The Great Indian Dowry

I assume you all know the definition of Dowry. But still, I will give you the Wikipedia definition for it: A dowry is a transfer of parental property, gifts, property or money upon the marriage of a daughter (bride).


Bride price/bride wealth/bride token: Daughters were working in the parent’s home before marriage looking after the agricultural land as agriculture was the main source of income for a family. But after marriage, the daughter will no longer be working for the family and to compensate this, the groom’s family used to give money or gift in order to compensate the loss. This was usually seen among lower caste people.

The Babylonian Empire (1800 BC)

All the Babylonian way of living was studied on the Hammurabi code of laws. Its s script written by Babylonian people about their way of living. The marriage in Babylonian was typically different. When the daughter reaches their age for marriage, their father takes them to the market to basically sell them. Men select their good wives from this market and in return provide money to the bride’s family as bride wealth. A typical case arises at the end where no men wishes to buy. In this case, the parents of bride forcefully sell their daughters by giving a part of their wealth. Here a system of dowry arises. This view can be seen as a complete sale perspective deflating all the respect the women need in a society. But the dowry going to the groom had strict laws. How much dowry is going to groom, what happens in case of death, divorce, how is the dowry splitted- all these were mentioned in Hammurabi code.

As we can see, the Greek empire and the Roman empire are more or less had the same structure and bride’s wealth or bride’s price was practised which sounds logically correct compared to dowry.


Arrian of Nicomedia: a Greek historian, in 3rd century BC said there wasn’t any system of dowry in India at his time in his book: Indika (Mauryan India) in Megasthenes ( 3rd century Greek historian, diplomat and Indian ethnographer) and Arrian. The quote follows, “They (these ancient Indian people) make their marriages accordance with this principle, for in selecting a bride they care nothing whether she has a dowry and a handsome fortune, but look only to her beauty and other advantages of the outward person”.

Iranian AL Biruni (1035 AD) in his book chaptered Matrimony in India says more of less the same. The quote follows, “The implements of the wedding rejoicings are brought forward. No gift (dower or dowry) is settled between them. The man gives only a present to the wife, as he thinks fit, and a marriage gift in advance, which he has no right to claim back, but the (proposed) wife may give it back to him of her own will (if she does not want to marry)”.

British Colonial rule: The system wasn’t practised in India until the British colonial rule started. In 1793, Lord Cornwallis started permanent settlement of Bengal to ease tax collection and administration. This enabled private ownership of land which was unknown in India till then thus creating landlords. This became hereditary as the children of landlords became the inheritance of the land. The British imposed a rule prohibiting women to won any land at all. This is was the beginning of dowry system in India. By this, after marriage, the land was written in the groom’s name. This created greed among the grooms to won more and more. Thus, gifts became demands and voluntary became obligation. Marriage was now seen as a social bonding for business. The business-like mindset created greed in the social space. This gave birth to the modern-day practice of dowry.

FUNFACT: Portugal had gifted Bombay to the British crown as part of the dowry of Queen Catherine of Braganza in 1661.


The study looked at nearly 40,000 marriages that happened between 1960 and 2008 in 17 Indian states that compromises 96% of the country population. Here, experts calculated “Net dowry” to study the gap between that was paid by the bride’s family to the groom and vice versa.

According to study, the groom’s family spend $67 (INR 5000) on gifts to bride’s family. However, the bride’s family spends nearly $429 (INR 32,000) and other monetary payments to the groom’s family, thus making the net dowry nearly $361$ (INR 27,000). Researchers found that the prospect of paying higher dowry increases household savings, which are primarily financed through increased paternal labour supply.

Some states such as Kerala, Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat saw inflation in dowry. In fact, the most educated state Kerala registered the highest average increase in recent years. On the other hand, states like Orrisa, Tamilnadu, Maharashtra and west Bengal saw a decrease in average dowry.


As from the graph, you can see a steep increase in dowry from 1980 onwards. To explain this 3 people have come up with 3 different theories:

1. Some reflection on dowry by M.N Srinivas: What he tells here is lower caste people try and copy the practices of upper-class people to increase their status of living. Dowry was usually seen in upper class people, but lower-class people started Sanskritization (copying from upper class).

