Dowry Death

Dowry Death: A Social and Political Creation

by Stacy Dulan

University of California at Berkeley



Dowry death in India claims the lives of thousands of Indian brides each year, but this was not always so. This paper probes into social and political practices present in varying populations in India during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some of which are not widely correlated with this epidemic, and how they may be intimately related to it. British interpretations of Indian religious and social practices such as polygamy, dowry, and the caste system informed political steps taken to regulate Indian society, but through a British cultural lens that proved more detrimental to Indian society than beneficial. Dowry death was virtually non-existent during the beginnings of British rule in India, making it a twentieth century phenomenon that seems to coincide with political changes the British initiated to “civilize” India.


      There are numerous literatures concerning both the historical bases of dowry and colonial discourse about Indian practices, some revolving around the treatment of women. What has been continually shown to be an important aspect of the conversation between these two issues (dowry and colonial discourse) is the attempted consolidation of the entire Indian country, with its varying cultural practices and beliefs, into one homogenous system by British colonial officials in an attempt to provide a unifying legal code by which to govern the Indian people. Moreover, the externalities generated as a by-product of colonial political interference with social and cultural Indian practices have led to legislation that has contributed to terrible long-term consequences in India.

This paper is a probe into the connection between the polygamy practices of Koolin Brahmins and past colonial influence on the present-day Indian practice of marriage dowry. I argue that, although not the only contributing factor to the current epidemic of dowry deaths, the targeting of certain groups and practices by British colonials, whether favorably or not, has resulted in the perpetuation, validation, and spread of select dowry practices throughout India at the expense of the safety and economic independence of women. Specifically, I argue that the attack on polygamy practices of high-caste groups by colonials, paired with modernization and the Sanskritization of Hindu law, was pivotal in creating the dowry death epidemic. My analysis is based on historical British documents (books, newspapers, etc.) concerning polygamy, traditional Vedic scripture, and published research on the subject of dowry.


A Brief History of the Caste System and Marriage

          In The Caste System of Northern India (1931), Edward Arthur Henry Blunt traces the origins of caste in India. He says that while the caste system in India is complex, has evolved over time, and is not built on one unifying model, one permeating characteristic is “a spirit of exclusiveness which has the effect of restricting the intercourse of their members both with each other and with members of other castes” (1). The origins of the system are greatly disputed, though one ancient Vedic hymn mentions the birth of the different castes. The system is primarily based on three characteristics: heredity, endogamy, and commensality (2), though  some castes reside outside of these restrictions. The term “caste” can be misleading; it is not necessarily a homogenous entity. Many sub-castes, each with their own practices, may exist under the same caste umbrella. The caste system operates under four class categories (varnas): Brahmin (Brahman), Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra (Shudra). These social classes, according to Blunt, are of the utmost importance to Hindus, because they dictate the level of interaction allowed between parties (8).

          Though endogamy was not a strict characteristic at the outset, Blunt notes, over time it became a fairly rigid concept, save for one exception: “Caste membership and occupation have become hereditary. The Brahman is a sole exception – ‘for his virtue’, he is still allowed to marry whom he pleases and follow what occupation he likes” (19). Most other guidelines of caste are historically absent for centuries, including the ranking of varnas. It isn’t until the Institutes of Manu, or Manusmriti (brahmanic scriptures), are laid down during the golden age of Sanskrit literature, around 330-450 AD (20), that clear laws emerge to regulate caste conduct, with Kshatriyas and Brahmins at the top, and everyone else beneath, Sudras at the bottom. Endogamy becomes very clearly defined at this time. Blunt explains that, due to  many invasions and outside, non-Hindu groups slowly conquering and settling in India, the Manusmriti contains lengthy, in-depth delineations between social classes. As Blunt says, “… it is not difficult to surmise that [barbarian] intrusion… strengthened the prevailing tendency to endogamy” (25). In other words, Hindus, especially those of the higher classes, needed a way to regulate social relations, including marriage, so that their status and lineage  – their power – stayed intact.

