My name is Khan, and I'm Kaul

Greater Kashmir

William Shakespeare’s popular quotation “what is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” ……may or may not hold good beyond his tragic play of Romeo and Juliet. Kashmiris, the people who have their roots in the enchanting valley, have proven the great English dramatist wrong when it comes to the origin of the name which is very important and revealing of their past.

It is hard to believe that surnames – Peer, Wali or Khan, are common Hindu surnames. At the same time a Muslim carrying his last name as Rishi or Pandit…… sounds incredible, but it is a common feature in Kashmir. Unlike in other parts of the country, Muslims and Hindus have been sharing the same surnames since ages. Wali is a name based on Arabic short form of Wali Allah ‘friend of God’, ‘protector’. However, this surname is more common in Kashmiri Pundits than in Muslims.

Let me start with my surname “Kaul”. It is not my actual surname but adopted by my father. Our family name is “Khan”. Papa, while studying before matriculation, changed his surname from Khan to Kaul to avoid getting embarrassed, as it was a Muslim surname. Actually, Kaul and Koul in many instances are adopted names and do not tell you about the ancestry. My forefathers were working for Afghans during their rule of Kashmir in years 1752 to 1819 and that is how, we became Khans.

In Kashmir the surnames have a lot of relevance to know the identity, past history and the profession of their forefathers.

The former Chairman of J&K Public Service Commission, a devout Muslim M. Shafi Pandit, similarly one of the important former Director Generals of J & K police was Ghulam Jeelani Pandit, of course a Muslim but with Pandit as the surname. Likewise, Dr Mahraj Kishan Peer, an eminent physician and Bansi Lal Wali, a well-known  lawyer of National fame are both Hindus.

An elderly Pandit who had attained highest stage of spiritual perfection or was well-versed in the religious scriptures was out of reverence called as Sahib. There is an important example of a pundit boy by the name of Keshav born in 1637 to Gobind Kaul resident of Batayar Mohallah, Ali Kadal, Srinagar. He, from his childhood was only interested in spirituality and not formal schooling and went on very long years of meditation, eating very frugally. As the story goes, he performed a number of miracles for needy people. Both Hindus and Muslims used to throng his ashram. He began to be called as Reshi Peer (Rishi for Hindus and Peer for Muslims). He was affectionately called “Peer Pandit Padshah Hardu Jahan Mushkil Asan” i.e., emperor of two worlds who solves difficulties of various kinds. In 1675 when Iftikhar Khan was the governor of Kashmir a big fire broke out and engulfed the entire Ali Kadal area of Srinagar.  When the flames could not be controlled by all possible means then people in utter panic approached Rishi Peer for his help. He threw his one wooden sandal into the fire and the fire was extinguished within no time.

At the time of his passing away because of ageing and frailty, there was a dispute over his body, whether it should be cremated or buried. When finally the covering cloth was lifted it is said there were 27 flowers instead of the corpse. Muslims then allowed Hindus to take them to the river bank of Jhelum and consign them to flames, at the place of his birth in Batyar Mohalla. That is the perfect example of the composite culture of Kashmir.

Similarly, Mirza, Dhar or Dar, Bhat, Akhoon, Chakoo, Durrani, Kachroo, Draboo, Kaloo, Kanna, Kaw, Khar, Khuda, Kitchloo, Munshi, Machama, Mirza, Padar, Parimoo and Raina are a few typical surnames that are used by both Hindus, and Muslims of Kashmir .

Many of the present-day Kashmiri surnames are linked to the occupations of their ancestors. A few examples: Aram (vegetable grower), Kral (potter), Gooru (milk vendor), Hakim (physician),Waza (chef), Bazaz (cloth merchant) etc., are some of the surnames that tell you, about the past profession of the present generation of Kashmiris.

There is a set of surnames belonging to birds and animals, probably because of some resemblance of any of their ancestors with the body language, voice, or character in some remote way:

Examples, like Hangloo (Stag), Khar (donkey), Braroo (cat), Kantroo (male sparrow), Kakroo ( cock), Kaw (crow), Bambroo(black bee), Kotru (pigeon), Dand (bull), Hoon(dog), Yechh (yeti), Kukiloo (koel). Great personalities like former Senior bureaucrat M K Kaw or former Resident Editor of the Statesman and at present a free lance writer Mr M L Kotru.

It is not only the animal kingdom but Kashmiri surnames are linked with the vegetables and fruits as well. We have quite a number of Mujoos (Radish), Bamchoots (Quince apple) Hakh(Green leafy vegetable), Wangnoo (Egg plant), Nadroos (Lotus stem). Some surnames based on the personalities and moods in families like Hakhoo (A person who is dry), and Trakroo (person who is unyielding or hard in attitude). These surnames are continuing till date.

The passion for nicknames is in the blood of Kashmiris. They have nurtured this art for generations. This often-repeated story is known to many, but worth a repeat: Pandit Anand Koul, a great Kashmiri historian has quoted an example of resistance shown against a nickname by a gentleman whose name was ‘Vasadev’. He had a mulberry tree in his courtyard, and was, therefore, called Vasadev Tul. `Tul’ in Kashmiri means mulberry. In order to get rid of this nickname he cut down the tree. But a `Maund’ (trunk) remained and he was called, ‘ Vasadev Maund’. Irritated Mr Vasadev, immediately removed the trunk; and a `Khud’ (depression/ crater) was caused and henceforth he was known as ‘Vasadev Khud’. Continuing his battle against nickname givers, he got the depression filled up and the ground became a `Teng’ (mound/a little elevated). Thus, he was re-nicknamed as ‘Vasadev Teng’. He finally gracefully accepted this name and thus came the progeny of Tengs.

I wish this bonhomie and commonality continues as a permanent bondage and sets an example to other communities, for centuries to come and let the unhappy days be a part of the remote past.

Prof Upendra Kaul is a Cardiologist, Awarded Padmashiri and Dr B C Roy Award