Recently I came across the concept of bride price (sociologists like to call it bride wealth), in which the groom pays a certain amount of wealth to the bride’s parents at the time of marriage. This is in contrast to dowry, where wealth is given to the daughter by her parents for ‘setting up the house’.
I was not a complete stranger to the term, to be sure. In Andhra Pradesh, where I grew up, a writer called Gurazada Apparao wrote a play called Kanyasulkam, which deals with the twin practices of child marriage and bride price. Both the play and the movie adapted from it are still considered classics in the Telugu art landscape, and I’ve watched them both many times.
What surprised me, though, are two revelations: one, this is not a strictly Indian or Eastern practice; and two, this is not a social evil that it is often pointed out to be. The evil, as always, comes not from the system but from the people practicing it.
In Ancient Mesopotamia
The Code of Hammurabi is a manuscript of law codes defining rules of life and social structure in ancient Mesopotamia, dated at around 1772 B.C. It is considered one of the earliest pieces of deciphered writings of significant length in the world. There are mentions of both bride price and dowry. Many societies in history appear to have practiced both customs at the same time.
See this link for a modern translation of certain sections of the code. I will reproduce the relevant sections here:
159. If a man, who has presented a gift to the house of his prospective father-in-law and has given the bride-price, has afterward looked upon another woman and has said to his father-in-law, “I will not marry your daughter”; the father of the girl shall keep whatever he has brought as a present.
160. If a man has presented a gift to the house of his prospective father-in-law, and has given the bride-price, but the father of the girl has said, “I will not give you my daughter,” the father shall return double all that was presented him.
161. If a man has presented a gift to the house of his prospective father-in-law, and has given the bride-price, but his comrade has slandered him and his father-in-law has said to the suitor, “You shall not marry my daughter,” [the father] shall return double all that was presented him. Further, the comrade shall not marry the girl.
Notice that the page makes references to ‘marriage-portion’ as well, which refers to dowry as we know it today.
In Ancient Greece
In the Iliad and the Odyssey, there are passing references to both bride price and dowry, suggesting that they were acceptable and widely followed social customs of that age. A short excerpt from the Iliad, Book 9, where Agamemnon says:
Then, when we reach Achaean Argos, wealthiest of all lands, he shall be my son-in-law and I will show him like honour with my own dear son Orestes, who is being nurtured in all abundance. I have three daughters, Chrysothemis, Laodice, and lphianassa, let him take the one of his choice, freely and without gifts of wooing, to the house of Peleus; I will add such dower to boot as no man ever yet gave his daughter, and will give him seven well established cities, Cardamyle, Enope, and Hire, where there is grass; holy Pherae and the rich meadows of Anthea; Aepea also, and the vine-clad slopes of Pedasus, all near the sea, and on the borders of sandy Pylos.
The words ‘gifts of wooing’ and ‘dower’ refer, obviously, to bride price and dowry respectively.
In the Mahabharata
We see the practice of bride price extensively in the Mahabharata, though not much evidence of dowry. When Bhishma goes to ask for Satyavati’s hand in marriage to his father, King Shantanu, he is said to have taken with him carts of jewels and grain. Later, when he goes to the land of Madra to forge an alliance for Madri, he is again described as bringing enormous riches: elephants, rare gemstones, silk garments and the like.
Misogyny or Pragmatism?
A commonly held modern view is that all these societies were misogynistic and looked at women as nothing more than objects to be traded back and forth for material goods. And yet, in each of the three examples, there is enough evidence from other writings that women held influential positions and were well respected. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Goddesses assume at least as much importance as Gods, and not just feminine, maternal Gods. There is room for wisdom and knowledge (Athene), warfare (the Amazonian princesses) and sexuality (Aphrodite).
There is another way to interpret this practice. Throughout history, women have needed special legal status and protection in various forms. The fact that women are able to get pregnant and men aren’t puts women in a vulnerable social position. The laws of bride price may just have been put in place so that the suitor would prove his worth before marriage. He must prove – especially to the father of the bride – that he is financially stable enough to provide for his family.
In modern life, the girl’s father sits down with his daughter’s prospective suitor and asks about his job. A marriageable girl’s parents always make it a point to inquire about the wealth and property details of the ‘boy’s side’. (The boy’s parents also make enquiries, but the focus is on the girl’s ‘character’.)
Interestingly, the modern Western practice of buying an engagement ring for a girl to ‘ask her to marry you’ could be seen as an exhibition of wealth. ‘I can afford to buy this expensive ring,’ the boy says, ‘so you won’t have to worry about being provided for.’ It’s quite another matter that the money spent in this way goes to the jeweller, and also that many young men take on debt to buy an expensive enough ring.
Lapses in practice
There is no doubt, however, that though the intention of bride price is that of protection of women – and it must have achieved that for the most part for it to have survived for so many centuries – the practice of it has led to unfortunate happenings. Here are two, taken out of our own Mahabharata.
1. Parents of ‘in demand’ brides tended to ask for exorbitant or unreasonable amounts and promises as bride price, which coloured relationships down the line. An example of this is the negotiation of bride-price for Satyavati that happens between her father and Bhishma. It could be argued that this is the central reason for the Mahabharata happening the way it did.
2. Suitors who could not afford the bride price resorted to abduction and even rape, in the hope that it would force the parents into marriage. Paradoxically, then, a system that was supposed to protect women ended up harming them as a side-effect. When Bhishma goes to Kasi to win the hands of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, he gives a speech in which he proclaims abduction as a ‘legal’ form of marriage, approved by the elders. His act of ‘winning’ the three princesses is a form of abduction, especially in the case of Amba because it was against her will.
1. Both dowry and bride price have been accepted social customs throughout history, not just in India but around the world.
2. There is nothing inherently wrong in the concept of bride price. Indeed, it is possible that the system has evolved that way to protect women.
3. But there are significant problems that arose due to how people began to exploit the system. In that sense, it is nothing different from any other law which has bad side effects despite the best intentions.