The Manusmriti also allows for the taking of more than one wife, depending on the social class one belongs to, as determined by the man: a Sudra man can only marry a Sudra women, Vaisya men can marry a woman of both their own and the Sudra class, a Kshatriya man can marry a woman of the Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra classes, and Brahmins can pretty much take a wife from any class, provided the man marries in his own caste first (Chapter III:12-13). A Sudra woman cannot be the first wife of any of the other classes and, apparently, marriages to Sudra women by the higher castes should not yield a son (at least not a first born son) – a circumstance  for which a Brahmin can lose his rank, and for which there is no atonement (III:15-17, 19). So, depending on his class, a man can marry several women, the Brahmin being able to marry from all classes. The Manusmriti essentially provides religious guidelines and allowances for polygamy, with Brahmins clearly favored over all other classes.

             In sum, castes fall under the four social classes which, from their onset, were designed to favor certain groups of people over others. Who could marry whom, and delineations between social classes, was loosely regulated until various invasions and migrations took place, during which kings were usurped and social class distinctions were claimed by outsiders. At this point, in order to preserve the class system’s integrity, texts like the Manusmriti emerged, tightening class distinctions and regulating social conduct. Lineage became extremely important. This made upward mobility much more difficult to achieve, and in fact it is still difficult today. Those in power wish to keep that power concentrated. For women, one of the only avenues to upward mobility is marriage, and so the higher the class of the man, the more of a commodity he becomes.

Polygamy and Dowry

        Historically, many types of marital capital exchange have been practiced in India, but dowry has become the dominant form practiced today. The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 defines dowry (dahej in Hindi or daaj in Punjabi), as “any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly (a) by one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage or (b) by the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person to either party to the marriage or to any other person at or before or after the marriage as consideration for marriage” (Newman 1992). The book Dowry: The North Indian Perspective, by Reicha Tanwar, discusses the history behind the current dowry system, which she says is based on the practice of streedhan (also stridhan) which has become intertwined with the Brahmanic practices of Kanyadan (Introduction). Streedhan can also be referred to as Manu’s six-fold property of a woman, laid out in the Manusmriti. Guidelines as to what this property is, and entitlement rights concerning it, are as follows:

“What [was given] before the [nuptial] fire, what [was given] on the bridal procession, what was given in token of love, and what was received from her brother, mother or father, that is called the six-fold property of a woman.

[Such property], as well as a gift subsequent and what was given [to her] by her  affectionate husband, shall go to her offspring [even] if she dies in the lifetime of her husband.

It is ordained that the property [of a woman married] according to the Brahma, the Daiva, the Arsha, the Gandharva, or the Pragapatya rite [shall belong] to her husband alone, if she dies without issue.”

-The Laws of Manu (c. 200 A.D.; Chapter IX: 194-196)

      Kanyadan (or Kanyadaan), also outlined in the Laws of Manu, is described as part of the Brahma vivah, one of eight types of marital ceremonies elaborated upon and considered the best (Chapter III: 20-37). A boy and girl of the same caste are wed, and traditionally no dowry is involved. Tanwar argues that somewhere down the line these two concepts became intertwined, and streedhan became “distorted.” It is important to note the traditional form of Brahma vivah, and also that it is considered to be the best marriage ceremony. Tanwar also notes that there is a very distinct difference between the contemporary practice of dowry and the traditional entitlement of streedhan – “the core of streedhan was voluntarism… but dowry in its very elemental form is necessarily an extraction – compulsorily.” In other words, at any time a woman could (and still can where it is recognized) demand her streedhan back from the husband or his family if she entrusted it to them in the first place. This is protected by sections 405 and 406 of India’s Penal Code.

        By the time of British colonialism, Kanyadan and streedhan were not being conducted true to Vedic scripture, at least in a portion of the Brahmin population in which these practices were historically based. In The People of India, by Herbert Risley and William Crooke (1908), an entire appendix is dedicated to the topic of polygamy and Koolinism. This may seem obscure, but it poses interesting questions concerning the perversion of dowry. The appendix contains various letters to the editor of a publication called “The Times” in which a review of a book called The Brahmans, Theists, and Muslims of India by a Mr. Oman caused such controversy that Brits and Indians alike responded with differing opinions on the topic, and on whether and to what extent polygamy was still being practiced.

