What is Polyandry? – Himachal Pradesh General Studies

By | May 23, 2020

Polyandry is the phenomenon in which a female cohabits in the company of two or more males. In other words, polyandry custom was that in which two or more persons had a single wife. This social custom was widely practised in Keonthal, Bushahr, Jubbal, the trans-Giri tract of Sirmaur among the Shimla Hill States, and in Kullu, Lahaul-Spiti, and to some extent Suket and Mandi states of Punjab Hill States.

It was not peculiar to any particular caste or tribe. According to this system, four or brothers married one wife and each of them treated her as such. If she gave birth to a child, the brothers were known as bara bap, manjhla bap, chhota bap, etc. to the child. If the brothers wanted to live separately the children were divided amongst them, and a price was fixed even for the wife and whosoever amongst her husbands wished to keep her had to pay their share in cash to the other brothers.

Socio-Economic Implications of Polyandry

The custom of polyandry was prevalent in the hill states since time immemorial. The social implication of the polyandry was were as follows:

  • The woman of the hill states disliked to be left alone. There was every possibility of her falling an easy victim to the voice of the tempter. The polyandry gave her social security.
  • In a joint family of several brothers, one might be required for the cultivation of land, another to tend the flocks, and a third to earn money in the forests. If two brothers had to go after begar of state or out of the state, then the third brother was also there to give the wife social security.
  • Economically the land holdings in the hills were small. The polyandry prevented further division of land as it maintained the joint family system.

Polyandry in the Shimla Hill States

The polyandry system was widely practised in bigger hill states of Bushahr, Jubbal, Keonthal, Sirmaur, and some other small hill states in the vicinity of Shimla district.

Bushahr

For the purpose of administration, Bushahr state was divided into three tehsils: Bushahr proper or Rampur, Rohru, and Chini. The polyandry was prevalent in Bushahr proper or Rampur, some places in Rohru and in the greater part of Chini or Kinnaur.

In Bushahr, it was found existing in both forms, higher and lower (fraternal and non-fraternal).  In the higher form, the joint husbands were brothers and in the lower they were not so. Usually the former only was found in Bushahr but there were scattered instances of the latter. What happened in the latter was that at times strangers of even different castes became dharam bhais (brothers not by blood but by performing a ceremony by which they became like brothers) and shared a wife but in such cases the offspring was not admitted into the brotherhood of his father.

Though the husbands were not brothers, the fraternal tie was not lost sight of and strangers could have a joint wife only when they had adopted the fraternal spirit. A dharam bhai was for all practical purposes considered as a brother except in the matter of inheritance.

Thus the lower form, which was supposed to allow strangers to share a wife in common was brought within the framework of the higher form and the fraternal idea was clearly discussible. Thus, the fraternal tie was the basis of the practice allowing them to share a joint wife for as members of one caste, tribe, or family, they as possible heirs represented the fraternal group.

Quite a number of women had two husbands and some had three or four or even five. However, in some cases, a joint wife was shared by uterine brothers up to the number of six. If, however, there were more than six brothers, they got two wives.

A survey of Bushahr state in 1910 shows that out of a total of 1,240 women who had more than one husband, as many as 865 had two husbands, 237 three husbands, 86 four husbands, and 51 five husbands. It appears that the most common practice was for the women to have two husbands though a woman might have three or more husbands. As only brothers could own a wife jointly, the number of husbands was limited by the number of brothers in a family.

How did polyandrous marriages take place?

The ceremony of polyandrous marriage was simple. Formerly it was the practice to capture the bride. She would be waylaid, a struggle might take place, and her capters would bring her home. If she managed to slip out of their husbands, she would boast of her achievement.

The brothers would be in that case negotiate for her marriage with her parents. They would send a deputation to settle her price. The marriage ceremony was completed by her washing the feet of all the bridegrooms and the bridegrooms tying round their caps pieces of muslin cloth called Paju. However, the formality of capture declined with the passage of time.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the brothers or their friends started negotiations with the parents of the bride and brought her home after paying the price.

Social paternity of a child

Conventional methods existed in Bushahr for ascertaining the social paternity of a child. It was usual to recognise all the husbands as fathers of each child. The eldest father was teg babach (elder father) and the others gato babach (younger father).

However, in practice, the eldest brother, so long he was alive, was spoken of as the father of all the children by the common wife. In case, the joint family was broken up the wife named the fathers of various children.

The lower classes in Bushar had sometimes a slightly different manner of determining paternity. The husbands casted lots for the children and thus determined paternity.

What if someone brought a separate wife?

At times, one of the several brothers shared a common wife brought a separate wife for himself. There was no difficulty if the new wife agreed to be shared by all the brothers. However, if she refused to be the common wife of all the brothers, the joint property had to be partitioned.
She and her husband had to separate and start a new establishment. However, her husband did not lose his right in the joint wife but as a general rule she severed her connection with him. The partition of the property was made in accordance with customary rules of inheritance.

Jubbal

In the hill tracts of Jubbal, the polyandry was practised on much the same line as Bushahr.

Keonthal

The polyandry was practised to some extent in Keonthal state.

Sirmaur

Sirmaur was divided into four tehsils known as Nahan, Paonta, Pachhad, and Renuka. The headquarters of these tehsils were Nahan, Paonta, Sarhan and Dadahu respectively.

In the settlement of 1881 A.D., Paonta tehsil was called Majra Tehsil and Renuka tehsil was known as Palwi Tehsil. Five Bhojes of Kangra formed part of Majra tehsil now called Paonta. This tract was subsequently brought within Renuka tehsil. Waziri Kanyoten was a part of Pachhad tehsil.

