Look at this map. You’ll find an interesting contrast between north and south India.
For instance, in Bihar- were merely 3.2% of people married their cousins compared to around 26% in Tamil Nadu Let us dive deeper into the data in Tamil Nadu.
As per the Indian government’s 2015-16 data, in Tamil Nadu, 10.5% of women married their paternal first cousins and 13.2% married their maternal first cousins, and 3.5% of women married their uncle.
Tamil Nadu is not alone In many Malayalam films, the main character starts falling in love with his cousin’s sister.
Not just in films, but in real life too, popular south Indian actors have married their cousins.
Legendary Telugu actor NTR Rama Rao married his maternal uncle’s daughter in 1942. We might find it very odd but such marriages are not uncommon in South India.
Cousin marriage is an interesting concept because not only is it practised in South India, But this is the root cause due to which a family of German royalty got decimated in the 15th century There’s a special term used for these marital unions called – consanguineous.
The question is why are cousin marriages so prevalent in South India in comparison with North India?
This is what we will talk about in this article
COUSIN MARRIAGE in South India. Why?
“Do marriages in blood relations lead to genetically weak or sick babies?”
“My grandparents are first cousins. Five of their daughters died in childhood.” “Five sisters have inherited the same disease.
They can neither see nor hear.”
First, let’s try to understand what consanguineous marriages are. It is defined as a “legal union of two people with a common ancestor
or between a man and woman related by blood.” In south India, Dravidian Hindus have contracted consanguineous marriages for over 2,000 years.
A 2013 research revealed that “among the Hindu population of South India, about 30% of marriages are consanguineous, with more than 20% between uncle-niece unions.”
That means mama (uncles) and bhatiji (niece). This research paper also shows a district-wise percentage share of such marriages.
Of this Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district showed the highest share at 42.5%. However, South India is not the only region in the world to practice consanguineous marriages.
COUSIN MARRIAGE in South India. Why?
Like this map, an even higher rate of consanguineous marriages can be found in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle-east and North Africa.
So, what could be the reasons for a higher number of cousin marriages in Muslim society?
There are two reasons- Dr Muzammil Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America said, “Muslims have practised marriages between first cousins in all countries since the time of the Prophet.”
It is believed that among the six wives of the Prophet, two were biological relatives. He also married his daughter Fatima to his first cousin.
Second, a Columbia University research pointed out the importance of the concept of hamular – it means the group of members who have a common ancestor.
That is- a common lineage.
The research says, in Muslim society, this group is like an extended family that provides each other with financial support & protection.
It encourages members to marry within the family to forge strong ties. Be it the Muslims of Afghanistan and Pakistan or the Hindus in South India, there are some general reasons why people opt for cousin marriages.
These are two- First, families use this as a tool to consolidate their wealth.
That is, they want to keep their wealth within their families. Let’s take the case of Kerala.
J Devika, an academic explains the consanguineous marriages in Kerala due to the societal practices followed there.
Most of the societies in Kerala are matrilineal That is- the role of the women is more and the properties get inherited not from father to son, but from mother to daughter J Devika says, There is a practice followed in Kerala called marumakathayam.
The family wealth is inherited by a nephew in the family, not the son. Say you are the sole son of the family, The wealth of the family would not be directly inherited by you, but by your cousin. Apart from wealth consolidation, this practice means that families don’t have to pay large dowry payments.
Research shows that marriage among relatives means that poor families can avoid larger dowry payments and women belonging to poor families are most likely to get married to a relative.
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The second reason is that families think that their daughter would be much safer in consanguineous marriages I don’t know whether that is objectively true or not- Whether women are safer in consanguineous marriages.
Police data has shown that almost 50% of rapists are relatives of the woman but at least there is a perception among families that cousin marriages would mean their daughter is safe and their wealth would be consolidated.
Now you would ask that Mohawk, these two reasons of safety of the girl and wealth consolidation should be applied to the North Indian states, in addition to South India So, we should also see cousin marriages in North India.