        One letter of particular interest describes in great detail the formation of the Koolin (Kulin) Brahmins, which sub-caste of the Koolins practices polygamy, and the guidelines that dictate how it is conducted. I will provide a brief summary. It seems long, but it is really important, and I will spare all that I believe is not crucially pertinent:

“We are speaking of the Rarhi division of Brahmins… the chief distinctive classes amongst them at the present day are… The Koolins, or first class; Bhongo Koolins, or second class; Bhongshojo Koolins, or third class; Shrotryo Brahmins, or fourth class… The second class is composed of Koolins of the first class, who have fallen from this latter class by inter-marriages with daughters of families in the third class… The male members of the first and second subdivisions of this second class contract an unlimited number of marriages during the life-time of the first wife, and except in cases of exchange… a consideration is given by the parents or family of the bride to the bridegroom… It will be most convenient here to state that the marriages most sought after are marriages with Bhongo Koolins of the first and second subdivisional classes… and that the daughters of the class Bhongo Koolins generally are not permitted without degradation to marry beneath their class… [in such instance] they must remain unmarried… The number of wives, including those of the same class, is said to be often as many as 15, 20, 40, 50 and 80… Polygamy is said to be resorted to as a sole means of subsistence to many [male] Bhongo Koolins… Families, it is said, are ruined, in order to provide the large sums requisite to give a consideration on the occasion of their daughter’s’ marriage… Marriages are, it is said, contracted simply in order to this consideration… No provision is made for the maintenance of one wife before marriage with an unlimited number of others” (432-34).

      The above described behavior exploits the fact that a small number of men from a small sect are sought after because of their relative rarity in the population and the desire for the maintenance or upward mobility of class distinction for a family that a marriage to these men can provide. Marrying a Bhongo Koolin essentially enhances the reputation of a family in exchange for one or (in many cases) all of their daughters and economic consideration.

      At first glance, it may seem obscure that a relatively small sect of Brahmins engaging in polygamy might have contributed at all to the perversion of dowry at large, but consider this: the term consideration used several times above equates to dowry – payment given by one party in return for the act or promise of another (Merriam-Webster, web), which forwards the notion that the traditional form of Brahmin marriage exchange was no longer without dowry. This is the same word used in the Dowry Prohibition Act. The reviewers also mention side effects for women of this institution, to include infanticide, ruin, prostitution, abortion, etc., but the one thing that no one mentions at this point is the murder of these women due to lack of “consideration,” only that a woman whose family cannot achieve the desired dowry amount will remain unmarried.

      What can be gleaned from the above passage is that dowry existed in India without an epidemic of dowry deaths, at least in the early 1900s, when The People of India was published. This strongly suggests that dowry death at large is a 20th century phenomenon. Though my search has been limited by time and scope, I believe that dowry deaths were not a significant issue for several reasons. First, the practice of consideration in marriage was high-caste in origin, and so in the 1800s most of India was not yet engaging in this type of economic exchange when getting married. In addition, India was still primarily an agrarian society while the British were slowly conquering, so an unwed daughter could contribute in the fields and was not as much of a financial liability as she is today in a consumer capitalist society. British colonial governance was binary, with the realm of the social and religious left mostly to high-caste Indian entities to regulate, so there was not yet direct intervention by the British concerning the matter of polygamy.

Colonial Influence on Polygamy

This is where it gets really interesting. Although the aforementioned committee found it infeasible to draft legislation outlawing polygamy, the writers of the article proposed the “compulsory registration of marriages, for which the registry establishment is ready at hand, with an increasing fee for each additional marriage during the life of another wife.”  They reasoned that with the establishment of heavy fees (meaning taxes, made payable by the husband) increasing with each additional marriage, the Brahmins “who make a living by their numerous marriages” would stop the practice on their own when it became too costly. They also reasoned that poorer families would not be receptive to paying the additional fees that would make up for the tax. They finished by saying “we have no doubt that an Act can be prepared which will place proper restrictions on this crying evil, without giving violent offense to the religious prejudices of the Hindoos.” In other words, the British were willing to intervene in religious matters when they saw an opportunity to generate capital. The legislation that would eventually outlaw polygamy is the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955.

