Friday, July 12, 2013

Naming a (half) Indian baby

(Our daughter's 21st day punyajanam)

So, you're having a baby? A half Indian baby? First off, congratulations!!!!!!

The biggest compromise that you'll have to make in your intercultural choosing your child's name. A name is for life, and Indians are very superstitious about names - many believe that it determines the child's destiny.

(7 months pregnant, Western style)

Westerners have a more relaxed ritual of picking out a name. Firstly, in the U.S., you can find out the baby's gender at 3 months pregnant, and in Canada, you can find out the gender at 5 months pregnant. Some couples opt to find out the gender in order to prepare the nursery, etc, and some couples opt to wait until the birth for a surprise. In India, it is ILLEGAL to find out the gender of the baby. Doctors are under oath not to tell the mother...and even if you have doctors in your family, they will not tell you!

(I was totally one of those Alpha Western moms)

For Westerners, choosing the name is usually only up to the parents' decision. They select several names. A lot of times, they pick a name before the child is born, and refer to the unborn child as that name, even before birth. Sometimes they don't reveal the name pre-birth, or sometimes they may ask a few close family members for their opinion. Westerners like to prepare, they like to visualize. Alpha Western moms like to get everything monogrammed in advance!

The reasons why Indians don't pick a name before birth is not just because they don't know the gender. Remember what I said about the name superstition? Well, the numerology of the name depends on the exact date, time, and place of birth - according to the birth star. An astrologer will match the birth star to a handful of suitable or "lucky" letters that can be in your child's name. So, it is only after the birth, and after a meeting with an astrologer that the parents' can only begin to think about the name.

(At my SIL's baby's punyajanam)

The first thing that struck me about the way Indians name their children, is that everyone is so freakin' involved in it! Alas, that is Indian life...everyone offering their unsolicited advice 150% of the time...and you have to please everybody...especially the elders (just do what they say, or else!)

In traditional families, the elders are heavily involved in the name picking. After the astrologer's meeting, the family comes up with 3 names. The elders pick TWO of these names, and the parents only get to pick one (who's the boss? Hahaha) If it is a more traditional family, the final decision of the name is picked by the elders. If it is a more modern family, the final decision is picked by the parents.

Sometimes the child is named after a deceased relative OR one of the many Indian Gods, because they believe that when you are continually calling out your child's name, it is like calling on the name of God to bless the child. For example, my husband's name Madhavan is another name of the God Krishna.

(My husband writing his niece's name in the rice, during my SIL's punyajanam)

In South Indian families, there is a punyajanam "naming ceremony" held on either the 11th or 21st day after the child is born (Indians like odd numbers!). This can be held in a temple, or at home with a Hindu priest. During this ceremony, the child's name will be written in rice by the elder brother of the parents - or if there is no brother, than the father himself will write it. This is to be performed at an auspicious time selected by an astrologer, (much like when the knot is tied during a Hindu wedding). After that, the name of the child is to be whispered into the baby's ear, by both the parents. During our baby's punyajanam, the priest asked me to dip my wedding ring in honey and drip it into my baby's mouth so that all her words she spoke would be sweet. The punyajanam is supposed to be attended by close family or friends, where everyone can gather to see the baby and give their blessings.

(Whispering Maya's name 3 times, at her punyajanam)

Indians don't have the widespread concept of having a middle name, as we do in the West, where most everyone has a middle name. Some Indians do have middle names, but it is usually deemed as not necessary, or not required. In our Indian family, none of my husband's cousins have middle names; and only one of our cousin's children has a middle name (which they chose as the fathers' first name). Our Kollu-Thatha "great grandfather" 's name is: [village name] [father's first name] [first name].

Westerners, on the other hand, like to have a middle name - we think it gives the entire name a sense of completion. Westerners most commonly use the middle name to honour a relative or loved one.

South Indians are a bit different in the fact that they have no concept of "surnames/family names" either! It is really confusing when I try to explain this to non-South Indians and foreigners alike!!! The most common tradition is to have the child's last name be the father's first name, and so on. My husband's last name is his father's first name. Maya's last name and my married name is Madhavan, which is my husband's first name. But trends have been changing in recent of our cousin's last name is Iyengar, which is our caste name. Another cousin named his child's last name as the Thatha's first name. Like I said...confusing! Just like Indian sidewalks, there are no set rules!

****quick tip for Westerners: North Indians names are usually much shorter than South Indian names (example: "Deepak Chopra" is North Indian; "M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar" is South Indian). Old school South Indian names can sometimes have abbreviations.

(My husband at Maya's 21st day punyajanam)


I would say our story is a mix of both modern and traditional, in terms of how we named our daughter.

