Oh to be a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin

I picked this link on Ajit Pai from Razib’s blog.

But he also caught my attention because Ajit Pai is a Konkani Gaud Saraswat Brahmin—and I am, too. In late 2016, I retired an oral history project on Konkani-speaking Brahmins because I mostly recorded versions of the same fabulous origin story, more legend than history—that we were “pure” light-skinned Brahmins of the north, who traveled to southwestern India after the Saraswati River “went underground.”

I had a GSB friend but that’s beside the point. What I have noticed is that there is an almost compulsive need in Indians to name drop their caste, especially if it is a high one.

There was no need for this author to mention her K-GSB origins but then that wouldn’t allow her to flaunt it.

20 thoughts on “Oh to be a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin”

  1. I wouldn’t have guessed Pai was a Brahmin, doesn’t look like it, specifically the nose. Now some commenters will come in saying there are a range of phenotypes among Brahmins, which I agree with, but there is a ‘look’ to many of them that makes them stand-out from Dravidians in South India.

    Yeah I agree with you Zack , regarding South Asians subtly or not so subtly making people aware of their caste/lineage , if they are from a caste or lineage perceived to have high status.

    Suppose it is related to how South Asians love to claim foreign origins, despite being typically South Asian or mostly South Asian. In Sri Lanka, Muslims love to claim they are Moors and not Tamil, despite Tamil being their mother tongue and the majority looking like Tamils or Sinhalese. There are some Muslims in Colombo that have obvious West Asian or NorthWest SubContinent admixture, but not the majority.

  2. I wouldn’t have guessed Pai was a Brahmin, doesn’t look like it, specifically the nose. Now some commenters will come in saying there are a range of phenotypes among Brahmins, which I agree with, but there is a ‘look’ to many of them that makes them stand-out from Dravidians in South India.

    with all due respect, what the fuck are you talking about? south indian brahmins do look different, on average, but they overlap with the native peoples pretty obviously due to admixture (i looked at the genetics in iyers firsthand).

    i’ve met tamil brahmins who were full sisters where one was very light-skinned and the other very dark and looked way more ‘dravidian.’

    1. “with all due respect, what the fuck are you talking about? south indian brahmins do look different, on average, but they overlap with the native peoples pretty obviously due to admixture (i looked at the genetics in iyers firsthand).”

      That’s what I meant. That on average they do look different, but it is not uncommon to find those where it is hard to tell or not possible to tell at all if they are Brahmins. My personal experience is pretty much limited to Tamil Brahmins , both in Sri Lanka and here.

      Pai is one of those South Indian Brahmins I wouldn’t have figured was a Brahmin, unlike Sundar Pichai who I figured was a Brahmin upon seeing his picture and reading he was South Indian.

      I recal when I first saw a picture of Indra Nooyi (Pepsi Co. ceo) she had a beige complexion, and reading that she was from Tamil Nadu, I thought it likely she was a Brahmin. Years later when I saw a picture of her with dark skin, she didn’t look Brahmin, because her features which when coupled with the dark skin gave a Dravidian vibe. But there are brownish South Indian Brahmins who still look Brahmin due to their angular dolicephalic phenotype.

      Are South Indian Brahmins closer genetically to North Indian mid or lower castes than they are to non-Brahmins middle or upper castes in the South?

  3. “…we were “pure” light-skinned Brahmins of the north.”

    You can’t make this stuff up.

  4. Name-dropping your caste seems to me like a Hindu thing (and yes, I agree it is really obnoxious).

    Of course, there are those Muslims who insist on telling everyone that they are “Syed” and thus somehow directly descended from the Holy Prophet. Ok, but what proof do you have?

    This seems like a general South Asian tendency to claim that one’s origins are better than other people’s.

    1. In the same vein, Goa Christians want you to know in the first few minutes of introduction that they are originally Brahmins. Same with other Indian Christians of non-dalit background.

    2. The Syed / Saeed prefix is rather common in South Asia’s Muslim communities (relative to the GCC). The only MiddleEastern Saeed I can think of of the top my head is Hezbollah leader Hasan Nazrallah, whose name sometimes includes the honorific Saeed. I grew up in Abu Dhabi; I can not recall hearing an Emirati , or other Arabs for that matter, refer to themselves with Syed / Saeed or Shariff.

      How common is it in Iran for people to use Saeed/Syed as a proper name?

      South Asian Saeed/Syed obsession seems like a carryover of Casteist mentality, the need to announce to everyone that you are from a higher community. Or is it more to do with the large number of Shia in South Asia? Are South Asian Sunnis prone to using an honorific as a proper name? There also seem to be a lot of Shariffs in South Asia (relative to the GCC)

      In Sri Lanka the Muslims (referred to as Moors) fancy themselves Arab or claim they are not Tamil and not Sinhalese, even though their mother tongue is Tamil and except for a minority, they look like Tamils, Sinhalese and South Indians. Arabs do not accept them as Arabs though.

      1. “Saeed” is a common proper name in Pakistan (apparently it means “happy” in Arabic). “Syed” is an honorific/caste supposedly denoting descent from the Prophet. They are not the same thing, though commonly confused. Even the Wiki page for “Syed” says “not to be confused with Saeed”.

        1. I had thought “Said” was the Arabic for happy ; didn’t realize it could be spelled as “Saeed” also. I do recall Arabs with the “Said” proper name.

          While we are on the issue of ‘elevated names’, South Asia also disproportionately seems to have “Qureshi” as a surname. How many South Asian could possibly be descended from an ancestor of the Banu Quraish tribe?

          1. My maternal grandmother’s father was named Qureshi. Not that I believe for a moment that his ancestors were from Saudi Arabia. According to Wikipedia, 82% of all Qureshis are in Pakistan.

