Arranged marriage in the Indian subcontinent

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Arranged marriage is a tradition in the societies of the Indian subcontinent, and continue to account for an overwhelming majority of marriages in the Indian subcontinent.[1] Despite the fact that romantic love is "wholly celebrated" in both Indian mass media (such as Bollywood) and folklore, and the arranged marriage tradition lacks any official legal recognition or support, the institution has proved to be "surprisingly robust" in adapting to changed social circumstances and has defied predictions of decline as India modernized.[2]

Arranged marriages are believed to have initially risen to prominence in the Indian subcontinent when the historical Vedic religion gradually gave way to classical Hinduism (the ca. 500 BCE period), substantially displacing other alternatives that were once more prominent.[3][4] In the urban culture of modern India, the differentiation between arranged and love marriages is increasingly seen as a "false dichotomy" with the emergence of phenomena such as "self-arranged marriages" and free-choice on the part of the prospective spouses.[5][6]


The Indian subcontinent has historically been home to a wide variety of wedding systems. Some were unique to the region, such as Swayamvara (which was rooted in the historical Vedic religion and had a strong hold in popular culture because it was the procedure used by Rama and Sita). In a swayamvara, the girl's parents broadcast the intent of the girl to marry and invited all interested men to be present in a wedding hall on a specific date and time.[3][7]

The girl, who was also often given some prior knowledge about the men or was aware of their general reputation, would circulate the hall and indicate her choice by garlanding the man she wanted to marry. Sometimes the father of the bride would arrange for a competition among the suitors, such as a feat of strength, to help in the selection process.[3][7] Another variant was the Gandharva marriage, which involved simple mutual consent between a man and a woman based on mutual attraction and no rituals or witnesses. The marriage of Dushyanta and Shakuntala was an example of this marriage.[8]

As the Vedic religion evolved into classical orthodox Hinduism (ca. 500BC), the social ideas advanced by Manu gained prominence, and large sections of Indian society moved towards patriarchy and caste-based rules. Manu and others attacked the Gandharva and other similar systems, decrying them as holdouts "from the time of promiscuity" which, at best, were only suitable for small sections of society.[8] Under the system they advocated (sometimes called Manuvad), women were stripped of their traditional independence and placed permanently in male custodianship: first of their fathers in childhood, then of their husbands through married life, and finally of their sons in old age.[9]

It is also speculated that parental control of marriage may have emerged during this period as a mechanism to prevent the intermixing of ethnic groups and castes.[8] Early marriage, in which girls were married before they reached puberty also became prevalent, though not universal, over time. This emergence of early arranged marriages in the Indian subcontinent was consistent with similar developments elsewhere, such as Indonesia, various Muslim regions and South Pacific societies.[10][11][12] Commentators on both Hindu and European Jewish communities (where early arranged marriages had also gained prevalence) have hypothesized that the system may have emerged because "the answer to the raging hormones associated with teenage sexuality was early, arranged marriage."[4][13]

With kinship groups being viewed a primary unit to which social loyalty was owed by individuals, marriage became an affair deeply impacting the entire family for Indian Hindus and Muslims alike and key to "the formation or maintenance of family alliances."[14] Sometimes, these arrangements were made at the birth of the future husband and wife with promises exchanged between the two families. Where specific alliances were socially preferred, often an informal right of first refusal was presumed to exist. For instance, marriages between cousins is permissible in Islam (though not in most Hindu communities), and the girl's mother's sister (or khala) was considered to have the first right (pehla haq) to "claim" the girl as for her son (the khalazad bhai).[15]

Systems such as watta satta (exchange marriages, which occur in rural Punjab) evolved where two families unite by exchanging women in two brother-sister pairs through marriage.[16] As with other cultures, levirate marriages (where the brother of a deceased man is obligated to marry his widow) also became customary in some regions for all religious groups, partially to ensure that clan alliances and clan ownership of land rights remained intact even if the husband died.[17]

