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High wedding expenditure is a disease in Indian society

August 22, 2007
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I have been trying to understand the reasons why people get into debt by spending lavishly on weddings celebrations. And no, I am not talking about those those weddings where grooms get BMW’s as dowry gifts from the girls side or the girl’s family flies in flamenco dancers from Spain, and fresh orchids from Thailand.

I am talking about the poor and the middle classes who spend money they don’t have. As the girls side bears the burden, the high expenditure on weddings fuels female foeticide and infanticide, poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and even suicides. In other words, one wedding can set a man back by a decade as he struggles to repay the loan he has taken for his daughter’s wedding.

It’s disturbing to see that this trend of spending on weddings is not showing any signs of letting up. During our parents time, even if it was the girls family which did the spending, the weddings were simpler. Today, ostentatiousness has become a trend in urban India. As it says here:

Indian weddings have always been special occasions, celebrated with zest, enthusiasm, and, in the case of the wealthy, elaborate settings and food. But as a growing economy pumps new wealth into the country, weddings have turned into veritable showpieces…times have changed….the festive spirit has taken on a more ostentatious flavor as weddings become occasions for India’s rapidly growing affluent classes to show off their new wealth.

That’s fine as long as it’s the affluent classes. But there’s always the neighbor who wants to keep up and when he can’t, he goes ahead anyway. He too wants an entertainer during his daughter’s wedding and yearns for five star menus…not just Indian, but also Chinese, Italian, Mexican…

So why do people spend on weddings they cannot afford? Why do they spend even if it means that they get into a debt they have repay for years to come? And why should we care? They must be fools, right? Surely they deserve to pay for their foolishness?

If one could shrug it off, all would be well. But listen to a woman who works as a maid, a woman who has barely passed her 8th grade:

You see, if you have nothing, you have to spend at least Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000, to show people you are not that badly off. If you have Rs 20, 000 then you have to spend at least Rs 1-2 lakhs.

What she is saying is that if you take a loan it means you are capable of paying it back…so it means that you are well off and it increases your status in society. In any case most people think it’s a shameful thing to have a simple wedding. No one does it…they go to loan sharks and pay high interest. So even if a man has nothing – no house, no gas connection, no vehicle – he will go for a loan and celebrate his daughter’s wedding in style. He and his family will bear the burden of less money to run the household. They will go without vegetables and fruits, they might even compromise on the kind of school they send their youngest son. ‘If we don’t spend, I will never get a boy who has a job,’ a girl who washes dishes in our colony tells me.

Reasoning it out doesn’t work because it’s not just a question of a girl’s whole life, it’s also a question of family honor. A person who marries his daughter in a simple wedding ceremony (even assuming that he gets the boy’s family to accept such a thing) will find it difficult to show his face in society. The back-biting and loss of face will be too humiliating to bear. ‘Lok lai bekar ahet, but hyachat navin kai ahe?‘ (people are really bad, but whats new?) says a woman who works as an attendant in a nearby gym. She says she is a happy woman today because the Rs 1 lakh loan she took for her daughter’s wedding has been paid off.

In any traditional society, honour is important. It can become more important than food or education. Community comes before self. It’s what the community thinks which matters and as weddings were aways sacred and special occasions in our society, celebrating them until your purse strings are stretched is what’s expected . Today, weddings have become some sort of ‘show’ of one’s ‘honour.’ Every society has it’s own idea of what honor is all about and it’s tragic that in Indian culture, wedding celebrations have become one sign of it.

Any solutions?
Well, individual boys and girls can always insist on simple weddings, but this is more difficult than that as community and parental pressure can be hard to bear. The community itself has to do something. There is one community (just 2 percent of our population) which is trying to contain this terrible malaise in our society. Just last month, Sikh leaders suggested guidelines to curb lavish wedding expenses.

A group of Sikh leaders called for a July 28 meeting of representatives from New Delhi’s more than 400 Sikh gurdwaras, or temples, to discuss ways to rein in over-the-top weddings… the Sikh leaders said the deluxe wedding trend puts an unfair burden on brides’ families, who traditionally pay for the parties.