          2. Qureshi is almost certainly a Hindu Khatri caste.

            Strangely enough I don’t think they are a biraderi lineage though.

            UP Shi’ite Syed especially from the home of Syeds( Amroha) would be an interesting population to test.

          3. @Kabir

            Isn’t it possible for one ancestor to actually be from Saudi Arabia? South Asia is rigidly patriarchal. So, the identification continues in the male line – even though most people are genetically almost indistinguishable from locals via inter-breeding. Such effects are common among Indian Christians too (though, to their credit, their middle names are usually Indic).

            E.g. does Norman Browne look British to you by any means?

          4. Slapstik,

            Yes, it is possible that one of my great-grandfather’s ancestors was from Saudi Arabia. But not likely. It doesn’t fit in with the rest of what I’ve been told, that both my Nani’s mother and father were Kashmiri in origin (though how far back I have no idea). I think it is more likely that someone somewhere along the line picked up “Qureshi” because it was associated with foreign (and supposedly superior) origin. South Asian Muslims have a habit of claiming to be Middle Eastern, though the vast majority are descended from lower-caste converts.

            Why should Norman Browne look “British”? British is a nationality, not an ethnicity/race. He looks ethnically Indian and one would assume that his ancestors were ethnically Indian. Maybe there was a white guy somewhere, but who knows.

          5. @Kabir

            Being a little jejune on purpose? The multi-ethnic British nationality is a very modern phenomenon. British is essentially a old Roman ethnonym for the Celtic people, which was later appropriated by all on the main island by mid 17c. So British in the sense I have used is short-hand for English/Welsh/Scottish ethnicities. Bartanvi/Gora/Angrez/Firangi, if you please, in Urdu.

            My point is simply that Browne, someone who is authentically Anglo-Indian, carries a name with British provenance and yet looks like your typical North Indian uncle. And in his case the angrez ancestor was very real.

            So, it is not altogether far-fetched that Qureshi or similar Arabic, Turkic, Iranian surnames in India are because many (if not all) S Asian people with that surname indeed descended from foreign settlers to India. Arabs, Turks etc came to Kashmir too. Though most of their ancestry is still Indic.

            We are all mongrels to a greater or lesser degree…

  5. As I am a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin I should put in a word.

    To begin with, Gaud Saraswat Brahmin is an odd term as Saraswat Brahmins are Gaud (northern brahmins) and are not Dravida brahmins (Gujarat, Maratha, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil, which includes both Tamil and Malayalam brahmins; forming Pancha(Five) Dravida brahmins).

    Meat eating was allowed for Gaud brahmin and prohibited for Dravida brahmins – do not ask me why.
    So when Saraswat Brahmins settled in Goa, they added the Gaud to indicate that they are north Indian brahmins. This allowed them to continue eating meat and call themselves Brahmins at the same time.

    The old society was very patriarchal, particularly the north Indian one. So, when Saraswats came south, it was mostly their men that made the journey. They married tribal women of Goa to continue their line.

    North Indian Saraswat brahmins do not call themselves GSB’s but plain Saraswat.

    But north indians are generally shallow with their culture and are ready to accept anything flashy. So, many north Indians have started calling themselves GSB’s.

    With GSB you are in the same caste as Ajit Pai above along with Dempo’s of Goa, Pai’s of Manipal Education and Health care group. And Mallya of Kingfisher (He could be still considered as successful in north, particularly Delhi, given it’s culture).
    Other prominent Goud Saraswats are: Prakash and Deepika Padukone, Gurudutt Padukone, Girish Karnad, Anant Nag and Shankar nag – all movie stars etc excluding Prakash from badminton.

    Politics: Suresh Prabhu, Manohar Parrikar, Digambar Kamath. old ones: TA Pai, Srinivas Mallya etc.
    Go …

  6. I find it interesting that she put “went underground” in scare quotes. Is it a part of Left wing signaling in India (or Indians abroad) to deny that the Saraswati river ever existed?
    Also, hydrologists out there, what is the current scientific guess about this river? ( I have read the wikipedia entry and know nothing more than that).

    1. The present understanding ( which is still far from final ), based upon the Giosan et al study of a few years back and also another study by the Gupta and Sinha team of a few months back, is that water in substantial quantities was indeed flowing through the Ghaggar Hakra river during the Holocene and that after 3000 BC there was a reduction in the flow of water through the channel up to 2000 bc from whence the water flow has been substantially reduced right up to today.

      Both Giosan et al & the Gupta/Sinha team also agree that once the river Sutlej flowed through the Ghaggar channel. But while Giosan et al put this to a time period before 10 kya and perhaps even earlier and postulate that the Ghaggar Hakra river was a perennial monsoon fed river because there is a lack of incision in the river channel (which is a sign of a glacial fed river). On the other hand, the second team argues that there is indeed a sign of deep incision in the Ghaggar Hakra channel and that a glacial fed river did flow through it, but it was the Sutlej and it diverted to its current channel by around 8000 ybp. From then on, they argue, that the Ghaggar Hakra became a seasonal (as against the perrrenial river of the Giosan team) monsoon fed river which continued flowing upto 2000 bc with a reduction setting in after 3000 bc.

      All this while, Indian researchers like K S Valdiya, have maintained that the Ghaggar Palaeo channel is itself the ancient river Saraswati and that it was a glacial fed river and not just a monsoon fed one. However they appear to not have given a proper timeline as to when the river stopped being glacial fed.

      This in short is my limited understanding of the status of research at present. The gist seems to be that whether it was a seasonal or perennial river or whether it was a monsoon fed or glacial fed river, it nevertheless was flowing through the Ghaggar Hakra channel in the Holocene period with a noticeable reduction starting from 3000 BC which continued until 2000 BC. From then on it has remained the same upto the present day.

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