Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Certain it is that no Hindoo will have a marriage in his family during the four months of the rainy season; for among eighty millions of souls not one doubts that the Great Preserver of the universe is, during these four months, down on a visit to Rājā Bali, and, consequently, unable to bless the contract with his presence.
Marriage is a sacred duty among Hindoos, a duty which every parent must perform for his children, otherwise they owe him no reverence. A family with a daughter unmarried after the age of puberty is considered to labour under the displeasure of the gods; and no member of the other sex considers himself respectable after the age of puberty till he is married.
It is the duty of his parent or elder brothers to have him suitably married; and, if they do not do so, he reproaches them with his degraded condition. The same feeling, in a degree, pervades all the Muhammadan community; and nothing appears so strange to them as the apparent indifference of old bachelors among us to their sad condition.
Marriage, with all its ceremonies, its rights, and its duties, fills their imagination from infancy to age; and I do not believe there is a country upon earth in which a larger portion of the wealth of the community is spent in the ceremonies, or where the rights are better secured, or the duties better enforced, notwithstanding all the disadvantages of the laws of polygamy.
Not one man in ten can afford to maintain more than one wife, and not one in ten of those who can afford it will venture upon 'a sea of troubles' in taking a second, if he has a child by the first. One of the evils which press most upon Indian society is the necessity which long usage has established of squandering large sums in marriage ceremonies.
Instead of giving what they can to their children to establish them, and enable them to provide for their families and rise in the world, parents everywhere feel bound to squander all they can borrow in the festivities of their marriage. Men in India could never feel secure of being permitted freely to enjoy their property under despotic and unsettled governments, the only kind of governments they knew or hoped for; and much of the means that would otherwise have been laid out in forming substantial works, with a view to a return in income of some sort or another, for the remainder of their own lives and of those of their children, were expended in tombs, temples, sarāis, tanks, groves, and other works—useful and ornamental, no doubt, but from which neither they nor their children could ever hope to derive income of any kind.
The same feeling of insecurity gave birth, no doubt, to this preposterous usage, which tends so much to keep down the great mass of the people of India to that grade in which they were born, and in which they have nothing but their manual labour to depend upon for their subsistence. Every man feels himself bound to waste all his stock and capital, and exhaust all his credit, in feeding idlers during the ceremonies which attend the marriage of his children, because his ancestors squandered similar sums, and he would sink in the estimation of society if he were to allow his children to be married with less.
But it could not have been solely because men could not invest their means in profitable works, with any chance of being long permitted to enjoy the profits under such despotic and unsettled governments, that they squandered them in feeding idle people in marriage ceremonies; since temples, tanks, and groves secured esteem in this life, and promised some advantage in the next, and an outlay in such works might therefore have been preferred. But under such governments a man's title even to the exclusive possession of his wife might not be considered as altogether secure under the mere sanction of religion; and the outlay in feeding the family, tribe, and neighbourhood during the marriage ceremony seems to have been considered as a kind of value in exchange given for her to society.
There is nothing that she and her husband recollect through life with so much pride and pleasure as the cost of their marriage, if it happen to be large for their condition of life; it is their amoka, their title of nobility; and their parents consider it their duty to make it as large as they can. A man would hardly feel secure of the sympathy of his family, tribe, circle of society, or rulers, for the loss of 'his ox, or his ass, or anything that is his', if it should happen to have cost him nothing; and, till he could feel secure of their sympathy for the loss, he would not feel very secure in the possession.
He, therefore, or those who are interested in his welfare, strengthen his security by an outlay which invests his wife with a tangible value in cost, well understood by his circle and rulers. His family, tribe, and circle have received the purchase money, and feel bound to secure to him the commodity purchased; and, as they are in all such matters commonly much stronger than the rulers themselves, the money spent among them is more efficacious in securing the exclusive enjoyment of the wife than if it had been paid in taxes or fees to them for a marriage licence.
The pride of families and tribes, and the desire of the multitude to participate in the enjoyment of such ceremonies, tend to keep up this usage after the cause in which it originated may have ceased to operate; but it will, it is to be hoped, gradually decline with the increased feeling of security to person, property, and character under our rule.
Nothing is now more common than to see an individual in the humblest rank spending all that he has, or can borrow, in the marriage of one of many daughters, and trusting to Providence for the means of marrying the others; nor in the higher, to find a young man, whose estates have, during a long minority, under the careful management of Government officers, been freed from very heavy debts, with which an improvident father had left them encumbered, the moment he attains his majority and enters upon the management, borrowing three times their annual rent, at an exorbitant interest, to marry a couple of sisters, at the same rate of outlay in feasts and fireworks that his grandmother was married with.
1. The author's figure of 'eighty millions' was a mere guess, and probably, even in his time, was much below the mark. The figures of the census of 1911 are:
Total population of India, excluding
Burma . . . . 301,432,623
Hindus . . . . 217,197,213
The proportions in different provinces vary enormously.
2. See ante. Chapter 1, note 3.
3. The word amoka is corrupt, and even Sir George Grierson cannot suggest a plausible explanation. Can it be a misprint for anka, in the sense of 'stamp'?
4. Akbar levied a tax on marriages, ranging from a single copper coin (dām = 1/40th of rupee) for poor people to 10 gold mohurs, or about 150 rupees, for high officials. Abūl Fazl declares that 'the payment of this tax is looked upon as auspicious', a statement open to doubt (Blochmann, transl. Aīn, vol. i, p. 278). In 1772 Warren Hastings abolished the marriage fees levied up to that time in Bengal by the Muhammadan law-officers. But I am disposed to think that a modern finance minister might reconsider the propriety of imposing a moderate tax, carefully graduated.
5. Extravagance in marriage expenses is still one of the principal curses of Indian society. Considerable efforts to secure reform have been made by various castes during recent years, but, as yet, small results only have been attained. The editor has seen numerous painful examples of the wreck of fine estates by young proprietors assuming the management after a long term of the careful stewardship of the Court of Wards.