Cash, Jewelry, and more. Marriage or a Money-making Business for the Groom's Family?

Examining the practices of "marriage" and "dowry" among "Nagarattars" of South India and "Marwaris" of North and East India

Academic Paper, 2021

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



The statement that says ‘In a fairytale wedding, the prince charming wafts his bejeweled and decked up bride away to an idyllic town ’ does not hold good for every marriageable damsel and her natal family in India, as the family may not be qualified to make her wedding a resplendent one. In India, an ordinary family has the means to marry the daughters off on a decent budget. Not everybody can afford extravagant dowry on the daughter’s wedding. In recent years, the topic of dowry has intrinsically been connected to the discourse on marriage and family.

The Literature Review

The study is based on qualitative research analysis of the past research papers obtained from various databases like JSTOR, Taylor & Francis, ELSEVIER, and the Cambridge Core. The keywords are dowry violence, the ritual of dowry among the Marwaris, dowry in India, and the dowry tradition in south India. The search is narrowed down to 20 peer-reviewed books and articles.

The Forms of Dowry in Literature

In legal parlance, the word ‘dowry ’ refers to valuable asset or property given (a) by one party to another party on a marriage (b) by the parents of either party on a marriage or by the relatives to either groom’s or bride’ party on a marriage (Basu 2005, XXII). In practice, the term ‘dowry’ is mainly used in three forms (Menski 1999, 42). The first form of dowry means bridal goods or stridhana such as clothes, jewelry, household utensils, and the property papers given to the bride by her natal family on her marriage. These goods are either used by the bride or they are jointly used by the couple after their marriage at their new home. These items can also be treated as a foundation for setting up a nuclear family within the premise of a joint family structure. Secondly, it stands for the lavish party thrown by the bride’s family during the daughter’s marriage. The third form of dowry is a problematic type, as more and more goods are demanded by the groom’s family to fulfill the terms of the marriage contract (Ibid).

Perspectives on Stridhana or the Bridal Goods

In the opinions of the commentators of Hindu Law, stridhana or the goods given to a bride is a bit problematic to handle (Desai 1990, 157). Different schools of Hindu Law give different interpretations of stridhana or bridal goods. According to Manu Smriti, stridhana includes gifts given to the bride as a sign of affection by her natal family, her in-laws, and her relatives and gifts showered on the bride when she genuflects to her elders. But other commentators argue that they do not completely explain the characteristics of stridhana (Ibid). Goody and Tambiah (1973) think that stridhana corresponds to the concept of ‘pre-mortem transfer of inheritance’ from the daughter’s natal family, the in-laws, and the relatives. In a study on property transfer and inheritance, Hirschon (1984) asserts that inheritance means the transmission of the property down the generations, but marriage emoluments (such as dowry or stridhana ) actas the transmission of property across families and kinship groups. During her field research, Yuko Nishimura (1998) finds out that different communities have different perspectives on the topic of stridhana . According to Modh Banyas and Gujarati Jains, the practice of offering cash to the groom’s family is not present in their respective communities (Nishimura 1998, 147). In these communities, the bride’s goods or stridhana are mainly pieces of jewelry and clothes that come from boththe natal family and the in-laws (Ibid). On the other hand, the Rajasthan Marwaris claim that the idea of stridhana takes a stringent form in their community. The Marwari bride is supposed to bring many presents in the form of jewelry, clothes, and household utensils (Ibid). The mother-in-law is the owner of the bride’s goods or stridhana (Ibid).

Over the past decades, the problem of ‘dowry death’ has increased to great proportions in India. Prof Anne Hardgrove (2004) shows in her book that the elite Marwaris in Kolkata have taken pledges for hosting ‘dowry less Samuhik Vivah or community marriages’, as the Marwari community has been tainted by the vicious mark of‘dowry death’ for several years.

This paper emphasizes the ritualistic tradition of marriage and its associated activity of dowry observed by the mercantile castes (the Nagarattar caste) of south India and (the Marwari caste and the subcaste Agarwal) of the north and east India. The main arguments of the paper are divided into two sections. In Section A, with the help of a case study on a poor Nagarattar household, the paper explains the reasons behind the difficulties of arranging marriages by the poor Nagarattar families. Based on another case study on unsuccessful marriage, the paper analyses the consequences of the dissolution of a Nagarattar marriage. It tries to understand whether the woman’s dowry helps her build a new life after the break-up of her marriage. In Section B, the paper unravels whether the modem concept of ‘bridegroom price’ has transgressed the traditional dowry or stridhana practice in the Marwari case. With the help of a case study on the Marwaris of Kolkata, it sees whether Dowry Less Mass Marriages (or Samuhik Vivah ) have become a norm among the Marwaris in Kolkata in the recent period.

