The Structure of Tamil Names

My name is Sivapuranam Thevaram, and my origins are in the northern parts of Sri Lanka. I usually identify myself as a Sri Lankan Tamil, strictly in that order. And that order is not negotiable. Equally significant, and not for negotiation, is the order of the two identifiers in my name: Sivapuranam is the one given to my father at his birth, Thevaram is mine. My brothers are Sivapuranam Thiruvasakam and Sivapuranam Thirumanthiram. Again, Thiruvasakam and Thirumanthiram are tokens my dad looked up in the phone book. The full name of my dad is Thirukkural Sivapuranam. So the structure, sliding across generations is: One Two, Two Three, Three Four and so on.

This structure doesn’t match the convention of my friend John Smith: Smith is his family name and John, the given name. His brothers are Mark Smith and Peter Smith, dad is Andy Smith and grandfather was Adam Smith (no, not the same chap). Their structure is like a tree: A great grandpa Smith, followed by a hierarchy of junior Smiths.

Nancy, our research group secretary isn’t phonetically gifted. “You guys got it all so long”, she complains.

Where I come from, Sivapuranam Thevaram is called Mr Thevaram for formal purposes, and should he acquire titles, he becomes Dr Thevaram, Professor Thevaram etc. Informally, people close to him say “Hey Thevaram”.

My friend John Smith, who is Dr Smith for formal purposes, is “Hey John”, informally. “Hey Smith” and “Dr John”, are wrong. Should he gain membership of the second chamber of British governance, he becomes Lord Smith, but should Her Majesty be minded to honor him, he will be Sir John.

In the UK, I maintain the habit from home. People formally address me as “Mr. Thevaram”, and informally also call me “Hey Thevaram”. It takes a bit of training, but in my ivory tower circles, people learn fast. Vincent, our technician, once said to me: “well, in the lab people may learn to say Thevaram, but if you were in a factory, they will give you a Christian name everyone can pronounce”. That explains why several Sri Lankans I know, working in petrol stations, have on their name badges “Mark”, “Anthony” etc. Once I have met three guys, working eight-hour shifts, all using the same “Jonathan” name badge. “Who cares, just part of the uniform”, they explained, in an amazingly detached view of life.

My brother Sivapuranam Thiruvasakam took a different approach. He has declared Thiruvasakam as his family name and a truncated version of my dad’s name as his first name. His work colleagues have learnt to call him Siva, informally, and Dr Thiruvasakam, in a formal setting. It gets odd when he is in the company of a mixture of Sri Lankans and Europeans at parties: Europeans calling him “Hey Seeeva” and the Sri Lankans calling him “Hey Thiruvasakam”.

I myself have abandoned the convention for the next generation, naming my kids One Thevaram, Two Thevaram and Three Thevaram, using Thevaram as family name and One, Two and Three as first names. In a few hundred years, you will find a whole family-tree of Thevarams, with me at the root.

Despite going into extensive searches, and sometimes numerical calculations, to find these names and sticking to their structures, we are reluctant to use them. We use a lot of uncle, aunty, annai, nangi, master and sir as substitutes for names — the supposedly polite way. My mom would never call my dad: “Hey Sivapuranam”, saying “Appa”– meaning father — instead. That has changed a bit in my generation. My wife addresses me as “injErungo Appa”, “Hey Thevaram” or “chaniyan” with roughly equal probability and in decreasing order of expressed affection.

Thinking about all this started from a conversation with a retired Jaffna High Court judge, whose name I forget, and the former principal of St John’s College, Anantharajan (see, just one name), at the Jaffna YMCA, in 1976/77. Having won the village chess tournament, I got to chat to these eminent gentlemen after the prize giving. The judge narrated a story of a woman witness, asked to identify her husband:

“Who is your husband?”

“It is him”

“What is his name?”

“It is him”;

“Just tell us what his name is”

“It is him, you know him”;

“For the last time, I will jail you for contempt of court if you don’t tell us his name”

“It is him, my daughter’s dad, you educated people — you already know him”.

It was sweet of Anantharajan to include this schoolboy in their conversation, and to let him laugh with them. If you will permit me a distraction just to complete the story, this man Anantharajan was shot about nine years after that conversation at the YMCA. It wasn’t clear to me how killing this wonderful school principal was going to help Tamils achieve greater political space in Sri Lanka. Is it to you?

So I asked!

I was visiting an aunt’s place in London when a coupe of chaps turned up to collect money for their war effort back home. She gave them 25 pounds and they were about to leave with the contribution, when I casually dropped my question:

“Are you taking this money to kill more of the likes of Anantharajan?”

Faces turned red. Tempers raised high.

“Are you calling us murderers?”

“Your words, not mine”

“You don’t know much do you, about his CIA connections?”

“What makes you think Anantharajan was an agent of the CIA?”

