If you are like millions of people around the world, you have been binge watching Indian Matchmaking on Netflix. The reality TV show, which has generated buzz both in India and the US, follows the Mumbai-based matchmaker Sima Taparia as she scours her biodata profiles to find the best match for clients spread in cities across the US and India.
The show concludes with a roka ceremony between Sima’s clients Akshay and Radhika. A roka ceremony is a fitting conclusion to the series because the roka symbolizes that the search for a marriage partner is complete (the word roka comes from the Hindi word for stop). In a heartfelt scene Akshay’s mother, Preeti, whose frustration with her son’s indecisiveness on the marriage market had been a major plotline of the show, tells the camera “now the search ends and his new life begins with Radhika.” Its place as the concluding scene of Indian Matchmaking emphasizes the cultural significance of roka, an often-overlooked part of the marriage arrangement process in India.
This summer, with the support of a CASI Summer Research Grant, I have been analyzing interview data that I collected in 2018 and 2019 from interviews with matchmakers, parents, and both unmarried and recently married young Indians in New Delhi. These interviews are part of my dissertation project on marriage in India. My interview data suggests that roka plays a central but changing role in the arranged marriage process.
Roka ceremonies involve the exchange of gifts between the families arranging a marriage as a symbol that they have finalized the marriage negotiations and agreed to the match. Historically, the event is a muted affair and may take place in the living room of one family’s home with only a few family members gathered. Akshay and Radhika, like an increasing number of upper-class Indian families, hosted a more elaborate affair in a rented banquet hall with a catered meal and formal attire. This wedding ritual is similar to a proposal or engagement party in the United States as it signifies the beginning of an engagement period for the couple. The roka ceremony could take place anywhere from a few weeks to several months or even a year before the wedding. Though roka has its roots in Punjabi marriage practices, there is evidence to suggest that it is quite popular across much of North India. In 2016, CASI conducted a household survey in the Delhi National Capital Region (NCR) which included questions about marriage practices. Over 65% of households in the Delhi NCR reported that roka was a desirable practice in their household. The ideal gap between the roka and the wedding was, on average, 6 to 7 weeks.
The roka courtship
The qualitative evidence suggests that the period between the roka and the wedding is increasingly being used as a form of courtship for the couple to get to know each other. This is a deviation from the traditional practice where the couple was not expected or allowed to meet before the wedding. In interviews, some parents still reported that it would be inappropriate for the couple to meet during their engagement whereas others said that phone contact was ok so long as the couple was not spotted out together publicly. Regardless of the views of the older generation, the young middle-class Delhi-ites I spoke with told me that contact between the couple begins or intensifies after the roka, sometimes without the knowledge of the parents. There was significant variation in what the roka period looked like for recently married young people that I interviewed. Some couples only met or spoke on the phone a few times, preferring to wait until the marriage to get to know each other.
On the other end of the spectrum were Nishita and Sagar (all names anonymized). Their roka took place on the very same day that their families first met. After a successful afternoon meeting at a local mall, the families decided to formalize the match and went to the home of the groom to do the roka ceremony that very evening. During their two-and-a-half-month engagement, the couple was inseparable. They reported meeting two to four times a week for dates in the food court of the mall where they would sit and talk for hours over coffee. Their meetings were supported and encouraged by their parents. Nishita even attended a wedding with Sagar and his family. Nishita started calling her future mother-in-law on the phone daily, chatting with her about Sagar and learning about her future in-law family. By the time of Nishita and Sagar’s wedding they had gotten to know each other well, started integrating into each other’s families, and even worked through a few fights. Though their marriage was arranged and they did not know each other before the roka ceremony, their engagement period functioned like a courtship, allowing them to begin building the relationship that would later become their marriage.
Not all courtships are destined to end in marriage and similarly not all rokas lead to a marriage. With young people increasingly using the roka period as a test of the relationship, there are bound to be some relationships that fail the test. This may happen if there is a disagreement between the couple but can also happen over a disagreement between the families. In the 2016 CASI Delhi NCR Survey, 48.5% of households who found roka desirable reported that a couple should break the roka and call off the wedding if it becomes clear that the marriage will be unhappy. Breaking a roka was generally but not always seen as stigmatizing. Several respondents reported that women are often blamed for a roka breaking and that having a previous broken engagement would make it harder for a woman to find a new match.
Other respondents explained that it simply wasn’t acceptable to call off an engagement in their community. Ankita, a young woman who was married two years before our interview explained that, “After the roka there were a lot of differences between us. We both thought that we shouldn’t go through with this marriage, but [within] our society, our family, once the engagement has happened, nothing can happen.” Despite the fact that Ankita and her husband realized their incompatibility during the roka period, they felt unable to call off their wedding because of a strong social taboo within their community.
In other communities, however, broken rokas have become quite common. In fact, even Akshay and Radhika’s marriage didn’t pan out. The Los Angeles Times reported that none of the couples matched on Indian Matchmaking are still together. When reached for an interview by the paper, Akshay reported that they called off the wedding just a few days after the roka. He did not give a reason for why they ended their engagement.
A broken roka can be embarrassing for both families involved. Concerned about the increasing willingness of young people to call off their engagement due to a conflict, some parents are considering strategies to prevent them from doing so. Several parents that I interviewed said that they intended to have a short engagement specifically for the purpose of reducing the likelihood of a broken roka. Kriti, a mother whose son and daughter are both approaching marriageable age, explained why she thought the engagement period should be much shorter than a year noting that, “In a year there are many things you find out about each other, good and bad, and then there is no interest left… The beauty of an arranged marriage is that there are so many things you learn only much later about each other, and whether they’re good or bad, we can adapt to them.”
Kriti’s comment reveals how much long roka courtships are changing arranged marriage in India. Extending the amount of time that a couple gets to know each other both before and after the roka is an increasingly common modification of the traditional process. This has led some to argue that the distinction between “love marriage” and arranged marriage has become fuzzy. It’s likely that these trends will continue as young people push for a larger role in the process of selecting their marriage partner.