Archive for Identity

Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion – Reviewed by Arun Jones

Arun W. Jones

The work under review is a rich and well written examination into the historical and contemporary worlds of Pentecostals in Rajasthan, a state in the western part of North India. These Pentecostals are part of the Bhil people, one of India’s tribal groups. Most of the population of Rajasthan has a very strong “Rajput Hindu(tva) ideology” and so Christianity has flourished among tribal people who have found themselves on the fringes of mainstream Hindu society. The study takes as its guiding themes two salient realities of Pentecostalism in much of India today: conversion and religious violence. It shows how the two are linked, not in some facile causal way, but through the minds, motivations, and behaviors of Indian Christian missionaries, Christian converts, and their religious and political opponents.

The monograph consists of an Introduction, four chapters dealing with different aspects of Pentecostalism, conversion and anti-Christian violence, and a Conclusion. The Introduction lays out the study’s fundamental ideas. It locates anti-Christian violence in a larger historical context of religious or communal violence in India and shows how the former is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning in 1997 and increasing since then. Pentecostals bear a disproportionate share of the violence meted out upon Christians—primarily by Hindu nationalists. Perhaps not coincidentally, Pentecostals are also known to be very active in conversion activities in many parts of the nation and the Introduction helpfully articulates the main issues regarding conversion in India. It then moves on to matters of methodology and field work, undertaken in Udaipur district.

Chapter 2 delves into the doctrines of Pentecostalism, which emphasizes the power of God the Holy Spirit. Then follows a brief history of the movement worldwide, in India, and finally in Rajasthan, where it was first introduced in the 1930s or 1940s, but really was planted on a permanent basis in the early 1960s by K. V. Phillip and T. V. Mathews, who were Pentecostal missionaries from Kerala. Mathews formed the Native Missionary Movement (NMM) in 1964, which recruited local Rajasthani tribal persons to be missionaries to their own people. Today there are over a dozen Pentecostal organizations and independent congregations working in the state, one of them being the Calvary Covenant Fellowship Mission (CFFM), which greatly assisted the author in his fieldwork. Pentecostalism among Bhils of Rajasthan (as in other parts of the world) emphasizes spirit worship; divine healings and miracles in the material, social and spiritual realms; strict rules of belief and practice; and social ministries such as education, counselling, medical assistance, and development and relief work. In India, conversion to Christianity by Dalit and Tribal groups has deep political ramifications, since a public declaration of a change of faith would deprive such converts of the benefits which come to them as members of traditionally oppressed classes of society. Therefore, many tribal Christians do not state to government officials that they are Christians. However, Christian conversion “has created a new identity for tribals,” according to the author (46–47). This new identity is both social and internal/psychological, as Christian tribals “find their new-found identity empowering” (47).

Chapter 3 focuses on conversion. Rather than trying to develop a general theory or explanation of conversion to suit his context, the author here presents four perspectives and narratives of “differently situated actors” that are involved in the conversion process. The chapter opens with a review of the academic literature on religious conversion in India. One of the features of conversion to Christianity in India is that a majority (though certainly not all) of the converts to Catholicism, Protestantism and Pentecostalism come from Dalit, tribal and low caste backgrounds. This can be interpreted in many ways: for example, by Christians that their faith provides a refuge from social and material oppression, and by Hindu nationalists that missionaries lure people from marginal populations by promises of material and social gain. The four narratives or perspectives on conversion to Christianity that the author provides are, respectively, the Hindu nationalist narrative, the Christian (native) missionary narrative, the converts’ narrative, and the (Hindu) tribal narrative. The four narratives illuminate “how different actors/agents have assigned different meanings to the complex and controversial issue of religious conversion” (85), in which “the same theme of freedom, materiality and spirituality gets re-interpreted and reconceptualized differently by different groups” (86).

Chapter 4 focuses on tribal or Adivasi Pentecostal women. There are several reasons for this. First, the majority of Pentecostals are women. Second, they predominate in Pentecostal churches even though formal authority usually lies with men. Third, the reasons that they convert, and remain faithful to Pentecostalism, are gender specific. Indian Pentecostal women are certainly not unique in this respect, as worldwide the story is much the same. The chapter delves into women’s experiences of conversion, the role of miracles and faith healing among women, male-female interactions within the family and outside, and women’s socio-economic conditions as Pentecostals. In general, the author argues that women significantly benefit both socially and materially in the Pentecostal movement. However, this is not because missionaries or church leaders are dispensing special goods and favors to them, but because Pentecostalism positively changes women’s self-perceptions, their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and their relationships to family members and to the broader society in which they live.

