Polyandry marriage system in Himachal Pradesh

The tribal culture in India is a captivating blend of ancient traditions and contemporary influences. A striking example of this cultural fusion can be found mainly in the Kinnaur and others  tribe of Himachal Pradesh. This article section delves into the unique aspects of  tribal life, from their distinct features to their unconventional marriage customs.

Polyandry marriage system

Polyandry is a social system where a woman has two or more husbands at the same time. This system allows brothers in a family to share the same wife. The word 'polyandry' comes from the Greek roots 'poly', meaning 'many', and 'anēr', meaning 'man'. It refers to marriages involving one woman and multiple men. In some cases of fraternal polyandry, brothers share the same wife with the consent of all involved. The children born to the wife are considered the children of all husbands.

Types of Polyandry

  • Fraternal polyandry 
  • Non-fraternal polyandry
  • Serial polyandry 

Fraternal polyandry 

It is a unique form of polyandry that is prevalent in certain societies. In this form of polyandry, a woman marries and lives with multiple brothers as her husbands. This is both a sequential and simultaneous process, with all brothers assuming the role of co-husbands to the same wife.

The union of a woman with one of the brothers is marked by elaborate ceremonies. The auspicious star, known as "lagan," plays a crucial role in determining the ceremonial proceedings. If the lagan doesn't suit the eldest brother, the wife is brought in the name of the suitable brother. The ceremonies occur in someone else's name, but she is considered the wife of the eldest brother. The marriage follows the customs of Jhajra or Reet. Regardless of the ceremonial details, the woman automatically becomes the wife of all brothers, with equal rights accorded to each.

Maintaining Family Unity

These brothers jointly inherit and manage family property. Sharing a wife ensures that the family property remains undivided among heirs, fostering unity among siblings. Fraternal polyandry is often found in mountainous regions with limited land resources, providing families with a means to retain land that would otherwise be fragmented.

Non-fraternal polyandry

Non-fraternal polyandry refers to the practice of women marrying two or more husbands who are not brothers. These unions are often temporary and serve specific needs and purposes. This type of polyandry is common among herders and nomadic groups. During seasonal migrations, women take on additional husbands for protection and provisioning. The husbands, in turn, are compensated for their role in these polyandrous unions.

Serial Polyandry

Serial polyandry refers to the practice of women embarking on multiple marriages at different life stages. This historical practice was prevalent in societies with low life expectancies and a scarcity of female offspring. After the death of the first husband, a widow would remarry for economic security, ensuring heirs for herself and her children from the initial marriage. In this type of polyandry, the second husband supports the children from the first marriage, inherits the property, while the woman cares for all the children. This reciprocal arrangement in serial polyandry proves beneficial for both wives and husbands in societies facing such socio-economic challenges.

Polyandry in India

Polyandry, the practice of a woman having multiple husbands, is still prevalent in some parts of India, particularly in the Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir. The two main types of polyandry found in India are fraternal and serial polyandry.

Fraternal polyandry is a traditional practice among some tribal and rural communities in the Himalayan region. It is most common among ethnic Pahari communities like the Gaddis and Gujjars. In such marriages, brothers jointly marry one wife, usually to preserve family property. As the mountains offer little cultivable land, polyandry allows families to retain land that would otherwise be divided among heirs.

For the Gaddis and Gujjars, livestock is the main form of wealth and property. Polyandrous marriages enable brothers to jointly manage the herds and flocks, ensuring their continuity within the family. The co-husbands cooperate and help each other in household chores and childcare. They view themselves as co-sharers of rights and responsibilities regarding the wife and children.

In certain rural communities in Northern India, it has been observed that some women engage in serial polyandry, particularly widows. This practice involves a widow remarrying after the death of her first husband in order to secure her economic well-being and provide care for both herself and her children from the previous marriage. Her new husband would also support her first husband's children, in addition to their own offspring. Both the widow and her new husband benefit from this arrangement.

Polyandry in Himachal Pradesh

The state of Bushahr was divided into three tehsils: Bushahr proper or Rampur, Rohru, and Chini. Polyandry was found in Bushahr proper or Rampur, some places in Rohru, and in the greater part of Chini or Kinnaur.

In Bushahr, both fraternal and non-fraternal forms of polyandry existed. A survey conducted in 1910 showed that out of 1,240 women who had more than one husband, 865 had two husbands, 237 had three husbands, 86 had four husbands, and 51 had five husbands.

In Kinnaur, the brothers married a joint wife, and the Lamas solemnised the wedding by chanting hymns and worshipping gods or goddesses. It was not generally the eldest brother, but one who was more or less the bride's equal in age who went with his relatives to her father's house on the day fixed by the Lama. The bride, richly dressed and adorned, went to her husband's house the next day, where a religious ceremony was performed. All the brothers of the husband held her hand, and all of them were then deemed to have married and became her husbands.

Polyandry was not practised in the Kangra district proper and Chamba but was widely prevalent in Kullu, Lahaul-Spiti, and to some extent in Suket and Mandi. In Kullu, it was common for two or more brothers to have one wife between them, and they also shared common property in goods.

How did polyandrous marriages occur?

Polyandrous marriages were conducted through a simple ceremony. In the past, it was common to capture the bride by waylaying her. Sometimes, a struggle would occur, and the captors would then take the bride to their home. If the bride managed to escape, she would boast of her achievement.

In case of a successful capture, the brothers would negotiate with the bride's parents for her marriage. A delegation would be sent to settle the bride's price. The marriage ceremony would be completed by the bride washing the feet of all the bridegrooms and the bridegrooms tying pieces of muslin cloth called Paju around their caps. However, the tradition of capturing the bride declined over time.

By the early 20th century, the brothers or their friends started negotiations with the bride's parents and brought her home after paying the price.

Know More About : ART & CULTURE OF H.P

Social Paternity

The community followed a unique practice where all husbands were recognized as fathers of each child. Among these fathers, the eldest was referred to as the teg babach (elder father), while the others held the designation of gato babach (younger father).

In practical terms, the social paternity often leaned towards the eldest brother, as long as he was alive. In such cases, the eldest brother was acknowledged as the father of all children born to the common wife. Interestingly, if the joint family structure disintegrated, it fell upon the wife to identify and name the fathers of the various children.

What if somebody brought a different spouse?

However, sometimes one of the brothers would bring a separate wife for himself. If the new wife agreed to be shared by all the brothers, then there was no problem. But if she did not agree, then the joint property had to be divided. The husband and his new wife would have to start a new household. However, the husband still retained his right to the joint wife. The partition of the property was done according to the customary rules of inheritance.

Now it is becoming less common in India due to urbanization and changing social attitudes. It is now considered illegal and socially unacceptable in most parts of the country. To change the mindset of communities that still view polyandry as acceptable or necessary, development interventions and educational programs are being implemented.

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