Madeline Howard

Arranged Marriage and the Holi Festival

Arranged Marriage

"First comes marriage, then comes love"

The Indian writer Ira Mathur begins her article on arranged marriage with this twist on the old rhyme. Despite her initial mocking tone, she proceeds to argue for the benefits of arranged marriage and points out the much lower divorce rate among couples whose marriages were arranged. Ninety-five percent of marriages in India are still arranged.

In the past children could be bound into marriages at very young ages; in some parts of India children as young as five years old were married. Child marriages have since been outlawed but still occur in some areas. Unmarried or abandoned daughters are a great source of shame in Indian families and women who reject their husbands are not treated well. Finding a suitable partner is important not only for the happiness of the couple, but also for the honor of the bride's family.

Families will choose a marriage partner for their children on the basis of caste, economic status, astrology, and education. In the recent past the financial aspect of the arrangement became an increasingly large burden for the bride's family. Rather than being responsible for bringing portable goods such as jewelry to the husband's family, the bride could be asked for large sums of cash or luxury items such as cars or appliances. There have been documented cases of horrific murders of brides whose families were not able to meet the demands of the groom's family for financial compensation after marriage. Often these women were burned to death when their saris caught fire in kitchen "accidents". Recently however, it has become common practice among urban families to eliminate exchange of dowry completely.

India: A Country Study describes India as being divided into two large regions with regard to Hindu marriage practices. In the North families tend to seek alliances with people with whom they have no other ties. This type of arrangement demands that the woman marry a man she has never met and go to live in his household, often in a community geographically distant from her natal family. In the South families strengthen existent kinship ties through marriage, meaning that a woman will often marry a cousin she has known all her life and live close to home.

In Muslim families, it is the boy's family's responsibility to find a suitable wife for their son. After an appropriate family has been selected, a third party is sent to inquire whether the family is interested in making the match. This practice allows the boy's family to maintain their dignity if he is rejected. If the arrangement works out, the couple meets and the wedding is arranged. The boy's family is responsible for bringing a dowry. In the past, people of the Nayan caste were ideal third part messengers since they were the news carriers of communities. Today relatives usually act as a third party.

One interesting variation on the practice of arranged marriage occurs among the Murias, a group of tribal people who live in the South Eastern part of India. This practice involves teenagers living together in a dormitory called a ghotul for several years before they are actually married. Divorce rates among these couples are extremely low.

Patterns and practices of marriage vary greatly across regional boundaries and also between urban and rural areas. According to India: A Country Study, matches in rural areas often occur without the couple meeting each other, while in more urban areas, couples often exchange photographs and families arrange supervised meetings. A quick web search reveals how extensive the network of marriage partner searches has become; "matrimony" sites, which appear very much like a typical personal ad section in a newspaper with the added category of caste, abound on the Internet.



Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated in the month of Phalgun (February-March) around the day of the full moon. During this three-day festival people all over the country don bright clothing and throw colored powder and water at each other. Often the usual restrictions of caste, sex, status and age are ignored during Holi. In some parts of India, Holi is a time for worshipping the pleasure god Kama. Kama carries sugarcane and a line of humming bees follows him everywhere. He has arrows made of flower shafts and tipped with passion that he uses to wound lover's hearts. He is most active in the Spring, when Holi occurs.

The playful God Krishna is also an important deity in the Holi festival. Some legends say that Holi originated as a celebration of Krishna's triumph over a female demon named Putana. According to this legend, when Krishna was a baby, an evil king named Kansa attempted to destroy him by ordering all the children in the country killed. Putana, one of his underlings, assumed human form and traveled throughout the country suckling children to death until she met Krishna, and he, recognizing her as a demon, destroyed her.



India: A Country Study. ed James Heitzman. Washington D.C: Library of Congress Press, 1995.
Mathur, Ira. "First Comes Marriage, then comes love"
Thomas, P. Festivals and Holidays of India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons& Co. Private Ltd, 1995.


Web site references:

Click here for a list of sites aboutIndia

See here for an "interactive holi story"

See here for an example of a matrimony site