Chapter 5 explores anti-Christian violence in the context of Hindutva or Hindu nationalist political ascendency. Hindu nationalists see conversion as a form of violence: “something that violates the very essence of an individual in a sense it amounts to an outside ‘take over’ of the convert’s consciousness” (63). In this view, violence by agents of Hindutva is simply a retaliation against violence first perpetrated by missionizing religious agents—whether they be Muslim or Christian. After chronicling anti-Christian violence in Rajasthan since 1990, the chapter discusses the demographic situation of the Bhils of Rajasthan, and their socio-religious, economic, and political condition. It locates Christian presence and conversion as well as Hindutva ideology and activity as significant forces in the macro-analysis, both historical and social, of the state—what the author terms “the political economy of tribal society” (156). The Conclusion of the book brings together the main arguments of the work.

This study of Pentecostalism and its opponents among the Bhils of Rajasthan is a significant intervention in the social scientific study of the Indian subcontinent, as well as the field of religious studies and the burgeoning area of Pentecostal studies worldwide. One minor criticism of the work is that it does not clearly state at the outset that Pentecostal missionaries are exclusively Indian. For the uninitiated, the term “missionary” almost immediately conjures up white men in pith helmets and white women in long dresses—a stereotype that certainly does not apply to this study. That being said, Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India provides an academically rigorous, pleasantly accessible, and intellectually fascinating study of the political, religious, social, and economic lives of Pentecostals in Rajasthan, who surprisingly share quite a bit with their fellow Pentecostals around the world.

This review is written by Arun Jones for Asian Ethnology.


Book Review: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

A Timely Tryst with a Thorny Issue

By: Valson Thampu

Sarbeswar Sahoo’s Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India is a significant study of one of the most sensitive issues in the politics of religion in India. Barring the limitation that usually goes with ethnographic studies—the exclusive focus on a limited location in studying what is a pan-Indian issue—this book is a must read for those interested in knowing the truth about conversion and re-conversion in India.

The author is neither an apologist for Christianity nor a camp follower of Hindu nationalism. He is an objective academic and a thoroughbred researcher, who brings methodological soundness, knowledge of ground realities and intellectual objectivity to bear on his analyses and conclusions, which merit attention for those very reasons.

Sahoo sets out to study in the tribal belt of Rajasthan, in the wake of an earlier attempt to understand ‘the changing relationships between state and civil society’ since globalization and liberalization, ‘the politics of Pentecostal conversion and anti-Christian violence in India’. The present study is richer from the author’s antecedent involvement in this region, which implies a prolonged exposure to the context and nuances of the issue addressed. The conclusions arrived at are significant for the reason that they do not stem either from Christian apologetics seeking to legitimize conversion and Hindu nationalist propaganda aimed at discrediting it. In the very nature of things, the voice of a third-party adjudicator in this deeply polarized and violently politicized discourse deserves to be welcomed.

Pentecostalism is viewed with suspicion even by mainstream churches—Catholics and Protestants. Reading Sahoo, I realize that this is at least in part due to ignorance! The gulf between perceptions and ground realities is a theme that comes to the surface every now and then in this study. The strength of Sahoo’s treatment stems from the case-studies and narratives he presents, as is seen most strikingly foregrounding the perspective and experience of tribal women vis-à-vis conversion.

Christianity is two millennia old in India; yet it is one of the least documented religions. I remember the former President, Shankar Dayal Sharma, telling me at the fag end of his term, that he used to look in vain for a ‘good enough history of Christianity in India’ to be presented to heads of states overseas whenever he was on state visits to Christian countries. The enormous contributions that this tiny (2.18% of the population as per the last census) and, for the most part, economically weak community has made to nation-building, far in excess of its material resources, remain unchronicled and unsung. Worse, orchestrated attempts have been under way, gathering momentum since the Niyogi Committee Report of 1956, to caricature Christian missionary work focused on Dalit and tribal people-groups as a conspiracy to ‘wipe out Hinduism from its land of birth’. According to the Justice Wadhwa Committee Report on the assassination of Graham Staines (1999) the main cause for the ire of Hindu nationalists against Christian missionaries outreaches to those excluded from the trajectory of our development since Independence.

