Social Alteration in the Institution of Marriage in India

By Pravesh Aggarwal, RGNUL

Editor’s Note: This paper attempts to discuss the social alterations in the institution of marriage in India. Specifically, the author discusses the concepts of child marriage, Endogamy and Exogamy from a historical perspective and analyses the changes that have taken place over these years.  The paper also deals with the various legislative provisions which have brought this change.


Marriage is defined as legalized union between a man and a woman; it is a socially recognised and approved relationship.[i] Through the ancient Indian society to the present scenario, marriage was regarded as a highly sacred institution which involves meeting of the minds between the spouses for material as well as psychological satisfaction. It’s a meeting of two families in terms of the bond which they create between them. However, various changes have been observed through the passage of time in the way this institution is perceived and practice. Many people have taken a detour from the traditional social practice associated with practice like taking cognizance of endogamy and exogamy as per family customs, and indulging in child marriage. In traditional times, inter-caste marriage used to be prohibited in many sections of societies, and practices like bigamy and adultery prevailed therein. With the reorganization and reconstruction in the society, these practices have taken a backseat, through social recognition as well as legislative enforcement.

Child Marriage in India

a) Historical Scenario

Child Marriage was one of the most common practices that were commonly practiced in Ancient India, especially for girls who were made to marry adults. In the earliest known history of India, young women and men rejoiced a liberal concept of love and they had the freedom to choose a partner and enter into romantic relationships with each other without any fear of scandal.

However, from Middle Age, as states and government developed, the political system elaborated and modified the Indian society gradually. It transformed the lifestyle and opinion of its people from a simple to more complex form, restricting significantly the notion of liberty. Women lost their rights and had to obey rules and respect the code be behaviour. They were now subject to family discipline and the honour of their clan. Since young women were considered irresponsible and irrational in love, parents married them early before they got caught into any scandal. Though, age at which the girl was to be married differed and it was rare for girls younger than 12 to be married in antiquity. Nevertheless, girl brides became younger towards the medieval period, and it became increasingly common for girls as young as 6 or 8 to be married as Indian society. The prime concern of negotiating the marriage was to find out the compatibility between the two families. It was believed during those times that if two persons know each other right from childhood it enhanced understanding and affection. Hence parents decided on the marriages of their children at a very early age although the daughter stayed with her parents until she attained the age of puberty.[ii]

The most common belief was that father should marry off his daughter while she is still nagnika (literally naked), the age before attaining puberty. Such pre-puberty marriage was considered pious, and it became a part of Brahamanical cultural ethos, and thus it received elitist acclaim and social honour.[iii] A theory was put forwarded by K.M. Kapadia, known as the theory of samskara, beginning from pregnancy till death. A good number of these rites refer to purification and a girl prior to attainment of puberty is considered pious and worthy of marriage. The lower castes have imitated this idea of child marriage from the upper caste considering it as a Sanskritic act and indicator of social prestige.[iv] These ideologies influenced the ancient as well as contemporary societies to a great extent and collectively raised the number of child marriages in India.

b) Changes in Present Scenario

The number of child marriages in India has undergone a radical change, i.e. the age at majority has gone up. Such changes have been reflected in the modern and urban societies and the situation has been improving in rural areas. A UN body has said that there has been a decline in the rate of child marriages among young girls in India.[v] Such changes through light on the social alteration in the exercise of child marriage, and notwithstanding the fact child marriages still prevail in India, but such number has declined sharply as compared with the trend followed in ancient times.

c) Social Evils related to Child Marriage

There have been many serious consequences that have been associated with child marriage that have been the major factors for its declining trend. The causes and consequences of child marriage are intrinsically linked, including girl’s lack of autonomy and low levels of education, poor health status, poverty and overall low socio-economic status.

Minor girls are abruptly exposed to sex and they’re abused and exploited sexually because when a child bride is married she is likely to be forced into sexual activity with her husband, and at an age where the bride is not physically and sexually mature it causes severe health consequences. Girls ages l0-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20-24.[vi] It is a huge responsibility for a young girl to become a wife and mother and because girls are not adequately prepared to face these roles which demand a lot of maturity and a big sense of responsibility. Naturally, this heavy burden has a serious impact on their psychological welfare as well as their physical welfare. Many women in Indian society believed that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife when she is young and was subjected to domestic violence. Thus, there has been serious denial of rights of the women which aggravated their situation in all aspects.

