Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pandits from paradise

Legend has it that Emperor Akbar found a community from Kashmir to be so astute that he decreed that henceforth they would officially be known as ‘Pandits’ or the ‘learned ones’. Even if the story were untrue, it has a ring of truth. As no other group in India – except may be, for the Parsis – has wielded as much clout as the Kashmiri Pandits, despite having a piffling population of less than a million.

The fascinating thing about them is not their good looks, cuisine, culture or famed administrative skills. To a naming buff like me, the stuff that I find most charming is their sophisticated surnames. I mean, who wouldn’t mind swapping their plain vanilla ‘Kumar’ or ‘Narayan’ for the important sounding ‘Kaul’ or ‘Haksar’.

Interestingly, although the surnames carry the aura of a Brown Sahib, their origins are rather humble. ‘Nehru’ does not carry any blue blooded lineage. It simply means one who lives near the banks of a nehar (Kashmiri for ‘canal’). ‘Kauls’ are simply the progeny of the Mahakauls who were devotees of Lord Shiva. The exotic ‘Zutshi’ is a derivation from ‘jyotishi’ (astrologer). The ‘Haksars’ are apparently emigrants from the village Hakchar in Baramulla!

The amusing part about Pandit surnames is that many draw their roots from nicknames linked to physical attributes of a forefather from the distant past. ‘Bambroo’, for example, is the nick for a guy with a complexion as dark as a black bee (remember the Mission Kashmir song: Bumbro, bumbro, shyam rang bumbro?). ‘Mushran’ is the stereotype big built ugly man. ‘Handoo’ is the farmhand who is fat like a sheep. ‘Hakhoo’ is thin and frail. ‘Kichloo’ is the bearded bloke. ‘Kachru’ is the red-haired chap. ‘Ganjoor’ is the bald-headed. And ‘Shangloo’ is for the six-fingered one. So if Hrithik were from the Valley, he’d be Hrithik Shangloo instead of I-Can-Dance Roshan!

Like in the rest of the country, some surnames are occupational in nature. ‘Butt’ is the priestly class, ‘Munshi’ is an accountant, ‘Bhandari’ is a store manager, ‘Mattoo’ is one who manages a religious math and if you’re wondering about Anupam Kher, the Khers are basically ‘Khars’ – those who collect taxes from donkey drivers!