Hypergamy is a social institution in regard to conjugal relations, which allows a man but forbids a woman to marry a person of lower social standing. Underlying this rule was the high value attached to the purity of women in India which was jealously protected among the higher castes.
When the castes were divided into several groups with different ritual and social status on account of their having different origins, the parents were required to get their daughters married to men belonging to a group equal to or higher than their own. The inter caste marriage of a daughter of a man into a higher group (or caste) came to be regarded as a symbol of honour. This resulted in a great demand for bridegrooms in the higher castes and ultimately led to the atrocious tradition of murdering female infants.
During the last two centuries, certain castes and communities, in an attempt to improve their social status and desiring upward social movement in the caste hierarchy, adopted a system of marrying their daughters into higher castes.
It may, however, be stated here that as a device of persuading boys of the higher castes to marry girls of the lower castes, the system of dowry was encouraged. Under this system, the women in India were reduced to the humiliating position of pawns in the game of status building. The girl from a lower group was always conscious of her lower status. The absolute neglect of the girl’s happiness in such inter caste marriage is evidenced from the fact that certain families gave their daughters in marriage to persons of higher castes of a different region, where sometimes even the language was different making communication between the husband and wife very difficult.
Another implication of this system was that the highest caste group was left with a surplus of girls. When the members of such a group accepted wives from the lower groups, the chances of inter caste marriage for the girls in that group went down correspondingly. As the system implied the inter caste marriage, the highest caste group was left with the choice of either forcing their women to remain unmarried or of committing female infanticide.
Among the Kulin Brahmins of Bengal, who had a highly complicated system of social (or caste) hierarchy, the highest class (Kulins) experienced the utmost difficulty in finding suitable husbands for their daughters. This state of affairs led to polygamy among certain high castes.
Hypergamy was also prevalent among the Anavil Brahmins and Leva-Patidars of Gujarat, Rajputs of Rajasthan, Marathas of Maharashtra and Nairs, Kshatriyas and Ambalavasis of Kerala. Hypergamy was known in ancient Hindu society as Anuloma and Pratiloma. Anuloma marriage signified an inter caste marriage in which the man was of a caste higher than that of the woman. Pratiloma marriage signified a inter caste marriage in which the man belonged to a caste lower than that of the woman. Such an inter caste marriage was not only disapproved of by society, it called for punishment under theancient Hindu law and contemporary social traditions.