So much in a name!

‘What’s in a name?’—a talk organised by INTACH Madurai discussed the vast cultural values, roots and meanings of early Tamil names

Published - March 18, 2015 05:01 pm IST - MADURAI

INFORMATIVE: Dr. R. Venkatraman on ancient Tamil names. Photo: R. Ashok

INFORMATIVE: Dr. R. Venkatraman on ancient Tamil names. Photo: R. Ashok

South Indian names are often considered long and difficult to pronounce. But early Sangam Age Tamil names were apparently not more than three-letter words. At a programme organised by INTACH Madurai Chapter on the meaning and significance behind names, art historian Dr.R.Venkatraman talked about the need to know and celebrate indigenous names. “Ancient Tamil names defined qualities that were expected in a person, such as bravery, love, chivalry and beauty,” he says. “People were even named after trees, mountains and other elements of nature. For instance, Palani primarily denotes the hill, later the Lord.”

The word ‘Peyar’ (name) in Tamil, also means fame. Citing the names of the Chola and Pandiya Kings, Venkatraman says, “The kings were named after virtues they stood by. Perumper Valuthi meant someone who toed his words. The name Cheran Irumburai signified a person with immense patience. “During my research I found the real names of the Kings to be very short. But they had prefixes or suffixes attached to their names. Each time they won a war or did a noble task, they were given a title.” Like the Chola kings were awarded the title Killi if they dug many wells, tanks or water bodies, especially in dry areas. Anji, Sathan, Aathan, Kaari, Paari, Oori are the other Sangam Age names. “Aathan denotes the Sun, which is called Aathavan in pure Tamil. At a later stage, children were named after heavenly bodies and stars.”

One peculiar feature of ancient Tamil names, according to the Retd.Professor of art history, is that they never took after the names of Gods or Goddesses. However, the culture of peyar-viduthal (naming a child after an elder/noble person in honour of them) was prevalent among the ancient Tamils. A record for this practice can be found in an inscription belonging to King Madurai Meeta Sundarapandian or Maravarman Sundarapandian at Thenparankundram behind Thiruparankundram. The inscription narrates the victory of the Pandya King over Chola Country and refers to an incident where the defeated Chola King names his son after the conqueror to appease him and gains back his lost country as a gift. “This is where the culture of naming grandchildren after grandparents comes from,” adds Venkatraman. That’s why a grandfather called his grandson as ‘ Peran ’.

Another unique culture in ancient Tamil Nadu, was naming people after certain trees that were worshipped. For example, Marudhu Pandiyar brothers were named after the Marudham trees. “Likewise, the name Velu Nachiyar or Vengai Marban also denote the Vel and Vengai trees,” suggest Venkatraman. “The word Vel underwent modifications in meaning over the years and can mean either the Vel tree or the spear, the verb meaning winning or Lord Muruga”

When Jainism came to Tamil Nadu, a number of names were inspired by Prakrit words. Ayyachami , which is today a common rural Tamil name, actually denotes Buddha, according to Venkatraman. The word ‘Aryabuddha’ later became ‘Ayyachami’, he says. Similarly, common suffixes to names that we find today such as Andi, Sithan, Aravali and Muni once signified Jain monks. Appan and Ammai emerged as common suffixes in the later period.

Venkatraman says that the current trend of naming children after politicians, cinema actors and noble personalities have their roots in the pre-independence era. “Subhash Chandra Bose became a common name among the natives of southern Tamil Nadu.” He cites an interesting fact about a village near Tuticorin where the name ‘Buckle’ can be commonly found among Dalits. “It started in the British period when a viceroy named Buckle constructed a canal for the excess water in the river to drain into the ocean, thereby preventing the Dalit colonies from getting flooded during rains. As a mark of gratitude they started naming their children after the English man.”

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