2. Economic Development theory by Siwan Anderson: The practice of dowry was adapted as a result of economic development. In Hindu community, they want to marry their son to families of higher caste than their caste or with families with higher assets or money. But after economic development, even lower caste people increased their money and asset (dowry) in order to attract higher caste groom. Thus, a competition scenario came between brides of both upper castes and lower caste. Because of this a lot of families had to give higher dowry and thus an increase in dowry over the years. But this doesn’t usually have any impact as people see groom with no degree same caste and a groom with higher degree but different caste as EQUAL.

3. Groom quality theory: This says over the years, the quality (education, knowledge) has increased and thus this increased the demand to give higher dowry over the years. As more educated got focused on groom, their income, education increased and thus their market value increased. So, more families were required to pay higher dowry. But if you take relative groom quality in perspective, that is, to compare groom’s income, education, health, etc with bride’s income, education, health, etc and then decide the dowry. This can have a positive impact as the education of brides increase, it can have a positive impact on the abolishment of dowry in coming years.

FACT: There was a sharp unexpected rise in price of gold in 1980, and found that the gold price hike is mirrored in an increase in girl relative to boy mortality in the neonatal and infant period. More info on this here.

FACT: More spouses are killed in the US for insurance money than in India for Dowry, but no one makes insurance murderer in US as a cultural crime. More info on this here.


Bride burning: Dowry deaths also include bride burning where brides are doused in kerosene and set ablaze by the husband or his family. Bride burning are often disguised as accidents or suicide attempts. Apart from this, there are some instances of poisoning, strangulation, acid attacks, etc as a result of which brides are murdered by groom’s family.

  • 99% of marriages in India are monogamous (an individual having only one partner during their lifetime). Less than 1% of marriages end in divorce.

  • In more than 90% of marriages, parents play an important role in choosing the bride/groom.

  • Over 90% of couples live with their husband’s family after marriage.

  • 78.3% of marriages are within the same district.

In a paper published by Gaurav Chiplunkar, researches from more than 74,000 marriages in India over the last century shoed how it evolved. The proportion of Indian marriages including dowry payments doubled between 1930 and 1975, and the average real value of dowry payment tripled. But post 1975, there was a decline in average dowry size. They estimated a total value of dowry payments in India between 1950 and 1999 was nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars (18 Lakh Crores).

In a paper published by Rossella Calvi and Ajinkya Keskar (Till dowry do us apart), they said that the share of household consumption expenditure allocated to a woman is strongly associated with the dowry she paid at the time of her marriage.

As the pressure to raise female children and the inability to pass their inheritance to their children aroused after 1950’s. This created the practice of female infanticide (killing of female infants soon after birth). This overtime began to impact the gender ratio in the country. Males to female ratio increased from 105.4 males per 100 females in 1950 to 108.18 males per 100 females in 2020 which is growing at an average annual rate of 0.19%.

Dowry system has now become like a curse on the society where girl’s goodness and education are not counted. What is counted is the amount of wealth she can bring to the groom’s family. Some girls have to face domestic violence when they are not able to give dowry.


Dowry prohibition act was brought on May 1st 1961. It was intended to prevent the giving or receiving of dowry. But still the research showed nearly 95% of wedding have had an exchange of dowry in these modern times.


In 2013, 8000 dowry deaths were reported in India. That is a woman dying every 90 min because of dowry related reason.


  • There is a growing concern that the dowry laws are often being misused. According to National crime records bureau, in 2012, nearly 200,000 people were arrested regarding to dowry offense, but only 15% of them were convicted. This means only 15% were actually the genuine cases.

  • Many women are afraid to implicate their husbands in a dowry crime supply because the Indian society is viewed as having conditioned women to anticipate or expect abuse in some sense eventually, to endure it. The laws aren’t effectively enforced by the police or by courts.


In a recent report published by NSS in 2012, it said: in both rural and urban areas, about 92% spent most of their time on domestic duties. Among those who spent most of their time on domestic duties, about 60% in rural areas and 64% in urban areas did so due to the reason “no other member to carry out the domestic duties”. This increased the unpaid household work for women. Thus, the thinking of Indian society is going in this direction as good women need to work inside house only. It is high time to change this perspective among our society.

Hence, education and independence is one powerful and valuable gift that we can give to our daughter. This will in turn help her to be financially sound and be a contributing member of the family, giving her respect and right status in the family. So, providing our daughter with a solid education, and encouraging her to pursue a career of her choice is the best dowry any parent can ever give their daughter.

Mahatma Gandhi once said. “Any young man who makes dowry a condition to marriage, discredits his education and his country and dishonour’s women hood”.


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