In my five-plus years living in Europe, there have been many times when my friends and neighbours were taken by surprise at hearing that my marriage was arranged. Did you know each other before? How could you agree to spend the rest of your life with a person you just met? To all of them I have always said, “My marriage was arranged, but not forced.”
Arranged marriages have been part of the Indian and South Asian culture for centuries. The dictionary describes arranged marriage as a wedding planned and agreed upon by the families or guardians of the couples concerned. It is a process whereby the parents actively participate in the matchmaking process for a couple. The idea is often to ensure that a son or daughter marries within the community or the religion he or she belongs to. So in an arranged Muslim or a Hindu wedding, the bride and the groom would belong to the same religion and come from similar family backgrounds.
When a girl or boy reaches a marriageable age, the parents consult an astrologer who makes a horoscope to initiate the matchmaking process. In India, “marriageable age” is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. A horoscope is an astrological chart representing the position of the stars and planets at the time of birth of the person. This is used to determine education, career, jobs, marriage, health and other important issues in a person’s lifetime. Once the horoscope is in place, the parents begin by telling friends and relatives about their marriageable child. They ask for horoscopes – to match the stars and other parameters in both the charts – and photographs of prospective brides and grooms before the family finally decides to meet one and go ahead with a wedding or not. While most urban parents would prefer that their son or daughter is educated and has a good career or job before they can think of marriage, many in villages still marry off their daughters at 18.
In earlier times it was quite common for just the parents to take the final decision and inform the couples-to-be the date of the wedding. Most couples-to-be were OK with this, as it was a time when love marriages or any sort of meeting or even talking over the phone was unheard of. Many couples-to-be met for the first time on the day of their wedding; this is still common in many rural interior parts of India. Things slowly changed to photographs being shown to prospective partners. Urban parents have become very liberal in addressing the subject of marriage with their kids. While earlier the entire family, along with the couple, might meet up to discuss an alliance, the last few years has seen parents letting just the couple meet up for coffee or get to know each other for a few months until they are very sure that they are making the right choice.
The advent of technology has also changed the way parents approach an arranged marriage. They have moved on to matrimonial websites and even apps on smart phones, where just like a dating site the profiles and horoscopes of the prospective brides and grooms are uploaded and shared with other parents online. The photographs and contact details are later provided on request. And it is only after the son or daughter agrees to the proposal that the parents decide to arrange and plan the wedding. The auspicious date of the wedding is decided, which is usually a few months to a year in the future, giving the couple more time to get to know each other. The entire family around this time is busy planning the wedding – deciding on the venue, the guest list, the wedding card and the food and jewellery.
The concept of arranged marriage itself has undergone a change. While many parents prefer that their son or daughter marry within the same community, there are many others who do not see any problem if the caste or the economic background of the bride or the groom is different. So one would often find caste no bar in the preference column on a matrimonial site. The parents are more interested in verifying the profiles and finding a good match for their son or daughter.
Most love marriages, too, are arranged in India, as long as the couple has the consent of both the parents. Once the couple declares their love to the parents, the parents of the couple meet and the families get to know each other and find their comfort levels. They are engrossed in finding out how to merge the two different styles of customs and traditions of the two families into one big wedding. There are also situations where, however liberal the upbringing of the children has been, the parents would never agree to a love marriage. In such cases the couple either agrees to marry without the consent of the family or to just part ways.
So with time most Indian and other South Asian couples who’ve had an arranged marriage or those who decide for arranged marriage are just as comfortable as a couple who’ve had a love marriage. Even though the number of arranged marriages is higher compared to love marriages, for most couples there is only a small difference between the two. It is a question of whether to find love and then get married or to marry and then grow in love and make the marriage work.
By Keerthana Nagarajan
Illustration by Sharanya Mageshwaran
Keerthana Nagarajan lives with her husband and two little girls in Zurich. She is currently freelancing with swissinfo, covering Indian-Swiss stories. Keerthana worked previously in the Netherlands at Radio Netherlands Worldwide, covering South Asia news, and CNN’s sister concern in India, CNN-IBN, a 24-hour news channel. Here’s the link to all her published content: http://keerthananagarajan.blogspot.in
Sharanya Mageshwaran is a stay-at-home mom of a very naughty three-year-old who speaks better German than her mother does. Before moving to Zurich, Sharanya was a pharmaceutical research scientist in India. She loves painting and sketching with fauvist expressionist abstract themes. More of her artwork can be see here: http://somelightandcolor.blogspot.ch/