Caste, Marriage, and Population in India


“Religion, caste, and language are major determinants of social and political organization in India today. Although 82% of the people are Hindu, India also is the home of more than 120 million Muslims—the world’s third largest Muslim population. The population also includes Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and Parsis.

The caste system reflects Indian occupational and religiously defined hierarchies. Traditionally, there are four broad categories of castes (varnas), including a category of outcastes, earlier called “untouchables” but now commonly referred to as “dalits.” Within these broad categories there are thousands of castes and subcastes, whose relative status varies from region to region. Despite economic modernization and laws countering discrimination against the lower end of the class structure, the caste system remains an important source of social identification for most Hindus and a potent factor in the political life of the country. “(

Caste is seen as having originated from the Veda – the Hindu holy texts. In essence, the Brahmin priests of the invading Aryan tribes wanted to consolidate their position on power, so they created a complicated system of caste and social order that dictated not only whom one could marry and what kind of work one could do, but also what one may or may not eat. This caste system is still practiced today, with the Brahmins still being the highest caste.

We saw how caste played an important – even an over-riding – role in Indian life. It dictates social rites, customs, laws of marriage, availability of work, and what type of work that one is “suited” to do.

Caste is an important factor in determining one’s work. Of course, the lower castes are often kept to jobs that are physically demanding or that are deemed “dirty.” Low pay accompanies these “low” jobs. Because those in the lower castes often have a hard time earning enough to survive, their children are not sent to school because they are needed as extra labor. Because the children are uneducated, they would not even be able to do other high-paying jobs, even if it were allowed. And the cycle continues.

I’ll take one example of how caste functions. We saw it immediately upon our arrival in India, at our first hotel in Delhi. The hotel reception asked for our room key when we left the hotel. When we returned and asked for it back, the man at the reception (who had the room keys hanging on a board behind his chair) would never condescend to pick up the room key himself (even though he didn’t even have to move his chair to reach it). He would call across the room to another man (who might even have to come down the stairs, if he was busy upstairs) and ask him to get our room key for us. The first man at the counter would have to squeeze his chair in while the other man reached behind his back to pick up the key. It all took an infinitely longer time and infinitely more trouble, but both men had their duties, and the first one had to make it clear that he was above the other one on the social scale!


Officially, 95% of Indian marriages are arranged marriages, though many people believe the real percentage is even higher. Marriages are typically arranged by the parents – either through a friend or acquaintance of the family or, for wealthier families, through Matrimonial Ads in the newspaper (the Indian equivalent of personal ads).

One example of a typical Matrimonial Ad reads as follows:
“Handsome, well-educated, fair man, 32 years of age, of Brahmin class in Delhi, living in the U.S.A., looking for beautiful, slim, fair, 21-year old woman who speaks English and has a job, preferably in an office.”

As the above example illustrates, caste is still very much a factor in determining one’s marriage partner. For Hindus, the holy Veda scripts dictate whom one may or may not marry. It is almost always necessary to marry someone of the same caste. Oftentimes, a groom’s family chooses a bride of a lower social standing to be sure that she will be sufficiently dependant on him when they marry.

Most couples do not meet each other before the marriage, or if they do, it is perhaps one or two times, usually with the family in attendance. This is slowly starting to change in the middle to upper classes, however (the upper 10% of the population). Couples sometimes have a chance to get to know each other before they decide, even though it is still typically their parents that set them up. Others, even rarer, are allowed to meet a prospective partner on their own. This occurs mostly with Indians that live abroad, however.

The two daughters of the couple that we stayed with in Calcutta had lived most of their lives abroad, and one now lives in England, while the other lives in the United States. They are not only allowed to date and look for a spouse, but they are encouraged to do so. The parents say that it is better for the children to find their own partners, rather than having a traditional arranged marriage. Their eldest daughter just married a Turkish Jew that she met while in college in the United States!

This, however, is still extremely rare. Even those Indians that study or work abroad typically come back to India for an arranged marriage – and if they still live abroad, they then bring their spouse back to their adopted country with them. Even if you would think that living in the West would encourage Indians to look for a “love marriage,” it is often the reverse. Because of their education in countries such as England or the United States, for example, they are seen as more desirable back in India, and thus can command a higher dowry price. This drives up dowry prices all around.

The trend has seen dowry prices rising astronomically, and this is spreading even to the lower classes (Although the practice of paying dowry is illegal, it is still widely practiced, and is indeed growing). This can put a strain on well-to-do families and may prove to be catastrophic for poor families. Oftentimes, a girl’s dowry can bankrupt the bride’s family, and the groom’s family may ask for even more. If a bride’s family is unable to pay more, her life at her in-laws (the wife always leaves her parents’ home to go live at her in-laws’ house) can become nightmarish. If she is really unlucky, her husband and his family may engage in “bride burning” – attempted murder in order to get a higher dowry. In fact, if the first wife is dispensed with, the husband is then free to look for another bride, who will hopefully bring a higher dowry to the family. Although this practice is certainly not common and although many in the upper class will deny it, it still occurs throughout India, even in the large cities (for example, at the rate of about one per day in the capital of Delhi).