Section A: How does South India cope with the ‘Dowry Disease’? A Case Study of Dowry in South India (with a special focus on the ‘Nagarattar’ mercantile caste in Chettinadu Town in Tamil Nadu)

Nishimura (1989) argues that Nagarattar weddings usually see an elaborate and well-defined process of the financial transaction. The groom's mother is given cash payment or mamiyar siir danam and she takes good care of the newly-wed couple before they start their own family in a separate house (Ibid). When the bride starts a nuclear household with her husband and children, the Nagarattar woman is free to wield control on her stridhana or marriage goods. And, she uses them to earn some money for herself and helps her kinsmen through networking (Ibid). Thus, a Nagarattar married woman or Aacchi has every right to secure an independent space for herself and she also maintains a binding relationship with her natal family even after her marriage (Ibid).

Marriage: A Dream for a Poor Nagarattar Woman

A Nagarattar married woman is given the status of ‘Sumangali’ (an auspicious woman). Even though the wedding is very difficult for a poor Nagarattar family, the daughter does not completely give up her hopes on the prospects of getting married. She expresses her wishes for marriage so that she achieves the superior status of a married Nagarattar bride or Aacchi and gets lauded as ‘Sumangali’ by the society (Nishimura 1998, 133). An unmarried woman, as a girl said to Nishimura (1998), is treated like a dog and she can only be protected by her husband after the death of her parents (Nishimura 1998, 134). The question that I want to address here, why is marriage conceived of a difficult thing in the poor Nagarattar families? This can be answered with the help of a case study that I have prepared after going through the reading of Yuko Nishimura’s text1.

Case Study 1: The Unfortunate Tale of an Unmarried Girl, Sala, who has Seven Siblings in her Family

Sala, the sixth daughter of her parents, was a school teacher and had plans to expand her profession after the completion of her M.A and B.Ed. degrees (Nishimura 1998, 139). When she was interviewed by Yuko Nishimura (1998), she used to earn a meager monthly wage of INR 650 and had deposited INR 1,000 per annum in a LIC (Life Insurance Corporation) policy and INR 50 in provident fund. Her family had mostly survived on her mother’s dowry and the earnings of her 2nd sister, as her father was a useless gambler and had squandered her mother’s dowry in a reckless manner (Nishimura 1998, 138). Sala’s family was so poor that her sisters could not form affinal relationships with their relatives. Most of Sala’s sisters got married either through ‘brokers’ or friends (Nishimura, 139). In Sala’s opinion, a decent Nagarattar man would ask them to cough up at least INR 40,000 at the time of marriage (Ibid). The demand would eventually go up for a man with a degree (Ibid). When she was interviewed by Nishimura (1998), her brother was not married and they had some expectations from his wedding. They could get as much as INR 1,00,000 in the form of cash payment (mamiyar siir danam ).

My analysis

I think that marriage is a far dream or a difficult thing for a poor Nagarattar woman like Sala, as she has little sources to buy the list of saamaan or bridal goods and make lavish payments to the mother-in-law (mamiyar siir danam) before the wedding. Nishimura (1998) describes the marriage contract (muraichittai) as a well- defined one, as it includes several obligations that both the bride’s and the groom’s family have to perform during the marriage ceremony and also after it (Nishimura 1998, 125). Yuko Nishimura (1998) says that a typical Nagarattar family does not sign a marriage contract with a poor family or a family that cannot stand up to the family’s expectations. They just do not see whether the family can pay dowry on the wedding ceremony, but also find out whether they can support the couple, whenever necessary.

Nishimura (1998) writes some interesting points on the topic of ‘anxiety over the provision of dowry’. Even a middle-class household runs from pillar to post while fulfilling the ‘dowry list’ before the daughter’s wedding ceremony (Ibid). Nishimura (1998) learns from her local informants that many young Nagarattar women are kept at home, as their families fail to make arrangements for their weddings. She argues that the veracity of the statement is not easy to prove, as the Nagarattars are generally rich and they can spend profusely on their children’s weddings (Nishimura 1998, 138). But this is not the same thing for the entire Nagarattar community. The Nagarattar in-marrying families usually demand a high standard of dowry and this is difficult for the poor Nagarattar families to make arrangements for their daughters’ dowries (Ibid). Many poor or low- income group families have great hopes of seeing their daughters getting married and so they save money by just thriving on cold rice (Ibid). Thus, marriage is, indeed, a difficult thing for the poor Nagarattar families in south India.