Some years earlier even Kolkata’s Marwari community had laid out guidelines to reduce “wasteful expenditure’’. I don’t know how well this is working. Somehow whenever any community leader tries to do something like this, a whole lot of people protest as they feel that the community is trying to curb their freedom to spend. Certainly, a man is entitled to spend his money on whatever he wants, but there is such a thing as social responsibility. No, it cannot be forced, and in fact I feel a rich man is certainly entitled to have a dream wedding for his daughter…but I am sure the community leaders are not targeting such people when they issue out these guidelines. In fact after Sikh leaders had issued those statements, the media went to town with it, criticizing them for curbing people’s freedom. One of the leaders who was interviewed categorically said this was not meant for those who can afford it.

I wonder where this trend is heading. The fact that there is more money in society as a whole means that individuals feel pressured to spend more.

(The photo of the maid has been taken by me, the others are from wedding sites, links to which have been given on the photo itself)

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2007 10:51 am

    This is my fav. topic which I talk everyday to my social contacts.. You have mentioned things 1000% accurate here. People spend money Just to show off.. and they make others also to spend… Overall It’s a social waste.

    There are few communities who have done good progress on this matter.. as you have rightly mentioned about marwari community…

    As far as I know there are few towns of rajasthan where following rules are being followed very strictly:

    1) More than 13 items in Food strictly not allowed in any wedding irrespective of their social status
    2) If more than 5 marriages happen on same day then they consider arranging food servings at common place as a mandate… I have seen them arranging more than 100 weddings at a time.
    3) No street dance n loud music allowed..

    and at some place:

    4) Reception banned
    5) Arranging orchestra n Dancers on stage not allowed

    and… many more restrictions

  2. Ramesh Natarajan permalink
    August 22, 2007 11:14 am

    Nita,

    Well said! I wonder many times, why people should spend beyond their limits for the wedding. That money can be given to the newly married couples to start their life in a better way.

  3. August 22, 2007 11:30 am

    An interesting post on a social cause. As long as people are brain-washed and seduced by various societal wrong notions, they carry a ‘herd and heard’ mentality by default. Help them, teach them to see the things staight without distortions and perversions. Then alone these kind of ‘social tamashas’ and ‘show businesses’ may come to an end. We all have a stake in it.
    Our people need to be transformed from ‘herd’ mentality to ‘hero’ mentality in it’s true sense and spirit. sulochanosho

  4. August 22, 2007 12:38 pm

    Bharath, thanks for the info.
    Ramesh, as long as the giving of money is voluntary its okay. When my cousin was getting married recently, the boy’s side suggested that instead of spending the money on celebrations, they hand over the money to them! The wedding was called off.
    Sulochanosho, brainwashed and seduced are the right words. People are simply not amenable to reason! I really wish today’s younger generation takes this matter into their own hands and become heroes instead of buffaloes and goats who are sold to the girl. Because whatever anyone might say, dowry and wedding expenses are the price that a bride pays for the groom. He is the one who is being bought.

  5. August 22, 2007 3:33 pm

    I have found that around a certain fraction of my monthly income goes to some hospital Class !V employee for a sister’s or daughter’s wedding. I find a strain on my restraint when I keep my mouth shut rather than asking them about the need to go around asking for money for a marriage ceremony. But I tell myself everyone can’t think on those terms, and forget about it soon.

  6. August 22, 2007 9:06 pm

    It sounds like it’s much harder in India to buck the system, probably because of the long-standing traditions, like you said. It made me feel sad for those poor people, spending money they don’t have.

    Of course, people in the US do the same thing, but it’s just as easy to opt out as long as you’re willing to think outside the box.A lot of people here want to feel like celebreties for a day. It’s typical for the bride to be a nervous wreck, snapping at everyone.

    My husband and I were married 20 years ago in my parents’ house, with thirty guests there to help us celebrate. We spent the money my parents gave us (not too much, mind you) on a computer. The year was 1987.It was a special day.