Developments in the modern period[edit]

With the expanding social reform and female emancipation that accompanied economic and literacy growth after independence, many commentators predicted the gradual demise of arranged marriages in India, and the inexorable rise of so-called "love marriages" (i.e. where the initial contact with potential spouses does not involve the parents or family members).[2] That has not yet come to pass and the institution proved to be "remarkably resilient" in the Indian social context, though it has undergone radical change.[18]

Commonly in urban areas and increasingly in rural parts, parents now arrange for marriage-ready sons and daughters to meet with multiple potential spouses with an accepted right of refusal.[19] These arranged marriages are effectively the result of a wide search by both the girl's family and the boy's family.[20] Child marriages are also in steady decline and deemed unlawful in India (with legal age of marriage at 21 years for men and 18 years for women), so the term "arranged marriage" now increasingly refers to marriages between consenting adults well past the age of sexual maturity.[19] Due to this, a strong distinction is now drawn by sociologists and policymakers between arranged marriages (which involve consenting adults that have choice and unhindered rights of refusal) and forced marriages.[21]

Another significant trend in arranged marriages is related to the loosening of traditional clan-bonds in India. Where potential spouses for sons and daughters were once identified through family and social relationships, they are increasingly being solicited through advertising because many urban parents no longer have the social reach that was a given before the rise of nuclear families in India.[22] With the advent of the internet, this has led to the rise of matchmaking websites such as (shaadi is the Hindustani word for wedding), which claims to be the largest matrimonial service in the world.[22]

Self-arranged marriages[edit]

It is increasingly common in India for a couple that has met by themselves and are involved romantically to go through the process of an arranged marriage with that specific partner in mind. Since arranged marriages result in a deep meshing and unification of extended families and are believed to contribute to marital stability, many couples orchestrate their marriages with each other through the processes of an arranged marriage. These marriages are often referred to as "self-arranged marriages" or "love-arranged marriages" in India.[6]

The arranged marriage process[edit]

Arranged marriages vary widely by region and community across the Indian subcontinent. The marriage process usually begins with a realization in the family that a child is old enough to marry. For a girl, it is during her graduation or early twenties; for a boy, it is after he is 'settled', with a decent job and consistent earnings. The initiation can occur when a parent or a relative (such as an aunt or an elder sister or sister-in-law) initiates a conversation on the topic or the son/daughter approaches the parent/relative and expresses the desire to be married.[23] This relative effectively acts as a sponsor, taking responsibility to get the boy/girl married to a good partner.[24]

Finding a matchmaker[edit]

An advertisement for an online partner finding company, Hyderabad, India.
Finding a match is easier than finding a parking space, Chennai, India.

If the son/daughter has an identified love interest, the sponsor often takes it upon themselves to try to orchestrate a match with that individual. If no such person exists, the sponsor begins the process of identifying suitable candidates. This is usually done via an intermediary matchmaker who has a social reputation for maintaining discretion and brokering successful weddings.[25] The sponsor approaches the matchmaker with a photograph and the child's horoscope. The matchmaker is often an elderly socialite who is liked and widely connected to many families.[26]

In some regions, specific professions are associated with matchmaking. For instance, in many parts of North India and Pakistan, the local barber (or nai) was a frequent go-between.[25] To avoid social embarrassments, complete secrecy is often maintained for any marriage discussions.[25] If no good matchmaker is accessible to the family, the family may resort to matrimonial advertising in newspapers or matrimonial websites.[22][26]

Match criteria[edit]

The family expresses their criteria for a good match to the matchmaker, which is usually heavily influenced by family considerations but also includes the personal preferences of the son/daughter. These considerations vary but can include

