani from Lala, simply meaning meaning ‘descended from Lala’. Today it is used as both Muslim and Hindu surname.
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).
Bedi were the ‘one who knows the Vedas’. Dave and Dubey/Dvivedī were the ‘one who has studied two Vedas’. Pandey and Pandya were pandita meaning ‘scholar’. And, Suri were priest or sage.
Bhatt came from the Sanskrit bhatta meaning ‘lord, learned one’. Bhattacharya is bhatta ‘learned one’ + āčārya ‘teacher, preceptor’.
Mukherjee is a teacher from a place called Mukhati. Mukhyopadhyaya, is composed of mukhya ‘principal, chief’ + upadhyaya ‘teacher’. Banerjee is the anglicized form of the word Bandopadhyaya. In the same manner Chatterjee /Chatta/, the name of a village, hence ‘teacher from Chatta’, and a shorter version of Chattopadhyay.
Bhargava from Sanskrit bhārgava ‘(descendant) of Bhrigu’. Bhrigu is the name of one of the great sages. Jani is from jñānī ‘knowing, learned’.
Jha (Ojha in Uttar Pradesh) is said to be a much reduced form of Sanskrit upādhyāya ‘teacher’. Joshi was a title for jyotisī , i.e ‘astrologer’. Pathak is from pāthaka ‘teacher’. Dikshit/Dixit has their origin from diksha, meaning provider of knowledge. Shastri means “one who is proficient in the Sastras”.
Grover, came from Guruvara/Gorovare, which in turn derives from a Sanskrit word of (“guru/a” /गुरु”) “teacher/mentor” hence meaning “the great teacher”. Upadhyaya, also means “teacher” or “guru”. Gangopadhyay / Ganguly were teachers from the Gangul Village, or near Ganga (Ganga + Upadhyaya). Mukhopadhyay were the Mukhya (main) Upadhyaya (guru).
The 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. A significant proportion of the total clientele at the mints working under this agreement was provided by a professional dealer in money. They were named as Sarraf, which is derived from Arabic and Jewish word meaning ‘treasurer’, ‘paymaster’.
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.
Bakshi/Baxi is believed to have originated from the Persian word “bakhshesh” (charitable giving), and meant to be a paymaster. During Mughal, Mir Bakshi was in charge of military pay and accounts office.
Fadnavis, came from two Persian words, Fad and navis, and literally translated from Persian to English as ‘Maker of the Lists’. The powers of Phadnavis in Maratha administration was that of a Finance Minister. Inamdar were given the land as Inam (prize).
A Subah was the term for a province (State), and Subedar was the head of this state. Under, him, few Sarkar will work and under whom, you will have Faujdar, as a title awarded by Mughal to garrison commanders. Talukdar used to collect revenue from a TALUKA Subdivision of a Teritory, and under them Tehsildar used to work.
Kotwal was the police incharge of a town, Darogah and Thanedar will work under him.
Munsaf/ Munsif were the Judge, Munshi were the secretary of a Noble, and Havaldar and Subedar was a rank in Army.
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).
Razdan came from Persian word “Raz,” meaning “secret” with the suffix “Dan,” meaning “keeper.”
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 (but the title was in the Gujarat state only). Later on Amin simply meant, One who is Honest, Trustworthy and Faithful.
Dalal ‘broker’, Majmudar ‘record-keeper’, Shah ‘merchant’. Munim, were the head accountant.
Dar (Kashmir Muslim name) probably came from the Persian dār meaning ‘holder, possessor, master’.
Mahars were the village watchman, messenger, wall mender.
Marwadis & Maheshwari
Bajaj were ‘dealer in clothes’ (from Arabic bazzāz), and was one of the 72 Khanp of Maheshwari communities. Pansari were Pan pr betel-leave growers and sellers.
Kothari were the treasurer and caretaker of “Kotha” (godown or treasure). Bhandari were the manager of the treasure house or keeper of a storehouse, i.e taking care of the Bhandar. Both are also 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). Lodha used to deal into dyeing that they got from the bark of the lodh tree.
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’, and the community is split into 18 (according to some, 17 and a half) gotras. These include Bansal, Goel, Garg, Jindal, Kansal, Mittal, Singhal, etc.
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).
Khanna came from a small town of Khanna in Ludhiana. Khanna is a Punjabi word, which means one quarter. Place was named this because it used to be very small.
Pancholi, is a community who came from the Panchal region. Khambhata is from Gulf of Khambhat, or Khambaj.
Srivastava originate from Sravasti, the erstwhile capital of the old Koshala empire. Jaiswar came from a old town named Jais in Rai Bareli (UP). Kanaujia, from Kanauj, Mahobia from Mahoba, Narwaria from Narwar.
Billimoria gets its name from Billimora, which was situated on the banks of the river Ambika, in Gandevi taluka and Navsari district of Gujarat state.
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’. Dravid is from ‘Dramila’, an old name for ‘Tamil’. Khatris weretraders.
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’. Bhatia were the mercantile community. Members of this clan claim relationship with the Bhatti Rajputs.
Tanti, means thread - wearer. It is an occupational name used by various weaving castes, who were dealing into fine muslin. Tunnaran were tailor, Uppu were the salt traders. Bahl is probably a derivative of Sanskrit bahala ‘strong’. Bhasin is believed to be derived from Sanskrit bhāsin ‘sun’.
Ghosh is an occupational name for those who were cowherd (ghosa). Related one is from Gujarat Godhania, about the one who has cattle wealth, and Gosai and Goswami, ‘lord of cows’.
