Dowry is one of those social practices which no educated Indian
would own up with pride, although many still adhere to this much deplorable practice.
Dowry continues to be given and taken . Even among the educated sections of society, dowry
continues to form an essential part the negotiations that take place in an arranged
marriage. During the marriage ceremony the articles comprising the dowry are proudly
displayed in the wedding hall. Dowry is still very much a status symbol. A number of
marriage-negotiations break down if there is no consensus between the bride's and groom' s
families. Dowry deaths of a newly married bride are still regularly in the news.
the practice of dowry exists in many countries, it has assumed the proportion of a
challenge to the forces of modernity and change only in India. Many reasons are put
forward for explaining this practice. It is said that a dowry is meant to help the
newly-weds to set up their own home.
That dowry is given as compensation to the groom's parents for the amount they
have spent in educating and upbringing their son. These explanations may seem logical in
the present day context, but they cannot explain how this practice originated. A search
for the origins of dowry would have to move backwards into antiquity. Discussion about
dowry has to take into account the less prevalent practice of bride price, which is but a
reversal or dowry. Although it may not be possible to ascertain when and where these
practices originated, it can be supposed that dowry and bride price are posterior to the
institution of monogamy. This is the same as saying that dowry and bride price came into
being after the practice of monogamous marriage had become prevalent.
But monogamous marriage is itself a culmination of the human adaptation of
animal promiscuity. Man's is the only species practicing monogamy, all other species are
promiscuous. Thus it is a logical corollary that Man's institution of monogamy came into
being at sometime in the long evolution of his species. The practice of monogamy itself
evolved in stages as is evident from historical anecdotes as in the Mahabharata where the
five Pandava brothers have one wife.
Promiscuity gave way to Polygamy/polyandry, and after various permutations and
combinations, monogamy became the established system. As long as promiscuity existed there
was no question of dowry or bride price. The origin of these two practices could be linked
up with the discarding of promiscuity in favour of Polygamy and Polyandry. These two forms
of marriage are themselves mutual opposites. While in polygamy there is pairing between
one male and multiple women and polyandry is the pairing of one woman with multiple men.
The existence of the diametrically opposite practices of dowry and bride price,
possibly owe their origin to polygamy and polyandry. The formation of polygamous and
polyandrous forms of marriage could have been made necessary by changes in the demographic
balance between the sexes. A rise in the number of females as compared to that of males is
a congenial situation for the emergence of polygamy. Mere the chances of more than one
female member of society being in wedlock with one male member are more.
In absence of polygamy, in a society having a larger number of females as
compared to males, many female members would have to be deprived of marital life. The
obligation to get more than one female member into wedlock with one male member could have
been the situation which gave birth to dowry as a price exacted by the male and his family
from the female's family.
The origin of bride-price could have taken place in opposite circumstances where
the sex ratio favoured females and as there was a large number of males for every female,
polyandry and bride-price could have been the result.
Along with this generalised hypothesis there were many factors specific to
different situations which gave birth to dowry and bride-price. These factors can be
identified with more certainty. In India' s context, these practices can be seen to be a
result of the dialectics of our caste system. The conflict of opposing tendencies of the
caste hierarchy, as we know have resulted in endogamy, preventing inter-marriage between
members of different castes. A reason for the origin of dowry and bride-price can also he
seen in the same conflict. Hence discussion on these two practices would have to be
Dowry (Dahej/Hunda) as we all know is paid in cash or kind by the bride's family
to the groom' s family alongwith the giving away of the bride (Kanyadanam). The ritual of
Kanya-danam is an essential aspect in Hindu marital rites: Kanya = daughter, danam = gift.
A reason for the origin of dowry could perhaps be that the groom and his family had to
take up the 'onerous' responsibility of supporting the bride for the rest of her life.
Bride-price on the other hand involves the receipt of presents, in cash or kind,
by the bride's family in return for giving away of the bride. Hence bride-price has the
character of an exchange.
One feature about dowry and bride-price that is conspicuous is that dowry was
prevalent among the tribals, Vaishyas and Shudras whereas dowry was prevelent amongst
Brahmins and Kshatriyas. We can only conjecture as to why this curious combination could
have come into being.
In ancient times, the Vaishya's and Shudras did most of the physical
labour and menial work. The coming of a bride into the family meant an increase in
the number of members who could work along with other members and become a source of
income for the family. While the family from where the bride came sufferred the loss of
one earning member. Hence a bride-price was paid to the bride's parents to compensate for
The Brahmins and Kshatriyas had only priestly and martial duties allocated to
them and no manual labour was assigned. A marriage meant an additional member who
was to be supported and hence was a burden on the groom's family as the bride did not go
out to earn and contribute to the family income. Thus a dowry was collected to provide the
additional burden resulting from a bride's entry into the groom's family.
This article is adopted from Sudheer Birodkar's book on Hindu