      Though technically requested by Indians (the Maharaja system was indirectly ruled by the British government at this point) the proposal for government interference, even though attempting to circumvent legalities, is a step by the colonial political into the realm of the social religious, as I mentioned previously. This creates the potential for problems on several levels, many of them implicating women. For example, making it harder for a high-caste man to marry multiple daughters makes it harder for lower-caste families to achieve prestige via that route, and potentially creates many unwed women who would otherwise have had a husband, even if he was almost entirely absent. In India, an absent husband of high caste is better than no husband at all since, according to the Manusmriti, marriage is the only sacrament available to a woman (Chapter II: 67). For daughters of the earlier-mentioned Bhongo Koolin caste, not being able to marry a man of their own rank guarantees them an unwed life, and no sacrament. An increase in the fees exacted from families seeking to wed their daughters may create more resentment toward daughters in general, and might further increase the instances of abuse and female infanticide in attempts to avoid dowry costs altogether. I am not advocating the merits of polygamy in India; however, when taking into account the current situation of thousands of dowry deaths being reported each year, one cannot fail to notice that, at least according to historical records, wife murders due to dowry seem to be greatly diminished or totally non-existent in the polygamy system.

        Moreover, by proposing an increase in fees for each additional marriage “during the life of another wife,” the British government is indirectly suggesting that, in order to continue “making a living” by exacting dowry from families without incurring high fees, a Brahmin engaging in this subsistence strategy must somehow dispense with one wife before he can marry another. Since divorce is not a ready option according to Vedic scripture, this presents a barrier to a Brahmin man accumulating more wealth. This basically paves the way for either the continued extortion of the living wife’s family for more resources, or the murder of said wife in order to free up the man so that he can get a new dowry source. There is always another daughter needing a husband of high class in a caste-based system.

Colonial influence on Marriage Capital

      As the colonial Raj slowly expanded, the remaining independent governors found themselves facing uncertainty as to how long their autonomy would remain, and thus made sure to cooperate as much as possible in 1853 when the British invited them to an official gathering in Punjab where many agreements regulating wedding expenses and decrying female infanticide were negotiated and signed. The British reasoned that the exorbitant cost of wedding ceremonies on behalf of the father of the bride contributed to female infanticide. Veena Oldenburg (1901) mentions that these meetings were great examples of the difference between how the British understood the caste system and how it was actually practiced. The British saw castes as “hidebound ritual groups with little in common,” but the way in which agreements at these meetings were reached “reveal[ed] the regional and political significance [that] caste alliances had in precolonial times… [when] hundreds of customs [were] shared across caste and religious lines” (82-3). She suggests that going to these meetings and making these agreements were opportunities for caste leaders to “restate their own political ranks” in relationship to their new British rulers.

          The British paid close attention to the independent rulers who remained, and how extravagant their weddings were, positing that it was a sign of “misrule” – a well-used excuse to justify colonization and British oversight. How convenient it must have been to have the few independent leaders left in one place to assess their finances. It seems as though these meetings, arranged by the British, were just another way of asserting their authority and regulating expenses under the guise of improving the lives of women. This furthers the colonial political incursion into the social, and though female infanticide was the  reason cited for making these agreements, in actuality these meetings were venues for caste leaders to hold on to what little power they still had by generating and signing official declarations.

