Genealogy Record Keeping in India

Hindi is one of the official languages of the Union of India. The Hindi word for genealogist is “panda.” While it is amusing that a Chinese word for the “big bear cat” is pronounced the same way (at least, when speaking English), the Hindi word is not related to the Chinese animal in any way. I first heard of Indian pandas during my visit to India a few years ago. I have since tried to learn more about these Indian genealogists, and now an Indian web site has given more details than I have ever found before.

Pandas are usually found in the holy city of Har Ki Pauri, jotting down recent births, deaths, and marriages. Brahmin Pandits (Priests) or “Pandas,” have maintained records of thousands of Hindu families from across India for centuries in records called Vahis (Bahi). Not all priests (pandits) are genealogists (pandas). Most of the pandas apparently reside and work at Har Ki Pauri, along the banks of the holy Ganges River.

A 300 years old scroll has handwritten data written in both Hindi and Urdu.

A 300 years old scroll has handwritten data written in both Hindi and Urdu.

The registers are handwritten, having been passed down to today’s pandas over generations by their Pandit ancestors, and are classified according to original districts and villages of one’s ancestors. In many places these records trace family history for more than twenty prior generations, stretching across many centuries.

Har Ki Pauri has traditionally been a site for death rites amongst Hindus. Most Hindus are cremated as it is believed that this will help the soul to escape quickly from the body. Whenever possible, Indian funeral services are held at the burning ghats (a series of steps leading down to a body of water) on the shores of the sacred river Ganga (Ganges). Here the body is placed on a large pile of wood, then the eldest son says the appropriate Vedic prayers and lights the fire. Incense and ghee (cooked and clarified butter) are poured into the flames. The ashes then are sprinkled on the water of the Ganges River.

NOTE: When translated into written English, the city of Har Ki Pauri may be spelled in several different ways, including Har Ki Pauri, Haridwar, and other, similar spellings.)

During the eldest son’s visit to Har Ki Pauri, the recent births, deaths, and marriages within the deceased’s family are normally recorded with the pandas who are available nearby. Each panda keeps records of a number of specific families. Approximately 2,500 panda genealogists regularly update family registers (bahis) of people who come to Haridwar to perform the last rites of their loved ones. Most of the family registers (bahis) have been maintained by pandas for twenty generations or more. For families who have converted to other religions, their records are not updated.

Each panda’s records typically only document the males of each family. No women are mentioned unless their deaths are referred to indirectly.

According to the Genealogical Society of Utah, Hindu family records dating back to 1194 were once maintained by these panda genealogists. In short, the genealogy records of India generally are far superior to those of western countries.

An article by Cheena Kapoor in the DNA India web site states:

“Over the years, the custom of visiting Haridwar to update family ledgers is slowly dying,” says Mahendra Kumar, a panda who has been maintaining records since the 1980s. “People are now moving abroad and forgetting about these centuries-old customs. Most of them do not even know the names of their great-grandfathers or their original ancestral village. If the records are digitised, people can access them online from any part of the world,” says Kumar.

The article then continues:

“Most of the older records were written on bhojpatra (leaves of the birch tree) and have been destroyed by moths. We have begun to transfer older records to new scrolls. A few pandas have even begun digitising records, and have thrown the old scrolls into the Ganga.”

You can read more about the pandas of Har Ki Pauri, in the article by Cheena Kapoor at http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-pandas-digitise-records-of-death-2266907.

You also can find computerized records available by starting with Hindu Pilgrimage Records, an article available in the FamilySearch.org Wiki at https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/India,_Hindu_Pilgrimage_Records_(FamilySearch_Historical_Records). Some records in that collection date back to A.D. 1194. Keep in mind that the records are written in Hindi.

Due to contractual requirements in the agreements negotiated with the pandas, the online collection is available only to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, microfilms of these records are available for viewing by everyone at a Family History Center near you. See https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/India,_Hindu_Pilgrimage_Records_(FamilySearch_Historical_Records) for details.

3 Comments

This was mentioned on an episode of one of the genealogy shows like “Who do you Think You Are.” The person being profiled was living in the West and didn’t know anything about it, but ended up learning about gnereations of his family history from these scrolls. Then he gave the panda the story of all that had happened since his ancestors had left India, including the birth of his own children. It was a very moving sequence.

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My copy, loaned out, is not at hand. Alexis Shoumatoff’s excellent Mountain of Names discusses the pandas who meet the trains of pilgrims, coming to ritual bathing centers, on the Ganges, at the lunar(?) festival of Khumb Mela.
These pandas also specialize. Through questions shouted at arriving train passengers, province/village/family is determined; and, pilgrims are matched to proper panda.

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Visited familysearch.org to view family history. Cannot be viewed because i must be registered, so i register. Cannot view about hindus genealogy because i must be a member of The Chruch of Jesus Christ of latter day saints. So i visited a center near me and asked to be a member. I was asked to read the book of (mormon) or something like that , asked to visit chruch every sunday and get baptised in the name of jesus. I told them i am a hindu, they said they cant help only jesus will show me the path to ancestors. Long story short… their main is to convert as many hindus to catholic. I refused to convert myself so i cant view my ancestor tree. Sad really sad.

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