“You don’t know, I say, it is this type of people through whom the CIA operates”.

My aunt was as shocked at this logic as I was, but kept her cool and said something to ease the tension and make them leave. Later, I ask her to explain why she was funding them. “I gave the [bleep]s 25 pounds”, she said, “Otherwise they will come back and harass me, or even threaten me; no big deal 25 pounds for me, look at my grocery bill”. It was 120 pounds.

(Some will say why bring up this story so many years since it happened. Perhaps it is all water under the bridge. Or perhaps how we face up to this might be the determinant of the future we build for the next generation of Sri Lankans. I do not know, and I leave it as an exercise to you readers.)

Let’s get back to the name structure. Though Thevaram wasn’t phonetically difficult, Nancy, even after much practice, continued to complain it was too long. Vincent continued to wish he could call me Bertram instead.

Being the only Sri Lankan member of the group, I survived a couple of years with Thevaram double acting as my first and last names, claiming it to be the Sri Lankan way and an aspect of my cultural heritage I shall stubbornly stick to. But it wasn’t to last long.

On the first day of term, Nancy comes running into our lab. She is almost breathless and looks terrified. “Guess what”, she exclaims, “We have another one from your country”. She takes a deep breath. “Oh my God, his is even much longer!”

Polgahawela Aarachchilage Junius Solomon Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela has joined our laboratory.

“Its OK, we can just call him Pol”, I comfort Nancy.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Dear Sir,
    Is this article all about how well educated your family is. I could be worng but do you have a point to make except the West do not understand your Hindu culture of forfeiting your father’s name for your first name.
    You call some Western names and claim they are your lab technicians implying you are a PhD of sorts or that you have British or Americans as your underlings.
    Whether you have a PhD or not not you are still a Third World scumbag and you had better accept that.
    Here in Britiin no amount of education would make you a first class citizen. You will still be spitting out your betel chew on the streets and that would cost you a fine of not less than £50.00.
    First of all learn to be civc conscious and leave out your prestige to your inner circle.

  • Sunil Gamralagé

    With all due respect to Mr. Sivapuranam Thevara, I must say the name structure he was talking belongs to Tamils in India or Sri Lanka or other countries. The majority Sinhala community in Sri Lanka never uses it and Sinhala names propagate with the same last name from paternal ancestry to the next generation. But, the females change the last name to that of her husband once married. That means Sinhala names carry last names similar to western countries. I guess Sinhala is a unique language evolved from original Sanskrit and they are ready to adapt with changes in the progressive tense and the realities of modern world. Having said that, some Sinhala names have a family name in the front in addition to the common last name making their names longer. But, this tradition exists primarily in the rural communities and is going away slowly. One unique feature in these Sub-Continent names is that there are no homonyms and confusing spelling to remember or pronouncing with different syllables of the same phonetics. That means these languages have developed in such a way that in general, every sound has a unique way to write, read or speak something the west should pay attention to save a lot of time in language errors. Cheers!

  • In Your Face

    Mahesan Niranjan,

    Great satire! Very creative.

    I hope people don’t take this piece literally.

  • anapayan

    Could you please write another post to explain, what did you try to say in this post? [Edited out]

  • Doomed to Repeat It

    Interesting article. I once had an conversation with some Tamil friends, wherein I asked how they can trace family history back more than a few generations. They told me they weren’t really able to.

    I think the naming situation is different among Tamil Christians. Is this true?

    From what I understand, Chinese traditionally name along the same lines as Tamils, except that instead of the fathers’ name, they use the family name. The Western equivalent would be (to use the example above) Smith John.

    Names and how cultures deal with them are a fascinating topic, and tell you a lot about those cultures conceptualize the relationship between individuals and groups, particularly families.

  • Kshama

    A great piece of satire. Sad that some do not get it.

  • anapayan

    She takes a deep breath. “Oh my God, his is even much longer!”

    Does it look like satire? I don’t think so, Mr or Dr or Prof Thevaram is trying to say some thing else! That’s why I want him to elaborate that story further.

  • Muruges

    I too questioned the killing of Mr. Anantharajan and I was told thus:-

    Mr. A. was specifically requested not to have the second football match with the army as the army was using it as a propaganda against the boys. So …

    ‘If you make a threat and do not carry it out, it ceases to be a threat.’

    Mr. A was warned, but he did not obey, so they had to send a message.

    By the way I do not know who Ananthrajah is, I was out of the country ,long before Praba was even born.

    As for name structures, if we Can pronounce Boroloweski, Zibigni………., and a whole host of East European names that are not phonetically spelt, why can’t the likes of Nancy take the time to learn. It is Shear laziness based on arrogance..

  • Veedhur

    They killed Anandarajah, because that is in the DNA of the organisation – to kill.

  • Muruges

    To Pearl Thevanayagam, The first posting to this article..

