India, a country famous for arranged marriages, is turning more and more to matrimonial Internet sites to help fulfill this ancient tradition. The web is helping millions of Indians search for the ideal bride or groom.
Several months ago, fashion consultant Neema Kapur's 23-year-old daughter asked her mother to find her a marriage partner. It was not an unusual request - in India, parents have found matches for their children since time immemorial.
Traditionally, relatives, friends and marriage brokers have assisted in the hunt for a partner. Later, as communities scattered all over the globe, Indians began placing advertisements in newspapers.
But Neema Kapur ignored all these. Instead, she posted her daughter's profile on two matrimonial web sites in hopes of finding a suitable match.
"I can't shut my eyes to this way of finding someone, because this is the best way, I feel," she explained. "Newspapers nowadays seems to be quite outdated, because most of the people are now on the computer."
As many as 1,500 web sites have sprung up in recent years that hold out the promise of locating brides and grooms for young Indians. The larger ones offer services across the country and to overseas Indians, while others restrict themselves to smaller communities.
Those surfing the net are not just parents. Many of the users are in the tech-savvy 22 to 35-year age group, who say the web sites are a convenient way to get in touch with people with the specific goal of marriage in mind. They say they are prepared to accept a traditional "arranged marriage," but they would rather locate the right person for themselves.
The technology helps to simplify the search in this complex, multicultural country, where the criteria for choosing partners include not just the usual profession, education and looks, but also such parameters as language group and caste. The websites have sorted their databases to include all of these.
Vivek Khare, the vice president of Jeevansathi.com, which means "Life Partner," says on-line marriage brokering is witnessing phenomenal growth because of its simplicity, which newspapers cannot match.
"Space is not a constraint, in a classified [advertisement] you have hardly three or four lines, here you can write much more," he explained. "Secondly the search is very easy, there you have to browse though all the classifieds, here you can simply do a search based on your criterion. Third, contacting is very simple. You can send an e-mail."
Individual web sites say their membership is growing by leaps and bounds. The largest matrimonial site, Shaadi, or Marriage.com, claims it has seven million members - nearly double what it had two years ago. At least one-quarter of the customers are overseas Indians. Many of the web sites boast that they receive nearly a million hits every month.
It is no surprise, in a country where matchmaking is such an established of the culture, that online marriage brokering is becoming one of the most successful Internet businesses.
The matchmaking business is estimated to be worth more than $100 million a year - and matrimonial websites are beginning to capture a chunk of that. A one-month subscription to a matchmaking web site costs between $10 and $20.
As in other countries, subscribing to a web site does not guarantee a partner - although as Neema Kapur relates, India throws some particular obstacles in the way of success.
"I have been able to get two people who have been quite eligible, but for some reason did not work out," she said. "The first one, because the horoscopes did not match, and the second one, the family was too large, and we thought my daughter would not fit into that."
Many of the web sites offer online horoscope services for those who believe in astrology. Some sites are also breaking with conservative matchmaking tradition by setting up sites for divorcees, widowers and the 40 plus age group.
Companies say the main hurdle to explosive growth is that only about 40 million people in India are estimated to have access to the Internet. Online matrimonial services tend to be restricted for the moment to larger towns and cities.
Vibhas Mehta, vice president of Shaadi.com, says his company is trying to expand its reach to people who cannot log on, by establishing matchmaking centers called "Shaadi points" in various town and cities.
"These Shaadi points are physical centers where a parent or a non-computer-savvy or a non-Internet-savvy person can walk in, talk to the counselors there, put in the profile of their son or daughter, and search for life partners for them from that central data base," he explained. "It is becoming very popular: we already have close to about 90 Shaadi points up and running. "
There is irony here. As India rushes towards modernization and entrenched customs begin to change, the information technology for which the country is becoming famous may help carry forward the age-old tradition of arranged marriage.