The practice of giving a "dowry" or a gift to a woman at marriage is said to have its origins in the system of "streedhan" (women's share of parental wealth given to her at the time of her marriage).
As a woman had no right to inherit a share of the ancestral property streedhan was seen as a way by which the family ensured that she had access to some of its wealth. There is no clear proof as to when this practice was first started in India.
What began as gifts of land to a woman as her inheritance in an essentially agricultural economy today has degenerated in to gifts of gold, clothes, consumer durables and large sums of cash, which has sometimes entailed the impoverishment and heavy indebtedness of poor families. The dowry is often used by the receiving families for business purposes, family member's education, or the dowry to be given for the husband's sister. The transaction of dowry often does not end with the actual wedding ceremony as the family is expected to continue to give gifts.
In the course of time dowry has become a widespread evil and it has now assumed menacing proportions. Surprisingly it has spread to other communities, which were traditionally non-dowry taking communities. With the increasing greed for the easy inflow of money on account of a bride the chilling stories of bride burning started coming to light.
With a view to eradicate the rampant social evil of dowry from the Indian society, Parliament in 1961 passed the Dowry Prohibition Act which applies not merely to Hindus but all people, Muslims, Christians, Parsees and Jews. It extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir.