In many communities throughout India, a dowry has traditionally been given by a bride's kin at the time of her marriage to the family of the groom a dowry. It is often a hefty amount of money, sometimes the majority of family’s life savings. There is not religious justification for dowries or even requirements for them withing the caste system. They are simply traditions and not even very old ones at that. One survey found that in the 1960s two thirds of communities had bride price payments rather than dowries. In the late twentieth century, the values of dowries have been increasing. Groups that never gave dowries in the past are being pressured to do so. Thus, a girl child can represent a significant economic liability to her parents.

In ancient times, the dowry was considered a woman's wealth — property due a beloved daughter who had no claim on her natal family's real estate — and typically included portable valuables such as jewelry and household goods that a bride could control throughout her life. However, over time, the larger proportion of the dowry has come to consist of goods and cash payments that go straight into the hands of the groom's family. In the late twentieth century, throughout much of India, dowry payments have escalated, and a groom's parents sometimes insist on compensation for their son's higher education and even for his future earnings, to which the bride will presumably have access. [Source: Library of Congress]

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Since females historically could not inherit property, parents would give their daughters money and property, a dowry, when they married. Young men came to depend on a good-sized dowry to start them off in a comfortable middle-class life. But dowries remain important for Indian women today. Even though they can inherit and no longer depend on the dowry for financial security, Indian women still consider the dowry their right. In the mobile social strata of the cities, the size of a woman’s dowry definitely affects her social status. In West Bengal, the groom and his family may demand dowry payments of as much as 60,000 rupees or nearly $2,000, more than ten times the annual income of many rural families. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality*/]

With many Indian marriages, women in the family make the match and the men work out the monetary settlement once the match has been made. Newspaper marriages used the phrase "decent marriage" as code word for dowry.

Dowry Payments in India

A dowry can range from anywhere from $100 to a new car, apartments, gold or combination of these things. In the 1990s, dowry payments averaged around $2000 (10 times the income of many rural families). Even members of the lowest caste have to pay 10,000 rupees ($330) for a dowry, often a years salary.

Originally dowries were gifts of clothing, land or servants intended to compensate the bride for the things that she missed from living with her family. They were intended to be farewell gifts to a bride or nest eggs for an emergency that were supposed to be used at the bride’s discretion.

Wealthy rural families sometimes give away villages with more than 50 residents as a dowry. Poor families are often have to fork over money saved for fertilizer or livestock. Sometimes fathers arrange for their daughters to be married to sisters to save on the dowry.

Gold jewelry has traditionally been given to the bride on her wedding day. A girl from a influential family may find herself with gold rings on each finger, a dozen gold bracelets around her arms; nose ring, ear rings, necklaces, belts, anklets, tiarrass, all made of gold. Sometimes she even has gold dust dabbed on he forehead and cheeks. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, January 1974]

Most families will not marry off a daughter until she can be provided with at least two gold bangles, a gold necklace, earrings, a ring and a nose ring. This typically sets a family back around $2,000. Though it is part of the dowry, the gold is for the bride to keep, not only to make her beautiful but also to give her some security in case her husband dies and she thrown out the house.

Unreasonable Demands for Large Dowries in India

In India, the dowry system has been twisted around to become a kind of payment to the groom’s family for providing a man for the bride to marry. In many cases the groom’s family will demand all kinds of things—televisions, refrigerators, even cars and houses—and demand more if there is some doubt about the bride’s virginity.

Large dowries have traditionally been regarded as a way for a girls to secure a husband with a good education and a good job or a member of a prestigious family. The payments of a large salary were seen as a way for the bride’s family to advance socially. In addition to the dowry, there is sometimes a tilka, a payment to the groom for marrying the bride. This is often demanded by the groom if the bride has had some problem or is having difficulty finding a marriage partner.

Some of the dowries demanded are quite oppressive, amounting to several years' salary in cash as well as items such as motorcycles, air conditioners, and fancy cars. Among some lower-status groups, large dowries are currently replacing traditional bride-price payments. Even among Muslims, previously not given to demanding large dowries, reports of exorbitant dowries are increasing. [Source: Library of Congress]

Burden of Indian Dowries

The dowry is becoming an increasingly onerous burden for the bride's family. Antidowry laws exist but are largely ignored, and a bride's treatment in her marital home is often affected by the value of her dowry. Fears of impoverishing their parents have led some urban middle-class young women, married and unmarried, to commit suicide. However, through the giving of large dowries, the newly wealthy are often able to marry their treasured daughters up the status hierarchy so reified in Indian society.*

There was one story about a man who wanted to sell his organs to earn a dowry for his sisters so he committed suicide. The body was cremated before the organs could be salvaged.

Deepak Mehta posted on “We spend a major portion of the money that we earn in our lifetimes on our daughters' wedding. It is not a bad thing standalone. But it is often combined with the fact that most people cannot afford such lavish weddings and have to take expensive loans, just so that they can either impress their friends and relatives or feel a false sense of self-pride, which then they spend the rest of their lives repaying by living frugally.” [Source:Deepak Mehta,, March 28, 2013 ^|^]

Tyler Durden said: People think that a large amount of dowry is a status symbol. They feel that it isn't wrong as they are giving it of their own accord. But what they fail to see is that even in such cases, there are incidents where the girl's in-laws demand more after the marriage leading to cases of domestic abuse and violence. The evil of dowry can only be eliminated if people stop both taking and demanding dowry. ^|^

Dowry Prohibition

Dowry payments are officially prohibited by the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. Gandhi had hoped to include a prohibition of dowries in the 1947 constitution. "A strong public should be created in condemnation of the degrading practice of dowry, and young men who soil their fingers with such ill-gotten gold should be excommunicated from society," Gandhi wrote. "The system has to go. Marriage must cease to be a matter of arrangement made by parents for money."

In spite of laws banning them, dowries remain common among Indian families, even among (Dalit) Untouchables, who have traditionally owned virtually nothing. They are often described as gifts to newlyweds to start their new lives together. One social worker told the New York Times, "You can't talk about marriage without talking of dowry.”

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “ Anti-dowry laws have created serious problems for brides whose parents refuse to give a sizable gift - the equivalent of the traditional dowry - to the groom. In such cases, some new husbands and their families conspire to drive the young bride to suicide, or if this fails, even murder her. In this way, a young man might marry several times and eventually accumulate enough in illegal dowries to live comfortably (See Dowry Murders). Effective enforcement of the antidowry law and protection of brides from abuse is difficult, despite the efforts of women’s rights groups and special courts set up by the government. Many believe the only hope for permanent improvement lies in changing social attitudes, including the promotion of marriages based on love instead of arranged marriages.” [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

Many Indians say the dowry system has gotten worse rather than better, Families of the groom are demanding bigger dowries. The custom had traditionally been practiced among wealthy and upper caste families but now has spread among middle class and even relatively poor families.

Standing Up to Dowry Demands in India

In 2003, in Nodia, a suburb of Delhi, a young woman named Nisha Sharam and her family stood up to the unreasonable dowry demands when the family of her prospective husband demanded and additional $25,000 on top of the dowry—including a car, two televisions, two home theater sets, two air conditioners, two refrigerators—they already received, saying her family was too cheap. The families of the bride and groom began fighting. Rather than submit to their blackmail she called the police and had them arrested on the dowry laws. He husband ended up in jail.

The Indian media got wind of the story and defended her actions. The headlines of The Times of India read: “It Take Guts to Send Your Groom Packing.” Sharma called the whole thing off. An investigation into the groom’s family found that they were frauds. The groom was a computer instructor rather than a computer engineer as he claimed. His mother claimed she was a vice principal at a school but she was just a gym teacher. Sharma became famous and her act of defiance inspired a popular movement. Her name was attached to a popular beauty product.

In 2005, a similar situation happened to Pooja Path, a resident of a village about 200 miles from Varanasi. Her family had given the groom’s family numerous expensive gifts, including a $700 motorbike. After the groom’s father said they would not welcome her into their home unless her family produced a new color television and video player, which the bride’s family had promised to produce in a couple of months.

The groom’s father reportedly demanded the television right then and there and kicked the bride’s father as he kissed the groom’s father’ feet as an act of surrender, apology and subservience. Pooja confronted her husband, who blamed everything on his father. She then told her husband, “If your father told you to eat cow dung would you eat cow dung.” The husband and his father were arrested and Pooja was lionized by women’s groups as a hero.

Dowry Murders in India

Every year several thousand Indian women are murdered by their husbands or in-laws in dowry murders. The murders don’t just take place in rural villages, often they occur in middle class families in some of India's most affluent neighborhoods. Only a handful result in convictions. According to a Harvard University study, released in 2000, between 11,000 and 13,000 Indian brides die each year in dowry disputes, an increase of 175 percent from 1990.

In many cases, particularly in urban areas, a groom's family makes excessive demands on the bride's family — even after marriage — and when the demands are not met, murder the bride, typically by setting her clothes on fire in a cooking "accident." The male and female in-laws implicated in these murders have seldom been punished. Such dowry deaths have been the subject of numerous media reports in India and other countries and have mobilized feminist groups to action. In some of the worst areas, such as the National Capital Territory of Delhi, where hundreds of such deaths are reported annually, the law now requires that all suspicious deaths of new brides be investigated. Official government figures report 1,786 registered dowry deaths nationwide in 1987; there is also an estimate of some 5,000 dowry deaths in 1991. Women's groups sometimes picket the homes of the in-laws of burned brides. Some analysts have related the growth of this phenomenon to the growth of consumerism in Indian society. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to Indian custom, if a dowry is too small the groom's family may persecute or immolate the bride. Sometime men murder their wife and marry again to collect a second dowry. The sums of money are so large that the murders can still turn a tidy profit after lawyer fees and bribes to police and doctors have been payed.

A social worker told the New York Times. "Here's one case. He's a lawyer. He killed her and put her in a gunnysack and dumped her in a lake. He was acquitted. He’s a lawyer and he used his influence to get off."

Dowry Harassment and Violence

The entire family of the groom is often in cahoots with him to extort more dowry from the bride and her family. The bride's family often pays the money to avert violence but often fails to accept a battered daughter out of disgrace. "Is it possible," one scholar told U.S. News an World report, "that families so fear losing social status and financial assets that they risk the death of their daughter? Apparently yes." [Source: Emily MacFarquhar, U.S. News and World Report]

One woman, whose husband was arrested for dowry harassment, told the New York Times, he "wanted a house in his name. He wanted a 30,000 rupee [$1,000] scooter. He said if I didn't give him this, he would take me to the top of a building and push me down...He beat me. He hit me on the back. He used to poke me with a needle on my back. He kept saying, I am an engineer and we must have lots of things."

One man, whose daughter was abandoned by her husband told the New York Times, "We gave him checks before the marriage, and then a lot of other things, stainless steel vessels, silk saris, gold, some silver. The total was more than [$3,225]. Then he said the amount given was below his status." The husband then dropped his wife off and said he wouldn't take her back until her received more money. The father added, "Girl children are a big headache, a big problem. Why this trouble. If we didn't give birth to girl children, we wouldn't have these problems. What flows out of our eyes is not just tears, but blood."

Divorce in India

The divorce rate in India is about 1 percent compared to around 50 percent in the United States. According to “In India, the rates of divorce are the lowest in comparison to other countries of the world. For every 1,000 marriages that take place in India, there are 11 marriages that fail or end up in a legal separation. These rates were much lower in 1990. In 1990, there were only 7.40 marriages which failed per 1,000 marriages. Even in case of villages, the divorce rates are extremely low when compared to the urban regions. India does not maintain any statistics on the divorce rates. Divorce rate numbers are marriage determined based on divorce filings in some Indian cities.