I was having a difficult pregnancy, and at the same time I can totally be one of those Alpha-Western females where I HAVE to plan ahead...I was adamant about finding out the gender so I could connect and plan, although my husband wanted it to be a surprise. Even before we found out the gender, I already knew it was a girl. Moms know things like this!

My husband wanted to stick with the tradition to have the baby's last name be his first name - Madhavan. So we started to select initials that work with M - many of our choices were LM, MM, NM. We quickly figured out that the name could not have R, V or W - because each of our families pronounce it differently (Indians roll their R's....Vancouver is pronounced Wancouwer!) We also wanted something that wasn't too long - no nicknames.

On our honeymoon in India, I purchased a book called The Penguin Book of Hindu Names because I knew I was never going to find something like that back West (how Alpha female planner of me!) I selected 2 pages of names and my husband narrowed it down to 10 names. Then, we thought about the names for a while and practiced saying the names with the last name of Madhavan. Our top names were Maya, Veda and Laasya. When I couldn't decide, I asked my favorite auntie "Auntie #1" to help us decide. She said Laasya sounded like a "Mango Lassi" drink, and Veda was too harsh. She said Maya Madhavan sounded perfect because of the double "Ma" sound. My husband and I decided on Maya at around 7 months pregnant, and we told my parents who totally told everybody (my dad's a big blabbermouth!)

In our relationship, I usually do everything the Indian way. Maybe it was my pregnancy hormones, but I absolutely did NOT want to follow the Indian traditions of naming. I wanted all the control! Luckily, my in-laws supported us, and our uncle who is into astrology said that her name worked fine with her birth star...thank god! Another thing that I had to force my husband to compromise on was having a middle name. For whatever reason, I really wanted her to have one. My husband finally agreed after weeks of a heated debate, and gave in to my demands (hey, who can argue with a crazy pregnant lady?) He originally wanted to name her Maya Alexandra Madhavan, which sounded nice, but I felt like we should dedicate her middle to my Grandma, whose health was declining. So, we named our baby Maya Josephine Madhavan, and that is the most important dedication I could have made to my Grandma.

I knew I wanted her first name to be Indian, because I wanted her to be connected to her father's culture, since she will be raised in Canada - and also, nobody knew if she would look Indian or not. Maya Madhavan literally means "Magic Krishna". Maya is also a very global name - in Hebrew it means "Spring"; in Persian it means "generous"; in Urdu it means "princess"; in Greek it is the name of a goddess; in Japanese, it means "night rain". It's a very worldly name.

(Maya's punyajanam)

We had a 21st day punyajanam which was done as per the tradition, except we only had our parents' there. At the time, I was having a very difficult time breastfeeding and was up most of the night feeding her. I was exhausted, as well as being generally tired from the childbirth. Even though we only had 4 people in attendance, it was really too overwhelming for me. When we do it again with our next child, I would much rather do it after 6 weeks. Technically the punyajanam can be performed any time before the baby is 45 days old.

(21st day punyajanam)

***The naming customs I have described in this post is Tamil Iyengar. It will vary from state, community, family, and caste.


  1. My boyfriends family is from just south of Mumbai, a village called Ratnagiri. Everyone in the village has a middle name. Sons and daughters are given (first name) (fathers first name) (village name). My boyfriend is Bhooshan Sudhakar Sawant. When a woman marries, she receives her husbands fathers name and village name as her middle name and last name.

    We have discussed this, and we also want to do a naming ceremony (its called something else in Marathi, unfortunately I cant remember), which we think will be found strange, my boyfriends older sister married an Indian, and they did no naming ceremony, and named her a very Western name, where as their son marries a white girl who wants a naming ceremony and to give the child an Indian name! hahaha my parents wont be happy, we'll have to find something both families can pronounce!

    1. A lot of the girl's names are really pretty, just choose something with a lot of vowels for your Western family.
      It is nice to do a naming ceremony to honour your husband's culture, and family. For my MIL it was really important to her. Anything that celebrates the baby is a good thing in my book ;)

    2. Ratnagiri is really a big town - not a village - and very famous for its Hapoos/Alphonso mangoes.
      Your boyfriend is a lucky guy to have grown up in the beautiful Konkan coast area - I drove along that area while going to Goa a few years back and was astounded by the natural beauty.
      Baby naming ceremony in Marathi is called ' Barsa' generally held on the 12th day after birth,
      and the name format is: the first name is the unique personal one, middle is the father's name, and the last name is the family name (not village or town) and is shared by the members of the patriarchal family.
      This is commonly followed in the north and west India too
      Some Indians who have settled abroad, like to give their children 'western' sounding names to minimize teasing in school.

