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Marriage Alliance- A Form of Diplomacy through Ages in India

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

by Ishita Roy

In the field of social sciences, especially International Relations, the skill of diplomacy plays an instrumental role in managing foreign relations or consolidation of one’s power. Diplomacy could be carried out through different mediums which include dialogue and discussions, negotiations, exchange programs, embassies, and representatives abroad. Global ties are evolving more than ever with diplomacy as its key feature carried out through soft power and other aforementioned mediums. Though national borders were drawn as latest as in the 21st century, the art of diplomacy existed even before the political notion of nation.

With regards to India, diplomacy existed from as early as ancient India. Sending representatives was sure part of encouraging cordial ties between two empires, however, a unique form of diplomacy carried out in India throughout the ages was the diplomacy through marriage alliances.

Ancient India is known for its Magadha Empire which continued to prosper under various dynasties and all had one thing in common- marriage alliance, which is why Magadha was able to prosper, expand, and consolidated more than any other mahajanpada or empire of that time. The Mauryan Empire, as well as the Gupta Empire, practiced matrimonial alliances, this practice however could be traced back to c. 545-44BC when Bimbisara took to the throne of the Haryanka dynasty that was ruling Magadha in that period[1].

He pursued matrimonial alliances with princess from the janpadas of Madra, Kosala, and Vaisali[2]. According to the Buddhist Jatakas marrying the princess of Kosala financially benefitted the Magadha empire as the village of Kashi was gifted as a dowry which brought in a revenue of one lakh gold coins. This alliance further provided security to Magadha as Magadha now had access to the buffer zone of the janpada Vatsa. Thus, the marriage took place keeping in mind the strategic, geopolitical, and economic benefits[3]. Similarly, the matrimonial ties with the princess of Lichchavis of Vaisali helped Bimbisara to secure Magadha. Ancient sources mention the continuous conflict between the two mahajanpadas, thus marrying the daughter of your enemy seemed a good option to avoid conflict and further expand Magadha. This also allowed Bimbisara to have an upper hand in the alliance[4]. Furthermore, the marital ties with Madra allowed Bimbisara to not only establish a friendly relation with Madra but also provided with an opportunity to further expand in the North and control the natural resources of River Chenab and Vyas.

The practice of marital diplomacy is further continued through the medieval history of India. If one has to count, one will run out of fingers. The sultanate period also witnessed marriages on a similar line, however, it was at its political peak during the Mughal era. One of the most important roles that the marriage alliances have played is in the Mughal Harem. As Ira Mukhoty mentions that Rajput women indeed played an important role in the Mughal Harem, not only did they contribute to a diverse cultural amalgamation, but it also helped the King to further expand and consolidate its empire. Akbar here appears to be an important figure, who knew that one way of entering into a long-term peace negotiation with Rajputs is through marital alliances. Akbar was quick to observe the Rajput behavior of ruling hereditary traditional empires and thus through his political marriages, he annexed the Rajput territories and at the same time allowed the Rajput rulers some autonomy to rule in their own traditional lands. This practice was thus adopted by Akbar’s successors in an attempt to continuously expand and consolidate power.

One can see this to continue even in the colonial period. The colonies, though white-washed to believe that it was their colonizers who brought in modernity, the idea of freedom and liberty, the fact is that it was during the colonial period when dowry was made mandatory for marriage. The British government through its rules and laws institutionalized as well as expanded the practice of dowry[5].

Though the institutionalization came on later, the seeds were sowed as early as in the year 1661, when Bombay was gifted as a dowry to the British East India Company by Portugal, establishing marital ties, and further consolidating the power of the British East India Company to one of the key ports of India. This transfer of land was finalized by 1668. Further, in the 20th century, the Gateway of India was erected in the honour of King George V and was given as a dowry to him for his marriage with Queen Mary. This information is inscribed in the monument itself.

The matrimonial alliances indicate that rulers moved cautiously and consolidated their positions. Matrimonial ties also allowed them to make more promising negotiations without the use of aggressive policies. Diplomacy and the ways one might carry out diplomatic relations may have changed over the course of time and became more humane, enabling women to make their own decisions, rather than to fall prey to marriage diplomacy; however, the deliberately planned marriage diplomacy allowed the political stakeholders to make strategic advances.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.

About Author: Ishita Roy is a student of Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi, based in Delhi, India. She is an aspiring social scientist, trying for feminist voices to be heard through the field of history and journalism.

Picture Credits: Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

[1] HC Rayachaudhari, Political History of Ancient India, p.201 [2] Ibid, p.182 [3] Dr. Preeti Prabhat, Assistant Professor, Pt. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Government PG College, Lucknow, The Rise of Magadha Under Bimbisara, p.2 [4] Dr. Bhandarkar, Carmichael Lectures 1918, p.74 [5] Ranjana Sheel, Institutionalization and Expansion of Dowry System in Colonial North India, Economic and Political Weekly, 1997, p.1709

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