  • Religion: Marriages are usually arranged between individuals belonging to the same religion. Same-religion marriages are the norm in arranged marriages among higher caste people.
  • Caste and culture: Usually, first preference is given to the same caste. The ancestry of the individual and the family's culture and traditions also play an important part. Usually, prospective spouses are looked for from families belonging to the same region and having the same language and food habits.
  • Profession and status: The profession, financial position and the social status of the individual are also taken into account. This has a higher evaluation criteria in case of boys. Also, in significantly high number of cases, there is obsession for Government Job in case of boys since these are considered to be safer and offer more stability.
  • Horoscope Matching: Although not absolutely necessary, many communities of North and South India have a practice of matching Horoscopes of Boy and Girl before the alliance. Match making based on Horoscopes involves Astrology based predictions and evaluates compatibilities of the two individuals. In north India it is called Kundali while in South it is known as Nakshatram.[27]
  • Age: Most often, a boy older than the girl is sought, ideally with no more than a 5-year difference in age.[citation needed]
  • Physical appearances of the individual is taken into account in some cases, more so for girls.[28] Also, the height of the boy is sought to be more than the one of the girl. Many Indian families are obsessed with fairness of the girl. Matrimonial advertisement often advertise skin pigmentation of the girl such as Fair, Wheatish etc. Fair tones are considered to be advantageous.[29]

Matrimonial websites[30] frequently use some of these factors to enable prospective matches.[31][32][33]

Exchange of photographs/information with prospective matches[edit]

The matchmaker identifies a set of potential matches and, based on mutual agreement between families, it is customary for an exchange of photographs and some documentation of the factors being considered (for instance, astrological charts or a resume/biodata) to follow. These items are usually returnable if the match does not proceed: In those scenarios, families customarily cooperate to eliminate any trace of a matchmaking conversation between them.[34] The son/daughter reviews the information and photographs, with input from the family and friends, and shortlists a few for in-person meetings.

Meeting prospective spouses[edit]

If the prospective partners express a desire to meet or if the families are enthusiastic about a potential match, it is customary for the prospective groom's family to visit the prospective bride's family. It is traditional for the boy's family to arrive (with the boy) and be seated with the entire girl's family except the girl, who then makes a dramatic entrance dressed in fine clothes, often bringing tea and refreshments. This practice is sometimes called "seeing the girl" and has been attacked by some Indian and Pakistani feminists as a classic instance of gender-bias and the objectification of women.[26] During this visit, the boy and girl are often encouraged to meet and talk by themselves in a separate room.

The families usually part after this initial meeting without any commitment made by either side and with the expectation that they will confer separately and send word through the matchmaker should they be interested in pursuing matters. These meetings are understood to be non-exclusive, i.e., both the boy and girl are expected to similarly meet with other potential partners at this stage. There is an expectation of total confidentiality. Families do not usually disclose who else is being considered for their son/daughter and expect reciprocal confidentiality from the other party.

If there is interest from both sides, the matchmaker passes the word to them. If the families are unfamiliar with each other or live in areas far apart, they will frequently launch inquiries through their social and kin networks, attempting to gather as much independent information as possible about the prospective partner. Since urban Indian nuclear families often lack these extensive networks, many private detective agencies have begun to offer "matrimonial investigation services" since the 1980s, which investigate the personal and professional histories of a prospective spouse for a fee.[35][36]


Once there is mutual agreement between the prospective bride and groom that they would like to marry, and no red flags have emerged about either party in the inquiries conducted formally or informally, the other prospective spouses are declined and their photographs and other documents returned. Families usually attempt to maintain a high level of cordiality in these interactions, often invoking the idea of sanjog (predestined relationship, roughly equivalent to the idea that "marriages are made in heaven") to defuse any sense of rancor or rejection.[37]

An engagement ceremony or a pre-engagement ceremony (such as roka) follows. In urban areas, the future spouses are often expected to go out on dates and develop a romantic relationship in the period between their engagement and their wedding.[38] In more conservative rural areas, a period of greater freedom in interaction, or even romantic courtship, between the man and woman follows. Though dating may not be socially permissible, nonetheless the couple may talk over the phone.[39]

Low incidence of divorce in India[edit]

In India, marriage is thought to be for life,[40] and the divorce rate is extremely low. Only 1.1% of marriages in India result in a divorce compared with over 45.8% in the United States, though the Indian figure appears to be rising.[41][42] Opinion is mixed on the implications of this change: "for traditionalists the rising numbers portend the breakdown of society while, for some modernists, they speak of a healthy new empowerment for women."[42] However, there are no credible research reports or surveys that provide authoritative data on divorce rates yet.

