The culture of India has been shaped not only by its long history, unique geography and diverse demography but also by its ancient heritages. Regarded by some historians as the oldest living civilization of Earth, the Indian tradition dates back to 8,000 BC and has a continuous recorded history for over 2,500 years. But due to the influence of Western culture and migration of Indians to foreign shores, the rich culture, values, and family history of India are disappearing.
There is a lack of awareness in the migrant Indian community in New Zealand about the importance of documenting their family history. Most Indian family history has been traditionally maintained only within families and has been often passed down from generation to generation, with children hearing their stories from their “elders” from early childhood.
Photo donated by Sheth Family
Lalbhai Bhogilal Lallubhai Sheth family photo, 1932, Shahibag, Ahmedabad, India
Lack of time and interest of the younger generations, along with migrations to the cities, other parts of India, and overseas meant that we lost touch with our relatives and elders. This meant that the family histories were not recorded officially, and there was a huge danger of all this rich history of our Indian ancestors being totally lost as the ancestors passed away.
The official registration of births and deaths did not start in India until the 1850s, and that, too, only in urban areas of India. In the rest of India, especially rural areas, very few official records of births, deaths, or marriages were kept; as a result, none are available today for researching. Most of the Indian ancestors were cremated, so no physical burial sites are available to go back to. Therefore, the reliance is on the people’s memories. (8)
Basic steps to get started
It can very daunting to get started with your family history research, especially if you are a second or third generation person of Indian origin. Often your parents or grandparents who immigrated were so busy just settling in a new country and being part of a new culture that they did not have time or inclination to pass on any of their ancestral details of their native country to their children or grandchildren.
So just start with what you know; your immediate family often holds the key to starting your family history research. Record the memories of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins as you start exploring your family tree online.
Ask each relative about specific individuals. Gather details surrounding their lives, including nicknames, places they lived, vital information (including birth, marriage, and death dates), occupations, and other important clues.
Tips to get more clues about your Indian family roots
Once you have gathered the basic ancestral information from your immediate family as suggested above, the next step is to effectively search the records available in the country of your ancestors’ origin. For that, it is necessary to define more precisely where your family or ancestors came from.
Due to the lack of border control in the old days, people migrated to Asian countries without any restrictions to spread religion, trade with merchants, explore, and conquer.
- For example, Siddis are an ethnic group who migrated to India from Abyssinia. The descendants of this community live in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and in the Hyderabad city.
- Parsees (Iranians) migrated to India due to religious persecution in Persia and settled mainly in Gujarat and Maharashtra, which are two western states in India.
- In 68 AD Jews from Europe and Baghdad settled in the Malabar, Mumbai (Bombay), and Kolkata (Calcutta) regions of India. While these migrants have assimilated with the local Indian population, their surnames remain quite different from other Indian surnames. (8)
Indian surnames play an important role
Indian surnames play an important role because they can be linked to specific regions, clans or tribes, or a profession of their ancestors. They can also give an indication about a family’s religion, i.e whether they are Hindu, Islamic or Christian.
For example, Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKP), is an ethno-religious clan of South Asia. It is part of the broader Kayastha community. Traditionally, the CKPs have been granted the upper caste status, which allowed them to study the Vedas and perform religious rites along with Brahmins.
The CKPs are today concentrated primarily in western Maharashtra, southern Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh (Indore region). They played an important role in the establishment and administration of the Maratha Empire.
Patel is a trade name and the previous caste of landowners, farmers, and village leaders. The “Patel” of a village in the mid-1500-1900 state of Gujarat would be a member of the village committee who would help represent the whole village’s views to the local council and take the lead in resolving problems and implementing ideas. They would do this by working closely alongside the village pandit and other members of the “Brahmin” Community mainly found in Gujarat, India, but also across all parts of India and Pakistan.
Agrawal (Agarwal, Agrawala, Agarwala, Aggarwal) is a community found throughout northern India, including in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh. Other related communities include Maheshwari, Khandelwal, and Oswal.
Surnames like Mukherji, Bose, Ghosh, Banerjee are quite unique to Hindu Bengalis from West Bengal or Bangladesh.
Singh/ˈsɪŋ is a title, middle name or surname which originated in India. Derived from the Sanskrit word for lion, it was originally used as a title by the warriors in India. It was later adopted by several castes and communities, including the Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh guru, mandated it for all the baptized males. As a surname or a middle name, it is now found throughout the Indian subcontinent and among the Indian diaspora, cutting across communities and religious groups.
