Kaur, in modern day Punjabi means "princess" and is the name widely used as the second name by female Sikhs. This custom was first introduced in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru when he administered Amrit (baptism) to both males and female Sikhs. All female Sikhs were asked to use the name Kaur after their forename and males were to use the name Singh (lion). This custom further confirmed the equality of both genders as was the tradition set by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak.
However, the original meaning of "Kaur" was "Prince" as in Rajasthan where the word "Kuwar" means prince. In Rajasthan, India 'Kuwar' (from Sanskrit Kumĝra) is commonly used to refer to a prince, and Kuwari (sanskrit Kumĝri) or Kunari is used for a princess (for example see Aleena Kunari). However, the word Kuwari in Punjabi means "an unmarried, single girl". Guru Gobind Singh's intention was for the name to be used by both married and unmarried Sikh females, so he gave the name Kaur, which was taken from Sanskrit (Kumĝri), and then converted it into Kaur.
Kaur provides Sikh women with a status equal to all men. This was also intended to reduce the prejudice created by caste-typing based on the family name. Prejudice based on caste was still rampant during Guru Gobind's time (17th century). This particularly affected women who were expected to take their husband's family name upon marriage.
Some Sikhs today have chosen to retain their traditional caste-system based family names in addition to the suffix Kaur or Singh. This appears to defeat part of the purpose of Guru Gobind's mission in requiring a standardised naming system independent of caste or family background.
It is encouraged for Sikhs to follow the tradition set by the tenth Guru in abolishing the caste system and to use the surnames 'Singh' and 'Kaur', or the middle name 'Singh' and 'Kaur' followed by the surname 'Khalsa', meaning "Pure".
However, as the numbers of Sikhs in the world have continued to increase, this poses a problem of duplicity of names, with many individuals having the same exact names. To overcome this, some Sikhs have started to add the name of their village as the surname and so have avoided the problem of many individuals having the same names.
Having searched on the internet, it appears that there are fewer than 5000 unique Sikh forenames. So if one can only use 'Singh' and 'Kaur' as surnames, that gives 10,000 unique names. Considering that there are nearly 25 million Sikhs in the world, that would mean that there would be 2500 individuals with the same exact name. So, adding a further name makes logical sense but it is not clear what system would be compliant with the principle set by the Gurus.
Article by a Bengalan
Have you ever thought why Guru Ji, Guru Gobind Singh, gave the Kaur surname to Sikh women? Why did he not accept the status quo and keep the tradition of the woman's surname being determined by her family's name?
WHAT WAS Guru Ji trying to achieve by calling the Sikh woman 'a princess' (literal meaning of Kaur)?
To try to understand the possible reasons behind Guru Ji's decision, we need to look at the situation at the time in different cultures. In Indian society, the brides first and last name was often changed after her marriage. This still happens today. However, this tradition of name changing does not occur just in India. It is a phenomenon, which occurs across the whole world today. Why are women's surnames changed? The reason is family linkage. Surnames allow others to identify you and your family. In some cases the surname can tell others much more about you, such as your caste.
For women the linkage to family is different in comparison to men. Their identity changes with marriage. They are no longer associated with their parents, but with their husband's family. Unsurprisingly, the man's name never changes. Some cultures go as far as considering the woman to be the property of others. This was so for the Hindu Law giver, Manu, who claimed that no woman should ever be independent. Christianity considered woman to be a product of man as Eve had come from 'the rib' of Adam.
Psychologically, women have accepted these unjust rules. They are resigned to male dominance and allowed themselves to become second-class citizens. Guru ji changed all this with the revelation of the Khalsa. He gave women the opportunity to live life free of the chains of a dogmatic society. It was God's Hukam (will).
Once initiated into the Khalsa, Sikh women obtain the surname Kaur. The surname Singh (Lion) is given to men, but Kaur (princess) is reserved solely for women. This difference in names is not about inequality. Rather, Guru ji recognises the difference between men and women. As individuals we are all different from each other, but this difference does not imply inequality.
Women and men are different but remain equals. Guru ji considered women and men to be unique. He respected the sexes and, therefore, made the distinction in surnames.
When you take 'amrit' you are told to consider Guru Gobind Singh as your father and Mata Sahib Kaur as your mother. By joining the Khalsa you abandon all previous chains of linkage. You become the direct descendants of Guru Gobind Singh and Mata Sahib Kaur. You become their sons and daughters. The Khalsa becomes your family. Thus, from the day you are born to the day you die your name remains the same. You do not have to change it due to marriage.
Unfortunately, the tradition of using the 'Kaur' surname has all but disappeared amongst Sikh women. It is either dropped, in favour of caste surnames, or misused as a middle name. Guru Ji never designed it as such. Have we not belittled his concepts? Have we lost so much self-esteem that we must copy the bigoted traditions of others?
Sikh women are today demanding equal rights. Rightly so. However, they fail to realise that they themselves create inequality by not considering themselves princesses. They no longer consider themselves as daughters of the Khalsa. Why should Sikh women feel that they must change their names after marriage?
By keeping your unique and beautiful Sikh identity you are maintaining the freedom given to you by Guru ji. Ultimately, only those who keep the 'Kaur' surname can truly understand its importance. Others will make excuses about the difficulty of having such a common surname It makes paper work and identification difficult! Why make such excuses? We do not hear Patels or Smiths complaining. Mere excuses.
The importance of 'Kaur' is truly inexpressible. It is something very unique in the history of the world. Of late more and more Sikhs are dropping Singh and Kaur from their names. They probably are not aware of the Blessings of Guru Gobind Singh Ji who gifted these decorations to them.
Removing or abbreviating the decorations with S and K is to ape the western culture. In India surnames were initially introduced by the Brahmins to distinguish people of four varna as per their belief. Subsequently the British introduced the system for all those enrolled in government services.
Today, abbreviating the middle name or totally eliminating it has become a fashion. People who are settled abroad have degraded their self-respect to such levels that they feel elated to be called Garry for Gurpreet, Harry for Harpreet, Harmeet, Harbhajan, etc.
Common reason given for such an attitude is that the Westerners cannot understand, pronounce or remember the difficult Indian names. My suggestion to all such Sikhs is to introduce themselves merely as Singh and Kaur, which are very simple and short names. Even in India Sikhs are generally called by a single name of Sardar Ji. Why can't a similar procedure be adopted universally?