Monday, April 10, 2017

Learning a Little More about Sikh Family History Traditions

When I have met people of Sikh ancestry here in the United States, most of them are far enough removed from traditions in Punjab and India that they have not known "how things worked", such as naming practices, who keeps family information, etc., which of course drove this genealogist nuts.  I lucked out last week and found someone who knew a little more and was generous enough to add to my small accumulation of information.

Previously, I knew that men carry the last name Singh ("lion") and women have the name Kaur ("princess"), but that family names exist also.  I had been told that the tradition was for a man to use the name Singh until he married, so someone might be known as Karam Singh.  When he married, Singh would become his middle name and he would add his family name, e.g., Karam Singh Sandhu.

I had always wondered what happened with the women's names.  My guess was that when a woman married, she probably added her husband's family name after Kaur.  So if Raj Kaur married Karam Singh, her name would become Raj Kaur Sandhu.

The woman I spoke to last week had a hyphenated last name and a middle name of Kaur.  Well, I know Kaur is associated with Sikhs.  We had a few minutes, so I asked if she minded me being nosy.  Lucky me, she said it was ok!  I told her the few bits I just wrote about above and in particular that I was wondering about her hyphenated last name after Kaur.

She started out by saying that one of the original ideas behind Sikhism was to eradicate the castes, so that everyone was equal.  That reasoning was behind the names of Singh for men and Kaur for women — everyone would have the same names, no name could take precedence, everyone would be equal.  No surprise, not everyone was on board with this concept, and so, she told me, three different naming traditions now exist.

Those individuals who thought "no castes" was a great idea took on Singh and Kaur, and that's all they used.  They left behind the family names.  So you had the name Singh, and when you married you were still a Singh.

Many people of higher castes weren't as willing to give their names up.  Some who maintained family names used the system I had already learned about, where you take on the family name after marriage.  But some, such as the family of the woman I met, used the family name from birth.  So if a family used this tradition, Karam's name would always have been Karam Singh Sandhu.

What was particuarly amusing about this woman's specific situation is that her hyphenated name was a combination of her family name and that of her husband, who is Muslim.  The naming tradition with which he is familiar dictates that when a woman marries, she takes her husband's given name as her middle name and his family name as her own.  So if I use the names from above as examples (even though they are Sikh names), Raj Kaur would have become Raj Karam Singh (or possibly Sandhu) on marrying Karam Singh.  The reason my acquaintance maintained her own name is that her college degrees are in that name and she was already an established professional.  She told her husband there was no way she was negating that by taking his name and dropping her own.  As a thoroughly modern woman, but one with knowledge of her people's history, she created her own tradition.

I also discovered last week that there are indeed Sikh family genealogists!  When I learned about Hindu family genealogists on the Sanjay Gupta segment of Finding Your Roots in 2012, I suggested at the time that it could mean Sikh family genealogists existed, especially for prominent families.  Well, I was looking up something on Wikipedia, and it led me to another page, and somehow I found a page about Mirasi, the genealogists of India and Pakistan.  The section on the Mirasi of Indian Punjab specifically mentions Sikh subgroups.  Of course, I still don't speak or read Punjabi, Urdu, or any other Indian languages, so it might be difficult for me to communicate with any of these genealogists if I could find them, but I definitely think progress is being made!  One of these days, I am convinced I will find more family information for my stepsons' grandfather (and maybe even prove that their great-great-grandfather really was the headman of the village).

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