Early marriages in India have resulted in increasing divorce between the two spouses due to lack of mutual compatibility between them caused due to the age difference. In addition, they often had to face discrimination by the society since it was believed that a woman is responsible for the death of her husband, despite the fact that such death has been caused due to the biological process and has nothing to do with society. Thus, these widows suffered a loss in their stature in the society and denial of their property rights.

d) Reformation brought for improvement

The various social evils, highlighted above, had created a necessity of bringing an alteration in such practice to curb the escalating menace against the women. It is realized that pre-puberty marriage is harmful on health grounds and increases the widow population in the country. Reformation in the level of education received by the girls has been the most important factor for imparting the knowledge of rights and power which they have under the law and could debar their exploitation in the hands of men.

Further, the burgeoning employment rate for women in various sectors have raised their economic and financial situation, making them less dependent on men for carrying out various activities as well as meeting their needs imperative for their growth and development. The girls have themselves come towards the selection of their mates, unlike in the contemporary times, where the girl’s parent used to choose her life partner without her consent and wishes and there were no chances for her to escape the clutches of child marriage.

There has been a realization to the fact that it is necessary for the couples to be mature enough to earn their living and enjoy a healthy life. When both men and women are to set up independent households, both man and woman have to be mature in both mind and soul. With the age of industrialization and urbanization as well as growing shift from joint family to nuclear family, many families have to reside in neolocal residence, instead of depending on their parents for their earning. Such living could only be ensured if the spouses are intellectually capable enough to not only earn their living but also interact in the social environment with maturity to raise their social standing necessary for their overall development. Such maturity comes with age and hence many people have started increased the age limit before which thy refuse to marry. (Has

There have been various legislative enforcements to curb the problems associated with the child marriage. The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 was initially introduced by the Government of India which was repealed at later stage. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 was introduced with the following objectives:-

  1. To create awareness on the consequences of child marriage on overall development of girl child.
  2. To analyze the existing constitutional and legal measures against child marriage.
  3. To analyze the situation and provide suggestive strategies to prevent child marriage.
  4. To expose the extent to which the practice is in vogue.
  5. To suggest ways and means to eradicate the practice from society and also prevent it to the extent possible.[vii]

Thus, it can be analyzed that changes in the outlook, values, occupation, migration, and regulatory mechanism imposed through the enactment of laws have contributed to the higher age at marriage.

Endogamy and Exogamy

Forms of Exogamy found in India:-

  • Gotra
  • Pravar- religious and spiritual bond
  • Village
  • Pinda

Forms of Endogamy:-

  • Tribal
  • Caste
  • Class
  • Sub Caste
  • Race

Endogamy was prevalent in many parts of the India, especially in the rural sector. Endogamy, also called in-marriage, custom enjoining one to marry within one’s own group. The penalties for transgressing endogamous restrictions have varied greatly among cultures and have ranged from death to mild disapproval.[viii] Such type of marriage held relevance for maintaining the purity and sanctity of the kinship lineage and to prevent any external influence of social customs and traditions. In earlier times, people had supreme and devout faith in the customs, traditions and the religion which they practiced and did not interfere with it. Due to the universal fear of the stranger, many families were endogamous. They wanted to preserve their territorial and linguistic unit.

The practice of endogamy was preferred over exogamy in ancient India as it entailed a preference of getting married within the same lineage and hence results in mutual understanding in terms of social practices and customs pervading in the society. In ancient India, a Brahmin could only marry a Brahmin. A person belonging from a lower class could not marry a person belonging from an upper caste. For example, a labourer could not marry a person from an industrialist class, notwithstanding the fact they had love and willingness to marry with each other or not. The status reflected the way the marriage were to be instituted and posed heavy burden on the people to marry those who shared similarity in status in society.

Another reason that was the cause of endogamous marriages was denial of opportunities for the people to interact with people outside their caste, especially in tribal and rural areas. People were generally not sent outside their villages for work and engage in other activities. Such shortage of avenues for the people resulted in marriages within the same castes.

