In some communities, the past is inscribed on copper plates that have lasted for a thousand years or more. Other records are kept in huge handwritten registers by Hindu priests in the holy city of Haridwar.
For those of Indian ancestry who have migrated around the world, the handwritten registers may be the most valuable records for their families.
Read on for more information on both types of records, with photos of both.
There's a set of 31 copper plates, joined by a round copper seal bearing a royal dynasty emblem, dating from the reign of Emperor Rajendra Chola (1012-1044 CE). The first 10 plates provide information about the Chola genealogy, written in Sanskrit. The other plates include the history of the Emperor donating a village to a temple, as well as the village's boundaries at the time.
This story in The Hindu covered the experience of Dr. R. Nagaswamy, the former director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department (TNAD), as he saw the plates for the first time in 50 years.
Here's a photo of what this set look like.
The earliest known plate, in both Sanskrit and Tamil, dates from the 6th century CE, when the Pallava King Simhavishnuvarman (who reigned c550-580 CE) gave a gift to the Jaina temple. According to the story, the Sanskrit plate gave details of the queen's village grant to a priest. From the 6th century CE, the copper plates were bilingual, in both Sanskrit and Tamil.
The article offered two theories of why man chose to write on metal. According to Nagaswamy, one was man's belief that if he inscribed mystical figures on metal, he would acquire spiritual powers. The other reason was to prepare documents. The copper plates offer historical facts and genealogies that have benefited historians and archaelogists.
Nearly all the royal dynasties produced such plates, which have been found by chance during history, while farmers ploughed fields, kept in abandoned houses or in locked rooms.
The plates begin with verses of praise to the gods, in Sanskrit, and then offer the genealogy of the king who issued the plate, describe the land grant in detail, name of the donor and details about the person's family. The plates offer many details about villages, taxes, irrigation, administration and other issues.
In Hindi, the word "gotra" means family tree, representing a clan, group of families or a lineage back to a common ancestor. It is very important and Hindu ceremonies require a statement of the tree. At weddings, the wedding couple's gotra are read establish that they are not from the same family, which is forbidden (for genetic reasons).
There are 49 official Hindu gotras. Members of each supposedly have certain common traits (personal or occupation). Each gotra descends from a famous sage.
Here's what the registers look like:
Genealogy registers of Hindu families are maintained by priests (Brahim Pandits, also called Pandas) - who are genealogists - in the holy city of Haridwar. Called Vahi or Bahi, they have been used to settle legal cases and to trace ancestry for more than 20 generations.
The city of Haridwar is a site for death rites (cremation) and pilgrimage. It became the custom for families making these trips to visit family priests to record the visit and update the family tree (with marriages, births and deaths). The visiting relative must personally sign the register after the update is written. Others accompanying the reporting family member may be asked to sign as witnesses.
Records are organized by original districts and villages, and special priestly families are in charge of those district registers. This is still true even for those geographical locations today in Pakistan.
Resources for searching Indian genealogy include sites with maps and geographical information, message boards, languages, genealogy and historical societies, how to access records, Europeans in India, an Indian genealogical magazine, as well as resources for Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
The Digital South Asian Library has information in the following categories: Reference Resources, Images, Maps, Statistics, Bibliographies and Union Lists, Indexes, Books and Journals, Other Internet Resources.
Families in British India Society For those researching ancestors In British India Society with census, port arrivals, cemeteries, religious records, maps, military records, photos, wills and probate and much more. A related site is http://valmayukuk.tripod.com/ British India Family History, which is no longer being updated but includes additional data. New transcriptions for this site are now in the FIBIS site.
BBC's family history page offers information on tracing Asian roots in Britain, with references on how to find more information in India, Pakistan, etc.
Family History in India, created by Cathy Day (Canberra, Australia), offers a large number of resources for searchers of British, European and Anglo-Indian families in India, Burma, Pakistan and Bangladesh. See this page for Indian ancestors, and links to other sources, such as Indian Baby Names; Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain Names, Hindu Baby Names, Muslim Names and Armenian Names. Day also has pages for Dutch, French, Portuguese, Danish, Armenian and Jewish ancestors in India.
Maps of India provides all sorts of maps, geography and more.
Oriental and India Office Collections at the British Library holds in its archive data from the following locations: Middle East, Persia, the Persian Gulf States, Arabia, Aden and the Yemen, the Red Sea, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma, South East Asia, Malaya, Indonesia, Borneo, Singapore, China and Japan. Click here for a fascinating seven-page report to learn what sort of information may be found. This collection is useful if your ancestor was employed in any arm of government, such as the police, post office, railway or civil service or if he served in the East India Company Army.
The Indiaman Magazine: A genealogical and history magazine about the British in India and South Asia, from 1600 to the 20th century. Subscription.