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Tracing one’s roots

November 24, 2007

I have always been intrigued by sites like genebase.com which claim to trace your ancestry – right from the origin of your ancestors, their ethnic background to the roots of your surname. All this by buying a kit which tests your ancestry and I presume it’s done by testing your DNA. All this for a couple of hundred dollars plus shipping. As I do not know anyone who has actually done this…I do not know how this works or whether it’s reliable but it was while researching this that I came across a news item which talked of a less sophisticated and a traditional method of testing one’s ancestry – in India ofcourse.

In Hardwar, a holy city in India, there are the ‘Pandas’ who are ‘record holders’ so to speak. They have been physically jotting down the family details of those who have been visiting Hardwar and if you approach them you just might be able to trace your origins, perhaps going back many generations. In this case the writer managed to trace his origins back to 1905. It’s impressive considering that a complete stranger has all this information! It’s all stored in long books or scrolls of paper. As the writer narrates:

…panditji soon came out carrying six-inch thick, more than two feet long, stacks of papers bound in green cloth, typically folded once over. Each bahi—the record book—contained about 600 to 800 pages.

Interesting huh? Well I can’t help wondering if any details of our family are stored here. In those days almost everyone had this habit of making pilgrimages to holy cities and I know for certain that one of my dad’s great uncles died there.

From my father’s side we have details going back only 4-5 generations up till my great-great grandfather whom we know was a teacher. We know just that about him…that he was a teacher, nothing else. However we also know that our ancestors are from Goa. One of them fled Goa (the rest of the family, Hindu priests, still reside there) when the Portuguese invaded and we are descendents of this person. On my mother’s side we have a far longer history, the advantage of being descendents of Sardar Purandare who was the Governor of the Saswad area during Peshwa rule of the Maratha Kingdom. He was a close friend of Peshwa Madhavrao. But even though my uncle has the details of most of these ancestors he has nothing about the women of the Purandare clan of the time. I guess that’s natural, as these details were never recorded. Women were not considered very important unless they were queens or princesses!

I am also curious to know more about my father’s side of the family…what exactly happened when one of the Jatar brothers left Goa and the kind of life he lived. There is absolutely no information on this although there are several Jatar families, not all of whom we can connect to us.

One of my favorite books is Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’. Alex Haley, an African American, wrote about how he traced his family history back to the original African, by the name of Kunta Kinte, who was captured by slave traders way back in 1767. He managed to get to his roots because his ancestors passed down an oral history of Kunta’s experiences. There are those who doubt Haley’s work and it is possible though that Haley may have made a mistake, but it is difficult to prove or disprove this…although some historians claim to have disproved it.

However, the fact that during those times there were other ways to keep records is undisputed. The oral tradition has been common in many traditional societies.

Update: xntricpundits told me about an interesting site called Indianroots, (an Indian government site) which helps Indians who left India a long time ago, some as long ago as the 10th century, to locate their ancestors and ancestral village in India. I do not know if anyone has used this method successfully but I should think that as it is a government site it should work.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 24, 2007 2:02 pm

    Tracing one’s roots, personally I have a strong knowledge of my roots, almost back to 5 generations, only because of the fact that we still are in touch with most of the family going back upto that level.
    I had read about a mela that happens at some time, where these people who keep track of the roots meet, with all people around world coming down to India to meet them and get the records updated, very interesting concept.

    I am more worried about the liberal India, which thinks COOL and tries to reestablish ROOTS thinking the current one is bad, even without trying to understand the reason behind some of the practices.

  2. November 24, 2007 2:47 pm

    @Rambler: Thanks.
    You are one of the lucky ones I guess as you were born in a family which has kept records of it’s ancestors.
    I tried googling for the mela that you mentioned (sounds very interesting!) but I probably don’t have the right key words. If you have any more information do share it!

  3. November 24, 2007 4:42 pm

    Nita:

    In arranged marriages in the North, at least in those which happen with due process, the vamsha-vriksha (family tree) is opened in both families and it must go back 7 generations to ascertain that the prospective bride and groom are not related. A separation at the 7th generation (minimum) is required to establish that at best they are ‘biraadari” but not related. This means many families have access to at least 7 generations of their family tree.

    The pandas are of course a great source of this information but it comes too late in life.

    In my family we are very close with the people of 3 generations back and now as earlier generations pass on, we remain close as cousins and now the next generation is growing up and I am in touch with my nieces and nephews.

    If one cannot find things going back, at least we can right the wrongs of poor record keeping going forward, can’t we?🙂

  4. XNTRICPUNDITS permalink
    November 24, 2007 4:45 pm

    Stumbled on this interesting(related) post
    http://www.bohemianstate.com/2005/10/16/the-unknown-makes-life-worth-living/

  5. November 24, 2007 6:42 pm

    There was a craze in England and in America around the turn of the last century to find ancestors. Many projects were started copying church records, census records and other documents. The result was a vast collection of genealogy information that is available in published books. In addition, the Mormon Church has been creating a database of records from around the world.

    Due to my father’s efforts, my family name goes back 15 generations to England and much further back through other ancestors. According to one source back as far as 350 A.D. I was interested as a youngster, but today it means very little. What matters is the here and now, not who you may have descended from a thousand years ago.

  6. November 24, 2007 7:41 pm

    Shefaly, I wonder if you are referring to the gotra which should not match under any circumstances (of the bride and bridegroom). This system is followed in the rest of India too. One can inherit the gotra from mother of father depending on whether the people follow a patrilineal or matrilineal system but interestingly only certain castes have this system and it originated amongst brahmins. I got this information from the wiki, after googling the word ‘gotra’ which we follow strictly in our own community. In fact marrying within one’s own gotra is forbidden in our community. The wiki article goes on to mention that north indians have another more elaborate system as well and perhaps you were referring to that.