This regrettable state of affairs prevails, with a semblance of legitimacy, for want of an objective perspective on the matter. Media sites of national debates and discourses have mushroomed. Extended and impassioned discourses are undertaken. But, at the end of it all, the people at large remain more confused or prejudiced. This points to the failure of the Indian intelligentsia, whose business it is to educate public opinion and serve as mediators of the truth. Sahoo’s work tries to fill the gap in respect of the widely misunderstood issue of Pentecostal conversions and their effects on the culture and well-being of tribals in Rajasthan.

Are tribals and Dalits converted through inducements? The author’s conclusion is: ‘All the interviewed women denied that they received any material incentives or allurements.’ He finds, ‘Conversion has brought life-transforming changes in the socio-economic conditions of tribal women and men. . . While the pre-conversion period was marked by extreme poverty and an unclean, unhygienic life, the post-conversion period witnessed improved socio-economic well-being.’ The signs of economic amelioration that come in the wake of conversion is due to the liberation of the people from wasteful practices like alcohol addiction, expensive and exploitative shamanic rituals in the wake of illnesses, improvements in health due to faith-healing bolstered by the hygienic and morally sound, emotionally stable life they are empowered to lead which, according to the author, is the hallmark of Pentecostal teaching. The strict, almost puritanical, enforcement of a moral code is the significant difference, says Sahoo, between Pentecostals and ‘nominal’ Christians. This is also the secret of its greater success in transforming and reforming tribal life.

The Pentecostal model of development, going by Sahoo’s findings, holds two significant insights. First, it is based on a genuine ‘transformation’ of the people, and is not driven by the number-crunching of wealth generation. Second, it results in the liberation of the people from their subjugation to exploitative and oppressive forces. The etymological meaning of ‘development’ is to ‘set free’. ‘In my interviews’, Sahoo states, ‘tribal women repeatedly testified that their lives in the post-conversion period have been marked by good health, peace and happiness…’ ‘Such life-transforming spiritual and material changes do not’, he adds, ‘just defy the “materialist incentive hypothesis” of conversion; they also stand as testimonies and credible explanations of why tribal women take a deliberate decision, in spite of knowing the adverse consequences to become believers of Pentecostalism and “make a break” with the traditional belief system they followed for generations.’ Sahoo’s inference from all of this, as stated in the concluding chapter is, ‘For them (the tribals), while the pre-conversion stage represents slavery and lack of freedom, the post-conversion stage is marked by freedom and progress; conversion has made them free of bondage, ignorance and discrimination.’

The author erects the superstructure of this argument on four pillars. He begins by tracing the growth of Pentecostalism from its early days in the US at the turn of the last century, and goes on to examine the narratives on religious conversion. He then provides account of the pre-and-post-conversion experiences of tribal women and ends up with a comparatively perfunctory examination of the Hindutva animus against conversion, following up with a summation of his findings in the concluding chapter. The merit of the author, as Professor Hans Joas points out in his foreword, is that ‘the intellectual background of its author is not in the sociology of religion but in political sociology.’ He has no axe to grind, no case to plead, in respect of religion.

I recommend this book to judges at all levels as they are in the unenviable position of having to pronounce the ‘last word’ on complex and contradictory issues like conversion without the sort of on-the-ground knowledge with which the author treats the subject; to the media fraternity, politicians and law makers.

The Christian community, unlike the Muslims, are apolitical in most parts of India, and they are, by tradition and theology, pacifist. They have no history of heroism or of confrontation. The only stick with which they can be beaten is allegation of proselytization, which they are presumably mandated to, which happens to be not the case. There is no biblical mandate to convert. Conversion, the unfortunate name given to what was envisaged as ‘transformation’, is alluring in its scope for Hindutva misrepresentation and Christian misuse. All the same, I’d recommend this book to the RSS as much as I would to Christians as well as people of religious sensitivities in all faiths who may wish to know the truth.

Valson Thampu is former Principal, St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi.


