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The Origin of Dowry System in India

The modern definition of the Dowry System in India is as follows.

 Dowry is a payment of cash or valuable gifts from the bride’s family to the bridegroom upon marriage.

This menace of Dowry has become a social menace in modern India leading to the oppression on women, physical violence on the bride, causing a financial and emotional stress on the parents of the bride, marital conflict and so on. This menace exists even today in the society even though it is a criminal offence to take Dowry during marriage.

The Status of Women in Ancient Indian Society

But what is the real history of this menace. Did it always exist in the Indian society? Was Indian society always oppressive of its women? On the one hand we have the ancient scriptures which talk about women with such high respect. The most powerful God in Hinduism is the female Goddess. Saraswati is the Goddess of Knowledge, not Brahma. Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth, not Vishnu. Parvathi is the Goddess of Power and Energy, not Shiva.

We only hear about Swayamvar in the ancient Hindu marriage traditions where it was the bride who decided whom to marry. There was no Swayamvadhu, the groom could not hold beauty contests to decide which bride to marry. Instead it was the girl who in a Swayamvar, would put all the competing potential bridegrooms to different contests and then select the bridegroom whom she liked. In the Swayamvar of Sita in Ramayana, Rama had to lift the Shiva’s bow to prove that he was eligible to marry Sita. In the Swayamvar in Mahabharatha, Arjuna had to hit the eye of the fish rotating above by only looking at the fish’s reflection in a pool of oil below.

So if this was the importance given to women in our tradition, then when and where did this contradiction of the menace of dowry enter our society? We don’t find any instances of dowry related violence in the literature of ancient times. Not even in the literature belonging to the pre-colonial era of India. So when did the Indian society adopt the evil version of dowry which has created numerous social problems in the Indian society ranging from female foeticide, violence on married women, financial stress on parents of girl child, imbalance in male-female ratio, broken marriages, mistrust between families, etc.

Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime, a well researched book by Veena Talwar Oldenburg tries to answer this question. In this book, the author follows the paper trail left by British bureaucrats during the British Colonial rule of India. And then there are personal accounts from women in India including author’s own personal account on the system of Dowry. And what gets revealed after all this path breaking research and analysis, gives a huge blow to the very theory of Dowry being directly responsible for the status of women in the Indian society and goes on to prove how a system meant to actually benefit the married woman got converted during the British Rule into a system which ended up harming the very woman who was supposed to benefit from it.

The Original Institution of Dowry in Pre-Colonial India

Yes, the system of Dowry existed in India even before the British Rule, but not in the format that is prevalent in the society today. In the pre-colonial period, dowry was an institution managed by women, for women, to enable them to establish their status and have recourse in an emergency. In this ancient system of dowry, the parents of the bride, even her kith and kin, all gave wealth to her in the form of valuable gifts etc. It was just like how parents used to give a part of wealth to their sons, so did they give it to their daughters too during the daughter’s marriage. What is very important to be noted here is that, the valuables or the wealth was given to the bride, and NOT to the groom or his family. In other words, the dowry wealth continued to be owned by the wife and not by the husband or his family. This gave the required financial independence to women who would even manage the income from their agricultural land , etc.

So in the original system of dowry prevalent in India, women were gifted wealth from their parents during marriage and this served as a tool of financial independence for the bride even after marriage.

Even during the initial days of the British rule, contemporary European writers Orme, the French Catholic missionary Jean-Antoine Dubois who came to India in 1792, Malcom etc have praised the status of Hindu women in India. Malcom says that the Hindu women

“have a say in the affairs of the state, have a distinct provision and estate of their own, enjoy as much as liberty they desire”.

Malcom also praises women rulers like Ahalya Bai of being great administrators.

Angry Brides – angrybrides.in – An Anti-Dowry Game

So when did the wrong turn take place?

The Permanent Settlement of Bengal – The British Land Reforms of India

It all started with the Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1793 by the British under Lord Cornwallis. This enabled private ownership of land which was unknown in India till then. Private ownership of land was never practiced in India in the past. The land always belonged to the government and people only settled in the government’s land. If there was a flood in one place, people used to move on to another place in the kingdom. By introducing the permanent settlement, the British enabled the private ownership of land in India. All modern day real estate related violence in the country could hence be traced back to this act by the British. People there after started fighting over land.