Indian law allows for divorce. There is a law that requires long term alimony payments. However, on a practical level, once married in India it is very difficult to get a divorce. Divorce among high castes has traditionally been strongly discouraged and the occurrence is relatively low. Divorce is almost non existent among Brahmans and Chhetris and is more common among Hindus of lower caste. Among some ethnic groups divorce is easy to obtain and there is not much stigma attached to it.

The divorce rate among Muslim is generally higher than Hindus because Muslim divorces are easier to obtain. In many cases alimony among Muslims only lasts only three months, long enough to make sure the woman isn’t pregnant. In December 2004, Muslim leaders backed a new marriage code that attempted to make it less easy for man to get a divorce. Under generally accepted Islamic law a man can divorce gis wife by announcing is intention three times and having the decision ratified by a cleric. The remarriage rate among widows and widowers is also much higher among Muslims. Islam also does not discourage widow remarriage like Hinduism does.

Rules for the remarriage of widows differ from one group to another. Generally, lower-ranking groups allow widow remarriage, particularly if the woman is relatively young, but the highest-ranking castes discourage or forbid such remarriage. The most strict adherents to the nonremarriage of widows are Brahmans. Almost all groups allow widowers to remarry. Many groups encourage a widower to marry his deceased wife's younger sister (but never her older sister). [Source: Library of Congress]

Reasons for Low Divorce Rate in India

One the main reasons the divorce rate is so low in India is the stigma faced by divorced women and the shame it brings an extended family. Divorce is still generally frowned upon by Hindus as it is regarded as the breaking of a sacred agreement made between man and God. There is no word in Sanskrit or Tamil for divorce. Among orthodox Hindus divorce is completely out of the question. Once a couple takes seven steps together, Hindus believe, they are bound together not only on earth but in the afterlife as well.

One Indian woman posted on “Divorce rates in India has less to do with Love and more to do with the social prejudices that follows a divorced couple. The social stigma associated with divorce is extremely hard to deal with, particularly for women, because it affects them most. I have seen the way people talk about divorced women, and it is never a single word of sympathy or understanding. [Source:, October 12, 2013 |~|]

“My father used to beat my mother whenever he got angry at her. This happened when I was a child. They are both much more sensitive now, and my dad even regrets his actions, but though his anger is not physical, it is still verbal abuse. However, in their 26 years of marriage, I have never heard my mother talk of divorce once. Suicide, yes, but not divorce. Why? I'll explain with a second example. |~|

“The house next door to ours was a very good family when I grew up, they had 2 daughters and a son. All were older than me by about 6-7 years, so I was always pampered there. I spent all my childhood in their home, and our families grew very close. When eldest girl (I'll call her Vibha for this story) got married, my father was introduced as her younger chacha (father's brother) at the milni (an event during Hindu marriage when the families of the bride and groom meet). We were extremely involved in the marriage arrangements, and all went well. However, the groom's father turned out to be verbally abusive. After bearing for a few months, Vibha di came back home. A divorced was settled. |~|

“Instead of understanding her situation, however, my mother began blaming her for the end of the marriage, and ruining the name of Vibha's family. Not in front of others, but in discussion with my father. From then on, I was barred from going to their house, our interactions were reduced, and on Vibha di's second marriage, we were simply casual guests.|~|

“One would expect my mother to understand, but she didn't. My father loves her, I know that, and she loves him. But the way he has treated her in the past would make any person consider leaving. However, the fear of the society held them together then. Their's was an arranged marriage. They both have adjusted to living with each other, even loving each other. But the reason why they aren't divorced, has nothing to do with love. Same is the case in every friend's household I have visited, even one's where the parents married out of love. Fear keeps families together in India.”