See also[edit]


  1. Shakespeare, Keisha (15 February 2005). "Love vs arranged marriages". The Gleaner. Archived from the original on 17 February 2005. Retrieved 12 November 2020.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hoiberg, Dale; Ramchandani, Indu (2000). Students' Britannica India. New Delhi: Encyclopaedia Britannica (India). ISBN 0-85229-760-2. OCLC 45086947. ... It was widely expected that the custom of "arranged marriage," so called, would decline as India modernized and as an individualistic ethos took root ... vast majority (over 90%) of marriages in all communities ... surprisingly robust ...
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 The Brahmavadin, Volume 5, M.C. Alasingaperumal, 1900, 1900, ... In ancient times, when the country was governed by Hindu kings, the Swayamvara system of marriage was very common. It is the system of free, choice by the maiden of a husband ...
  4. 4.0 4.1 George Monger (2004), Marriage customs of the world: from henna to honeymoons, ABC-CLIO, 2004, ISBN 978-1-57607-987-4, ... Hindu traditions ... if a girl was not married by puberty, she would soon find a lover, no matter how closely her parents "protected" her ...
  5. Seymour, Susan Christine (1999). Women, Family, and Child Care in India: A World in Transition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59127-9. OCLC 39235763. ... a "love-cum-arranged marriage" ... In trying to better understand why most young, highly educated women I have known in Bhubaneswar continued to prefer arranged marriages over love marriages ...
  6. 6.0 6.1 Pauwels, Heidi Rika Maria (2008), The Goddess as Role Model: Sītā and Rādhā in Scripture and on Screen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-970857-4, OCLC 268653474, retrieved 11 November 2020, ... love-cum-arranged marriage, also known as "assisted" marriage, seeking to "combine" the best of both types ... addressing the false dichotomy of love and arranged marriage ...
  7. 7.0 7.1 Bhanwarlal Nathuram Luniya (1967), Evolution of Indian culture, from the earliest times to the present day, Lakshini Narain Agarwal, 1967, ... The swayamvara system of later times was, thus, foreshadowed in the Vedic times. 'The woman, gentle in nature and graceful in form, selects from among many, her own loved one as her husband.' ...
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Johann Jakob Meyer (1971), Sexual life in ancient India: a study in the comparative history of Indian culture, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1989, ISBN 978-81-208-0638-2, ... Gandharva marriage, which is also part of the orthodox system ... Dushyanta. This king's Gandharva marriage with Cakuntala, which is well-known especially through Kalidasa's drama, is a celebrated example ... only for warrior nobility according likewise to Manu ... Narada states without hesitation that this kind of marriage belongs to all castes alike ... 'survival from the time of promiscuity'; might well be understood from an "inter-ethnic" standpoint ...
  9. Anjani Kant (2003), Women and the law, APH Publishing, 2003, ISBN 978-81-7648-456-5, ... The Manusmriti tended to lower women's status and deprived her of her traditional status in a variety of ways ... subjected to the guardianship of the father during her childhood, of her husband during her youth, and of her sons after the death of her husband ...
  10. John A. Ross, International Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction. Center for Population and Family Health (1982), International encyclopedia of population, Volume 1, Free Press, 1982, ISBN 978-0-02-927430-9, ... In the Muslim Middle East, bounded by Pakistan on the east, Turkey on the north, the Sudan on the south, and Morocco and Western Sahara on the west, early arranged marriage remains common ...
  11. Graeme Hugo (1987), The Demographic dimension in Indonesian developmentEast Asian social science monographs, Oxford University Press, 1987, ISBN 978-0-19-582699-9, ... Marriages in more traditional times tended to be arranged by parents, often before the girl reached puberty, and even the male partner did not always have a say in the selection. This pattern of early arranged marriage ...
  12. Genevieve Mescam (1989), Pentecost: an island in Vanuatu, [email protected], 1989, ISBN 978-982-02-0052-4, ... Traditionally marriages are arranged between the families of the future spouses without the latter being consulted or even advised of the plans afoot. Preliminary talks would begin with a visit from the bridegroom's ...
