Mass marriages in Indian hill state counter evils of dowry system

by AFP/Baldev S Chauhan, Nov 7, 2002 | Destinations: India / Shimla

SHIMLA, India, Nov 7, 2002 - With winter in the air, the northern Indian hill state of Himachal Pradesh is gearing up to hold its annual mass wedding ceremony under which brides and grooms are banned from giving or accepting dowries, said the wedding planners.

Bali Ram Bharadwaj, an 81-year-old Hindu priest at the ancient Hatkoti Temple, 110 kilometers (68 miles) north of the state capital Shimla, said he expected 100-odd couples to participate in the mass wedding ceremony on Sunday.

"A record number of young couples will marry in this unique style. The mass wedding ceremony will stand out for its simplicity and lack of expense," said Bhardwaj.

"The brides' parents who are mostly poor will not pay any dowry to the boy's family. There will be no exchange of money or expensive gifts," he added.

According to India's pernicious marriage system, the groom fetches a lavish dowry -- the sum given by a bride's family to the bridegroom's family at the time of marriage.

The dowry system, which is strongly entrenched in most parts of India except in the north-east of the country, was outlawed by the government in the early 1980s after hundreds of women were burnt by their husbands for not bringing enough dowry.

Though there is a law prohibiting the giving or accepting of dowries, the practice still flourishes among several communities in male-dominated north India.

The evils of the dowry system have left some Indian couples with a marked preference for sons. Worried by soaring marriage costs, the girl child is still unwanted by some parents who opt for illegal prenatal sex-determination tests just to abort the female foetus.

The latest census figures sent alarm bells ringing after they showed that the ratio of girls per 1,000 boys in the age group of zero to six had fallen from an average of 955 in 1991 in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab, to below 900.

Haryana has only 861 women for 1,000 men as against a national average of 933 women per 1,000 men.

However, the winds of change have been blowing through the land and an increasing number of men and women say they will have nothing to do with India's dowry system.

"I was determined to marry in a simple way. The venue here was absolutely tailormade for my needs," said Nagendra Ranta, 34, a television journalist, who recently opted for a simple marriage in the 1,200-year-old Hatkoti Temple.

"Initially, my friends and relatives were annoyed with me for not organising the standard big show but many of them now respect my stand. They say my marriage should be an example for other young men," he added.

Reetima Tegta, 22, who will be a bride in Sunday's ceremony, added that she would not have opted to marry in any other way.

"It is an immense pleasure to get married knowing full well that I will not be burdening my parents with having to pay a dowry. They have been spared all the heavy expenses of a traditional marriage," said Tegta.

High priest Bharadwaj added that growing demand for weddings Hatkoti-style had forced him to organise several this winter.

"We have such a large number of requests to arrange mass weddings that this winter we plan to hold four ceremonies until early December," said Bhardwaj.

"I am confident that other temples will follow our lead in other parts of India to help counter social evils like the dowry system."

Gulab Sharma, another priest at Hatkoti, added that Hindus from the neighbouring state of Uttaranchal also flocked to their temple.

"Couples have been coming to Hatkoti from the tribal-belt in Kinnaur and the adjoining Uttaranchal hills," said Sharma.

"Hatkoti wore a deserted look in the early days but now it is bustling with activity after emerging as one of the country's most popular mass marriage centres," he added.

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