Natarajan were the ‘king of dancers’ (from nata ‘dancer’ + rāja ‘king’, an epithet of the god Shiva). Nat were acrobat. Nadkarni (‘naadu’, a tamil word for ‘land’ and ‘karnik’, a sanskrit word meaning ‘clerk’) were engaged mainly in accounts related jobs.
Ganda were watchman, name may have been derived from gandasa (गंडास), an Axe, as their weapon. Gadaria were involved in livestock breeding, especially sheep.
Parmar ‘one that strikes the enemy’, from Sanskrit para ‘alien, enemy’ + māra ‘strike, kill’. Purohit from purohita ‘one placed foremost’ (from puras ‘front’ + hita ‘placed’). Rawat from a much altered form of Sanskrit rājapatra ‘king’s son, prince’. Bisht originated as a title of Thakurs of Kumaun and Garhwal.
Ghataks (literally, one who makes things happen) were matchmakers who established links between the two families in a marriage.
Barot, is about the community would usually work as genealogists (one who studies and makes a pedigree). Choksi come from the Gujarati word ‘Coksi,’ which means ‘assayer of gold and silver.’ Dholakia were the one who were into ‘Dhodka,’ an unprocessed grey cloth. Popat, someone who took care of parrots. Patawari were the village accountant and surveyor, and Vakil were the Lawyer.
The rise in the status of the members of the low castes as a result of education awakening has led them to discard old traditional names of their castes, like Chamars (tanners) or Mahars (weavers).
So, Dhobi (washerman) became Prajàpati, Bhangi (scavenger) as Vàlmïki, Luhar (blacksmith) Vishvakarmâ, and Kalvar (one who deals in liquor) Jàisaval. In Panjab and in the nearby states, the surnames Khatri and Aurora are used by Hindu and Sikh trading castes. Kewat was “ one engaged on water”, and Gujar were cattle grazier.
Muslim Khojas were another group of successful merchants. The name Khoja, or Khwajah, meant a rich and respectable gentleman, an opulent merchant. Bohras, also spelled Bohara or Vohra, is derived from the Gujarati word vohorvu meaning ‘trade’ and records the occupation of the first converters to Islam. The Memons another mercantile community, were known as maumins or believers. The word maumin was distorted to Memon.
Afzal (Arabic form: Afdal) ‘best’ or ‘learned’. Mukhtar was an occupational name based on Arabic mukhtār ‘chosen’, in some areas the title of a village chief.
Naqvi was a Religious Head and Nazir were superintendent of a Religious Place. Qazi / Kazi were Judge, in accordance with the Islamic Religious Law.
The Parsi community did not adopt surnames until the age of the British rulers. During the British rule, to be able to identify and track people, the Britishers demanded a list of Indian family names, esp in the cities as they were doing the Census of 1911. So most Urban families decided to adopt their profession as their family name as all the men of a family would be in the same trade. The suffix wala is used to identify the profession of the person.
So, we got surnames like: Canteenwalas, Confectioners, Messmans, Bakerywalas, Hotelwalas, and Commissariats, for the folks who were in the food business. Those who dealt with bottles were Batliwala, those into medicine industry were Daaruwala, daaru being a term used for medicines, and Feniwala were the maker of Feni.
Aarasiwala (AARSI=Mirror) deals in Mirrors, Bambaawala (BAMBAA=Fire Brigade) worked in Fire Brigade, Battiwala deals in Lamps, Bobbinmaker used to makes Bobbins for cloth Weaving, and Chitthiwala deals in making Letters or invitation Cards.
Lokhandwala were the ‘iron-merchant’. Zariwala refers to someone who produces and sells jari/zari (shining gold and silver threads). Lakdawala deals in Wood, Lodhawala used to make Iron Utensils, and Palkhiwala were dealing in Palenquins for Carrying people, PALKHI=Palenquin. And, we had even Bandukwala.
We have many non-wala surnames also for Parsis. Aga was Like a Nobleman. Dadabhoy was for someone who was as Old as a Grandfather, Darbari used to works in a King’s Court, Dastoor were Head Priest Mainly in Fire Temples, Pundole, also works as a Priest.
Maarfatia were Agent Or Broker, Maarfat means VIA, through them. Master were someone who was a master in going something. Mody used to sells essential provisions like Grains, Oil, Tea, etc. Kanga deals in a cereal/grain. Zaveri were Jeweller, and Nanavati were the money changer/lender NAANAA = Money, VATI=Dealer.
Plus, we had English sounding self-explainable surnames like Mistry, Builder, Miller (work in Mills), Sheriff, Painter and Contractor.
Occupational surnames are amongst the most common in England. And, given our recent knowlegde about English langauge, their occupational surnames are way easy to identify. So, it can be a trade Clark (cleric who went out to houses to administer the services), Thatcher (tanner’s helper; one who worked with leather) other e.g., Baker, Cooper, Butcher, Shoe Maker or a general profession (e.g., Gardner, Sheppard).
Chapman, or Chipman were the trader who bought and sold articles. It also led to the words ‘chap,’ ‘cheap’ and ‘chop’. So, we will now touch upon some of the lesser known and with Indian connections.
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. Inginear were the Engineer.
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’. Pinto could have been painters.
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, but for him it was a mistake done by his school teacher) or even a Parsi (Rusi Mody). So, Modi can be a merchants, traders, or shopkeepers. Another example is Gandhi which is also an occupational name used by Hindu (Bania, Arora, Jat), Jain, and Parsi (they used it as Gandy).