Source:; accessed 16th January 2019

Secular States, Religious Politics

Prof. Sumantra Bose’s new book, Secular States, Religious Politics (Cambridge University Press), was released recently by former Vice President, Hamid Ansari, and Prof. Rajeev Bhargava. According to Hamid Ansari, secularism as a policy to manage religious pluralism in India has declined over the years. This decline or undermining of Indian secularism is not because of the ordinary individuals/citizens of this country, but because of the compromises made by the elite secularists of this country for the fulfilment of their own interests.


Rajeev Bhargava provided a critical reading of the book and argued that (1) Indian secularism should not be reduced to or equated with “defence of minority rights only”. It should look into the interests of all communities equally. (2) He also pointed out that there is a conflating of communitarian with communal. While communitarian (developing a feeling of “we-ness” or identity on the basis of one’s community) is not bad, communal is (at the expense of other community). (3) Furthermore, Bhargava noted that it is therefore important that all communities understand and appreciate their own cultural heritage and principles/practices of their own religion. This will help appreciate not only their own but also other’s culture and religions.

Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India (Cambridge University Press)

Sahoo, Sarbeswar (2018) “Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India,” New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

This book studies the politics of Pentecostal conversion and anti-Christian violence in India. It asks: why has India been experiencing increasing incidents of anti-Christian violence since the 1990s? Why are the Bhil Adivasis increasingly converting to Pentecostalism? And, what are the implications of conversion for religion within indigenous communities on the one hand and broader issues of secularism, religious freedom and democratic rights on the other? Drawing on extended ethnographic fieldwork amongst the Bhils of Northern India since 2006, this book asserts that ideological incompatibility and antagonism between Christian missionaries and Hindu nationalists provide only a partial explanation for anti-Christian violence in India. It unravels the complex interactions between different actors/ agents in the production of anti-Christian violence and provides detailed ethnographic narratives on Pentecostal conversion, Hindu nationalist politics and anti-Christian violence in the largest state of India that has hitherto been dominated by upper caste Rajput Hindu(tva) ideology.


“The modern state struggles with social diversity, especially religious diversity. The problem is exacerbated by a religious majority that seeks to define citizenship in exclusively majoritarian terms. India is no exception and we are all too familiar with Hindu and Muslim conflict. Less familiar perhaps is the growth of Pentecostalism in India which is often violently rejected by Hindu nationalists, but also criticized by mainstream Christianity. This book is a remarkable study of the spread of Pentecostalism mainly among the poor among the Bhil tribes of Rajastan. This fascinating account of the complexity of conversion experiences shows how religious conversion leads to both hope and social mobility. A major contribution to both the study of modern India and to the sociology of religion” – Bryan S. Turner, Australian Catholic University.

“Few topics are as highly charged today in India as is Christian conversion. Few, at the same time, raise more complex ethical and policy questions. In this vividly written and analytically sophisticated work, Sarbeswar Sahoo provides us with a ethnographically rich account of the politics and experience of Christian conversion in contemporary northern India. The result is not only one of the finest accounts currently available on Christian conversion in India, but a major contribution to the comparative study of Christianity and conversion in our contemporary world” –  Robert W. Hefner, Boston University.

“Adopting a multifaceted approach to a complex issue, Sahoo deploys ethnographic, historical and sociological material to advance a nuanced analysis of the competing conversion projects of Hindutva activists and Christian missionaries in Rajasthan, both of whom seek to win the loyalty of economically and socially marginalised Bhil tribals through humanitarian service projects. A path-breaking contribution to the study of Indian Pentecostalism, religious conversion, and inter-religious violence, Sahoo’s even handed and deeply documented research deserves careful reading” – Eliza F. Kent, Skidmore College, New York.

“A valuable new entrant in the field of the anthropology of conversion and Christianity in India, Sarbeswar Sahoo’s study of the spread of Pentecostalism among the tribes of Rajasthan moves away from a tired material incentive approach to a multilayered exploration of the many motives and meanings of conversion among Bhils men and women. His analysis of the increasing violence converts face is finely traced through the complex relationships interlinking them with each other and their pastors, with Hindu tribals, mainstream churches, the state, and Hindu nationalist organisations engaged in their own project of Hinduization and tribal conversion” – Rowena Robinson, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.


