INDIA: A surname, if you have one, is usually called a “last name” because it comes at the end of a given name. It is generally not in our hands to choose one, but it is thrust upon us by virtue of being born into a specific family. In India, which is diverse in every way, a person’s last name often tells more about them, like their religion, caste, place of birth, family history, occupation, and sometimes even how they look.
Among Indian communities, Parsis are taking the top spot for having unique, quirky surnames. Unlike other religions, they didn’t have the custom to take an ancestral surname or any common surname; instead, they revealed much about their profession or their way of life through their surnames.
History of the Parsi community
Parsis, whose name translates to “Persians,” are the descendants of Persian Zoroastrians who migrated to mediaeval India to escape religious persecution by Muslims. The exact date of the migration of Parsis is unknown, but a 16th-century Parsi epic, Qissa-i Sanjan, says that somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries, Zoroastrian Persians from Greater Iran continued to migrate to the Indian subcontinent.
They eventually settled in the coastal state of Gujarat after being given refuge there by a local Hindu king. Additionally, they primarily reside in Mumbai and a few other cities and villages primarily to the south of Mumbai, but there are a small number of nearby minorities in Karachi (Pakistan) and Chennai. Also, a large part of the Parsi population lives in Pune, Bangalore, Kolkata, and Hyderabad.
Many Parsis took Gujarati last names, like Patel or Gandhi, after they moved to what is now Gujarat. However, others did not adopt surnames until British rule.
During British rule in the 1990s, Britishers came up with census laws and registrations of the citizens to identify or track people. But at that time, the Parsi community didn’t have surnames, as they had immigrated to India, leaving their past identity behind. But now they were compelled to come up with any surnames, following the demand that Britishers had made for lists of Indian names along with their family members.
Surname associated with the profession
So many of the Parsi families decided to adopt their occupation as their surname, as all the men in a family would work in the same trade. For instance, those who worked in fields related to bottles were given the surname “Batliwala.” Those who engaged in the drug industry were Daaruwala, as Daru is a word used for medications. And those who used to make Feni (a type of drink) were FeniWala.
Aarasiwala (AARSI = mirror) dealt with mirrors; Bambaawala (BAMBAA = fire brigade) served in the fire brigade; Battiwala deals with lamps; Bobbinmakers used to make bobbins for weaving clothes; and Chitthiwala deals with creating letters or invitation cards. Bottleopenerwala, Screwwala, Bakerywalas, Hotelwalas, Engineers, Mistry (a carpenter), SodaBottleOpenerWala—and the list goes on.
Some people dropped their surnames and adopted only their father’s name. Some famous instances are Jamshedji Jeejjeebhoy (BaTLIWALA) and Dadabhai Naoroji (DORDI).
Surname telling the bearer’s place
Some Parsi families took their last names from where they were from, like Poonawala for people from Pune (which used to be called Poona), Suratwala, Thanewalla, etc. Many others adopted the names of their towns or villages from when they were living in Gujarat; some of these names came from the most prominent member of the family, the zamindar, or the seth (merchant) they worked for. The list includes Sethna, Bharucha, Manekshana, Sarondana, and many more.
Surname with a flavour of edibles
Some Parsis took surnames based on the flavour of a particular food item, such as Bhajikhaos, who were vegetable eaters; Papadkhaos, who crave crispy papadums; and Kakdikhaos, who love cucumbers (kakdi). Surname Khao suggests greediness or a desire to eat.
Messrs. Badamwala, Akhrotwala, and Kajuwala could have cornered the market for almonds, walnuts, and cashews, or they could have just really liked eating them.
The same goes for Paneerwala (cottage cheese), Biscuitwala, Marghiwala (chicken), Papetawala (potatoes), Limbuwala (limes), and Peppermintwala.
If you need a drink, you can look for Pithawalas and Tavernwalas, who ran dining establishments, or Daruwalas and Darukhanawalas, who ran liquor shops.
Some Parsis created surnames, like Winemerchant, Toddywala, and Rumwala, that specifically identified the type of alcohol they made or sold. Refreshment keepers must have been vaguer about their holdings.
Well, the saying “What’s in a name?” is completely changed by the Parsi community, as their surname speaks a lot. Their surname will make you skip many questions like, “What do you do? From where do you hail? And what food do you prefer? Or what food business are you in?”
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