It was this system which also created the system of Zamindars or landlords in India. Very few realize that the Zamindari system of landlords who ill treated peasants was created by the British rule. Till then, the zamindars were not land lords, but only tax collectors, collectors of land revenue who used to collect it from the farmers and hand it over to the local government. The Britishers converted these tax collectors into zamindars giving them the ownership of that land, and using them as a means to loot the farmers in the name of more tax. The zamindar or the landlord now owned the land, and it was hereditary ie the children of the landlords became the inheritors of the land.

The peasants on the other hand, suffered from this Permanent Settlement. They were left entirely at the mercy of their landlords, who also had share a in the production and which was not fixed! In the Pre-British system, kingdoms collected tax only during the times of surplus or sufficient growth, and the tax was used for the betterment of the society. But in the British rule, tax or Lagaan was collected irrespective of whether there was a famine or a flood, and tax rates were extremely high. It was looting in the daylight. Remember the movie Lagaan?

Prohibition of Property Rights for Women under the British Rule

But the move which affected the status of the women in the Indian society was the rule imposed by the British which prohibited the women from owning any property at all! And this was what created the menace of dowry system in India.

In the existing system, parents used to give wealth and valuable gifts to their daughters during marriage. And the bride continued to own this wealth even after her marriage and it provided the wife financial independence and there was usually no need for a wife to depend on her husband for her financial needs.

In fact, the situation even in 1870s was that,

In 49 separate volumes of customary law covering colonial Punjab, which today comprises Pakistan and Indian Punjab, Haryana, Jammu, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, dowry has been described in the 1870s as a collection of voluntary gifts comprising clothes, jewellery, household goods and cash bestowed on the bride by family and friends at the time of the girl’s wedding. Nowhere was it described as the prerogative of the groom to make demands on the girl’s family. But the British at that time had not granted their own women property rights, so it was highly unlikely they would do so for Indian women. – Dowry murder as a legacy of British policies

But once the British prohibited women from having any property rights, it meant that all the wealth that a woman got from her parents would be owned by her husband instead. And the moment, this system of husband owning the wealth of his wife was created, the traditional dowry system got converted into a menace creating an institution of greed that oppressed, victimized and suppressed women. The greed that kicked in created a system where husband and his family started looking at the incoming bride as a source of property and wealth, the male dominated society became greedy, husband and in-laws started demanding more dowry from the bride and her parents. The social harmony and the bonding created by the institution of marriage was gone. Marriage became just another business deal, where making wealth was more easy. Male child became an additional source of income, and female child became a financial burden on the family. This led to the creation of the social problems like female foeticide and an imbalance in male-female ratio in the society, which further led to more crimes on women.

After the British prohibited women the right to own or inherit property, until 1956 the women in India did not have the right to inherit property from their parents. It was only in 1956 that the Hindu Personal laws were amended giving the right to women to inherit ancestral property.

But again those rights were not equal to those of men. Sons had an independent share in the ancestral property, while the daughters’ shares were based on the share received by their father. Hence, a father could effectively disinherit a daughter by renouncing his share of the ancestral property, but the son will continue to have a share in his own right. Additionally, married daughters, even those facing marital harassment, had no residential rights in the ancestral home.

IT WAS ONLY as recently as in 2005, when the Hindu laws were amended again, now providing women equal status with men in terms of ancestral property.

Please note that, we are only talking about Hindu women here, because that is how the law system we inherited from the British is. The British based on their divide and rule policy created different laws for different religions. Prior to that the laws in India varied based on geography, and not based on religion or caste of the person.

Successive governments in independent India have retained most of the laws we inherited from the British without much amendments. Hence today unfortunately, personal laws are different in India depending on which religion the person belongs to. For Muslim women and Christian women, the rights are even less. In fact, the Rajiv Gandhi government while in power in 1986 passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act just to nullify the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Shah Bano Case which had ordered the husband to provide maintenance money to his divorced wife, Shah Bano.

