The ladies of the Tihar Jail dowry wing can tell you about all sorts of tragedies that befall daughters-in-law: kitchen fires and suicides, plunges from apartment balconies and mysterious ailments.

What they tend not to mention is that they are accused -- and sometimes convicted -- of involvement in those tragedies, alleged accomplices to a tradition of dowry that is growing ever more voracious.

"Televisions and fridges, sometimes even cars, this is what people ask for now," said Jyoti Chaudhary, an assistant superintendent who oversees the jail's dowry wing, a cocoon of seemingly gentle women in a prison holding some of India's most violent criminals.

Around here, they simply call it "the mother-in-law wing."

"Instead of earning these things, people now want to snatch them from someone else," Chaudhary said.

It can be dangerous to be a daughter-in-law in India, where marriage and money are tied together in ancient traditions.

According to official figures, about 7,000 Indian women were killed in dowry cases last year, a number that rights groups say is perhaps half the actual total. The decade that ended in 2000, a time when India's economy leaped forward, saw a 38 percent rise in killings and a tripling in harassment complaints.

The fact that dowry has been illegal since 1961 means little. The vast majority of Indian families, from the urban elite to illiterate farmers, still pay some form of dowry to seal their daughters' wedding agreements. Created long ago to ensure that brides had wealth of their own, the tradition has essentially become a fee paid by the bride's family to the groom's.

When trouble arises, it can be horrific. Authorities talk of brides held down by sisters-in-law as husbands douse them in kerosene and set them alight, or locked in closets until they starve, or beaten in front of their husbands' families.

Wealth has only compounded the problem.

There has been a sharp spike in the number of dowry-related crimes in recent years, closely paralleling a galloping Indian economy that has brought the trophies of middle-class life -- TVs and motorbikes and matching dining room sets -- tantalizingly close for hundreds of millions of people.

For some families, the call of advertisers is impossible to resist, and demands for cash and gifts often continue long after the weddings.

Women may be increasingly educated and well-paid here, but the tradition has kept up with the times by growing even more burdensome to them. The lure of easy money spans Indian society: rich, poor, educated or not, married by arrangement or for love.

"The economic changes are not making things better, they're making people more greedy," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a prominent women's organization.

The growing consumerism is reflected in the increasingly crowded cells of Tihar's dowry wing, where about 100 women are held. A few have been convicted, but most are awaiting trials in India's torturously slow judicial system, a wait that can last many years.

A conviction can draw a life sentence, though mothers-in-law are more commonly accused as accessories and face terms that seldom go higher than eight years.

By prison standards, the dowry wing is fairly comfortable. There's a grassy yard, cable television, ceiling fans to stir the stifling air and large communal cells where the prisoners -- "ladies" to their jailers -- unroll sleeping mats every night.

Behind the 20-foot steel gates, barred doors and concrete walls topped by guard towers, it's an enclave of gray hair, middle-class dreams and, the prisoners insist, universal innocence.

"Not even one person here is guilty," said Durga Sharma, a fiftyish schoolteacher jailed after the death of her son's wife. "These are people from good families."

Sharma insists her daughter-in-law died of an unknown stomach ailment. The police says she was killed in a dowry dispute.

The prisoners blame their fates on conniving in-laws, corrupt policemen and investigations that often entail arresting entire households. The husbands and sons of most of these women were also imprisoned, though many are out on bail.

"I didn't commit any crime . . . no one in my family did," said Shanti Devi, a 59-year-old housewife whose daughter-in-law -- depending on whom you believe -- either committed suicide or was pushed from a fifth-floor apartment. Who is said to have pushed her isn't clear.

"I never asked for dowry," insisted Devi, who said her daughter-in-law was mentally ill, constantly screaming and pulling at her own hair. "But if her family wanted to give us something as a gift, we would happily accept it."

In India, the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law is often complicated. Sons commonly remain at home with their parents, and their wives are expected to move in too, taking over many household chores.

It's a situation rife with potential clashes, and the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law has long been a staple of neighborhood gossip and Indian soap operas.

But TV dramas don't convey the horrors brides can face.

Often, the murders are disguised as suicides or kitchen injuries from exploding kerosene stoves, authorities say. Sometimes, the crimes are actual suicides where, authorities say, husbands or in-laws drove the women to kill themselves.

The grim statistics in part reflect increased awareness and more reporting of dowry crimes. More police units today are dedicated to protecting women, and prosecutions of dowry-demanding families occur fairly regularly. By law, women who die within seven years of marriage must be autopsied.

For all that, filing charges remains difficult for the vast majority of women, requiring them to confront generations of tradition and often to find ways around less-than-helpful authorities.

But the jump in dowry statistics also reflects growing demands.

For a few, particularly in sections of the educated elite, dowries are symbolic.

But for many, marriage remains a hard-fought negotiation, and courtship is often replaced by husband-shopping.

Want to marry your daughter to a banker? The Times of India pegged his cost at about $15,000, paid to his parents in cash and gifts. A businessman with an MBA is worth at least $32,000. And a member of the Indian Administrative Service, the country's elite bureaucrats: at least $44,000.

Lower down the economic ladder, among the middle-class aspirants who fill Tihar, the numbers have also changed.

Where grooms' families once asked for bicycles, today they'll demand motorcycles or cars. Those who would have asked for furniture now submit long requests for electronic goods.

Mamta, a 22-year-old newlywed who asked that her full name not be used, said she was given a simple choice: "A motorbike or 25,000 rupees (about $550), that's what my husband's family told me I had to bring."

The daughter of a construction worker from a working-class New Delhi neighborhood, Mamta said her dowry included the "usual things": a television, washing machine, refrigerator and some furniture.

But days after her marriage, another bride moved in down the street, bringing a motorbike for her in-laws.

"My husband's family saw the motorcycle, and they told me I had to bring one for them," she said.

When Mamta refused, her husband beat her and locked her in the house. When her brother paid the 25,000 rupees, her in-laws demanded a car.

Threatened with more beatings, she fled to a women's shelter.

"I feel nothing for my husband, and he never had any feelings for me," she said in an interview two weeks after running away, her bruises recently faded.

But she still wants to go back. She's hoping a shelter counselor can work out an arrangement with her husband and his family to guarantee her safety.

Her alternatives, she says, are limited. Divorce would bring shame, possible poverty and no guarantees.

"If I get married again, my new husband could be even worse than this one."

Tihar Jail's dowry wing is filled with women convicted of involvement in violence against new brides. Indian women at a shelter take part in a workshop raising awareness about the problems new brides face with economic demands from their in-laws.