Family structure and marriage

Family Structure & Marriage


Right from ancient times, family has been the dominating institution both in the life of the individual and in the life of the Indian community. The Indian family is considered strong, stable, close, resilient, and enduring. Historically, the traditional, ideal and desired family in India is the joint family.

Joint family ideally consists of three or four patrilineally related generations, all living under one roof, working, worshiping, eating, and cooperating together in communally beneficial social and economic activities. Patrilineal joint families include men related through the male line, along with their wives and children. The young married women live with their husband’s relatives after marriage, but they retain important bonds with their natal families as well. Usually, the oldest male member is the head in the joint Indian family system. He mostly makes all important decisions and rules, and other family members are likely to abide by them. The family supports the old; takes care of widows, never-married adults, and the disabled; assists during periods of unemployment; and provides security and a sense of support and togetherness. The joint family has always been the preferred family type in the Indian culture.

With urbanisation, economic development and western influence, India has witnessed a break up of traditional joint family into more nuclear-like families, much like population trends in other parts of the world. The traditional large joint family in India, in the 1990s, accounted for a small percent of Indian households, and on average had lower per capita household income. Joint family still persists in some areas and in certain conditions, in part due to cultural traditions and in part due to practical factors.

In recent years, India’s largest cities have grown at twice the rate of its small towns and villages, with many of the increases due to rural-urban migration. Now a days, many Indians, especially in cities live in nuclear families—-a couple with their unmarried children—-but belong to strong networks of beneficial kinship ties. Often, clusters of relatives live as neighbours, responding readily to their kinship obligations.

The Indian family is by and large patriarchal in structure. In a patriarchal family set up, all male members, that is, husband, elder brother and father, perform duties like decision making for the rest of the family, and their physical and moral protection. This patriarchal set up is changing slowly towards equalitarian interaction among the educated, urban middle classes, and also among some rural set ups.

Unfortunately in India, still male children are desired more than female children and on average, they are given special privileges. Male children are raised to be assertive, less tolerant, independent, self-reliant, demanding, and domineering. Females, in contrast, are socialized from an early age to be self-sacrificing, docile, accommodating, nurturing, altruistic, adaptive, tolerant, and religious, and to value family above all. Sex and sexuality issues are not openly discussed, sex education is not readily available, interrelationships with the opposite sex are discouraged, and premarital sex is frowned upon. In the traditional Indian family, communication between parents and children tends to be onesided. Children are expected to listen, respect, and obey their parents.

During Vedic period, Indian women who once enjoyed equal status with men in all aspects of life, lost their position and dignity in medieval period, after the Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent who brought purdah to Indian society. Things are changing rapidly in modern India. The status of women in India has been subject to many great changes over the past few millennia. Women’s rights are secured under the Constitution of India — mainly, equality, dignity, and freedom from discrimination; further, India has various statutes governing the rights of women.

The elderly in India are generally obeyed, revered, and treated with respect and dignity by family and community members. Old age is a time when a person is expected to relax, enjoy solitude, retirement, pray, enjoy spending time with the grandchildren, and not worry about running the household or about finances because the oldest son is now in charge of the finances and family matters, and the oldest daughter-in-law is generally running the household. In most instances, the elderly care for their grandchildren and assist with cooking and household chores. Even adult children continue to consult their parents on most of the important aspects of life.

In spite of urbanization and industrialization in the contemporary Indian society, the family institution continues to play a central role in the lives of people.


Hindu marriage joins two individuals for life, so that they can pursue dharma (duty), artha (possessions), kama (physical desires), and moksha (ultimate spiritual release) together.

The regional, religious, cultural and traditional diversity calls in for a variety of customs and rituals being followed in different Indian marriages. Though the feeling and fervor behind all the weddings is the same yet you will find differences in rituals, ceremonies and traditions in different parts of India. Moreover, marriage is considered a lifetime affair, which is celebrated just once. As a result, it becomes an event to be cherished and to make fond memories for the rest of the life.

Changing patterns are being observed in areas such as age at marriage, inter-caste marriage, arranged versus love matches, matching horoscopes. Inter-religious marriages do take place in India and there is a special law to support such marriages. However, they are extremely small in number. For the vast majority of people, marriage is always within one’s religious group, and the family also, therefore, prevails within it.


Arranged marriages have long been the norm in Indian society. The people involved in the fixing of arranged marriage can be parents, match making agents, matrimonial sites, trusted relatives, family friends, etc.

In the medieval period, the age of marriage was young. The average age of marriage for women in India has increased to 21 years, according to 2011 Census of India. In 2009, about 7% of women got married before the age of 18. The bride and the groom were neither asked for their consent, nor were they informed about the partner in older times. However, with the evolution of time, the society has also undergone a significant change. Nowadays, in arranged marriages both the girl and the boy are asked for their consent. The process begins with practices like matching the horoscope of the couple for checking the compatibility, the background of the families and their castes.

