Monday, March 17, 2008


In U.V. Swaminatha Iyer's autobiography -- En Sarithiram, in Tamil -- I found something intriguing about weddings in the mid-nineteenth century South. On p.31, in a section on his father's wedding, he says:

It was time for my father to get married. In those days, it was the groom's family that bore much of the wedding expenses. It is they who used to pay for the wedding ceremony, bridal dress and jewelry. The bride's family was responsible primarily [and only?] for the thirumaangalyam. Thus, brides' families of that era -- unlike those of the present era [1940] -- would not be worried about lack of resources for taking care of wedding-related expenses.

It's not just these general observations; UVS also presents a lot of other details of the financial position (not quite precarious, but not fabulous either) his father's family to indicate that these financial worries were real. In fact, he returns to this topic again on p. 113 when he talks about his own wedding in 1868; he reiterates his point that "the bulk of the wedding costs fell on the groom's family."

From the above quote, it's clear that this practice had already changed drastically during UVS's own life. By 1940, when he wrote his autobiography (serialized in Ananda Vikatan, a Tamil weekly magazine), the wedding costs and their associated worries were squarely with the bride's family. I just find it amazing that this transformation -- a reversal of financial responsibility -- took all of three generations.

* * *

Googling a bit, I found a couple of links to the work of Veena Talwar Oldenburg on the institution of dowry in Punjab; her work seems to blame the imperial policies for the transformation of a community-based, women-led institution of streedhan into the horrible monstrosity that it has become today, killing thousands of young women every year.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I have not read U. Ve Sa. But there is another very good one named En kathai, by Namakkal Kavingyar Ramalingam pillai. It is in print.

    I'm looking for another autobiography named, Ninaivu Alaigal, by T. S. S. Rajan, who was a cabinet minister. I could not find a copy in any of the shops. Do reply to this comment if you have any info about.

  2. Bruno said...

    The dowry should have started for a simple reason - women were not allowed to inherit fathers (family) property

    So if a farmer has a son and duaghter and has 10 acres of land, after his time all that went to his son

    So he sells 5 acres, gives that as dowry, and his son inherits the other 5 acres.

  3. Anonymous said...

    I think the argument is that under the imperialist regime, the laws regarding inheritance etc. were changed and that led in a peculiar way to the problem we see today. Note that the phenomenon of "dowry deaths" is more of an urban and middle class phenomenon.

    In a related vein, Ashis Nandy has argued that the phenomenon of "sati" which was upper caste and limited even there, took on a sinister form under the imperial dispensation.

    This is not an exercise in "British bashing": the point is that under the imperial regime, many laws were changed, probably with good motives at heart but without understanding how they impacted upon the society they [the British] were ruling. Some of these laws - like for instance, the ones which declared forests as "state property" without taking into account the interests of the people who lived there - have consequences which echo to the current day.

    Btw, the idea that changes in laws change incentives which in turn change people's behaviour and this has to be taken into account when formulating laws is something that is well understood in the US. But presumably not in India.


  4. Anonymous said...

    If you are interested in an analysis of how dowry laws, far from making things better seems destined to fail, look at

    I am aware that Madhu Kishwar is a "controversial" figure; probably, not a favourite of those who read (or write) this blog. FWIW, I like her.


  5. Jillu Madrasi said...

    Dear Nano,

    How very interesting:

    ** In those days, it was the groom's family that bore much of the wedding expenses. **

    so is there an English translation out there or are you translating from Tamil?