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CALL FOR ABSTRACTS: Religion and Socio-Political Violence in South Asia

25th European Conference on South Asian Studies, 24-27 July 2018, EHESS, Paris, France

Panel 41

Religion and Socio-Political Violence in South Asia


Frank Heidemann1, Arun Jones2, Sarbeswar Sahoo3

1University of Munich, Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Munich, Germany, 2Emory University, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, United States, 3Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, New Delhi, India

Short Panel Abstract: This panel seeks to go beyond simplistic assumptions regarding connections (or lack of connections) between religion & political violence in South Asia, and provide nuanced & sophisticated analyses of the nexus between religion, politics and social violence both in historical and contemporary cases.

Long Panel Abstract: This panel seeks to go beyond simplistic assumptions regarding connections (or lack of connections) between religion and political violence in South Asia, and provide nuanced analyses of the nexus between religion, politics and social violence both in historical and contemporary cases. Basic questions are: What is the relationship between religion, politics and violence in various times of conflict in South Asia? Is it helpful to categorize violence as either religious or political and social? Who are the different agents involved in violence, and what is their relationship with the state and with various religious institutions? How is religion used both to inspire and to counteract social and political violence? What are the subjective experiences of victimhood and how do survivors reconstruct their social world religiously, politically and socially?

Important Dates Open Close
Call for papers 01/09/2017 30/11/2017
Early registration 05/02/2018 04/05/2018
Standard registration 05/05/2018 30/06/2018

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Evangelising the Nation

John Thomas. 2016. Evangelising the Nation: Religion and the Formation of Naga Political Identity. New Delhi: Routledge. xvii + 223 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. `895 (hardback).


Evangelising the Nation is an attempt to understand the role of the colonial/postcolonial state and the evangelical church in shaping the Naga nationalist political movement in northeast India. Thomas asks: How has the Naga nation come to be defined? What role has religion played in shaping the Naga nationalist imagination and political identity? And, how has the (colonial/postcolonial) state dealt/engaged with the Naga nationalist political movement? Thomas uses archival data and historical narratives to address these questions. His central argument is that the idea of the ‘Naga nation’—which began by the coming together of disparate Naga tribes to challenge increasing Christian missionary intervention—has, in fact, been hijacked by the missionaries. With support from the colonial and postcolonial state, the local church and the evangelical bodies have sidelined the indigenous Naga leaders and come to play a dominant role in defining nationhood and political identity for the Nagas.

Thomas begins the book by discussing the relationship between the Nagas and the colonial state. Like many other tribal groups in India, the Nagas also tried to stay away from valleys to evade the power of the state—in the form of taxes, kings, war and hierarchy. In the hills they were self-sufficient and politically autonomous. However, with the arrival of the colonial state, they lost their land and forests as well as their political freedom. The presence of the colonial state increasingly threatened the indigenous Naga culture and identity and as a response, they resisted British rule in the hills. It is in this context, argues Thomas, that two contradictory movements emerged—one by the British to pacify Naga resistance and incorporate them into the colonial state apparatus, and another by the Nagas to drive away the colonial authorities and reconstitute their indigenous cultural and political identity.

Though the colonial state initially undertook ‘military pacification campaigns’ (p. 19) to bring the Nagas under its direct control, it later followed the ‘civilizing mission’ project. Despite the existing official policy of ‘non-interference’ and ‘strict neutrality’ in matters of religion, at a more practical level, the colonial state supported the missionary project in the Naga hills (p. 21). With this support, the missionaries intervened in the mundane and everyday life of the local people and gradually altered their religious and cultural self by converting them to Christianity. The question is: What were the implications of conversion for the indigenous belief system? Thomas argues that the missionaries and the colonial state ridiculed the traditional cultural practices and ceremonies of the Nagas, and termed them irrational. Conversion to Christianity was carried out actively and the missionaries created a ‘city set on the hill’ (p. 4)—an exclusive spatial zone—that kept the (civilised) converts physically and socially separated from the (heathen) natives.