    Brian,
    interesting to know that you can trace your father’s side of the family so far back! Actually I was never interested in these things as a youngster but as I grow older I am increasingly fascinated. Ofcourse one should not wallow in the glory of past ancestors but it gives me a feeling of peace to know who I am and where I come from. I know that if I was an adopted child I would feel very restless and uneasy until I managed to know who I really was.
    In fact I am now collaborating with a member of my family (my father’s cousin) to gather the data and draw up detailed biographies of our family members. It’s simply an academic exercise. I have always been very interested in history ever since I was a child.

    Xcentric,
    thanks. You always manage to come up with interesting links! Although the post you sent me to is not written clearly, I got a governement of India link from there which is about helping those of Indian origin who live abroad to to trace their roots in India. I will be adding it to my main post. Thanks.

  7. November 24, 2007 9:35 pm

    When I was in India, my cousin and I went to Haridwar to a priest who has the family records going back a few generations. Due to shortage of time, we were unable to see the actual records, but it was interesting.

    Shefaly, would you know the reason for the 7-generation (minimum) rule? Knowledge of the ill-effects of inbreeding perhaps? Or something else?

  8. November 24, 2007 9:48 pm

    @Amit:

    Hey, that means you went to these same people! A pity you didn’t actually get things done from them as it would have been interesting to hear of a first hand experience with these pandits!

  9. November 25, 2007 1:21 am

    @Nita,
    a tree doesn’t matters how many nodes it has but, has one & only one root. And if the root of a tree having much height is not known, it seems to be a forest. This post remind me of Data Structures, what I have studied in my college days. [sorry for the tech. terms, can’t help it ;)]

    BTW, There are some sites that will make your task easier, http://onefamily.com & http://www.geni.com.

    Thanks Rupesh! – Nita

  10. xntricpundits permalink
    November 25, 2007 2:14 am

    If you allow me Nita here is the link to list of resources to trace the family tree.
    http://genealogy.about.com/od/india/

    Includes link to pakistan,srilankan and bangladeshi genealogy forums.
    Bonus link-
    #If your family have taken part in the many migrations between India and Britain, how can you go about tracking their family history?#
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/next_steps/int_03_india_01.shtml

    Thanks.🙂 – Nita.

  11. November 26, 2007 3:01 am

    My family tree Thatte Kul Vruttant records over 15 generations of my ancestors. From what I hear, most Chitpavan Brahmins have a record that old, probably originating from the agreements with the local rulers after arriving into India.

  12. November 26, 2007 5:50 pm

    Just being skeptical…what about the people who never went to Hardwar…or may be the pandits missed to jot down their name..and worst case identifying the wrong person as your ancestor.

    BTW there is a very good fictional book where the hero finds his roots and gets enlightened written by toni morrison called “song of the solomon” have you read that?

  13. November 26, 2007 6:00 pm

    @subbu:

    Identifying the wrong person as your ancestor is unlikely to happen as these people have not one but several names of family members including their birth, death, marriage dates etc. But ofcourse the pandits will only have the names of those who visited Hardwar and not other people. And I am sure they will ‘miss’ people whom they do not consider important!
    I haven’t read the book you mentioned. But will pick it up if I come across it. Thanks.

  14. November 26, 2007 6:05 pm

    @ Nita: I do not think it is about ‘gotra’. It definitely is about genetic diversification which Amit mentions and it is also a good way to check a family’s antecedents in social and economic terms before the marriage is finalised.

    @ Amit: I am sure the knowledge of the ill-effects of consanguineous marriages is a key factor driving this exercise. However strangely in rich families, incestuous and consanguineous marriages are still now frowned upon in many Hindu communities and are seen as a way of keeping the wealth within the family.

    Genealogy I think gets more complicated the more inter-caste and inter-religion marriages happen in India. It is a great way to diversify genetically but records will become sparser if an active effort is not made by families themselves…

  15. November 27, 2007 3:37 am

    Hi, NIta!
    Really interesting post, thanks… At some point every person gets interested in his/her origin, that is normal and important. It may help you to understand yourself better and – alas! – even give you more ego…

    To me personally it is interesting to see what kind of spiritual impact my /or somebody`s genetics can make. Every place /nation/ family has a certain vibrational value, kind of energy. And it does has an impact on each of us! To be aware of that and to see how it manifests in your character – that is really fascinating!

    In my case I was quite amazied to find out that at least the last 10 generaitions of my family come from one and the same place, the region of Don Kosaks in the South of Russia. The region has its very special history (alike the typical Russian destiny) and I appear to be quite a typical Kosak woman🙂 Somehow I was surprised to find it out…

  16. November 27, 2007 9:34 am

    @axinia:

    I think that knowing one’s origin helps one know who one is. One needs to be aware of that, but ofcourse it should not shape character. While it can at times lead to arrogance, I have seen that it can also lead to feelings of inferiority if one has not achieved as much as one’s ancestors have.

  17. September 12, 2008 11:53 pm

    I am coming across this topic pretty frequently in my life..

    here’s a ted talk on that
    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/spencer_wells_is_building_a_family_tree_for_all_humanity.html

  18. June 7, 2012 1:54 am

    i am south african indian and i want to trace my family roots which dates back to the 1900’s…is there anyone who can help? thanks

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