Posted by rocksea on 16 Jul 2009
Keralites are often proud of their family ties and intricate family networks. This includes remembering the names and details of their grandfather’s second cousin’s wife’s brother’s fourth son’s third daughter and all those in between.
Keralites are also proud of their ever expanding diaspora (both overseas and within India). However, the latter factor often counteracts the former one. While moving on to expanding horizons we often, naturally, forget about the family ties and the networks.
Genealogy as a window into ourselves
Genealogy (genea, “descent”; and logos, “knowledge”) is the study of ancestry and family history. More than just a peep into who are our cousins, relatives, and forefathers, a genealogy database is a window into ourselves as well. History is important because it tells the story of how today’s modern world has been shaped. Just like that, a history of your ancestors tells you how you and your immediate world has been shaped.
Why genealogy? Need and reason.
- Know ourselves through our roots, achieve a better sense of identity.
- Know our ancestors, the life and situations through which the present you and your relatives were “synthesized”.
- Know our present relatives, connect and communicate with them.
- Medical history. Lets you know if there is possibility of a particular medical situation passing through the lineage, and take proper precautions.
- Cultural history. It is like a micro census spanning several generations, and gives an idea of the society through ages and its cultural heritage.
These are some and there may be a lot more reasons for each person to pursue a research on their own family tree. Whatever may be the reason, such a work will eventually provide an emotional gratification to you. A lot of far-off relatives will surely come up to you with smiles on their faces and may remain your friends for ever. If you travel to a new place, there may be a distant relative or a friend of a relative who can host you. There may be a doctor relative who may be able to give valuable advice to you on specific cases or a lawyer who can advice you on legal matters, who knows!
Genealogy research is a long term, time consuming effort. Apart from that, several other aspects add to the difficulties.
- People die. There are lots of stories and information about your family which you will never get to know because the grandparent who could tell that is no more. I still dont know my grandfather’s sister’s name and nobody in my family knows that.
- Lack of interest. Some of your relatives may be extremely happy to help you and will give you a lot of information. However, some may be reserved in helping you out.
- Lack of records. In Kerala, proper and consistant recording of events started very late. Most (not all) of the palm leaf records available are from the years 1700 ~ 1950. Records on paper, are mostly from year 1850 onwards.
These dates are “recent” for genealogical purposes. Also, it is not necessary that there are any records on your family even close to those years. Probably you may have written records which can date back to 30-50 years…!! Even the archaeology department at travancore started in 1891 and the kerala state archives department in 1962. Still, it is possible to search for the records and details among existing sources.
- Family history books (kudumba charithram). It is possible that one of the families of your 4 grand parents have a family history book or a collection of records. It is also possible that a family history book not directly connected to you is connected to some of your relatives.
- Church records usually contains register books and records with information on birth, christening, marriage, death, burial and headstones.
- Tomb stones. Be aware that cemeteries are often relocated and the current location of tombstones could be misleading.
- Internet. If you had an ancestor/relative who is popular, it is possible that you can extract a lot of information from the internet. Currently there are a lot of communication networks which help in getting to know about your existing relatives. Church and congregation websites may give information about priests and nuns in your extended family.
- Newspaper clippings. Newspapers provide a valuable source in forms of obituaries, marriage announcements, other news, and even recipes by family members.
- Regional history books. There may be books regarding the history of your region. These books could give an insight into the environment, lifestyle, culture and traditions during the period of your ancestors. They may also have one or two sentences to tell about your forefathers or your family.
- Your immediate family and your relatives “could be” the best of the sources!
Reliability matters. Always cross check the information you got with other sources. Also, always attach the source along with the information. This will tell you or others where you got the information from.
What to collect? Never too much.
- Basic info: names,dates, place and contact details like phone, email.