  7. August 22, 2007 9:55 pm

    Sometimes, wisdom is accrued by personal experience (and may take a generation or two), rather than from listening to reasonable voices and reading what other wise people have to say. When the person who went into heavy debt struggles every month to pay the installments, slowly, it will dawn on him that it was indeed a stupid decision. An example like the one in Rajasthan mentioned by one commentator is a step in the right direction, and I hope it came from bottoms-up (community discussing and deciding what’s best for them) rather than top-down (government rules/regulations handed down). I do think that people shouldn’t spend so much money if it lands them into debt, but I’m not sure that something like this can be government regulated. Maybe the banks can do some kind of background check before giving loans, though not everyone goes to a bank for such loans. And the best we all can do is not have lavish weddings ourselves – start with self to set an example. I doubt if government regulated fiscal responsibility for individuals is even possible, let alone practical.

  8. August 22, 2007 11:50 pm

    I know I’m going to sound like an ignorant American here (and I largely am ignorant on these issues), but recently two Indian women I worked with got married back in India. Both were nervous about getting married, but wanted big weddings to have time with family and friends before what I inferred is a loveless marriage.

    I know very little about arranged marriages and I’m not trying to say they are wrong or don’t work out for the couple. I don’t know. It’s a completely alien concept to me. However, I did get the feeling from the two women that they felt entitled to a party for following tradition.

  9. August 23, 2007 12:50 am

    Rambodoc, yes this collecting money for weddings has become endemic. Beg, borrow or steal! That’s become the motto!

    MariaChristina, the main difference between there and here is that over there an individual is more important and individual happiness paramount. Here it’s pleasing the community that’s important. While this community thing can be a fantastic buffer in times of need, it can be bad as one has to conform. That is why here a mother in law here can become as important as the husband! It’s the whole family that one has to please, not just oneself or one’s husband. Often, couples cannot make decisions concerning their own lives…

    Amit, what you say is indeed wise! But what you said will take so much time! But yes, when the change happens it will become permanant.

    Ordinary Girl, I don’t know about those two women, but over here having an arranged marriage is accepted and even desired. Many people believe that arranged marraiges are happier as the backgrounds of the couples match. And today’s arranged marraiges are not blind…in the sense that the couple meets a couple of times and then makes that crucial decision…similar to blind dates in western countries. Most westerners believe that an arranged marraige means a a couple is pressurised into marriage – this is not so. A girl can see as many as 20-30 boys before finding her final one and I know boys who see more than a 100 girls! There is no compulsion and finally one marries someone one likes. Yes, probably not loves, but often love happens as the attraction between the couple exists. I know several cases where the couple is in love before the marraige date. True, in some cases (esp rich families) there is a tendecny to arrange marraiges with each other…but I am talking mostly of normal middle class marraiges in urban India.
    And about the expensive parties…well, yes here having a lavish wedding is what everyone desires…and if the parents of the girls can afford it, they will certainly go for it! A big elaborate wedding with all the wedding rituals thrown in is what people enjoy.

  10. Phantom permalink
    August 23, 2007 6:06 am

    Good topic Nita – very conmtextual and extremely relevant in today’s ostentatious materialistic Indian climate.

    Agreed that this whole fad of excessive spending on marriages is a serious issue for the poor and lower middle class, as its onyl going to drown them into more debt and financial insecurity.

    I’m at that age where a lot of my friends and younger relatives are gettign married…..i’ll have to go down that road of no return in a few years myself. In the upper middle class segment, I’ve seen that its not uncommon for a wedding to end up costing upwards of INR 40 lakhs…..for all the functions, gifts, jewellry etc. Now this is a huge amount, one can buy a decent flat in a mid range suburb in a metro for this amount!!!!!!!!!

    Firstly – theres the attitude of ostentatiousness – ppl want to spend money for the sake of it, for the sake og showing they have money!!!!!