  2. In andhra pradesh, specifically warangal, they have 21 day naming ceremony where they also shave the baby's head. I opted out of this as my daughter had such beautiful full head of hair at birth i didnt want to lise it. We also already named her and have no family here in az, so we decided against the naming ceremony. We named our dauhter rani marie. Rani was his mother's nickname, we wanted to honor her. Marie is my, my mom's, and my grandma's middle name passed down each generation. As far as I know, in my husbands part of town, the last name is the family name, so my mamaiah andy husband have the same last name, like it is practiced here in the U.S. So she has my husband's last name. If and when we have a boy, he will be named mohandas varma bitla. Mohandas because i am an avid ghandi fan, varma is my husband's and husband's father's middle name (they have middle names). If we have anymore girls, we arent sure of any names, but it will be indian first name, american middle name. Your story is so fascinating! We have so much in common, yet still so many differences. That is the beauty of india, you see a vatity no matter where you go there.

    1. Yes, I`m lucky we didn't have to shave her hair - I wouldn't have wanted to do it either (thank god nobody asked!)
      Lovely name you picked - so nice to combine both the sides, to honor both the sides.
      Boys names are so hard for me, especially Indian boys names. Hopefully I will have another girl so I don't have to pick! Naming is such a heavy process.
      I so agree about the variety - all the communities, the castes, religions, regions....we are all as alike as we are different :)

    2. I think there are more Indian girls names that can fit in both cultures. I am not sure why but this also seems to be the case with Japanese and Muslim names, for example I was looking this up before and I found Maya, Nina, and Mira as names that would work in both cultures and be also Indian (Hindi).

  3. We're going to go for the traditional naming by astrology as it seems to be really important for hubby, although I fee a bit worried because we need to declare the name 3 days after birth at latest...

    I'm not keen on the shaving ceremony which also exists in Tamil Nadu however (Padparadscha)

    1. I`m sure as soon as the baby is born, you guys can get the birth chart. It is really stressful to decide on names in those 3 days - it took us months! It was a happy coincidence for us, the name we picked just so happened to go exactly with the birth stars. We have 2 uncles who are astrologers.
      I`m soooooo glad we didn't have to do the head shaving!
      When is your baby due?

  4. My Tamil hubby and I are due in January (with our first child). We are having a heck of a time thinking of names that fit both cultures. We think we're having a boy which will make naming even harder -- there seem to be so many more "ambicultural" girl names than boy names. Also, we want the name to start with an S to match our family name -- talk about a challenge! I'll have to check out the book you linked. Thanks for sharing that!

  5. Omg I did not know indian surnames would be so complicated :O I asked my indian bf about his middle name and he said he did not have one so I asked him if his mother's last name(we get our middle name from our mother's last name...I thought it's the same thing all over the world :/ ) is similar to his last name "Soni" and he just simply said yes. I will definitely make our kids vegetarian even I'm not because I know how vegetarians feel about meat but I'll definitely ask him to give english names to our kids and I would definitely want my last name to be my kids' middle names! I just really hope his family won't interfere and just respect our decisions. About doctors not telling the genders to indian parents... I think it's because many people in India abort their child if they find out it's a girl :( I have a friend who married an indian and gave birth in India. She gave birth with other women and her child was a girl...she was so happy and everyone was shocked and asked her why was she happy when her child was a girl :/ the women who gave birth to baby girl girls there were very sad too. I was pretty shocked when she told me about this :/ I was disappointed with those women. I absolutely love India but I honestly wouldn't want my kids to grow up there because of gender discrimination,castes,poverty,dirt,corruption etc. India is just great for traveling but not my opinion.

  6. Choosing our daughter's name was a trying process and we didn't finalize until i was seven months pregnant. ☺️ Neither of us was going to wait until the birth, and we found out the sex of the baby at 13 weeks via blood test, so we were prepared. I thought we would do what you did - Indian first name and Western middle name. But he had the opposite idea. In the end, we went both with his name order and first name choice. I chose the Indian middle name. We didn't do any naming rituals as we were with my family (I did give the bangles I wore throughout my last trimester to the doctor who delivered the baby - that was all).

  7. Let me begin by saying your daughter and her name are equally beautiful! While I'm not currently pregnant, my partner and I have discussed how we would go about picking our child's name. He is South Indian and I am of Irish descent. I have always loved the way an Indian name rolls off of the tongue so I give him no problems there. If we were to have a boy, we would give the child his middle name which is his his family's house band in India. "Vathuparampill." If it's a girl, while we still love the idea of an Indian first name, we agreed that I would honor the women in my family by choosing one of their middle names. It's a balance really, in choosing what fits best for you and your family. It's a beautiful process nonetheless.

  8. Naming this way somehow becomes difficult, where two countries are to be followed. the best way is to give nick name with one origin and call name with other origin. Or partners can also use two names one for middle name and other as a first name. I have found many more good names in Babynology.


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