However, such trend has been declining with the passage of time due to change in the outlook of the people, as well as the biological problems associated with such marriages. Inter-caste marriages have increased with the passage of time. There have been multiple instances wherein people of different classes are marrying to each other and leading a subtle life. This shows that more people have shifted to exogamous marriages with fewer restrictions that persisted before in both types of marriages.

a) Causes and effects of such changes

There have been major changes in the endogamous relations of marriage, particularly in caste, class and race endogamy. Endogamous marriages restrict and limit the choice of the people to choose their life partner. Generally, such restriction leads to the decline of welfare of the concerned spouses and often leads to conflicts and fights due to lack of mutual compatibility between them. There were large number of cases reported of domestic violence and divorce due to such endogamous marriage. Thus, endogamy restricts the freedom of the person to choose beyond once caste, class and sub-caste.

Endogamous marriages destroy the family origination of the hierarchy wherein each individual should occupy a specific and a particular position in the society. If a person is an uncle as well as some other relative of the other person, it becomes complicated and difficult to give a definite position to a person in such society and leads to confusion. Moreover, his role widens with more statuses in a family and thus, has to perform multiple functions to meet those statuses. This leads to lot of burden and stress and eventually leads to family disorganization.

Such problems associated with endogamy paved the way for exogamous marriages. The inter-caste marriages have received encouragement due to occupational mobility, migration, education, and common place of work for both men and women in offices and factories. Many people thus get a chance to interact with different people and develop intimacy with them which eventually results in their marriage.

b) Various Legislative Provisions

The endogamous marriages existed due to the traditions and customs prevailing in the different societies. They were never enforced upon any law in the sense that law did not impose any strict liability in case of non-failure to abide by such conduct. But earlier, law also never provided any measures to propel in a different direction by encouraging exogamy.

However, in recent times, multiple legislations have been passed to provide scope for marrying outside the caste group. These provide legal and socially approved sanctions to the people to purse exogamy without the fear of the society. The Special Marriage Act, 1872 (The Special Marriage Act, 1954 is an Indian legislation enacted by the Parliament of India to provide a special form of marriage for the people of India and all Indian nationals in foreign countries, irrespective of the religion or faith followed by either party) had allowed a man to contract a legal marriage with a person not belonging to his own endogamous group. The Arya Samajists who believed in the varna scheme wanted to do away with the caste restrictions for marriage. The Arya Samaj Validity Act, 1938 legalized inter-caste marriage among the Arya Samajists in British India.[ix] The Hindu Marriage Removal Act of 1949 sought to remove all disabilities arising from belonging to different castes, religion, sub-castes and sects. The acts passed in the British India were introduced some autonomy for the individual to choose their life partners.

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 has also removed the exogamous restriction of gotra and the endogamous restriction of caste from the criteria of valid marriage.[x] Under the same act, dissolution of a marriage is permitted all over the country by a decree of dissolution on the petition filed by the aggrieved party on the grounds (which are generally employed) that the other spouse is (i) living in adultery, (ii) has been of unsound mind, (iii) has been for the some years suffering from any virulent disease, and (iv) has not been heard for the past seven years. There are other valid grounds for divorce, but all such grounds completely ignore rule of caste endogamy and clan exogamy.

Thus, it could be highlighted that various forms of marriage like endogamy and exogamy have been undergoing various changes and has illuminated chances for the individual for increasing the choices for choosing their life partners.

Edited by Hariharan Kumar

[i]       Bryan Strong, Christine Devault and Theodore F Cohen. The Marriage and Family Experience. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005, p. 147.

[ii]       Jaya Sagade. Child marriage in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005, p.116, Print.

[iii]      K. L. Sharma. Indian Social Structure and Change. 1st ed. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007, p.86.

[iv]      Kanailal Motilal Kapadia. Marriage and Family in India. 1st ed. [Bombay: Indian Branch, Oxford University Press, 1966, p.134, Print.

[v]       The Economic Times,. ‘Child Marriages on Decline In India: UN Report’. N. p., 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <>.

[vi],. ‘Child Marriage Factsheet: State Of World Population 2005 – UNFPA’. N. p., 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <>.

[vii],. ‘The Prohibition Of Child Marriage Act , 2006’. N. p., 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <>.

[viii]     Encyclopedia Britannica,. ‘Endogamy (Sociology)’. N. p., 2014. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <>.

[ix]      William F. Ogburn, and Meyer F Nimkoff. Sociology. 1st ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964, p.132, Print.

[x]       Ibid.

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