In India arranged marriages have been the norm since thousands of years and continue to hold sway for the greater part of the population even now. According to this system, the parents or eldest male members of two families proceed through various stages of negotiations and eventually arrange the marriage of the girl and the boy from their respective families. While some aspects of the Indian arranged marriage may have changed over the years, the system as a whole has proved to be remarkably resilient. In many ways it is also different from what arranged marriage means to the rest of the world. The following are some of the defining aspects of arranged marriages in India.
Primacy of family elders
In India, all decisions pertaining to the marriage, beginning from the choice of a partner to the date and economics of wedding are taken by the elders of the respective families. Traditionally this would be the eldest male member of the extended family of the groom and bride with senior ladies being consulted privately. This is slightly different from the older arranged marriages in western societies where it would be the father of the boy or girl and not the entire kin-group measuring the desirability of a potential match. In India however, even till two generations back, potential partners may have never even seen each other till the actual day of their wedding. However now it is usual for the girl and boy to meet each other while the marriage negotiations are going on. Moreover the fathers or both parents of the candidates are the primary decision makers these days with older members like the groom’s paternal grandparents or uncles being brought in at final stage of negotiations.
The importance of caste
Arranged marriages in India strictly adhere to religious and caste regulations. Both the partners must not only belong to the same religion but also to the same caste and preferably follow compulsions of sub-castes as well. It is the primacy of the caste regulations that differentiate Indian arranged marriages from those which used to exist in aristocratic Western societies in the previous centuries. While the Western model gave supreme importance to religion, lineage and class, Indian arranged marriages traditionally depended on keeping the caste lines intact. Even now an arranged marriage is fixed in same caste groups with inter-caste marriages still being restricted to love marriages. However with greater social and economic mobility in India, there are now more instances of young men and women crossing the caste barrier in the choice of a life partner. Such instances are again limited to urban areas where there is less pressure from kin-groups and caste groups.
This is yet another characteristic feature of arranged marriages in India. Before marriage negotiations take any definite form, individual horoscopes of the boy are girl are evaluated and seen if they are suited to each other. These horoscopes are quite elaborate and much more detailed than Western notions of zodiac signs and astrological compatibility. An interesting point is that the horoscopes of the girl and boy are evaluated separately by respective family astrologers and sometimes there are differing opinions on the desirability of the match. Even in these times, horoscopes continue to influence the choice of a life partner and can make or break a potential match.
The role of the matchmaker
In the earlier days, potential matches were introduced by the matchmaker of a particular caste or kin group. Such individuals often followed the profession over generations and hence were familiar with requirements of caste, sub-caste, dowry and other expectations of either family and other families of the same clan. These professional matchmakers mainly catered to the large landowning or business families. In villages however, often an elderly female relative functioned as the go-between two families. Today, owing to greater social mobility and breakdown of clan network, matrimonial agencies have taken over the job of finding suitable matches. In India, the services of these agencies are still hired by the parents and not the candidates unlike in the Western societies where a person looking for a life partner will directly approach professional matchmakers. Matrimonial columns in newspapers, online matrimonial sites and regular matchmaking agencies are some of the popular ways through which parents search for potential brides and grooms. The popularity of matrimonial websites in fact is evidence of the remarkable way in which an essentially traditional and conservative system like arranged marriage has adopted modern technology to maintain its continuity and relevance.
The system of arranged marriage in India is firmly rooted in patriarchy. This means that almost all aspects of the marriage are negotiated in favor of the groom’s family. The patriarchal set up is predominant in most parts of the country barring some cultures in southern and north-eastern India where the transfer of property, wealth, marital home and marital names takes place through the female line.
The patriarchal structure of Indian society and of the system of arranged marriages has resulted in the transfer of dowry from the bride’s to the groom’s family. While it is debatable whether arranged marriages are good for a progressive society, the system of dowry has led to widespread evil in the name of tradition. Growing instances of brides being killed and abused for dowry in the past decades led India’s legal and government agencies to enact strict laws like Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code and today the situation is much better than before.
There is an entire spectrum of views on the desirability of the system of arranged marriages in a progressive and equitable society. So far arranged marriages seem to have enjoyed an incredible run in India which has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. The secret to its success perhaps lies in its ability to adapt to changing socio-economic circumstances. So while Indian arranged marriages continue to cater to religious and caste compulsions, these days it gives equal importance to the personal preferences of the partners in matters of education, appearance, personality and compatibility.