The marriage of Christians in India is still regulated by the Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872 and and the Indian Divorce Act 1869. These acts were considered unfair to women, and the Christian Marriage and Matrimonial Causes Bill 1990 was proposed as a replacement, but no progress has been achieved into converting this bill into a law.

Strange that while we call ourselves a civilized society, we are fine with the personal laws being different for men and women depending on which religion one belongs to. And even strange is the fact that the calls for a Uniform Civil Code in the country which seeks uniform laws to all citizens irrespective of their religion is being frowned upon as being communal!  

References:

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Gurudevhttps://www.hitxp.com
Gurudev is the developer of Gurunudi AI Platform. This is his official website where he pens his thoughts on a wide range of topics, answers queries, shares resources and tools developed by him.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I now got complete insight of dowry system,its origin and why it has come into the picture then ! Good post admin :)

  2. The thinking that men are “pussywhipped” just because women have rights equal to men’s is the root of the problem here. It takes a TRUE man to recognize the value women bring to human society.

  3. Namastey guru ji,
    I came across your article and could not stop myself from commenting. I don’t know whether these stories are relevant to the discussion or not but they can rise some interesting ideas in the mind of readers.
    I belong to a north Indian Himalayan Brahmin family who have their roots in the authentic Vedic culture and religion. My family like most of the brahmins is well versed in vedas and astrology. Now you will be thinking what’s so special about this? But there are some cultural practices which existed in our(Himalayan) families that may seem quiet peculiar to the north-Indian or even south-indian brahmins.
    1. WIDOWED WOMEN WERE NOT CONSIDERED CURSED
    ( To support my argument I’m sharing the story of my great-great-aunt who was born in late 19th century) The women was widowed at the young age. After that she devoted her time to the reading of vedas and other scriptures and within few year she became proficient. She left her house of in- laws and started working as a priestess. People from far areas( even some of them were from UP) would call this young women to perform yajnas, pujas, samskars and it was not considered a taboo(she was not ascetic or yogini). The elderly men used to touch her feet for the blessings. Doesn’t it sound irony for a women and above all widow(around 100 years ago) performing the men’s task. (At her time she was not the only women doing this.)
    2. PEOPLE DID NOT KNOW WHAT DOWRY WAS
    Yes off-course it’s 24 carat truth. My mom’s marriage was too sans dowry. My grannies told me at their time groom’s family used to ask bride’s family how much people they should bring to the barat and they even used to pay the money for the wedding feast and bride’s ornaments if needed. There were 2 months in the year when the women could rightfully live in her parents house. (chaitra & baisakh). But today’s media-effect is slowly giving rise to dowry system though the dowry-seeking people are still not held in good reputation.
    3. THEY DID NOT KNOW PARDA
    Only day women was ever veiled in her life was her day of marriage.
    4. WIDOW MARRIAGE
    Yes even in the high cast the women widowed (with or without children) at the young age were allowed to remarry preferably in their husband’s family. My some grannies and great-great aunts were and they were still held in the great respect. Although this practice is diminished today.
    5. NO HONOR KILLING
    I know several of my neighborhood aunties and some oldies who had technically eloped with their present husbands(some with their children). But they were never prohibited from social circles. Although marriages in their families were banned but still they did not face any social stigma. Think what could happen to their families if they were living in the other part of country.
    6. WOMEN AS A PRIEST IN TEMPLES
    There are traditional pundits who say the women has no right to perform rituals and still you may found some esteemed temple in their neighborhood having female priestess some even from generations. Now you can make out what I’m saying.
    Our cultural is dominantly patriarchal but they develop different practices because they remained completely untouched by foreign rulers influence. I believe that dowry system, honor killings, widow shunning ( see kunti in mahabharat) etc were the social malice which developed with the fall of vedic education and vedic kingdom in India. Please pay notice to the fact most of the brahmin families which live in the Himalayan region(and ours not exception) are migrated from the planes and other parts of the India from 1100 CE to 1600 CE so you can’t say that those were our indigenous practices. And it was also hard to develop them with the time as you know very-2 well how hard it is to change the way of brahmin thinking. The thing which was considered taboo would remain so for thousands of the year. To know the exact practices of Indian society you have to add every bit from different sources. And I also believe that social practices should not be viewed as part of Hinduism. Hope I will hear from you soon as I’m to keen to share with you more of it.
    Jai Hind

  4. Thanks for the detailed article. It is REALLY INSIGHTFUL!

    The concept of Stri-Dhan still exists in some communities in India and works BEAUTIFULLY as it was intended to.