After all the above things are ensured, a suitable date for the commencement of the marriage is decided. Before marriage, an engagement ceremony is commenced to ensure that the accord between the two families is finalized. In the modern society, the boy and the girl are allowed to hold restricted meetings and conversations before marriage. This makes it easy for both of them to open up and also facilitates interaction and understanding.

Unfortunately, dowry system – a social evil, is still practiced in some parts of India. In most of the marriages the bride’s family provide a dowry to the bridegroom. Traditionally, the dowry was considered a woman’s share of the family wealth, since a daughter had no legal claim on her natal family’s real estate. It also typically included portable valuables such as jewellery and household goods that a bride could control throughout her life. Historically, in most families the inheritance of family estates passed down the male line. Since 1956, Indian laws treat males and females as equal in matters of inheritance without a legal will. Indians are increasingly using a legal will for inheritance and property succession, with about 20 percent using a legal will by 2004.

A 2013 IPSOS survey found that 74% of young Indians (18-35 years old) prefer an arranged marriage over a free-choice one. Other sources report that as many as 90% of all Indian marriages are arranged.

Social changes are gradually occurring but arranged marriages are still the norm, and dating generally is not allowed. The percentage of self-arranged marriages (called love marriages in India) are also increasing, particularly in the urban parts of India.


Many people believe that arranged marriage is the traditional form of marriage in India; however love marriage is a modern form, usually in urban areas. Love marriage differs from arranged marriage in that the couple, rather than the parents, choose their own partner. Interestingly, there are various instances from ancient scriptures of Hinduism, of romantic love marriages that were accepted in ancient times, for example Dushyanta with Shakuntala or Bhima with Hidimba in the story of the Mahabharata. Somewhere in the course of time, arranged marriages became predominant and love marriages became unacceptable or at least frowned upon. Despite some love marriages, the vast majority of Hindus continue to have arranged marriages.

In modern India, particularly in urban regions, gandharva marriages are re-emerging. These self-arranged marriages in India are now called love marriages. Most of these, however, do involve some form of ceremony where friends and members of family are present. A 2006 article reported that between 10 and 20 percent of marriages in urban India were love marriages.


Most people are surprised to know that India has the lowest divorce rate compared to any country across the world. This is due to the fact that most Indians are traditional and respectful of their culture. Hinduism did not recognise divorce till the late 50’s when the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 came into existence. Inter-caste marriages were governed by the Special Marriages Act 1954.

Despite doubling in urban areas since 2007, divorce rate in India is 1.1%. This is one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. Though global divorce rate for arranged marriages is 6.3 %. Even more impressive is the second statistic, about the high levels of satisfaction reported by those in arranged marriages over the longer-term.

According to a report in The Times of India, 5 in every 1,000 Muslim women are vulnerable to being divorced, compared to 2-3 per 1,000 among Jain, Hindu and Sikh women.

The divorce rates are rising in India. Urban divorce rates are much higher. Women initiate about 80 percent of divorces in India. Opinion is divided over what the phenomenon means: for traditionalists the rising numbers portend the breakdown of society while, for some modernists, they speak of a healthy new empowerment for women.


Weddings are festive occasions in India with extensive decorations, colors, music, dance, costumes and rituals that depend on the religion of the bride and the groom, as well as their preferences. The nation celebrates about 10 million weddings per year, of which over 80% are Hindu weddings.

While there are many festival-related rituals in Hinduism, vivaha (wedding) is the most extensive personal ritual an adult Hindu undertakes in his or her life. Typical Hindu families spend significant effort and financial resources to prepare and celebrate weddings. The rituals and process of a Hindu wedding vary depending on region of India, local adaptations, resources of the family and preferences of the bride and the groom. Nevertheless, there are a few key rituals common in Hindu weddings – Kanyadaan, Panigrahana, and Saptapadi; these are respectively, gifting away of daughter by the father, voluntarily holding hand near the fire to signify impending union, and taking seven steps before fire with each step including a set of mutual vows. After the seventh step and vows of Saptapadi, the couple is legally husband and wife. Sikhs get married through a ceremony called Anand Karaj. The couple walk around the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib four times. Indian Muslims celebrate a traditional Islamic wedding following customs similar to those practiced in the Middle East. The rituals include Nikah, payment of financial dower called Mahr by the groom to the bride, signing of marriage contract, and a reception. Indian Christian weddings follow customs similar to those practiced in the Christian countries in the West in states like Goa but have more Indian customs in other states.

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