          What’s interesting about these meetings and agreements is that, with all of this marriage expense regulation, daaj (dowry) was not at all regulated. Oldenburg notes that there was no monetary value or maximum limit set on gifts to the bride from family and friends, and it conveniently remained outside the realm of wedding expenses. This contributes to my belief that dowry itself was not, as Oldenburg put it, “the crippling burden” that led to the phenomena of dowry death, even though it was agreed that more than 50% “of the cost in all classes of weddings” could be attributed to these gifts (84). It was left up to the bride’s parents to determine the value of said gifts, according to their means, and Oldenburg notes that the higher castes, including Brahmins, seemed especially in favor of keeping this category of expenses vague and unregulated. It appears that both British and high-caste officials had underlying interests in marriage expenses, and dowry temporarily slipped the colonial regulatory noose. These meetings exemplify the gap in understanding between the politics of colonization and the cultural practices over which they attempt to regulate.

Colonial Influence on the Caste System – the Rise of the Middle Class

          In which groups are dowry issues the most prevalent? According to S. Pothen’s Divorce in Hindu Society (1989), “[the practice of dowry] is highest among Vaishyas, Jains and Kayasthas. Among the Maharashtriyan Brahmins, lower castes and tribals, dowry is not a significant issue” (383). Jains are traditionally of the merchant class; Vaishyas, historically farmers and cattle raisers eventually also became merchants; Kayasthas are the traditional scribe class. These groups could be equated to India’s middle class. In this context, Pothen’s assertion makes sense: the rich and high castes don’t worry about dowry – high class status is not dependent on great wealth anyway – and the poor can’t really afford it. It is the burgeoning middle class working toward upward mobility that cares the most about status increase. The change from a largely agrarian to a capitalist society, spurred on by the British, allowed the merchant class increased wealth that could be used to entice higher-caste men to marry their daughters. In Mobility in the Nineteenth Century Caste System (1968), William Rowe researched caste system mobility in the nineteenth century, and asserts that the British exacerbated the already extant desires for upward caste mobility when Mr. H. Risley “instituted a ranking of castes in order of their social precedence for the 1901 census” (202). This especially affected Kayasthas, who Risley demoted to Sudra status, the lowest class in the caste system.

          Caste claims became a dividing mechanism. Rowe says that this led to certain sub-castes not only separating themselves from other sub-castes, but even “deny[ing] relationships with ‘backward’ sections if the socioeconomic level or special circumstances of the caste make general mobility of the total caste unlikely” (203). Many of these attempts at status elevation recorded by census officials were not successful, which Rowe attributes to “inconsistent judgments of the district-administered ‘committees’ appointed by the government census officials to evaluate claims” (204). In other words, a claim could be upheld in one district but rejected in another. Caste publications exploded with “fight[s] over caste precedence,” though caste conferences provided the only formally recognized “vehicle for social reform.” This attests to the emphasis placed on upward mobility and its exacerbation due to British interference.

        The avenue of elevation through matrimony was not overlooked. The expansion of caste endogamy was suggested in many caste publications by Kayasthas (Kashatriyas) especially, the point of which being to “extend effectively the boundaries of the marriage network,” which Rowe attributes to a decree passed earlier in the 20th century that restricted how many Kshatriya scribes were to be hired in government service, thereby limiting their economic mobility (206). With fewer jobs to go around, wealth acquisition through dowry became more important than ever.

Modernization, Dowry, and the Conclusion


Siwan Anderson’s research (2003) into why dowry has increased in India but decreased in other parts of the world reveals the relationship between the caste system and the prevalence of dowry within it. He notes that dowry appears in societies that “exhibit substantial socioeconomic differentiation and class stratification… [where] marriage practices are typically monogamous, patrilineal, and endogamous,” which basically describes India (271). Polygamy thrived in India because of class stratification, the resulting desire for a family’s upward mobility, and the need for families to marry off their daughters. Multiple daughters could be married to one man, and the woman would stay in her natal home, where the groom could visit whenever he needed to exact additional capital. As earlier noted, dowry can be a significant financial portion of a marriage. The financial burden that is dowry, according to Anderson, has increased over 14 times from 1920-1980, and “has spread geographically and socially… into regions and communities in which it was never practiced before” (270). Anderson asserts that the spread and inflation of dowry are externalities of modernization.

