First of all, a few basic things to understand about Kerala: The state as it is today was created in 1956 from the former states of Travancore, Kochi and Malabar. Lonely Planet tells me that in 1957 Kerala had the first freely elected communist government in the world. Today, it’s thought to be one of the “most progressive” states in India and has the country’s highest literacy rate. Interestingly, it is also the only Indian state that is traditionally matriarchal.
People in Kerala tend to follow the South Indian trend of giving names that are composed of initials at the front followed by a given name (instead of the northern, and increasingly popular, trend of using surnames). In Kerala, what’s different is that instead of the initials at the front indicating the father’s name and father’s village become a way of representing the mother’s name and mother’s village. To return to an earlier example, it means that if someone named S. V. Subramanian is from Kerala, most likely the S would refer to his mother’s village and the V for his mother’s name. Kerala is the only state with this tradition. It’s also the only state that has a tradition of matrilocal residence, in other words, instead of wives moving in with their husband’s family, the husband would join with the wife’s family (meaning the property remained on her side).
When Kochi joined the formal state of Kerala in 1957, laws were passed that sought to change the tradition of this matrilocal residence. By instituting formal marriage and recognizing land as formal property, husbands began to be viewed as their wives’ guardians. Despite this, matrilineal traditions still continue in Kerala today and some names continue to reflect this.
A scholar named A.M. Marykutty wrote a book called “Personal Names of Kerala Christians” in order to document the alternate history of Christian names in Kerala. Although Christian names make up a small minority of the names in Kerala, they’ve been found here since the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century. Although Marykutty focuses mostly on the linguistic origins of these names, what I found most interesting to read about were the ways in which names became forms of power as many different cultural groups interacted in Kerala.
In the early 1800s, across much of Europe, laws were established saying that given names can only be chosen from names that are already “known and established” (variants of this law still exist in many European countries that I’ll be traveling to in the second half of this year!) In order to monitor this, it was decreed that every church must keep complete registers of baptism. Missionaries in Kerala began keeping these records and, essentially, renamed the Indian students they were teaching in schools that they set up. A lot of names that were heard spoken by European missionaries and settlers in Kerala were then adopted into a form of Malayalam (the language of Kerala). Abraham became abrrahaam, Samuel to sammuveel, Rebecca to Recccal.
Names became a political and religious strategy in Kerala and bring up copious questions relating to colonialism and power. Interestingly, some Indians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism in Kerala encouraged their own renaming because it was a way of escaping a traditional Indian name that would indicate their caste. Today people living in Kerala have some of the most diverse names in India—there are still people giving their children Christian names, as well as names that follow a matriarchal tradition, and also names that follow the northern (and increasingly popular) tend of giving surnames. In order to get a sense of the deep history of trade and interaction that characterizes this place, I think a person would have to look no further than a phone book.