Names include official names, nicknames, christened names, married names and all other alternate names. Kerala christian names! They appear in all styles and forms. A common practice among the kerala christians is to have the given name as first name and father’s name as last name. Though everyone has their own family names, many don’t use it with their names officially. My suggestion is to always use the family name as surname, in a genealogical record. Such a naming convention will provide easy identification of individuals. It also helps us to easily index and search the records. Married female kerala christians usually use husband’s name as last name. For genealogical purpose, it is always good to use maiden family name (family name at birth) as the primary name. Other family names, like those acquired through marriage, could be added as a secondary name.
Dates should be collected for all important events for a person. Make sure that the dates collected are as accurate as possible. It was a common practice in the last 50 years or so, to provide a different birth date at school, than the original one. If it is an estimate, put a “circa” or “about” before the date. For eg: c.1873 or abt.1873.
For places, make sure you always have the Post Office (P.O.), as it helps very much in communicating, indexing (eg: see place index in our family tree), or even for mapping purposes (eg: see google maps in our familytree).
- Extra info: occupation, achievements, skills.
- Photographs, videos, audios, letters (handwriting), newspaper clippings, obituaries, remembrance cards, wedding (and other) invitations.
- Memories and stories. These are often overlooked, but integral part of a family genealogy, making it fresh and alive.
All the above for all your relatives. Which relatives? Starting with you (1) -> your parents (2) -> grand parents (4) -> great grand parents (8) and so on. And all the siblings, spouses, children branching from these. You may be surprised to find inter-relations, relations to your old school mates or friends 🙂
How to collect and record?
- Go and collect on paper, forms.
- Postal. Send your forms along with self addressed envolopes, so that your relatives can fill and send it back to you.
- Email. Email communication is essential in gathering new information, validating, sending files and pictures.
- Online form. (eg: see a typical online form in our family tree).
- Software. It is always good to organize all the collected data in a recognizable and usable format. Several free and commercial softwares are available for this purpose. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is one of the free softwares.
How to publish?
- Books, newsletters. Family history books and monthly/yearly newsletters. These take a lot of time and money in creating and publishing and sending it to family members. However, it is an effective way and the end user will benefit.
- Email newsletters. Easy and least expensive, but less reach?
- Internet. A genealogical site would provide wide access to the records from anywhere (eg: see our family tree). Family members can even register and add their details and branches of their family trees. Easy to keep updated. Usage will depend on the internet access abilities of the end user. However, this is gaining momentum with time. Several free and commercial software scripts are available for this purpose. phpgedview is one of the free softwares. In my family tree I am using the better, advanced, TNG software scripts.
Probably, a combination of all these would be the effective way to keep the family tree together. An online database which can be easily updated and accessed, with less frequent and less heavy newsletters by email and snail mail.
Privacy, trade off.
- Birthdates. Some people (living) like their birthdates to be kept private for several reasons. Like they don’t want their age to be known or due to the reason that birthdates could help access to credit cards. At the same time, birth dates are an integral part of family genealogy. Depending upon the situation, the genealogist can provide access to only registered users, avoid the year of birth or keep it open.
In our family tree we have kept it open as registration and logging in deters a lot of non-web savvy users. Many birthday celebrations, anniversaries, etc have been triggered as the dates are available. We also use the year of birth for some facilities/calculations/statistics on the website. Then, again, most of these dates are available in publically available media like books, other websites, etc (not all of course). Also, birthdates have been gathered by many agencies (govt and non-govt) that it is not so difficult to procure them if someone needs.
- Secrets. There may be family or personal secrets which people may like to keep private. We should respect these concerns.
- Divorces, 2nd marriages. These are information which are publicly announced and available. Recording such details are upto each person, and depending on the situations.
Most of the information given are from personal experiences and viewpoints. Though this article is on kerala christian genealogy, many of the points discussed here applies to other communities also. There is ever growing interest in genealogy in other communities (eg: I know that some namboothiri groups are active in it) and it may be helpful to collaborate as the kerala history and culture transcends religious barriers.
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