Marriage Made In India
As we stand on the cusp of a social flux, perceptions about love, marriage and sex are being recast. Twin revolutions of sex and love have led to the break-up of the arranged marriage system, as more people decide to marry for love rather than community or caste
Ira Trivedi

The relations between man and woman in this country have changed more in the past ten years than they have in the previous three thousand. Traditionally, the mating game began with marriage (arranged by the family based purely on caste and economics) was followed by sex (usually for the first time) and then blossomed into ‘love’ (if the couple was lucky). That convenient little formula is now being radically altered—from marriage, sex and then love, we are moving to love, sex (or vice-versa) and then, maybe, marriage. Many young Indians from the urban middle class are beginning to believe that love and sex are the only things that matter in relationships, particularly marriage.


Today, India is at the first stage of a major social revolution. This was catalysed by the explosive economic changes of the past few decades that accelerated the slow cultural change that was already in the making. Now our country is entering uncharted territory. Arranged marriages are shattering, divorce rates soaring and new paradigms of sex and relationships—queer, open, and live-in—are being tested and explored. New values are feverishly in the making, and we live in a state of molten confusion.

The sexual and marriage revolutions are happening simultaneously; it is a circular process rather than the linear progression of the sexual and marriage revolutions that were seen in the West. In India’s revolution, the emancipation of women, the break-up of the family as the central economic unit, the redefinition of sexual mores, the shift from arranged marriage to love marriage is all happening at the very same time.

Sexual culture

The definitive history of Indian sexual culture is yet to be written. And to do that, anyone who attempts to research the history of the country’s sexuality in the ancient or medieval period is doomed to grow increasingly frustrated as I did. Finally, I turn to James McConnachie, British author who has written a well-regarded book on the Kamasutra entitled The Book of Love: The Story of the Kamasutra, to get a better understanding of the country’s sexual beginnings, so to speak.

"There is a massive gap in history," he begins. "We just don’t know much about India’s sexual history. Piecing together India’s sexual history is really a struggle, especially because it is so vast, and while we have some pieces of the puzzle, there are so many that we do not have."

Sources from the same time period were often fundamentally at odds with each other—some were highly erotic, others religious, and then there was the material that was both religious and erotic.

A blessing?

India’s rapid economic growth has been a mixed blessing to the country. While there is no doubt that it has had a profound impact on the personal lives of hundreds of millions—the 315 million and growing youth demographic—the change that has resulted has often been for the worse. This is true of the sexual revolution as well. Why this is so is not hard to see. It has happened too quickly with little or no time for the participants in the revolution to grasp what is going on, to settle down, to socialise, to internalise the change. The state has done little or nothing to help, and when it has tried it has been less than successful. The dark side then is a manifestation of what has gone wrong, what is going wrong and what will go wrong when people, who are not ready for it, have new ideas, visions and, above all, freedoms thrust upon their existing patrilineal, patrilocal and patriarchal thought processes.


Megamalls are erupting next to maize farms. A young woman buys a mojito at a bar; a young man, who has never seen a woman other than his sister or mother, is shaking up the cocktail for her. Young men and women are uprooted from their homes, and in the process, unknowingly at times, lose their social anchoring. The uneven and unwieldy growth has also meant huge numbers of people moving across the country in search of work. According to a report by McKinsey, the geographic pattern of India’s income and consumption growth is shifting too. In a decade, the Indian consumer market will ‘largely be an urban story, with 62 per cent of consumption in urban areas versus 42 per cent today.’This great migration has meant layers of India’s super-stratified society are forced to mix; people are intermingling like never before and are gentrifying the same spaces. All is seemingly healthy here, until the discrepancies and inequalities become apparent.

The resultant rapid urbanisation is juxtaposed with an even faster influx of ideas. Bombarded with new ideas and sexualised content, generations are wrapped in chaos and confusion. This is India’s challenge: aspirations gone sour, frustrations come alive.


On urban college campuses across India especially in metros, premarital sex seems to be rampant. Free from the clutches of family and the mores of middle-class India, girls are keenly interested in sexual exploration. This sense of experimentation is mirrored in the bustling nightlife and social scene—in nightclubs, bars, hookah lounges and cafes where young people mingle freely.

