„Are you married?“ seems to be any Indian taxi driver´s favourite question when a man in his late twenties enters the vehicle. „Nope, I am happily unmarried. I am a free man, you know?“ is how I would usually counter such blunt curiosity. The drivers then would react with an awkward mixture of incomprehension and pity. In India, singles at this age are widely being conceived as lonely, incompatible and sexually frustrated.

Blunt curiosity: Indian taxi driver. Picture: Philippe Stalder (February 2016)

In order to ensure that its youth doesn´t end up as a lone rider like me, Indian society came up with the institution of arranged marriage centuries ago. And it is still prevalent today. The love marriage may be celebrated in Bollywood and fought for by the privileged but for the mass it doesn´t seem to be a valid alternative to its less romantic counterpart; the 2013 Taj Wedding Barometer survey indicates that about 75 percent of young Indians prefer arranged marriages. It seems that the arranged marriage did not (yet) become a source of protest among the youth as this plain old institution gives them the opportunity to pursue their education and career without the constant distraction by the worries of relationships – the divorce rate in India is less than two percent.

Family affairs

Since the Indian wife marries into her husband´s family and often also moves into his parents´ house, marriages in India are considered family affairs. Marriage is therefore not perceived as a relationship between two people but between two families. And the family members, especially the parents, make sure to have their say in the selection of their children´s partners.

Family business: Two fathers in law watch their children´s wedding. Picture: Kumar´s Edit (21. Januar 2015) CC BY 2.0
Family business: Two fathers in law watch their children´s wedding. Picture: Kumar´s Edit (21. Januar 2015) CC BY 2.0

Because the selection criteria are quite extensive, the optimal match usually lays outside of the families´ personal networks. The partners therefore often end up marrying a complete stranger.

“I hadn´t really known my wife when I married her. But believe me, I know her by now,”

the taxi driver ensured me when I asked him if it wasn´t a bit strange to start a family with a person he had barely known. However, he seemed pretty happy with the choice of his parents.

A multitude of factors

In order to find the most compatible match, the families of both the daughter and the son consider a multitude of factors before they meet for the first time. These arrangements are usually facilitated by a marriage broker who, in complete discretion, has access to a wide network of families. In rural areas this might be the local barber whereas in urban cities matchmakers use computerized archives of candidates, similar to modern dating platforms. In some occasions families would even place matrimonial advertisements for their wedding-ready kids in newspapers.

The criteria that are being applied in the selection process consist of the following: Firstly, the exclusive criteria of caste affiliation is being applied. Indian society is still rigidly divided into social castes and it is impossible to marry outside of one´s own caste. Since Hinduism is the predominant religion in India, and Hindus believe strongly in astrology, the potential partner´s horoscopes are being compared. The food habits (vegetarian vs. non-vegetarian) should also match. Then education backgrounds, interests and hobbies are being scrutinized. If there are still multiple candidates left after this selection, physical criteria such as beauty, weight and height might be considered as well. It is important to note, that arranged marriages are not the same as forced marriages. The children usually have several veto rights if they are not happy with the proposed candidate. The legal marriage age in India is 18 – although child marriages may still occur in the rural parts of the country.

Love vs. commitment

I would describe myself rather as an old-school romantic than a 21st-century-generation-Y-optimizer. And I like to think of myself as a free agent, independent of my parent´s preferences. Therefore, the concept of arranged marriage intuitively seems inconvenient to me. However, as a divorced kid, I have to admit that it wouldn´t have been a very bad idea to compare my parents´ horoscopes before their marriage. The stars probably would have predicted their traumatic divorce. No question, they didn´t lack love back in the 60´s, but commitment fell a bit short 30 years later, when the magic started to slowly wear off (No offense Baba).

New love: My parents (in the middle) with their partners. Picture: Philippe Stalder (October 2014)
New love: My parents (in the middle) with their partners. Picture: Philippe Stalder (October 2014)

And this is why I can understand that the arranged marriage can be a vital alternative to the Western model; it is based on commitment rather than on emotions. Love can evolve if there is commitment, however, it is hard to maintain commitment if the flame of love ain´t burning no more.