Rising Divorce Rates in India

According to The divorce rates in India are rising. Whether it is the metros or the semi-urban areas, whether it is the upper class or the middle class, or any state or city in the country, the divorce problem persists and the divorce rates are only increasing with time. A brief update on the divorce rates in Delhi and Mumbai are mentioned below. [Source:]

Delhi update: A) 1960's - 1-2 divorce cases per year; B) 1980's - 100-200 divorce cases per year; C) 1990's - 1,000 divorce cases per year; D) This decade (2000 - A great jump to 9,000 divorce cases per year).

Mumbai update In 2007, almost 7,000 divorce cases had been filed in the family courts of Mumbai. This number was expected to rise to 7,200 by the end of that year. This figure stands at 60% more than the divorce cases filed in 2005. 70% of the divorce cases were filed by individuals in the age group of 25-35. 85% of the marriages ended in divorce in the first three years of marriage.

Reasons for high divorce rates in India: 1) Greater acceptance of divorce in the society has led to couples being more comfortable with the idea of divorce. 2) Big cities or the metros give the advantage of anonymity by which divorced couples can manage to avoid the glares of judgmental family members and friends. 3) People today, tend to have a comparatively more casual approach towards marriage and do not work as hard to save it in case of any problems in the relationship. 4) DINKS couples (Double Income No Kids) are not worried about how the divorce may negatively impact the children's lives. 5) Stress as well as lack of time for life partners is another important factor leading to increasing divorce rates. 6) Women are now at par with men in financial terms and do not feel the need to depend on their husbands for their financial needs. Men are also good with their domestic responsibilities and do not need to depend on women for the same. These changing gender roles has also impacted the divorce rates in India.

Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D. and Vishwarath R. Nayar wrote in the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “ The incidence of divorce was very negligible in the past, mainly because of the low status of women in the society and the very low level of educational background of females, which left divorced women incapable of supporting themselves. Current trends show that the divorce rate is increasing in the recent past, especially in urban areas. This clearly indicates that women are becoming more aware of their rights, and more assertive in maintaining their individual identity in their employment and personal earnings without being submissive to men. [Source: Jayaji Krishna Nath, M.D., and Vishwarath R. Nayar, Encyclopedia of Sexuality]

Married Life in India

After the bride and groom are united in sacred rites attended by colorful ceremony, the new bride may be carried away to her in-laws' home. The poignancy of the bride's weeping departure for her new home is prominent in personal memory, folklore, literature, song, and drama throughout India. In their new status, a young married couple begin to accept adult responsibilities. These include work inside and outside of the home, childbearing and childrearing, developing and maintaining social relationships, fulfilling religious obligations, and enhancing family prosperity and prestige as much as possible. [Source: Library of Congress]

When a young man gets married it is normal for him bring his wife home to live with his parents. The young husband is thus surrounded by well-known relatives and neighbors. The young bride, however, is typically thrust into a strange household, where she is expected to follow ideal patterns of chaste and cheerfully obedient behavior. Often the atmosphere of a household depends on how well the bride and her mother-in-law get along.

One Indian man posted on “Two people don't have to be exactly compatible, but in any circumstances, any two normal persons can live a life together without loving each other, but as friends. It is like in college, when you don't choose your roommate, but end up adjusting to his whims. It is called survival. This, in any circumstance seems like a better option than opting for divorce.” [Source:, October 12, 2013 |~|]

One newlywed American-Indian told the Washington Post, “How do you know if you love someone. Does a light come on over your head?...He’s my man, and he will be my man up until the day I die, or whatever. The way you feel about a person is constantly changing, y’know? Maybe there are day you don’t want to deal with him, maybe there’‘ll be a day when only want to miss a second with him. Do I look forward to spending time with him? Yes. Do I look forward to getting to know him? Yes. Do I like him for what he is? Do I have a deeper understanding of him? Yes.”

Married Women in India

A “suhaag” is the red mark on a woman's forehead wear the hair parts. It is a symbol of marriage and is made with red sindoor powder. A married woman is expected to treat her husband as if he were a god and bow to him and touch his feet as sign of respect and subservience.