Lonely hearts

Ever since I can remember, I have loved reading the matrimonial pull-out of the Sunday papers. This was a favourite activity of mine when I lived in India, and when I did not, it was one of the reasons I looked forward to coming back. What I found in these pages never failed to amuse, astound, and at times disturb me. Seekers of marriage are moving to new platforms like e-portals and marriage bureaus. However, the range of ads has widened. And, as people move past caste lines, new categories have emerged such as ‘Doctor’, ‘MBA’, ‘Second Marriage’, ‘Cosmopolitan’, and ‘No Dowry/ Spiritual’. Featured at the bottom of many ads, ‘Caste No Bar’ too appears more often, heralding a welcome change from the past.

A typical matrimonial posting for a bride would ask that candidates be: fair, beautiful, god-fearing, homely, quiet, respectful, innocent, humble, and cultured. ‘Homeliness’ is omnipresent in matrimonial ads. As per the dictionary, the definition of homely is ‘lacking in physical attractiveness, not beautiful, unattractive’. Who wants a homely wife? On enquiry, I discovered that in the context of Indian matrimonial ads, ‘homely’ simply means that the girl should like to ‘stay at home’.


When matrimonial websites were first launched in the early 2000s, they were thought of as the last, desperate effort to get married. Today, the 120 per cent growth rate for the US$1.4-billion (Rs 8,719- crore) online matrimony industry indicates that there has been a paradigm shift in market sentiment. There are more than 20 million users on over 150 matrimonial websites and an astonishing 48 per cent of internet users in India use matrimonial sites. As of 2009,, a popular matrimonial website, claimed to have over 8,22,073 matches to their credit. E-portals are now expanding to tap into regional and vernacular markets by launching sites that are tailored specifically to the requirements of India’s various states and their regional needs. They are also beginning to harness the potential in television and mobile markets.


Matrimonial websites present certain advantages over traditional newspaper websites and this has led to the shift from newspaper to the internet for the urban, educated, middle-class population. E-portals have also reflected the decreasing role of caste in marriage. For example, on, users need to select their caste from a dropdown menu with more than 400 choices when creating a profile. But just below this, the portal has introduced a little box to ask if the person is open to inter-caste marriage. The company has found that many are choosing to tick this box.


Apparently the marriage brokerage business has flourished in the past ten years, mostly because of Indian parents’ perennial anxiety around the marriage of their children. Traditionally, family members used to bring rishtas (matches) and guide parents but now people are worried that if the boy or the girl turns out to be ‘defective’, implying badly behaved, impotent, or with ‘bad habits’ like alcohol or drug abuse, then they will be blamed.

Tale of two revolutions

The change was all around me, on billboards, on television screens, in chains of coffee shops and on college campuses. Instead, what I discovered was that there was not one, but two revolutions coursing through India’s social landscape—the sex revolution, and the love revolution.

I had hypothesised that sex, love, and marriage were all part of one revolution; after all these three often do come together. I had expected to see trends, to cull statistics to reach neat conclusions—and to wrap everything up with a pretty red bow. This was not so easy. Every time I was close to cementing a theory, something, or someone would come along and dislodge it.


As I expected, young people are having premarital sex, same sex relations have been decriminalised and re-criminalised, more people are defiantly declaring their sexual preferences, and women are demanding their sexual rights. Essentially, sex is coming out of the bedroom and on to the streets. And the love revolution has led to the break-up of the arranged marriage as more people decide to marry for love rather than community or caste.


The sex revolution does not just concern the physical act of sex. It is about changing laws, about loosening censors, and about more sexual liberty. It is about seeing women choosing to wear what they want and about accepting gays in our communities. It is about the burgeoning prostitution industry and pornography. It is about escaping hypocrisy and realising we are making change happen.


Society benefits from the revolution of the kind that India is going through. There is greater gender equality, more freedom for women, an increasing culture of respect and tolerance in marriage, and the waning of homophobia. India has the chance to overcome her past prejudices and recognise sexual and marital freedom as a fundamental human right. We may never again be a society devoted to sexual practices as we once were, but we are on our way—however slowly and treacherously—to greater sexual openness, tolerance and freedom.