Exploring Your Indian Ancestors

Family History
14 March 2023
by Simran K. Puri Noon, AncestryProGenealogists®

India is the second most populous country in the world, comprising 17.7% of the world population, so it’s no surprise that India is an ancestral origin for almost 1 in 5 people. 

Due to the country’s British Colonial history, the migratory patterns of its people, and the vast number of local languages and dialects, researching your Indian ancestors can be particularly challenging. It just takes perseverance to make it happen! 

While the process may seem overwhelming, there are several steps you can take to learn more about your family’s origins.

Start Family History Research at Home

In traditional Indian families, family structure and relationships are fundamental. To document your family’s history, interview the oldest living members. Dadas and Dadis, Nanas and Nanis, Bijis and Darjis (grandparents) hold the key to your past. Oral history interviews are critical in tapping into memories and capturing key information about your family that may never be found on a printed document.

Oftentimes, there is a family history that has not been previously shared but will be revealed when asked. As a culture, Indian elders tend to focus on the here and now, emphasizing working towards our future rather than reliving the past. 

Pointed questions can help form a critical starting point for your family history research. Consider asking not only about the names, dates, and places of your ancestors’ births, marriages, and deaths, but also more anecdotal questions that will be easier for your relatives to remember, such as: 

  • What was their complete given name and their pet/nickname? (And why/how they were given those names.)
  • What was their occupation?
  • How many children did they have? 
  • Did they serve in the military or work for the government? 
  • Did they go to school; for how long, and where/what type of school was it?
  • Can they describe their home(s) and the village or town(s) they were raised in and lived in as adults?
  • What holidays, religious celebrations, or rituals were important to your family, and how were they celebrated?
  • Did they witness any key political or historical events in India, such as the Partition/India’s gaining of independence? Ask about what life was like before and after those events.
  • What house of worship did their family visit (record the temple/mosque/monastery/gurdwara/church names if possible) and ask if anyone in the family was a different religion than the others.

Next, consider reaching out to extended relatives—Chachas and Chachis, Mamas and Mamis (Aunts and Uncles), cousins, and even those “Aunties” that are close family friends and who seem to remember everything about everyone else’s family! 

Consider recording these interviews with audio or video and breaking them into multiple sessions. You will be surprised what family members remember at different times and with different discussions. Also, remember that some of these topics, particularly forced migration, can be sensitive and should be addressed compassionately. 

There are many more ideas for questions you can ask that are listed here. Going through old family photos together can help spark memories and topics of conversation. 

family photos
                         U.S., Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000

Also, ask to see any old family records from India they might have (such as school, employment, or military), as they can also be helpful when considering what traditional documentary research you might look for. 

Consider Migration Patterns

Your family’s migration pattern is significant to consider. Did they migrate from India to the UK, Canada, the U.S., Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, or elsewhere and why? These are all prevalent migration paths for Indian citizens in the past 100 years. 

More recently, there have also been many migrations to the Middle East. According to the International Migration 2020 Highlights, produced by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the UAE, the U.S., and Saudi Arabia currently host the most significant number of migrants from India. In 2020, 18 million persons from India were living outside their country of birth. 

If your family lived in areas affected by India’s independence from Great Britain, commonly known as “The Partition,” in 1947, your family might have migrated between Pakistan, India, and Bengal, and this will also affect what records your family may have retained or that you can still access today.

If your family migrated, immigration or displacement records could be critical in helping to identify your family’s village or town of origin in India. 

Passenger and immigration records are an excellent place to start. For families that immigrated to the U.S., check out the Ancestry® state-by-state databases of federal naturalization records, such as those for New York or California or Canada’s index of Immigrants Approved in Orders in Council, 1929-1960. You can learn many genealogical facts about your ancestors from these types of records.

Bhagat Thind’s petition for naturalization
Bhagat Thind’s petition for naturalization.

Locating Additional Family Records

After you have conducted your family history interviews and obtained relevant immigration records, your next step is to learn more about your family’s origins in India.

UK, British Army World War I Service Records, 1914-1920
The Military History Sheet of Sundar Singh includes his service history, his wife’s name, and when they were married.

Begin by researching your family’s surname. This may provide important clues about geographical family origins. Look for historical accounts of the village or cities where your family lived. Ensure you have the correct location, as many town and state names have changed, and provincial boundaries have been redrawn since India’s independence in 1947.

School records are often the best bet in researching Indian ancestors. Catholic and Protestant churches built many of India’s schools, and the records of their students were frequently kept in English. Consider contacting the school’s headmaster to see if they still have copies of your ancestors’ records or even photographs of the classes. Historically, civil birth records usually do not exist, but a school record will typically confirm the name of the child’s father and the student’s date of birth.

Did you have an ancestor that served in the British military or worked for the government? Some of these records are available online and in repositories in the UK. Consider searching databases such as the Ancestry® “UK, British Army World War I Service Records, 1914-1920” or the “UK, Registers of Employees of the East India Company and the India Office, 1746-1939.” If you can find your ancestor in these service records, they may not only tell of the soldier’s military career but frequently provide rich details about his life. 

Regional State archives may also be another source of valuable information, particularly if the family did not migrate. Some families did track their ancestors at regional religious temples; those names can still be found on old scrolls. Haridwar in the District of Uttarakhand is a site renowned for its Hindu genealogical registers kept by the Pandits (Hindu holy men) assigned to specific families. 

When families make pilgrimages to sites such as these, they may scatter the ashes of loved ones and take time to update the records of their families. These sources require in-country visits and an understanding of the local language and dialect.

While tracing your Indian heritage may be challenging, creating your family tree and recording your family stories now will preserve your family’s history for generations to come.

If you’d like professional help from AncestryProGenealogists® to help you navigate connecting with your ancestral heritage, visit us at www.progenealogists.com.