A syrian christian takes his own name which is the name of his paternal grandfather, the name of his father and his house or ‘tharavad’ name.
He may make any of these his surname and hence he may be G.J. Olikara, ‘G’ for Gevarghese (name of paternal grandfather), ‘J’ for John(name of father) and ‘Olikara’ for name of his ancestral house from where the line of his paternal family descends. He may be the son of O.G. John, ‘O’ for Olikara(name of the house), ‘G’ for Gevarghese (name of father) and ’J’ for John(name of paternal grandfather).
It was customary that the eldest son be given the name of his paternal grandfather and the eldest daughter the name of her maternal grandmother. The second son bears the name of his maternal grandfather and the second daughter bears the name of her maternal grandmother.
This naming convention is also seen among the Sephardic Jews, whose customs may have been imbibed by the Syrian Christians in kerala.
As a general rule, the Syrian Christians bear names which are biblical. It is interesting to record that despite Decree XVI of the Synod of Diamper of 1599, which forbade the use of old testament names, for 400 years after this date the Syrian Christians still continued using such names, though through usage they became Indianised.
Some common Syrian Christian names are:
For Men: (Thomma, Thoman, Mamman, Oommen) from Thomas, (Chacko, Yakob) from Jacob, (Pathros, Pathe, Pathappan) from Peter, (Yohannan, Lonan, Ninan) from John, (Mathai, Mathan, Mathu, Mathulla) from Mathew, (Yesoph, Ouseph, Outha, Ipe) from Joseph, (Koshy, Easo) from Joshua, (Abragam, Avraham, Avrachan, Itty) from Abraham, (Ittack) from Isaac, (Lukose) from Luke, (Philipose, Pothan, Pothen, Poonen) from Philip, (Paulose, Piley) from Paul, (Chandy, Chandi, Idichandy) from Alexander, (Iyob, Iyoben, Eapen) from Job, (Cheriyan, Kurien, Kuriakose) from Zachariah, (Verghese, Vargisa, Varkey, Varied, Geverghese) from George, (Kuruvilla) from Korah.
For Women: (Mariam, Maria, Mariamma) from Mary, (Akka, Rabka, Raca, Akkamma) from Rebecca, (Rahel, Rahelamma) from Rachel, (Susanna, Sosa, Sosamma, Achi, Achamma) from Susan, (Saramma) from Sara, (Elspeth, Elisa, Elia, Elacha, Eliamma) from Elizabeth.
This ‘nativising’ of root Greek, Latin and Hebrew names can be seen in all the ancient chrurches like the Ethiopian, Slavic as well as the Armenian ones.
In kerala, the Syrian Christians are known by the distinguishing nomenclature of ‘Nasrani Mappilas’. They also shared with the Nairs some honorific titles. The word ‘Tharagan’ or ‘tariff collector’ is a title that some families bear. Similarly, ‘Panikkar’ which denotes proficiency in arms is a title borne by certain Nasrani families. In and around Quilon, there is a group of families claiming descent from the fourth century Syrian immigrants and this group has the title ‘Muthalaly’ in common among them.
Many Syrian Christian families followed a unique custom that they shared with the kerala Hindus of adopting a male member into their family on his marrying a girl from theirs. The boy would then carry the family name of his wife. This would mostly happen when a family had no male heirs to carry on the family name.
The most popular name among the Syrian Christians was George. This was on account of the popularity of this name in Asia Minor where the tomb of George exists in Jaffa, Palestine. He was revered as a ‘Punyavalan’ in kerala.
However in recent times it is normal for the child to take the surname of his father or to use the family name as his surname. The discarding of Biblical names to be replaced with Sanskritised names is also being seen in increasing frequency.
Reference: The Syrian Christians: S.G. Pothen
My thanks to Amprayil for the important input.
Author Nidhin Olikara can be reached on olikara at gmail dot com