Khan or Hassan surnames will indicate they follow the Islamic religion while surnames Fernandes and Pinto will indicate they are Christians from Goa, a state in Western India which was under the Portuguese rule for a long time. (9)
Effects of the partition of India
The partition of India plays a very important role in Indian family history. At the end of 350 years of British rule in 1947, the partition of India resulted in riots, looting, murders, and a flood of 15 million refugees crossing the Northern and Eastern states of India to be part of newly formed India or Pakistan. This resulted in the creation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan from undivided India on the basis of religion.
You should consider asking the following questions:
- If your ancestors were born in the old Indian territories which are now in Pakistan, do you know which states they came from?
Here oral family history plays an important role. Normally, one can trace only a few generations of history within India and Pakistan as practically all records were lost during the migration at the time of partition.
- Were they born in East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in1972)?
- Did they opt to migrate to Pakistan from India during the partition?
- Did they migrate from East Pakistan to West Pakistan for employment and then proceed to Britain?
- Have they chosen to migrate directly to Kenya or African countries from India or Pakistan
- Were they indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu (previously Madras Presidency, later Madras State) who migrated for work under British Rule to Sri Lanka (Ceylon)? (8)
Resources for ancestors from India
Very few official resources such as birth, marriage, or death records are available for ancestors who were born in India, even as late as the 1950s, particularly those who were born in rural areas. Hence the reliance on people’ memories. The best sources are the personal sources listed below.
Personal resources for family history research
- Civil registration records such as birth certificate, marriage certificate & death certificate
- Passports – expired/old Indian passports are very useful as the last page contains the name of the person’s father and mother and a last known address. Also it may be the only official document containing the date and place of birth.
- Ration card – issued by Indian Government mainly for buying subsidized basic food, but also an important proof of identity in absence of any other documents like passport and birth certificates
- Grimitiya pass – These records comprise over 60,000 individual passes issued to Indians who came to Fiji as indentured labourers
- School & university, work records – often the only official document available in place of birth certificates
- Photographs and family albums
- Personal diaries, letters, and business papers
Official resources in India
In 1891 (during the British period), the National Archives of India was established as the Imperial Record Department in Calcutta. Since 1947, the National Archives of India has established four regional offices at Bhopal, Jaipur, Bhubaneswar and Pondicherry. Some old records may be found there. However, they are unlikely to have too many records of native Indians, especially from rural India.
Passport records are kept at the Regional Passport Office of each State in India.
Births and deaths in India are normally registered with the local Municipality Office, and the registers passed to the District Registrar’s Office. But these records are very current, so you are unlikely to find any information for your Indian ancestors born before the 1960s. There are better records for British ancestors who were born in India and who lived and died in India.
Wills are normally kept with the family of the person concerned, but some may also be found at the local Register Office.
A good website for Goan Indians with Portuguese ancestors is http://goan.name/index.php
Muslim marriages (Nikka Nama) are normally recorded in the local mosque registers, but not all the records have survived or have been actively conserved.
If the marriage was conducted legally in the Register Office, the relevant records are held at the local Marriage Registration Office. Again, these are very contemporary records as marriage registration is not compulsory in India. Some temples in India keep Hindu marriage registers, but they are not complete records.
The basic system of land records in India was developed during British rule. These records are being slowly computerised to be made available online. Land records are of great importance to genealogical research in locating ancestors and tracing their migrations.
The principal old land records could be in one of the following forms:
- Village map: a pictorial form showing the village and field boundaries
- Field Book of khasra is an index to the map in which changes in the field boundaries, their area, particulars of tenure-holders methods of irrigation, cropped area, and other uses of land are shown
- Records of rights, also known as khatouni, is the record of the names and classes of tenure of all occupants of land.
Families and pedigrees are recorded in the land records, some dating back 110 generations or up to 2200 BC. For example, some old Indian land records from Punjab and Moga Land Ownership Pedigrees are available. This collection includes records from 1887 to 1958. These records are written in Urdu and in Punjabi. The records include land ownership pedigrees (Shajjra Nasb) kept by the state at the district level. These pedigrees show familial relationships of individual’s land ownership as it was passed from father to son. Records appear to be written in Urdu script, which is read from right to left.
You can browse through images in this collection by visiting the FamilySearch page for India, Punjab, Moga Land Ownership Pedigrees, 1887-1958.