    Titles are conferred for a purpose, to indicate hereditary, education, rank in an organization, etc, etc. whether in the Western world or Eastern world, Hindu culture or our adopted Christian or Muslim culture.

    On the other hand, Class Consciousness is covert in the West and very much overt in ours.

    Titled ladies and gentleman can be addressed by their first names only by their immediate inner circle, if others do, we the by-standers would consider them uncouth. Untitled will be addressed as anna or acca, thangachi or thamby as the case maybe. Break-down of these cultural norms leads to chaos, as the case with most of our people now settling in the West.. It is the first generation, hopefully the next generation will adopt our tried and tested norms for an orderly community.

    It is quite understandable the frustration experienced by titled people, not being able to use their title. In Canada, a group of Italian doctors are crying ‘we want to deliver babies, not pizza.s’ and there must be many within our community too. I too have a relative doctor who is selling Real Estate and is relatively successful.

    So Pearl’s attempt to cut down Dr. S. Thavaram is understandable frustration.

    This is a true story. In 1956 or 1958 when SWRD Banda swept into power, one of these sweepings was a Thamis, a postal peon turned trade unionist, became a Member of Parliament. One morning when Themis entered the elevator, standing inside was the defeated former Prime Minister, Sir John Kotalawela, now a normal Member of Parliament, same as Thamis.

    On seeing Sir John, Thamis said ‘Hello John’

    Sir John, after delivering a thundering slap said ‘to you, I am still Sir John.’

    A clear message sent to every one.

    It is said that everyone, including the Prime Minister SWRD, addressed him as Sir John. Only within intimate circumstances did SWRD call him ‘John.’

  • Vedas

    Who is this Polgahawela Aarachchilage Junius Solomon Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela? I doubt this whole thing is somebody’s name.

    I just searched on Google and found that Thanthiriya Bandarawela is part of a rural village address. I guess, if it is Polgahawela Aarachchilage sounds like a family name attached at the front. Junius Solomon (not typical rural Sri Lanka names) could be given names. Rathmana (again an unusual Sri Lankan last name if it exists) may be the last name. The rest is his village and near by town.

    As many others have commented, by reading different events in this story of Mr Sivapuranam or Mr. Thevaram, I also find this article is satirical and written in a witty language.

  • Agnos


    If you google Mahesan Niranjan, you will easily find out who he is.

  • Ravi Shankar

    I don’t find any satire in this lousy article, butI find the colonial mentality of the author. Names are to identify someone and people have all the freedom to name their child to the way they want.
    Unlike the Westerners, Tamils use one name with initial instead of two names or more. Although many don’t use family names (or surname) , some of them use their caste as the surname. E.g. Kurukkal, achchariar, pillai etc..

    Nancy’s stereo type response is not amusing, but it shows her ignorance in understanding other cultures. What about Arnold Schwarzenegger? Isn’t he an European origin (Austria)?

    “Doomed to repeat it”, do you think a John Smith could easily find the ancestors by his surname?

    Mahesan, I don’t know why you have brought Anantharajan and your poor aunty who gave just 25 pounds to LTTE. What it is to do with your Thevaram ,Thruvasagam family?

  • Rajendra Chozhan Thangavelauthashanmugam

    “On the first day of term, Nancy comes running into our lab. She is almost breathless and looks terrified. “Guess what”, she exclaims, “We have another one from your country”. She takes a deep breath. “Oh my God, his is even much longer!”

    Leave the whole article out and read the above lines. What would you make out of it?

    Don’t blame me if it looks vulgar for you!!

  • Muruges

    Ravi Shankar – Only a dunce will not see the satire.

    Rajendra Chozhan Thangavelauthashanmugam, I like your satire.

    It is also said.’ Where ignorance prevails, vulgarism predominates.’

    No one will blame you, thanks for giving us a chuckle.

  • Atheist

    Pear Thevanayagam/Muruges:

    Now it is proven on GV that you are unable to differentiate reality from fiction. You don’t need to be a sour puss just because someone is successful in their career.

    Also, Muruges , why are you bringing some Sir John story into the discussion? You claim to have left Sri-Lanka before Prabhakaran was born: “…I was out of the country, long before Praba was even born”. Based on this, I presume you left Sri-Lanka, perhaps, even before independence. To me, however, your style of writing and lingo reveal that you’ve never lived in the English speaking West for any substantial period of time. Judging from your comments, it could be that you left the country at the age of fifty. This would make you what? A centenarian?

    It is no wonder that “journalists” and “activists” who suffer from this impediment mislead the public with doomsday scenarios.

    At least try to keep track of your ‘untruths’ when you make ‘ethical short cuts’. The readers are not that easily fooled.

  • Muruges


    Some gets it, some don’t.

    I believe VP was born in in 1953.

    If one left Ceylon in 1952 —- not good in simple arithmetic either?