  13. The B'nai B'rith international Jewish monthly, Volume 111, B'nai B'rith, 1996, 1996, ... The answer to the raging hormones associated with teenage sexuality was early, arranged marriage, so that passion could have a socially ...
  14. Ihsan Yilmaz (2005), Muslim laws, politics and society in modern nation states: dynamic legal pluralisms in England, Turkey, and Pakistan, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005, ISBN 978-0-7546-4389-0, ... family and kinship groups are seen as the basic units of social organization. Marriage is therefore a matter which is of concern to the group generally ... involved in the formation or maintenance of family alliances ... 'contract between the two families and not two individuals' ...
  15. Farhat Moazam (31 August 2006), Bioethics and organ transplantation in a Muslim society: a study in culture, ethnography, and religion, Indiana University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-253-34782-4, ... Families often affirm and strengthen their bonds through marriage between first cousins, unions that are permissible in Islam and thus legal in the country. Marriages of most children are generally "arranged" by parents and elders ...
  16. Shahla Haeri (November 2002), No shame for the sun: lives of professional Pakistani women, Syracuse University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-8156-2979-5, ... the watta-satta, exchange marriages we have - 'and in exchange she (his daughter) will have to be married to the brother of my brother's wife' ...
  17. Nandini Chavan, Qutub Jehan Kidwai (2006), Personal law reforms and gender empowerment: a debate on Uniform Civil Code, Hope India Publications, 2006, ISBN 978-81-7871-079-2, ... maintaining land structures intact for the patrilineal household, levirate marriage among Jats and other ...
  18. Gita Aravamudan (1990), Voices in my blood, Sterling Publishers, 1990, ISBN 9789991156927, ... The arranged marriage is an institution which, in our society, has proved to be remarkably resilient. It has survived the potentially disruptive impact of various very powerful forces ...
  19. 19.0 19.1 Patricia Uberoi (2006), Freedom and destiny: gender, family, and popular culture in India, Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-19-567991-5, ... Though arranged marriage remains the rule, parents have also shown increasing willingness to adjust to their children's romantic aspirations. Both boys and girls (boys more than girls) may be allowed a right of refusal of the partners ... with the legal age of marriage now 1 8 for girls and 2 1 for boys and the actual age of marriage rising steadily as well, a phase now exists between sexual maturity and marriage ...
  20. The wisdom of arranged marriages, Rabbi Levi Brackman, {,2506,L-3275463,00.html
  21. Great Britain: Parliament: Joint Committee on Human Rights (6 March 2008), A life like any other? : Seventh report of session 2007–08 House of Lords papers, The Stationery Office, 2008, ISBN 978-0-10-401240-6, ... It is important to make a distinction between forced marriages and arranged marriages ... given a choice and freely consenting to the marriage ...
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Sanjeev Sanyal (2008), Indian Renaissance: India's Rise After a Thousand Years of Decline, World Scientific, 2008, ISBN 978-981-281-877-5, ... Take, for example, the arranged marriage system. Once it relied on word-of- mouth. Today it is using matchmaking websites like (which claims to be the world's largest matrimonial service) ...
  23. Diane P. Mines, Sarah E. Lamb (2010), Everyday Life in South Asia, Indiana University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-253-22194-0, ... distinction between arranged and love marriages is in fact becoming increasingly blurred, especially among the urban middle classes ... Parents or other kin may introduce the two, who then might spend some time getting to know each other ...
  24. Southern California Sociological Society, University of Southern California (1988), Sociology and social research, Volume 73, University of Southern California., 1988, It is not uncommon to find family-sponsored marriage advertisements. A parent or sibling acts as a sponsor and introduces