Following such exclusionary practices and humiliation experienced in their everyday lives, the ‘natives’ felt the need to reconstitute their cultural and political identity, which eventually took the form of a nationalist political movement to establish ‘Naga Raj’ (p. 68). However, in the postcolonial period, this movement was hijacked by the ‘Naga Club’ (p. 74)—an organisation of mission school-educated men who took a leading role in articulating the socio-political grievances of the native people. Following the prominence of the Naga Club, conversion to Christianity increased. In 1941, the percentage of Christians was 17.9 per cent; by 1961, it had increased to 51.9 per cent (p. 117). The question one may ask is: Why did the natives feel the need to convert to Christianity? According to Thomas, conversion began to be perceived as an opportunity to escape humiliation and access modernity. The local evangelists and church leaders played a major role in this effort. By the 1970s, members of the Naga Club and the local church and evangelical bodies had sidelined the indigenous Naga nationalist political movement and assumed the leadership of protecting and promoting Naga interests. In fact, the indigenous leaders were portrayed as insurgent communists with links to China, which rendered them as enemies of the state. As a consequence, the indigenous Naga movement became isolated and the local evangelists emerged to define the Naga nation and political identity. This shows how Christianity, ‘armed with universal truth claims, assumptions and agendas, invaded the existing religious and cultural landscape’ (p. 205) of the Nagas and successfully imposed on them a new notion of nationhood and identity.

Broadly, Evangelising the Nation is an excellent account of the dynamism and contradictions associated with the encounter between the indigenous Naga nationalist movement, and the colonial/postcolonial state and Christian missionaries. The book provides a revealing narrative of the politics of (Christian) conversion and its implications for the native religion and culture. The major strength of the book lies in its longue durée approach to understand church–state relations as well as the role of religion in articulating collective political identity. However, there are a few shortcomings. First, though the central argument of the book is related to religion, ethnicity, nation and nationalism, there is no theoretical section that explains how these concepts are defined and how they are situated in relation to the broader literature. Second, the book is missing a methodology section, which could have explained how the data sources were classified and used. This is particularly relevant in the context of the bibliography where similar kinds of published materials are put under both primary and secondary sources. Finally, the lack of sub-themes makes it difficult for the reader to imagine the structure of the chapters.

Notwithstanding these limitations, the book provides a comprehensive historical account of the relationship between indigenous Naga nationalism on the one hand, and the colonial/postcolonial state and evangelical Christianity on the other. Filled with historical narratives, the book is a fine piece of historical scholarship and contributes immensely to our understanding of the history of Christianity in northeast India. The book will be useful to scholars of history, anthropology and the sociology of religion.


Indian Institute of Technology Delhi


@ Sarbeswar Sahoo (2017) Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol.51, No.2, pp.262-264


Wanted Groom: ‘Parents of Nambiar family hailing from Kannur and well settled in Mumbai is looking for a suitable alliance for their daughter, aged 28 years, star Chatayam (Sudhajatakam) MBA, working for an MNC from well settled Nambiar/Nair boys. Interested may contact on…(mobile no…and email…)’.