Land ownership pedigrees usually contain the following information:
- Given and surname of top ancestor
- Given and surnames of children
- Type of land transaction
- History of the village
- How the subdivisions were named
- Record keeper’s name
- Revenue collector’s name
- Date document signed
- Name of the street, the village, district, and subdivision
To begin your search, it would be helpful to know the following information: Name of ancestor, approximate year and place of residence , district, etc. (8)
Online land records
The Computerisation of Land Records (CLR) is one of the earliest initiatives of e-Governance in India, at the grass-roots level. The focus of the entire operation has always been to employ state of the art Information Technology (IT) to galvanise and transform the existing land record system of the country.
This web-enabled service would aim at:
- Ensuring efficient, accurate, transparent delivery mechanism and conflict resolution in ownership
- Providing electronic record of rights (ROR) to land owners at nominal rates
- Information empowerment of land owners
- Low cost and easily reproducible data for reliable and durable preservation
- Value addition and modernisation in land administration
- Integration with other data sets towards comprehensive LIS (8)
The Indian States which have the online land record system include:
- Rajasthan: Apna Khata (
- Chhattisgarh: Bhuiyan
- Haryana: Jamabandi
- Himachal Pradesh: HimBhoomi
- Karnataka: Bhoomi
- Madhya Pradesh
- Odisha: Bhulekh
- Uttar Pradesh
- Uttarakhand: Dev Bhoomi
- West Bengal: Banglar Bhumi (8)
Challenges in finding details of Hindu ancestors
A major problem for genealogists is the Hindu custom of either burning the body, or (preferably) consigning it to the Ganges river. Thus, finding records is a critical problem.
The earliest records, written on palm leaves, have been lost to the elements, but there are sites across India where such records can still be found, and Haridwar remains the most comprehensive and well-preserved repository.
Some Hindu pilgrimage records have been digitised and are available from the FamilySearch.org website. However, this captures only a very small percentage of India’s large population .(1)
For Sikh family ancestors, SikhiWiki is a good website.
Records for Islamic or Christian Indian ancestors
Civil authorities did not begin registering vital statistics until 1872. Indian church and parish records are the best source for family information before that date for births , deaths and marriages. Some well digitised church records are available on the FamilySearch.org website.
People can also contact the church for records and can get guided to the burial site or cemeteries to cross check their ancestor’s records. A good website for Goan Indians with Portuguese ancestors is Goan.name, The Genealogy Website of Goa.
Familysearch.org also has some records of Muslim pilgrims who visited certain pilgrimage centres in Northern India where rituals are performed. Similarly, marriage records of Islamic marriages (civil registration) record or Kadi have been located at Mosques, homes and “offices” of Muslim family bards or the Kazi, who is the marriage registrar and judge. It establishes individual identity and linkage back two generations. (1)
Resources for Indian ancestors who migrated to US or UK
Resources for Indian ancestors who migrated to Africa
The best history on Indians ancestors who migrated to South Africa is on the Geni website. (12)
Chetty (2003) compiled an incredible website for anyone looking for information on their Indian Ancestry in South Africa with downloadable passenger lists in Excel format.
Approximately 152,184 indentured Indians arrived under the scheme of indenture, making a total of 384 trips. The first ship, the Truro, arrived on 16 November 1860 and the last ship, the Umlazi, arrived on 11 July 1911, marking the end of the notorious system of indenture. The ports of Madras and Calcutta in India, served as the points of embarkation. These Indian Shipping Lists, complete in 91 volumes, provide the most extensive and important data relating to any immigrant community in Southern Africa. They provide information on the area indentured Indians came from; their caste, employers and places of employment, indenture number, name, father’s name, age and sex are given with each entry.(14)
FamilySearch.org also have a very special section on South Africa, KwaZulu Natal Indian Birth Returns (FamilySearch Historical Records). This collection includes birth returns of Indian South Africans from the papers of the Protector of Indian Immigration at the KwaZulu-Natal Archives from 1894-1954. Indian South Africans are people from the country of India living in South Africa, particularly in and around the city of Durban.(13)
Resources for Indian ancestors who migrated to Fiji
The National Archives in Suva holds the Emigration Pass of the Girmitiyas. These records are organised in alphabetical order. If you cannot find the name, it is possible that the person had changed his/her name in Fiji, as many did at the time. You can narrow the search down to the ship in which he/she reached Fiji. Further, you can search through the passes; if you know his/her father’s name and the name of the villa, Indian Emigration Passes to Fiji for the period 1879 to 1916 may help.
