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A Note on Tamil Names

Traditional Tamil names do not follow the same pattern as western names, though similarities are found to western name structures. Like most western cultures, Tamil culture is traditionally patriarchal. An individual is given one or two names soon after birth, but unlike traditional western names, these names are placed after their father's name. Thus, an individual can give their antecedents by naming them in order, from the earliest to the most recent, ending with their own name. For example: Manuelpillai has a son, named Chellathurai, who has a son named Elielpillai, who has a son named Virendra. Virendra's full name would be Manuelpillai Chellathurai Elielpillai Virendra. He may abbreviate this to Elielpillai Virendra or M.C.E. Virendra, and be referred to as Mr Virendra.

The advent of Christianity complicated Tamil naming structure. Some converts adopted a 'Christian name', which often appeared at the end of their name after their Tamil name. For example: Manuelpillai converted to Christianity and took the name Titus on baptism. He would now be known as Manuelpillai Titus, or Mr M Titus.

In some families, the next generation placed this Christian name at the beginning of their own name and retained the Tamil custom of introducing a personal name. For example, Manuelpillai Titus' son Chellathurai would be known as Titus Chellathurai. In other families, the Christian name became synonymous with a western surname, thus Manuelpillai Titus' son would be known as Chellathurai Titus. This was further complicated by many such people being also given their own Christian name, either at baptism or confirmation. Thus Chellathurai was baptised with the Christian name Edward, and, following western convention, became known as Edward Chellathurai Titus. Some of these families converted back to Hinduism, reverting to traditional Tamil naming customs. Others, both Christian and Hindu, chose to 'freeze' a particular name as a surname, adopting either Tamil or Christian first names and keeping dynastic surnames of Tamil, Christian or combined Tamil /Christian origin. For example: Subramaniam Appukutty converted to Christianity and was baptised as Joseph W Barr. His son, Kanaganayam, was born Kanaganayam Barr, but changed his name by adding his Great-great-great grandfather's name to his own, becoming known as Kanaganayam Barr-Kumarakulasinghe. This then became the family surname for future generations. Another example is that of Murugesar, son of Saravanamuttu Maniam. On conversion to Christianity, Murugesar took the name Hallock. Though this was Murugesar's baptised name, his children used it as a surname. Hallock's eldest son was baptised Saravanamuttu and known as Saravanamuttu Hallock. Saravanamuttu Hallock's children however, used the traditional Tamil construction, placing Hallock first and their own names second. Thus, Saravanamuttu Hallock's eldest son was called Hallock Rajanathan. His eldest son was named Saravanamuttu and was known as Saravanamuttu Rajanathan. S Rajanathan's children reverted to the traditional Tamil naming structure, placing the Rajanathan first and their own names second. Meanwhile, Hallock Rajanathan's second son, followed the traditional nomenclature and was known as Rajanathan Devasenapathy. Thus, Saravanamuttu Rajanathan and Rajanathan Devasenapathy were brothers, even though a Tamil looking at these names might conclude that they were father and son.

Between 1620 and 1900, western names start to appear in Tamil families. In some cases, a child was baptised with both a first name and a surname, usually to honour a Christian sponsor either in Sri Lanka or overseas. For example, Ethirmanasingham Leuke, the son of the last king of Jaffna, was given the Christian name of Constantine to honour his Portuguese sponsor (and captor) Constantine de Sa, and, in the absence of a surname, was known as Dom Constantine de Cristo. Under very different circumstances, Reverend Daniel Poor was honoured by several Tamil children being baptised Daniel, and in some cases, Daniel Poor. It is important to remember that not all those who shared a surname were related. For instance, there are a number of people with the surname Joseph, who are from different villages, different castes and have no blood relationship between them. Nevertheless, the key message of this website is that they are all interconnected in the greater Tamil Family.

 
 
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