Thus goes a typical matrimonial advertisement in the print media. The term ‘matrimonial’, which is defined by Oxford Dictionaries Online as ‘relating to marriage or married people’ and has its origin in ‘Late Middle English: via Old French from Latin matrimonium, based on mater, matr-“mother”’, is commonly used in contemporary India to refer to processes of matchmaking, specifically through print and online media advertisements, marriage bureaus and television matrimony. When a boy or a girl of marriageable age finds it difficult to get a ‘suitable match’, the obvious questions that people ask are: ‘Have you tried with the matrimonials (used often in the plural)?’; or ‘You should open a profile in one of the matrimonial sites’. This is primarily because ‘matrimonials’ provide wide-ranging options for people to find suitable partners for marriage. In fact, matrimonial classifieds and websites are becoming increasingly popular in the contexts of declining traditional social networks and the increasing mobility of people. The Internet and Mobile Association of India noted that profile uploads on matrimonial sites had increased to 1.96 million in January 2014 as compared to 0.85 million in January 2013—a year over year growth of 130 percent.11. See M. Muzaffar, ‘Closed Circuit Coupling’, India Today (9 July 2015) [, accessed 30 Aug. 2015].View all notesThe influx of matrimonial advertisements in print and online media indicates not only changing social structures and identities, but also changing concepts of marriage, love and gender roles in contemporary India. Recently, the Indian newspaper, Mid Day, published the country’s first-ever gay matrimonial ad for gay rights activist Harish Iyer. Harish’s mother, Padma Iyer, posted a matrimonial ad for her son seeking a homosexual alliance, which drew both criticism and praise.22. H. Iyer, ‘I’m Gay, My Ma Placed an Ad Looking for Groom for Me’, (20 May 2015) [, accessed 12 July 2016].View all notes Traditionally, the matrimonial needs of individuals were fulfilled by marriage negotiators/brokers and intermediaries. In Hindi-speaking areas, they are referred to as bichaulia; in Bengali, they are called ghatak/ghataki; and in Odisha and many parts of North India, they are referred to as madhyasthi. In her Marriage and Modernity, Rochona Majumdar argues that the ghataks played a significant role in arranging suitable matches for candidates in nineteenth-century Bengal.33. Rochona Majumdar, Marriage and Modernity: Family Values in Colonial Bengal (Durham, NC/London: Duke University Press, 2009).View all notes However, the relentlessly mercenary instincts of the ghataks and their false claims produced a ‘matrimonial trap’. The widespread mistrust of ghataks on the one hand, and the growth of the metropolitan middle class and its romantic conception of marriage on the other, led to the decline of ghataks and gave rise to matrimonial advertisements in caste journals and print media. Majumdar notes that the first matrimonial advertisement she came across was in 1875, and that by the 1920s, matrimonial advertisements and marriage bureaus had become widespread and constituted a regular feature of newspapers.

The information technology revolution in India radically transformed the matrimonial market. India’s inclusion in the global market economy and a boom in the general media landscape in the 1990s led to a proliferation of online matrimonial sites which are different from online/Internet dating sites such as OkCupid, Tinder and Truly Madly. While, via online dating sites, one finds a date, ‘usually with the objective of developing a personal, romantic, or sexual relationship’, on matrimonial sites individuals sign up primarily to find marriage partners. Some of the major online matrimonial portals are, and Certain of these portals have customised their services to cater to the different linguistic and ethnic communities across India and abroad. For example, Bharatmatrimony has developed over 325 community-exclusive matrimony sites like Bengalimatrimony, Oriyamatrimony, Assamesematrimony, Tamilmatrimony, Gujaratimatrimony, etc. According to a recent New York Times report, there are more than 1,500 matrimonial websites operating in India today.44. G. Harris, ‘Websites in India Put a Bit of Choice into Arranged Marriages’, The New York Times (24 April 2015) [, accessed 12 July 2016].View all notes These commercial portals are very popular amongst the urban educated middle class who consider ‘love’ important for marriage. Such portals also appeal greatly to the Indian diaspora, as marriages through these sites combine the Indian ‘tradition’ of arranged marriage and the ‘modern’ Western notion of love and romance. Furthermore, because of being outside India, the diaspora has lost access to traditional matchmaking services in its country of origin, and in such situations, the online matrimonial sites provide excellent opportunities to ‘arrange love’ or find a ‘suitable match’. Kaur and Dhanda note that ‘matrimonial websites represent a globalising face of marriage’ and these websites allow diaspora and Non-Resident Indians ‘to practise “nation” with the homeland no longer being a distant memory, but to be actively engaged with’.55. Ravinder Kaur and Priti Dhanda, ‘Surfing for Spouses: Marriage Websites and the “New” Indian Marriage?’ in R. Kaur and R. Palriwala (eds.), Marrying in South Asia: Shifting Concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2014), pp. 272–275.View all notes As well, several popular books have come out recently describing the importance of romance in matrimonial matches—Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes (2004), Parul Mittal’s Arranged Love (2012), Hetal Adesara’s Matrimonial Mocktales (2014) and Ira Trivedi’s India in Love (2014) are some examples.