The earliest reference to the existence of polyandry system in Sirmaur is found in the Sirmaur  Settlement Report 1881 A.D.

It was found to be practised in the trans-Giri tract of Sirmaur, particularly in Renuka tehsil, five Bhojes in Paonta tehsil, and Waziri Kanyoten in Pachhad tehsil. All these areas were situated in the trans-Giri tracts of these three tehsils.

It appears that polyandry existed in the trans-Giri territory of Sirmaur and in few villages in the cis-Giri tract near the Giri.

Thornton’s Gazetteer (1884) observation that polyandry was universal in the state has to be accepted with caution. It is possible that would be mere guesswork which finds no support from any document.

Fraternal polyandry:

The fraternal type of polyandry was in existence and brothers or cousins only could share a common wife though in special circumstances unrelated persons also could have a common wife. Usually, it was only brothers who possessed a wife in common irrespective of the number. The parents of the boy, if they were alive or one of his brothers arranged the marriage. A woman was married with an elaborate ceremony only to one brother. She might be married to the eldest, youngest, or any other brother. That depended on the particular circumstances of each case. If they were all at home, a wife was brought for the first time to the eldest brother.

But the determining factor was lagan (auspicious star). If the lagan did not suit him, the wife was brought in the name of the brother whom the lagan suited. However, if she was in fact meant for the eldest brother, the ceremonies would be performed in someone’s else name while she would be considered the wife of the eldest brother. The marriage took place according to the custom of Jhajra or Reet. But whether she was ceremonially married to the eldest, to the youngest, or to any other brother, she automatically became the wife of all the brothers, and all of them had equal right of assessing her.

No special ceremony was performed. The wife was formally affiliated to the brother to whom she was ceremonially married. Ordinarily, it was no matter to whom she was married because she was for practical purposes to be the common wife of all. But if partition took place, which was not very common, she would be allotted to the husband in whose name she originally married.

Non-fraternal polyandry:

The non-fraternal polyandry was also in existence. As pointed out by the Sirmaur Settlement Report 1881 A.D., even cousins and strangers shared wives jointly. Non-fraternal polyandric unions were, in reality, those where non-blood relations or strangers shared common wife. This type of
polyandry was restricted to the lower castes of the hills such as Kolis, Dumnas, Chanals etc. The Rajputs or Kanets and the Brahmans or Bhats did not practise it.

Kinnaur

In Kinnaur, the customs were more or less similar to those of Tibet. The brothers married a joint wife, 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 party was well entertained there and the Lama solemnised the wedding.

After these ceremonies, the bride, richly dressed and adorned, went to her husband’s house the next day. There she was received cordially. A religious ceremony was then performed. All the brothers of the husband hold her hand and all of them were then deemed to have married and became her husbands.

Guests presented were entertained to a feast. The brothers remained in a joint family and had a joint wife. Thus, the movable and immovable property of the family remained in its joint possession and was never divided.

Punjab Hill States

The 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.

Kullu

Polyandry was common throughout Saraj, in parts of Waziri Rupi as also in the isolated Molana glen in the Kullu region. It was common for two or more brothers to have one wife between them and they also shared common property in goods.

The woman was considered the wife of the eldest brother and all the children were considered his children. The wife was allowed to state which brother was the father of the child. Usually, in case three or more brothers who possessed one wife in common, the eldest was deemed the father of a born son, the second brother the father of the next born, and so on.

Lahaul-Spiti

In Lahaul, various travellers observed that polyandry was the general system of marriage.

According to Harcourt, polyandry prevailed extensively in Lahaul; one wife belonging generally to a family of brothers.

Mrs. Tyacke stated that, polyandry was the rule and not the exception in Lahaul. It was the custom for several brothers to live together with one wife which had the advantage of preventing the subdivision of estates, and also of keeping down a population already dependent on outside help for support, though the moral effect on the people was disastrous.

According to the Kangra district settlement report of 1865-72, in Lahaul, polyandry, or the wife was shared by several brothers and it was a recognized institution.

In Spiti, polyandry was not recognized as the elder brother married and the younger ones became the monks.

However, there was no aversion to the idea of two brothers cohabiting with the same woman. According to J.B.Lyall, this happened in an unrecognized way particularly among the landless classes, who sent no sons into the monasteries.

Sometimes, if the head of the family died and left a young wife, with no son or a son of tender age only then the younger brother had to leave the monastery and he was considered his brother’s wife husband. Polyandry was common among the dud-thulaps and among the buzhens, the descendent of Pin monasteries which required no vow of celibacy from its members.

Suket and Mandi

Polyandry was not common in Suket and Mandi. In Suket, it existed only in the Chawasi and its suburbs; while in Mandi it was found to a limited extent in the high lands of Saraj. As many as four or five brothers cohabited with one wife. It was the common belief of the people that the system worked well provided the woman was impartial and the brothers observed faith on each others.

Abolition of Polyandry

The social reformers and some public organisations in erstwhile Shimla and Punjab Hill States of the Pradesh, in the first half of the twentieth century, did all they could to carry on intensive propaganda against the evil custom of polyandry. The Rajput Sthania Sabha, the Vidya Prabandhini
Sabha and the Hindu Conference, Shimla brought this subject to the forefront of public attention and approached the British authorities for its suppression.

Finally, the spread of education and efforts to end the evil custom of Reet indirectly led to the slow demise of polyandry.

Read also: Beth, Begar and Reet System in Himachal Pradesh

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