4    Feb 20109 comments

India: A remarkable community project

How many people are in your family tree? Two hundred, 500, 1,000, 5,000?

Nissim Moses has some 15,000 people in the project for his Bene Israel community of India (see below for the history of this community).

Most importantly, now there's a way to make it easier for Bene Israel families around the world to stay connected through MyHeritage.com and his community website.

This story should be an inspiration to others who wish to create a secure community or family site at MyHeritage.com.

"People have left India and gone to many other countries," he said on a recent visit to the MyHeritage.com office, where he met with genealogy and translation manager Daniel Horowitz and with me (see photo).

"They are away from their families and have lost some of this information. So many people have moved away and lost contact. They haven't heard their detailed family history."

Click to view photo in full size
From left, Schelly, Daniel, Nissim

Nissim, 68, also helps out with his expert knowledge in other ways.

He recently received an email from an American girl planning a wedding to her Bene Israel fiance. She wanted to incorporate Bene Israel ceremonies into their celebration. Nissim sent all the details on the special Malida ceremony, which is only performed among the Bene Israel.

Along with the family trees, he has posted thousands of photos to his community site at MyHeritage.com, and informed his contacts about the new website. Over the past few weeks, people have responded with updates, new names and additional photos.

MyHeritage already had some small trees from other community members, and 23 matches were found for 17 people in other trees in the database.

"This project is for the future of the Bene Israel community," Nissim stresses. "Our community has produced so many individuals who have contributed so much to Indian society."

"I wanted to know how I could help my people," he said. "I'm happy to have done this so far and to continue this project into the future."

Nissim's goal is to include 25,000 individuals in the community tree and to preserve this information for future generations. One problem, he says, is that "men were often chauvinistic and did not include the names of their sisters and wives in the genealogy records." His own family tree dates to the 1600s and fills 132 pages.
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3    Jan 20105 comments

India: Inscribing the past

IndiaIn 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.

Chola Plate

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.

Hindu Genealogy

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:

Hindu family tree

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.
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