Divorce and Dowry

The young Nagarattar women, as Nishimura (1998) argues, do not like four vices like gambling, drinking, smoking, and philandering in their prospective grooms. A Brahmin professor says that it quite usual for the Nagarattar young men to cultivate certain bad habits such as drinking, gambling, womanizing, and so forth, as they belong to a rich mercantile caste and their parents have copious wealth in their coffers (Nishimura 1998, 136). In a similar vein, a Nagarattar professor claims that it is not unusual for the rich Nagarattar men to have such vices. To maintain the ‘Sumangali ’ status, the Nagarattar women have to tolerate their menwith vices (Ibid).

Since the custom of remarriage is prohibited in the Nagarattar community, the Nagarattar women do everything to maintain their marital relationships with their husbands (Ibid). Nishimura (1998) asserts that the Nagarattar men also have no interest in dissolving their marriages, as they neither want to lose contact with their wives' natal families nor they want to part with their wives' dowries. So, the cases of unsuccessful marriages (divorce) are extremely rare among the Nagarattars. Nevertheless, Nishimura (1998) comes across a case of unsuccessful marriage in the Nagarattar community and I intend to analyze the case and understand the utility of the Nagarattar woman's dowry after the marriage fiasco.

Case Study 2: The Sad Saga of a Twenty-Five-Year-Old Married Woman, Muttammal who has an Unsuccessful Marriage

Nishimura (1998) shows in her study that Muttammal was 15 years old when she was married to a bank employee. During her marriage, her natal family had spent INR 50,000 in cash payments (siir danam for the bride and mamiyar siir danam for the bride' mother-in-law), sarees, and bride's jewelry. A few years later of her marriage, Muttammal had discovered that her husband was not worthy of her dowry (Ibid). He had every bad habit including womanizing that Muttammal had greatly abhorred. So, she had left her husband's house and returned to her natal family. Muttammal had her jewelry with her and her father had previously deposited her siir danam (INR 25,000) in her bank account (Ibid). Nishimura (1998) argues that Muttammal had not divorced her husband, as her natal family was quite against it. Since she had a child, her husband was responsible to send her money (INR 1,000) every month. But the money was not substantial for a family of two and she had to depend on her natal family for many things (Ibid).

My Analysis

Now the underlying question is, does dowry or stridhana help a Nagarattar woman set up a new family after the debacle of her marriage? My simple answer to this question is yes and no. Not every Nagarattar woman receives a million-dollar dowry including a plush apartment at her wedding. If a rich Nagarattar woman gets divorced, then it would not be that difficult for her to survive on her dowry. A woman from a well-to-do family has everything within her reach to build a decent family after her gloomy break-up.

The situation gets a bit problematic for middle-class women like Muttammal who do not receive a very high amount of dowry from their natal families and so the decision of divorce could cost them severely. If I understand the case study of Muttammal well, Yuko Nishimura (1998) had interviewed Muttammal in the 1990s. After the Economic Liberalization of the 1990s, India had witnessed massive competitions in the area of manufacturing consumer goods. The government had understood that India would need about two million color television sets by 1990.2 With the rise in technological advancement, the prices of consumer goods would eventually take an upward course. Being a 90s born Indian, I can vouch for one thing that the average cost of buying a color TV set or a refrigerator in the 1990s would be as much as INR 10,000. Apart from these home luxuries, the average schooling cost for a child in 1995-96 would be not less than INR 800-1000. On her wedding, Muttammal had received INR 25,000 in siir danam and that amount was not sufficient for herself and her child, as the cost of living in the 1990s was comparatively higher than the previous decade. The jewelry was her real stridhana or bridal goods and my feeling says that she would pass them down the next generation. Overall, it is right to assert that Muttammal’s dowry would not help her establish a happy family after the separation from her husband.


1 Nishimura, Yuko. Gender, kinship, and property rights: Nagarattar womanhood in South India. Oxford University Press, 1998

2 Das Gupta, Surajeet. Colour Televisions See Unexpected Slump in Sales. India Today, 1990

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Cash, Jewelry, and more. Marriage or a Money-making Business for the Groom's Family?
Examining the practices of "marriage" and "dowry" among "Nagarattars" of South India and "Marwaris" of North and East India
University of Göttingen
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
cash, jewelry, marriage, money-making, business, groom, family, examining, nagarattars, south, india, marwaris, north, east
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Anusua Chowdhury (Author), 2021, Cash, Jewelry, and more. Marriage or a Money-making Business for the Groom's Family?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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