    One example of a community like this would be the Raju/Kshatriya community of the Godavari regions of Andhra Pradesh where women own the rights to property/gifts from their maternal homes, and this wealth would only go to their daughters and not the sons. Sons have a right to inherit only the fathers wealth, they would inherit their mothers wealth ONLY if she so wishes.

    I am from the Raju/Kshatriya community and I have seen this system work so beautifully in my family even to this date.


  5. There should be a law which would state that, upon marriage all the property of the husband would be automatically owned by the wife, ie there would be no property rights for married men, at least for a period of 10 or 20 years.”
    This is the most stupid thing i’ve ever read. If you think all men are bad and all women are good, then you are delusional. My friend is currently a divorcee who got swindled by his ex wife and is currently fighting court cases and trying to save his property and wealth.  If you think only husbands can screw the wife and vice versa is not possible then I think you haven’t talked to families or you don’t live in India.
     Husbands and Wives should have equal right to their personal wealth. 
    Kindly let the law makers decide the law, don’t come up with foolish thoughts. BTW if the husband and wife were to decide to divorce after a period of 2-3 years after marriage how would your stupid law work? will the wife get to swindle all of the husbands life earnings?

  6. Good and information shared here must be true since so many masters have worked on it, and there is no doubt we belong and are part of the most richest culture on this earth.
    But Guru, the solution to it is not that the husband hands over all property to the wife, at the age of 25-30 where normally an Indian boy gets married, does not owe anything of his own. And if someone is lucky enough to be owner of some property belongs to a family who is rich and well settled, and is hardly heard in dowery case.
    I regret to say this as it may sound against my own country, but I love my country too, and the way I am proud of my country and I am blessed to be born here, wouldn’t hesitate to say to take an example of any country where there is prosperity and less crimes, for example countries in middle east, In Asia for example China and in west like USA , the law is very strict.
    Punishment is almost instant on any smallest to smallest and worst to worst crimes. When I say instant, it does not mean instant but literally  instant when compare to the number of days/months/years/and some times generation it takes to bring in judgement and the country where crime rate is low.
    What India needs desperately is the way our judiciary system works.
    I am not saying, they should hang a person blindly, but then there should be a way to work with it.
    You must be watching Crime Patrol on Sony, and also recent hit show of AAmir Khan’s Satyamev , I remember in recent broadcast of Crime Patrol which is always on real stories, I wonder a poor guy was jailed for 6months for Rs.200 stealing, which he never stole and it was never proved.
    The final verdict came, when he admitted Rs.200 were stolen by him, which was out of the frustration, the judge said the punishment for this sort of crime is 3months jail, and the convicted has already spent 6months in jail, he should be freed from then on.
    So any judge who kept increasing his dates of hearing, should have realised after 3months, even if the convicted admits, he is going to be released, should have warned him and release. So where does he go now to account for those 3months extra he spent in jail ?
    In Satyamev, we all saw , there has been so many doctors heard about their evil act, leveling down the nobility of the doctor’s profession, the medical counsil of india has not even cancelled license of any single doctor.
    The opportunity an innocent finds by our law to protect himself, the same opportunity a criminal finds for himself.
    Our law do protect all of us, whereby it should have been protecting only the innocents.
    A red handed caught criminal is given full opportunity to prove himself innocent, I mean how ??? Where does this happen on this earth ?

  7. Similar situation was there in South korea few years back …but not called as dowry….
     now there is a rule in south korea according to which entire husband salary goes to wife’s account. … this rule was bought in there to prevent lavish spending by men and less family importance…

  8. Very nice and informative blog, just like all your other blogs. The solution sounds logical, however extra steps need to be taken in order to avoid misuses, which can be fatal for married men :P

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