But that is not so. So why only in South India?
One reason is there are certain things in Dravidian culture that make cousin marriage more likely. Dravidian culture means the culture of people who speak Dravidian languages like the ones in South India.
Research by Cecilia Busby from the University of Edinburgh analysed this She took the example of Mariana, a village in Kerala.
The research revealed – from a very small age people in Mariana begin to be made aware of the meanings and importance of the difference in relatives.
Cecilia says that it is believed in that village that ‘Father and son are more related than father and daughter. It’s the same for mother and daughter.
That’s why sisters are like each other, and they are not so close to their brother.’
Thus it is believed that children of two brothers and two sisters are more related.
The first type of cousin is called parallel cousin.
The second type of cousin is called cross cousins. This is why it is believed in societies like Kerala/ that parallel cousins cannot marry.
But the cross cousins can.
The second reason is state-specific
due to which some regions witness cousin marriages and some don’t. For example, Historian MG Sasibhooshan explains that
in the old days, people would not look for marriage alliances beyond a certain river Take for example – Kerala’s northern district of Kozhikode.
There is a river called Korapuzha here Families to the North of the river considered it to impact their reputation.
if in case they form any relationship with members south of the river. So, forming marital relations beyond the defined river boundary was considered rebellious.
For instance, VK Krishna Menon’s father Krishna Kurup, whose marriage to a woman in the south of Malabar was something of a rebellion. Now there are some differences between the cousin marriage in South India and that practised in the Muslim community.
First, while in Dravidian culture cross-cousin marriages are popular, parallel-cousin marriages are the more common form in the Muslim community.
Second, as we discussed in the introduction that more than 20% of consanguineous marriages of Hindus in South India take place between uncle-niece.
whereas Muslim men are barred from marrying their nieces. Now the question is why we don’t see cousin marriages in North India.
The key reason is the gotra system followed by Hindus in North India.
Gotra is sort of a sub-division of caste So, if you’re a Hindu- you’ll have a caste- and a gotra beyond that.
According to the gotra system among northern Hindus, marriages within the same gotra are prohibited due to the belief that people having the same gotra have a common ancestor and so they are considered siblings in the same gotra “Marrying within the same gotra is not considered good according to societal and scientific beliefs”
Apart from this, villages in northern states practice village exogamy. It means you cannot marry someone from your village.
We are talking about cousin marriages because they have a very negative impact A 2013 research revealed – “Children from consanguineous marriages are at a greater risk of inheriting diseases and abnormalities…” You may wonder why children born out of consanguineous marriages have a bigger health risk.
According to research, brothers and sisters share commonly 50% of their genetic makeup.
Uncle and niece share 25% and first cousins 12.5% of their inherited genetic material.
When you marry within the community, and a defective gene runs in the family the child inherits two copies of this faulty gene and thus is at a greater risk.
But when you marry outside the community, you marry a person that does not have a shared gene pool, This lowers the possibility of the transfer of a defective gene to a child.
Consanguineous marriages are the reason for the fall of the empire of German royals of the 15th century They were called Habsburg and, 9 out of 11 Habsburg marriages were between closely related family members Due to which they had several birth defects- as you can see.
Marrying within their kin kept their power consolidated but it also transferred defective genes which made it difficult for the family to survive.
So clearly, there are serious issues with cousin marriages.
And now a question you may ask is: Are these marriages increasing or decreasing in South India?
Thankfully, research has shown that such marriages in India have been declining One reason for this decline could be improved socioeconomic conditions of women.
Research says women who are working, have a higher level of education, live in urban areas, and are economically well off are less likely to practice consanguineous marriages.
More educated women are more likely to be aware of the serious health impact of such marriages on their kids It’s good that the marriages are decreasing and hopefully the practice will be eliminated, But it is important to raise awareness, especially among the poorer sections of the society and for whom consanguineous marriages are an economic compulsion.