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Sewa Singh Kalsi, Martin E. Marty (2009), Sikhism, Infobase Publishing, 2005, ISBN 978-0-7910-8356-7, ... In the past, the role of a matchmaker was performed by the family nai (barber). Marriage negotiations are conducted in complete secrecy ...
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Farah Zahidi Moazzam (21 April 2010), "Matchmaking in the modern era", Dawn (Pakistan), ... how did the bride and groom's families come to know of each other in the first place? Enter the matchmaker. At any given time, in history, around the world, matchmakers have been social busybodies, making it their business to know who is doing what with whom ... Some people, for example, assigned astrologers the dual role of serving as matchmakers... find themselves competing against websites ... When will gender bias in matchmaking end? When will boys be forced to wheel in the tea trolley when the girl's family pays a visit? ...
  27. {{cite news}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  28. "Matrimonial News – The Hindu". The Hindu. Chennai, India.
  29. "India's unfair obsession with fair skin, its impact on relationships". Hindustan Times. 20 March 2015. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  30. An alternative to the traditional marriage broker – Matrimonial Service Provider Archived 27 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  31. Spying a lucrative business
  32. Getting married the snappy, global way "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 October 2012. Retrieved 20 April 2009.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  33. Examples of Religious Matrimony Service – Christian Matrimony Service Provider
  34. Karen Isaksen Leonard (1997), The South Asian Americans, Greenwood Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0-313-29788-5, ... They were open to arranged marriages because to them it meant not just the exchange of photos and biodata, but initial introductions and then the freedom to get to know the person for some time before making a decision ...
  35. Emily Wax (23 February 2008), "In Thriving India, Wedding Sleuths Find Their Niche", The Washington Post, In India, hiring a wedding detective such as Paliwal has become a common prenuptial ritual, as important as the heavy wedding gold and the multi-cuisine 10-course meal served on plates coated in rosebuds
  36. Andrew Buncombe (25 September 2008), "India's female detectives track down Internet cheats", The Independent, London, In India's rapidly changing society, Ms Lahiri is one of a growing number of female private detectives who specialise in so-called "matrimonial investigations" ... In the past, families whose sons and daughters were about to have an arranged marriage would often know each other, or at least know something about the family, through a close friend or relative. But with growing numbers of Indians turning to the internet to find a partner, there is a new knowledge shortfall ... Does this young woman have a "good" reputation, does this young man have a drink problem
  37. Jean Holm (January 1994), Rites of passage, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1994, ISBN 978-1-85567-102-7, ... The concept of sanjog (preordained relationship) plays an important role in the establishment of a marriage alliance ...
  38. India today, Volume 19, Issues 13–18, Thomson Living Media India Ltd., 1994, 1994, ... doubts about her post-engagement late-night dinners. "But my mother told them it's all right." Adds Delhi's Komal Arora: "My parents would be really upset if I did not go out with my fiance for two days at a stretch ...
  39. Indian Anthropological Association (1974), Indian anthropologist: journal of the Indian Anthropological Association, Volume 4, The Association, 1974, ... there was general consensus that after "sagai" (engagement) the boy and girl may be allowed to have pre-marital courtship. The situation is in no way comparable to the western notion of "engaged couple" ...
  40. Undying love for fifty years [dead link]
  41. Divorce Rate in India "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 12 April 2014. Retrieved 15 September 2008.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Divorce Rate in India
  42. 42.0 42.1 Divorce soars in India's middle class Archived 4 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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