This visionary South Indian queen’s royal decree to regulate dowry 200 years ago is relevant even today

Archival records revealed that Queen Gowri Parvathi Bai questioned the practice of demanding exorbitant varadakshina for marrying off women in the Brahmin community.


Published Feb 18, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedFeb 18, 2024 | 2:00 PM

Portrait of the Regent Maharani Gowri Parvathi Bayi of Travancore who issued royal decree against dowry. (Wikipedia)

By Lekshmi Gopalakrishnan

Long before brutal tortures and harassments in the name of dowry were heard of, a visionary south Indian queen had taken the initiative to regulate dowry menace in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, archival records have revealed.

Regent Queen Gowri Parvathi Bai questioned the practice of demanding exorbitant varadakshina for marrying off women in the Brahmin community. She had issued a decree limiting its amount in the year 1823.

The revolutionary decision was taken by the queen who reigned Travancore during the period 1815-29.

Historians point out that the decree assumed greater significance as she intervened into an existing social practice then and took a decision in favour of women of her country.

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A revolutionary decision

The over two century-old royal decree assumes significance in Kerala even now. There have been increasing number of incidents of brutal assaults and series of dowry-related suicides of women being reported from across the state in recent years.

One such incident was that of a woman medico who ended life after her fiancé backed out from their marriage demanding more gold, luxury car and properties as dowry.

The accused doctor was arrested and released on bail later.

The queen’s 19th century royal decree, now available in the State Archives, indicated that the menace was deeply rooted in this part of the country even two centuries ago.

In her historic order, Queen Parvathi Bai pointed out the plight of women in the “Namboothiri” and “Potti” sections of the Brahmin community during the 19th century.

Indicating about the then social practices, she further said that as per the prevailing system in the princely state, the girls in the community should be married off within an age group of 10-14 years.

“Many of the families in the community were unable to marry their girls off as 1000-2000 fanam (a type of money) were demanded as varadakshina by the groom,” she had said.

She issued stringent warning not to give or demand more than 700 ‘kaliyan fanam’, (a kind of money) as ‘varadakshina’.

Urging everyone in the community to obey the royal administration’s decision, the decree also said those who violate it would be handed over to the court and punished as per the law of the country.

Interestingly, the regent queen, the younger sister of the mother of versatile Travancore King Swathi Thirumal, was the one who had appointed teachers for popularising education and published “granthas” (books) for teaching in the princely state for the first time.

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Significant even today

Noted historian T P Sankarankutty said as there are not much historical documents available to prove the prevalence of dowry practice in Travancore, the royal decree by the regent queen is a significant one.

In this decree, it was specifically mentioned about the ‘varadakshina’ practice prevalent among the Brahmin community and so it can be considered as a concrete document, he said.

“Normally, the then kings and queens of the princely states would not have taken such a decision. In that sense, the royal decree has great significance,” Sankarankutty, a former Head of the History Department at the University College here, told PTI.

Senior CPI (M) leader and former Health Minister K K Shailaja felt that a stringent central law and an intense campaign branding the demand and acceptance of dowry as a serious crime are essential to make at least some changes in the present social system.

The country does not lack legislations to fight dowry menace or to ensure equal treatment and justice for women but they are of no use if the attitude of the society does not change, she said.

“Passing of legislations at the Parliament or Assemblies is not enough. A mental state to imbibe their positive results should be inculcated in the minds of citizens and the society,” Shailaja told PTI.

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Fighting the menace

After the country attained independence and the state of Kerala came into being, a dowry prohibition act was passed in the year 1961.

In July 2004, the State Government amended the Kerala Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 by superseding the Kerala Dowry Prohibition Rules 1992.

In the wake of some dowry related deaths that had rocked the state, the LDF government, two years ago, came out with a series of measures to curb the practice of giving and accepting dowry as part of marriages.

It had amended its Dowry Prohibition rules to appoint dowry prohibition officers’ in all 14 districts as part of taking stringent measures against the practice.

In 2021, Governor Arif Mohammed Khan observed a day-long fast urging people to root out the menace.

State police also launched campaigns like “Say No to Dowry” as part of measures against dowry atrocities on women.

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