Aside from the daughter of Dipak and Aruna in Calcutta, every person that we met in India had an arranged marriage. Marriage was often viewed as a business deal between families. The typical first question that we would hear once people found out that Stephane and I were married was, “Do you have a love marriage?” Others, typically those 35 and older, would sometimes be surprised that our parents didn’t arrange a marriage for us, and didn’t understand how it could be so. Some people hesitantly asked us if that meant that we loved each other, and when we said yes, they didn’t always know what they were supposed to believe (the concept of love is very foreign in Indian marriages). One man that wanted me to share an afternoon of “love” with him asked me unbelievingly when I refused, “Well, do you really like him THAT much?” .

The legal age to be married in India is the age of 18, but that law is little heeded. It is not at all uncommon – especially in the rural villages – for young girls to be married at the age of 14. The men are typically older, although not necessarily.

The largest difference between marriages in India and marriages in most of the West is, of course, that marriages in India are typically arranged. Love is seen as having little or nothing to do with marriage. The view is that it is better to find a nice person that you can life with, and if you’re lucky, love will come later. In other words, you can learn to love that person.

Many Indians believe that this system is better than the one we have in the West. They point to the high divorce rate in Western countries as indicative of the failure of our system and of the failure of “love marriages,” which often burn out. As some Indians say, Westerners expect too much of their spouse when they get married – they expect them to be a good spouse, a lover, a friend, a bread-winner, and to fulfill many other roles. They expect too much from marriage, they say, and then when something goes wrong and the other person doesn’t live up to our high expectations, we get disappointed and hurt and ultimately file for divorce. That is why, in the eyes of many Indians, arranged marriages are ultimately better than love marriages.


India’s population is approximately 1.1 billion people. It is only the second country in the world – after China – to have crossed the one billion mark. India’s population rose by 21.34 % between 1991 – 2001.

India accounts for some 2.4 percent of the world’s landmass but is home to about 16 percent of the global population. The magnitude of the annual increase in population can be seen in the fact that India adds almost the total population of Australia or Sri Lanka every year. A study of India’s population notes that India has more people than all of Africa and also more than North America and South America together. Between 1947 and 1991, India’s population more than doubled.

Nearly 625 million, or 73.9 percent, of Indians live in more than 550,000 villages, and the remainder in more than 200 towns and cities. The people live in what are called villages of less than 5,000 people or in scattered hamlets and other rural settlements. Around 221 million, or 26.1 percent, of Indian’s population lived in urban areas. Bombay and Calcutta are the two largest cities, with populations of 16 million and 18 million, respectively (based on 2000 numbers). Calcutta is the world’s most densely packed metropolis.

“Throughout the twentieth century, India has been in the midst of a demographic transition. At the beginning of the century, endemic disease, periodic epidemics, and famines kept the death rate high enough to balance out the high birth rate. Between 1911 and 1920, the birth and death rates were virtually equal. The increasing impact of curative and preventive medicine (especially mass inoculations) brought a steady decline in the death rate. Almost 40% of Indians are younger than 15 years of age. Clearly, the future configuration of India’s population (indeed the future of India itself) depends on what happens to the birth rate.” (

India’s average population density is higher than that of any other nation of comparable size. The highest densities are not only in heavily urbanized regions but also in areas that are mostly agricultural. By 1991 there were 267 persons per square kilometer–up almost 25 percent from the 1981 population density.

Those states with the smallest rural populations proportionately were the states of Gujarat (65.5 percent), Maharashtra (61.3 percent), and Goa (58.9 percent) – three of the four states that we biked through. Even though we biked through these states, we were still expecting that we would never be alone (after looking at demographics and hearing other travelers’ accounts). However, we were able to find many places in India that were away from the cities and towns, and indeed passed much time between Bombay and Goa alone on the road, with very little vehicle traffic or people to keep us company. Sometimes, hours at a time would go by before any other vehicle would drive by. In certain areas (especially outside of Rajasthan), it was easier to find camping spots away from the towns, where no one would bother you or crowd around your tent in curiosity early in the morning. The fact that we could be alone in India surprised us!

Although it was possible to find quiet areas in India, certain states in the north were still densely populated. It is said that if the state of Uttar Pradesh (in which the Taj Mahal is located) were a nation-state in its own right, it would be the eight largest country in the world in terms of population.

Certain cities in India are so densely populated that you even have trouble walking in the streets. We had pedestrian traffic jams several times in Delhi – there were so many people in the streets that we were unable to move in one direction or the other! We once sat a good 15 or 20 minutes in an auto-rickshaw, waiting to cross a busy intersection. The traffic was LITERALLY “bumper-to-bumper”, with no room for even pedestrians to cross the street – they were stuck just like everybody else in the middle of the intersections with the motorcycles and cows and rickshaws! No one at all was moving, except inches at a time. Rear-ending another vehicle (even a bicycle!) didn’t even cause the driver to turn around, because it happened all the time!

We saw a similar gathering of people when we climbed the mountain at Champaner with 200,000 Hindu pilgrims. The crowd was so large and compact at some points that it just moved you along – you had no choice but to move with it. And if you’ve never seen 200,000 people climb a mountainside at the same time, it sure is something to see!

I think that there are few other places in the world where you could find crowds like you do in India!