      Legislation like the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 has not stemmed the inflation of dowry, nor has it reduced the number of dowry deaths. According to Anderson’s research, this would make sense because India still operates under a caste system in which marriage remains a viable option for a family wishing to increase social mobility. In fact, legislation regulating marriage, divorce, and dowry in a society that depends upon these traditional institutions as a means for regulating status will go primarily unobserved as long as strict class stratifications continue to exist. British colonization only served to make the situation worse, because the desire to exploit Indian resources to generate capital changed the economy from agrarian-based to an industrial model. This modernization increased the dispersion of wealth and created a middle class with the  financial resources with which to perpetuate the dowry system in their efforts to climb the status ladder. In their quest to “civilize” and unify India, they interfered with long-established social mechanisms that, although not perfect, operated well within a caste-based system as long as wealth was concentrated at the top. To outlaw polygamy and dowry while endorsing divorce might have been more effective in a society that, according to Anderson, was not based on caste. In other words, the British brought their cultural and societal values to a land where the culture and societal values were not only older, but completely different. They abhorred the practices of the caste system, while at the same time endorsing the caste system itself.

In Contentious Traditions, (1987) Lata Mani discusses the tendency of British colonial officials to validate Brahmanic practices by using their scriptures to draft legislation and allowing higher castes to govern localities – that “officials could insist… that brahmanic… scriptures were prescriptive texts containing rules of social behavior… [and] they could institutionalize their assumptions… by making these texts the basis of personal law” (122). In other words, the “Sanskritization” (brahmanic texts were written in Sanskrit) of laws governing social behavior paired with British unifying efforts precipitated the spread of certain practices all over India where they were not practiced before – practices like dowry. Modernization and the distribution of new wealth in lower castes enticed higher-caste grooms to marry lower-caste daughters more frequently and, since they could only now exact dowry from one bride at a time, innovation was needed to continue to amass wealth. This innovation emerged in the form of dowry murder.

Cited Sources

Anderson, Siwan. “Why Dowry Payments Declined with Modernization in Europe but Are Rising in India”. Journal of Political Economy 111.2 (2003): 269–310. Web…

Blunt, E.A.H. Caste System of Northern India. S.l.: Isha, 2009. Print.

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“Consideration.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016.

Englishman. “Hindoo Polygamy.” The Pioneer [Allahabad] 5 Apr. 1867: 6. World Newspaper Archive. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <>.

Mani, Lata. “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India”. Cultural Critique 7 (1987): 119–156. Web. 19 Jan 2016.

Newman, Alizabeth. “For Richer, For Poorer, Til Death Do Us Part: India’s Response to Dowry Deaths.” ILSA Journal of International Law 15 (1992): 109-144. Web. 03 May 2016.

Oldenburg, Veena Talwar. Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Pothen, S. “Divorce in Hindu Society”. Journal of Comparative Family Studies 20.3 (1989): 377–392. Web. 05 May 2016.

Risley, Herbert Hope, and William Crooke. The People of India. Delhi: Oriental Reprint; Exclusively Distributed by Munshiram Manoharlal, 1969. Print.

Rowe, William L. “Mobility in the Nineteenth-Century Caste System.” Structure and change in Indian society (1968): 201-207.

Tanwar, Reicha. Dowry, the North Indian Perspective. Gurgaon: Hope India, 2007. Print.




Stacy Dulan is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, worked in the professional music industry as a singer, songwriter and vocal producer, and recently received her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from UC Berkeley. She currently resides in her hometown of Oakland, CA, where she is embarking on a new professional journey with the Veterans Administration to enhance the lives of psychologically compromised vets. Stacy is also in the process of undergoing yoga teacher training with the long-term goal of combining yoga and music therapy to support veterans. She is an enthusiastic gardener and loves craft beer.




Thea Gahr is an artist and printmaker who works both collectively and individually to influence a cultural shift towards a socially just and environmentally sound world. Using conscious visual storytelling to connect emotional response to a heart based intelligence. She works with Justseeds Artist Cooperative, Escuela de Cultura Popular Martires del 68, Colectivo Cordyceps, and the Furia de las Calles. She is currently living in Oregon.

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