When a girl leaves her village and moves to her husband's home, she belongs to her husband's village not her parent's. When she moves in with the family of her husband she is expected to do much of the housework. The first thing she has traditionally done when she enter the house of her husband's family is kiss the feet of her in-laws. “Bahu” is a word that describes the dutiful daughter in law. According to one survey, 90 percent of the men interviewed said they were happy with their marriage while 90 of the women said they weren't."

Professional urban women often live a double life. In New Delhi she is a modern career women dressed in smart clothes. On the weekends she visit her husband's family dressed in a veil, with bangles and rings on hands, wrists, ankles and feet.

Ideally, the Hindu wife should honor her husband as if he were her personal god. Through her marriage, a woman becomes an auspicious wife (suhagan ), adorned with bangles and amulets designed to protect her husband's life and imbued with ritual powers to influence prosperity and procreation. At her wedding, the Hindu bride is likened to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, in symbolic recognition of the fact that the groom's patrilineage can increase and prosper only through her fertility and labors. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the difficult early days of a marriage, and later on throughout her life, a woman looks to her natal kin for moral and often economic support. Although she has become part of another household and lineage, she depends on her natal relatives — especially her brothers — to back her up in a variety of circumstances. A wide range of long visits home, ritual obligations, gifts, folklore, and songs reflect the significance of a woman's lifelong ties to her blood relatives.*

Married Woman’s Position in the Family

The young wife is pressed into service as the most subordinate member of her husband's family. New brides often must sit apart from the family in deference to her mother-in-law. If any misfortunes happen to befall her affinal family after her arrival, the new wife may be blamed as the bearer of bad luck. Not surprisingly, some young women find adjusting to these new circumstances extremely upsetting. A small percentage experience psychological distress so severe that they seem to be possessed by outspoken ghosts and spirits.*

By producing children, especially highly valued sons, and, ultimately, becoming a mother-in-law herself, a woman gradually improves her position within the conjugal household. In motherhood the married woman finds social approval, economic security, and emotional satisfaction.*

In a traditional Indian household women are expected to serve their husbands. All a man has to say is "get some water," seeming to speak to no one in particular and one of the veiled women in his household will get it. The water can not give it directly to the man—as this violates Hindu customs about pollution—it must laid down in a place where he can fetch it. Men can not ask other men about their wives or enter a courtyard unannounced out of fear of surprising an unveiled woman. [Source: Doranne Wilson Jacobson, National Geographic August 1977 ♢]

The worst years for a woman are when she is a new bride. As she gets older and her position in the household is improved she gains more freedom and privileges and can order the younger people in the household around. It is not surprising that young brides look forward to trips back home. Sometimes they stay away for three or four months. ♢

Classes for Dutiful Housewives

Some women in India take classes on how to be a dutiful housewife before they get married. Women are taught to think of the husbands as gods and given tips on performing household chores and getting along with their mother -in-laws by doing everything they say. Sex, they are told, should kept to a minimum. [Source: John Lancaster. Washington Post, November 11, 2004]

Women are told not to pursue careers or even view themselves as partners with their husbands (they should be subservient). One student told the Washington Post that she was taught one of the worst sins was sticking up for herself in an argument with her husband or members of his family. She said: “Even if they say something mean to us, our first instinct should be not to retort back , but to stay silent....I have learned that were are newcomers in that family and we have to adjust. We have to reduce the ego.”

The textbook used by students at the Manjju Institute of Values in Bhopal reads: “After marriage, the bride should not think she’s going to her in-law family to throw her weight around. Instead, she’s going there to serve the family and perform her duties, in order to turn that home into heaven...The mother-in-law and father-in-law are never wrong...The bride should do everything according to the wishes and orders of the mother-in-law and father-in-law.”

On getting along with her husband the textbook advises: “The wife should sleep after her husband and wake up before him....When he returns home welcome him with a smile, help him in taking off his shoes and socks, and ask him to sit down. Bring him water and biscuits, and with a smile, ask him about his day. A husband’s happiness alone is your life’s goal...Do not go out without your husband’s permission anywhere.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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