There are two additional resources for Fiji worth looking at:
Australian National Library also holds microfilm copies of Indian Emigration Passes to Fiji for the period 1879 to 1916.
Research Central, Auckland Libraries, have BDMs (births, deaths and marriages certificates for Fiji Indians from 1895 onwards) – Search call number 3 FIJ
These records are very good as they give the ancestor’s place of birth in India and the name of their parents (6)
- Tears in paradise: unveiled: suffering and struggles of Indians in Fiji 1879 – 2004 / Rajendra Prasad
- Tracing your British Indian ancestors: a guide for family historians / Emma Jolly
- Before India: exploring your ancestry with DNA / David G. Mahals
- The tears of the Rajas: mutiny, money and marriage in India 1805-1905 / Ferdinand Mount
- Tracing your service women ancestors: a guide for family historians / Mary Ingham
- The last crusade: the epic voyages of Vasco da Gama / Nigel Cliff
- Leaving India: my family’s journey from five villages to five continents / Minal Hajratwala
- List of the officers of the Bengal Army, 1758-1834 / alphabetically arranged and annotated with biographical and genealogical notices
Websites and online resources
The best site is the Indian genealogy section on the Family Search Wiki from the FamilySearch.org website.
Below is a list of all resources for India that are available on FamilySearch.org website:
- Map of Hindu Pilgrimage Sites
- Dictionary of Indian Biography
- Indian Cemeteries
- Cemeteries in South Asia
- The Indiaman Magazine
- Families in British India Society
- India Office catalogues of private papers, prints etc.
- Hindu Pilgrimage records
- Maithil Brahmin genealogical records
- BYU Research Resources for India (1)
Case history: Tracing the Sheth Family Lineage to present day
This history was traced and researched by Shailesh Sheth, who used family records, oral histories and actual records from copies of Farmans (royal order) issued by the Mughal Kings like Shahjahan and Aurangzeb to Sheth Shantidas. They bestowed a Jain Temple, shrines of Palitana, Girnar and Mount Abu to Sheth Shantidas. All original Farmans are stored in the Treasury of a Trust “Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi” in Ahmedabad, India.
All original Farmans are stored in the Treasury of a Trust
“Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi” in Ahmedabad, India.
- “India Genealogy.” India Genealogy – FamilySearch Wiki. FamilySearch.org viewed on 23/04/2017 from https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/India_Genealogy
- “Families in British India Society 1600 to 1947.” Families in British India Society 1600 to 1947 Genealogy – FamilySearch Wiki. Viewed on 1 May 2017 from https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Families_in_British_India _Society_1600_to_1947
- “Anglo Indian Family Trees and their links to British India”. Russel Fonceca , Australia, viewed on 29/04/2017 from http://anglofamilytrees.com/”
- Indian Emigration Passes to Fiji 1879-1916 | National Library of Australia. Viewed on 1 May 2017 from https://www.nla.gov.au/research-guides/indian-emigration-passes-to-fiji-1879-1916
- Gorman, E : A Land of My Own: A Study on Indian Families in the Fiji Islands;Academia, viewed on 20/04/2017 from http://www.academia.edu/1315453/A_Land_of_My_Own_A _Study_on_Indian_Families_in_the_Fiji_Islands
- “Fiji Genealogy.” Fiji Genealogy – FamilySearch Wiki. FamilySearch.org viewed on 23/04/2017 from https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Fiji_Genealogy
- Husainy, A. “ Tracing your Asian roots on the Indian subcontinent” viewed on 30/04/2017 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/ next_steps/researchplaces_01.shtml
- “Category:Indian Family Names.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Apr. 2017. Viewed on 1 May 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Indian_family_names
- “Goan.name : The Genealogy Website of Goa”. Viewed on 24/04/2017 from http://goan.name/index.php
- “SikiWiki :Encyclomedia of the Sikhs”. Viewed on 26/04/2017 from http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Main_Page
- “South Africa, KwaZulu Natal, Indian Birth Returns, 1894-1954.” FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org : accessed 2017. from https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/South_Africa,_KwaZulu_Natal_Indian_ Birth_Returns_(FamilySearch_Historical_Records)
- “South African Settlers – Indian”(2017). Geni: accessed 2017 from https://www.geni.com/projects/South-African-Settlers-Indian/9659
- Chetty, K(2003). “Ships lists 1860-1911”. University of Durban-Westville Documentation Centre. Accessed 4/05/2017 from http://scnc.ukzn.ac.za/doc/SHIP/shipndx.html