For the past five years, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) has been organizing mass marriage programs, "kalyanmastu", across the state, with the objective of helping poor people to get married without running up debts, promote Hindu culture and counter missionary propaganda.
TTD gifts each couple (from the below poverty line families) with a gold mangalasutram, silver toe rings, and a set of wedding clothes to the couple, and to an attendant. It also hosts feast for sixty people from each couple's side, and provides free darshan for six members belonging to the bride and bridegroom family at the Venkateswara temple at Tirumala.
So far, more than 35000 such weddings have been conducted as part of the Kalyanamastu. It is estimated that TTD spends about Rs 10000 for each couple. Here are a few observations from the latest round at Hyderabad.
1. It is undeniable that poor people incur considerable expenditure in organizing marriages and large debts are an inevitable legacy of a marriage. Apart from lowering marriage ceremony expenditures, such unions are less likely to involve dowries.
Since everyone gets married, incur considerable expenditure on their marriage ceremony, and the resultant debts impact a larger number of people (families of both, especially the bride), mass marriages offer a considerable welfare dividend. In many respects, it is equivalent to a large one-time cash transfer.
2. Like all government interventions involving dispensing some benefits, such mass marriages are also vulnerable to leakages. There is the strong possibility that atleast some of the couples already had their wedding recently and have been tempted by the incentives (especially the free darshan). What increases its likelihood is the fact that government officials are given targets to mobilize couples for such weddings.
3. Private marriages are deeply personal events. At a cultural level, arranged weddings are most often sustained, atleast in the initial stages, by the powerful influence of traditions and conventions. The strong memories of the marriage ceremony itself, in the exclusive presence of friends and relatives, will serve as a powerful binding force.
Does the impersonal nature of mass-marriages mean that its psychological impact on the couples are not deep enough? Put differently, it may be fair to say, the contribution of the memory of the marriage ceremony itself towards sustaining the marriage (atleast for the first few years) will be smaller for such mass-marriages.
4. Do such weddings encourage love-marriages, where couples elope to get married? Since the couples incur no expenditure and since they are impersonal occasions (given the large numbers of marriages taking place), they provide an excellent platform for couples fleeing to marry in relative anonymity.
5. What has been the longevity of such marriages? For all the aforementioned reasons, there is atleast a reasonable theoretical case that such marriages may not be as adhesive as the regular private marriages. But then, the fact that these weddings are taking -place before Lord Balaji could offset some of the perverse incentives.
In any case, communal marriages throw up numerous opportunities for immediate individual-level incentive changes and longer-term sociological changes.