    Secondly – theres the aspect of havign HUGE weddings, with massive guestlists. Literally half the guests will be peolpe who niether boys or girls side can claim to be close family or friends….many will be people who have been invited purely for the sake of it, to keep face in society. While I can appreciate that soemtimes ppl need to maintain relations within their community and society, surely there are reasonable limits. For me, I understood what that limit was, when I attended a friend’s wedding. In this somewhat high society wedding, i saw my friend and his new wife shake more hands, touch more feet and hug more people than I think they’d care to…..all courtesy of the 1300 ppl at the reception…..most of those ppl…my friend and his wife would never have met before, or met ages ago, or perhaps never ever knew existed….and the net result of having to meet ALL these people was that they themselves could not enjoy their own reception party….they could not spend much time with the ppl they considered close and dear.

    There’s also the social responsibility aspect. When a super rich guy like laxhmi Mittals pends 34 million pounds on his daughter’s wedding…..i laugh at the sheer ostentatiousness, and capitalistic waste of it all. even if he spent half that amount or even 20% less, he’d still be able to have an incredibly lavish wedding….and surely the saved amoutn could have been put to more humanist or philanthrophic use!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Point is – everyone of course has the right to spend as much as they’d like, or can afford….but there are surely rational boundaries to what becomes just plain excessive spending. May sound weird…but in my family….back in my dad;s time and before…it was a custom that any wedding in the family would involve some spending to feed 100 or more poor people at a temple etc. Philantrophy aside, I believe that a marriage is a happy occasion, one to be celeberated by the people near and dear to the couple and couple’s family. Hence its a pity when the couple and teir family are so embroiuled in coordinatein a mammoth wedding, that they either end up financially/mentally strained before the event, and owing to the gigantic nature of the event, end up not being able to have a good time at the event itself.

  11. August 23, 2007 2:32 pm

    It is obvious to everyone in this forum that the community and society has to change in this respect. But that can happen only if we start with ourselves. How many times do we try to persuade someone not to spend lavishly on a wedding?

    I myself refuse to go to such occasions when I suspect that there is dowry involved, or that the expenses are way beyond the bride’s family’s means. If no one comes to such weddings, can they continue? No. They continue, because whatever happens all of us who are invited to grace the occasion. If we do that, this will continue.

    Yes, I do find myself ostracized as a result. But ostracized people are the only ones who’ve brought about significant change in society. As long as you conform, you cannot change society. If you want to change social customs, start with yourself.

  12. August 23, 2007 5:27 pm

    Phantom, in many ways you have echoed my thoughts. I too believe in social responsibility but then at the same time I am a firm believer in freedom. Finally it’s up to the individual I guess. When you mentioned Laxmi Mittal’s daughter’s wedding, I too felt some of those things you felt …but then I told myself hey, the man made his own fortune, and he has a right to spend…feelings are contradictory. You are a young guy Phantom, and the best way to fight this is not to accept it for your own wedding. Can you do that? In my case, I did try. My husband supported me me and I even managed to convince my dad, who was very reluctant at first because of social obligations. Finally he said okay if you can convice the other side….! But my mother-in-law refused. So finally my dad did spend money for the wedding…but no, it was not ostentatious at all. But actually I didn’t want him to spend even that much but it didn’t work out!

    Mahendra, that’s a good idea, the ostracization bit…but the problem is that the opposite is happening. The more people spend, the more lavish the celebrations, the more eager people are to attend those functions! I think as long as money is revered, that will not happen. What I find sick is that even though people know that a person has made money through shady means, they still kowtow to him!

  13. Phantom permalink
    August 24, 2007 8:01 am

    Yea…..when it comes to my own wedding…..i will def not invite every idiot who happens to just know me and my family…..i’ll ony be inviting people who i care about…and ppl who i want to share that event with. Yea, sure, some ppl will HAVE to be invited, either cos they’re family members or family friends who can’t or shudn’t be offended or left out….and thats fine….but its ridiculous to let those numbers run crazy. And I can tell u one thing….at my wedding….me and my wife…..we will spend time with the people there….cos thats what the event is for….for everyone to enjoy and celebrate the event.