It is not just books that have become popular—wedding and matrimonial programmes have become so popular on Indian television that Shagun TV has launched a 24-hour matrimonial television station which telecasts round-the-clock wedding entertainment programmes to India and the diaspora. The contents of the programmes are both non-fictional and fictional. On one of the non-fiction shows, ‘Toh Baat Pakki’ ‘So It’s Final’), couples are invited to discuss the matchmaking process and the initial events leading to their engagement. Similarly, based on the matchmaking process, Sony Entertainment has launched a matrimony-based reality show, ‘Kahin Na Kahin Koi Hai’ (‘Somewhere There Is Someone’). Some channels have also organised shows based on a swayamwar (historically, a ceremony at which the bride makes her choice from among several suitors) in which Bollywood celebrities spend weeks judging participants and then choosing one to be their spouse, as, for example, ‘Rakhi Ka Swayamwar’ with starlet Rakhi Sawant; ‘Bachelorette India: Mere Khayalon Ki Mallika’ with actress Mallika Sherawat; ‘Veena Ka Vivaah’ with Pakistani actress Veena Malik; and ‘Ratan Ka Rishta’ with TV actress Ratan Rajput. These matrimonial shows have not only become popular and so ensured high ratings for the channels (even though, often, the celebrity backs out of formalising the marriage), they have also inspired middle-class youth to find their loves and soulmates.

The ‘arranged marriage’ system, which was grounded in caste endogamy and patriarchal gender hierarchy, is undergoing a transformation. ‘Love marriages’ are increasingly preferred by the young because they are based on mutual love and romance and because they facilitate compatibility between partners. However, the continued strong hold of caste and community in Indian social life often makes it difficult for people to fall in love and marry. For instance the Khap panchayats in North India, which support honour killings, proscribe love and inter-caste marriages.

The online matrimonial technologies transgress geographical boundaries and provide more autonomy to candidates in ‘arranging’ their own marriages. Specifically, ‘saying yes’ reflects how the young have exercised ‘agency’ and independence in selecting partners. The new technologies and online matchmaking processes defy the fixed categorisations of love and arranged marriage and have given rise to what Madhu Kishwar has called the ‘self-arranged’ marriage,66. Madhu Kishwar, ‘Love and Marriage’, in Manushi, no. 80 (1994), pp. 11–9. View all notes which combines the best of both worlds. Though caste and religion still play important roles, secular indices like education, work profile, financial status and outlook have emerged as the main criteria for mate selection in self-arranged marriages.

Unlike the marriage advertisements in the print media, online matrimonial profiles provide much more detailed information about a candidate’s age, caste, religion, education, career, family background, complexion, lifestyle, attributes, expectations, and so on, aimed at helping clients select the most suitable and compatible partner. Contacting prospective brides or grooms and expressing affinity become much quicker and easier in the online space; access to mobile phone numbers, emails and online chatrooms provide opportunities to get to know and understand one another better and to fall in love, often resulting in marriage. As Vineet and Suwarna’s testimonial from August 2015 reveals:

A chance meeting, Destiny, Fate, Luck etc. call it whatever you think but we think our coming together was set up long long ago. We were members on for some time & did meet some compatible alliances but they were just not to be our life partners. We met each other when we were on the verge of losing hope of finding a Soul mate. Skeptically we started talking first & don’t know when we just fell in love with each other. The personal information & pictures on helped to build an image about each other which has broadened over the time & Yes we are settling down as Husband & Wife. Thanks for being the bridge to join us together.77. ‘Vineet & Suwarna’, ‘Shaadi Pride’ (2 Aug. 2015) [, accessed 30 Aug. 2015].View all notes

The success stories posted on similar websites highlight the attainment of the ideals of romantic love in (arranged) marriages. The business of matchmaking, performed in open-market matrimonial negotiations, has not just helped brides and grooms find their ‘perfect match’, ‘soulmate’, ‘right person’, ‘life partner’, ‘true happiness’, and so on, they have also helped strengthen the ‘community’ through what Dumont called ‘endo-recruiting’.88. Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (Chicago, IL/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).View all notes The modernity of matrimonials has reinvented the traditional marriage system, combined the best of both love and arranged marriage, and provided ‘individual’ as well as ‘social’ compatibility to candidates and their families.

AcknowledgmentsI would like to thank Assa Doron, Craig Jeffrey and Meera Ashar for giving me the opportunity to contribute this piece. I would also like to thank Naveen Thayyil, Swargajyoti Gohain and the anonymous reviewers for their very valuable comments and suggestions, which helped improve the structure and coherence of the paper.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


Sahoo, S. (2017) “Matrimonial,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol.40, Issue.2, pp.354-357.