    Nita – yea sure freedom is very important….and i also believe that its every man’s right to do what he wants. But social responsibility is a higher calling. Its about being sensitive to the lot of others…..its about adopting a humanist approach. If we adopted a totally capitalist and individual approach, then there wud be no place for charity, sensitivity or brotherhood…as the only decision making factor wud be the furtherence of oneself. But, life doesn;t exist within such a clear cut rational thought making paradigm. End of the day..there ARE heaps of people suffering in the world. Sure..by that analogy, it can also be said that every $2 chocolate I eat is a hugely insensitive and selfish action, as that $2 I’m spending to indulge a craving or non-necessary food desire, could in turn feed a whole family in ethiopia !!!!!! But thats not the same as saying that Mr Mittal whospent 34 million pounds on a wedding, could have perhaps spent tad less for an event that lasts just a few days.

    The fact of the matter is that the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in for such analysis. By Mr Mittal spending say 10m pounds less on the wedding….he may not hvae had such as lavish afair as he did…buti he wud still ahve had a pretty damm lavish event. The relative fall in his satisfaction or in the approval from his guests, arising from spending 10m pounds less……is far less than the relative increase in quality of life of say a poor village in india….that cud come about by spending that 10m on philanthopohic activity aimed at improving the lot of people in that village. Point is – 10 m pounds mobilised into philanthrophic activity in a poor region…..will create a far greater humanist impact than the impact of perhaps having better champaigne or a more grand chateau for hosting the wedding !!!!!!!!!!!

    But then again, for such thinking to be relevant….the people with the funds have to think in that manner. Who knows….maybe Mr Mittal does indeed contribute actively to philanthriphy….but that still does not negate the sheer ostentatiousness and perhaps, financial waste of it all. Contrast this with Mr Buffet and Gates…who’ve dedicated a significant portion of their wealth to philantrophy.

    I like a comment made by Buffet (or was it gates)…..when asked if he’s thought about how much wealth his kids wud get …and the reply was “they’d get enough so they could do whatever they wanted, but not so much they didn’t do anything”.

  14. Anonymous permalink
    August 24, 2007 7:21 pm

    In the Namboodiri community (Brahmins of Kerala), it is very rare for the Grooms family to ask for Dowry and most traditional weddings are kept simple though there is a lot of ritual involved. Nowadays, Namboodiris too have started deviating from their ascetic life and have started going the way of the rest of the Indians.

  15. July 8, 2008 12:59 pm

    I and my wife share most of your thoughts on the subject. The theme of our wedding, that took place less than a year ago, was: “Divert the marriage money to charity”. Details on how we executed this theme can found on my blog: http://pulzinponderland.wordpress.com {PAGE 4}

  16. Waqar Anmed Kayani permalink
    February 26, 2010 4:15 pm

    I am government employ and have low income. in my point of wedding should be very simple. Our old triditions made it vary difficult. A great change must be happan to revival of our society.

  17. Freind of all permalink
    October 20, 2011 5:12 pm

    Marriage is a very sacred institution. This makes you partner in Gods scheme of creation. hence it need be done slolemly in any relegious place with close relatives. Since we owe some thing to society after marriage give a humble dinner to again close relatives and family freinds. Even in todays times of nuclear family it shpould not cost more than 1 lac. for a midddle class family.

    Freind of all

  18. October 21, 2011 3:29 pm

    indian ppl seem to think less as themselves and more as a community. its the sad truth. caught some show on an indian channel the other day where this family that can barely feed themselves are borrowing n begging money from friends just to marry off the daughter, it didn;t sadden me it just made me wanna slap ’em n tell ’em to wake up n have some dignity n pride n not get caught up in these webs of materialistic showin off. ppl as a whole need to do as they like not as as society wants to see. they’re gonna bitch anyway. its the mentality.

  19. Verander Grover permalink
    November 25, 2011 12:19 pm

    Simple marriage is good but unable to decide what can be avoided in a boys marriage

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