India: Polyandry is a Fading Custom

New York Times

Buddhi Devi was 14 when she was betrothed. In India, that is not unusual: many marry young. Her intended was a boy from her village who was two years younger — that, too, was not strange. But she was also supposed to marry her future husband’s younger brother, once he was old enough.

Now 70 and a widow who is still married— one of her husbands is dead — Ms. Devi is a ghost of another time, one of a shrinking handful of people who still live in families here that follow the ancient practice of polyandry. In the remote villages of this Himalayan valley, polyandry, the practice of multiple men marrying one wife, was for centuries a practical solution to a set of geographic, economic and meteorological problems.

People here survived off small farms hewed from the mountainsides at an altitude of 11,000 feet, and dividing property among several sons would leave each with too little land to feed a family. A harsh mountain winter ends the short planting season abruptly. The margin between starvation and survival is slender.

"We used to work and eat,” Ms. Devi said, her face etched by decades of blistering winters, her fingers thick from summers of tilling the soil. “There was no time for anything else. When three brothers share one lady, they all come back to one house. They share everything."

Polyandry has been practiced here for centuries, but in a single generation it has all but vanished. That is a remarkably swift development in a country where social change, despite rapid economic growth, leaping technological advances and the relentless march of globalization, happens with aching slowness, if at all. After centuries of static isolation, so much has changed here in the Lahaul Valley in the past half-century — first roads and cars, then telephones and satellite television dishes, and now cellphones and broadband Internet connections — that a complete social revolution has taken place. Not one of Ms. Devi’s five children lives in a polyandrous family.

“Times have changed,” Ms. Devi said. “Now nobody marries like this.”

Polyandry has never been common in India, but pockets have persisted, especially among the Hindu and Buddhist communities of the Himalayas, where India abuts Tibet.

Malang sits in the Lahaul Valley, one of India’s most remote and isolated corners. For six months heavy snow cuts off the single mountain road that connects the region to the rest of the country. In summer, its steep mountainsides shimmer with wildflowers, and glacial rivers irrigate small valley farm fields and orchards, which yield generous crops of peas, potatoes, apples and plums.

Sukh Dayal Bhagsen, 60, is from the neighboring village of Tholang. As a young man he joined his elder brother’s marriage to a woman named Prem Dasi. It was never discussed, but always assumed, that he would do this when he reached marriageable age, he said.

“If you marry a different woman, then there are more chances of family disputes,” Mr. Bhagsen said. “Family property is divided, and problems arise.”

Three brothers married Ms. Dasi, who bore five children.

The logistics of sharing one wife among several men are daunting. All the children, regardless of who their biological father is, call the eldest brother pitaji, or father, while the younger brothers are all called chacha, or uncle.

“Each child knows who his father is, but you call your eldest uncle father,” said Neelchand Bhagsen, Sukh Dayal Bhagsen’s 40-year-old son.

The wife decides the delicate question of who is the father of a child, and her word in this matter is law.

“A mother knows,” Ms. Devi said, unwilling to discuss the sensitive particularities of this knowledge further.

The practice also acted as a form of birth control. Five brothers with a wife each could easily produce dozens of children. But polyandrous families seldom had more than six or seven children. Although the society of the Lahaul Valley is patrilineal, the practice of polyandry gave women considerable sway over many matters. “The wife’s voice is the dominant voice in the household,” Neelchand Bhagsen said.

When his mother demanded a new house for the growing brood in 1979, there was no question that it would be built.

“Whatever my mother said was the final word,” he said.

Life in the Lahaul Valley has changed in ways people born in Raj-era India would never imagine. Roads carved into steep mountain slopes brought the outside world closer. Children started going to school. Men ranged farther for work, earning salaries for the first time. Suddenly, the necessity for brothers to share a wife disappeared.

One of the elder Bhagsen brothers, Bhimi Ram, was an early indication of this change. He got a job as a mason in Kulu, a town on the other side of the mountain pass connecting the valley to the rest of India. He bought a piece of land there, and eventually he decided to leave the marriage.

His brothers bought out his share of the family property. A daughter produced in the polyandrous marriage remained behind in their village, and Bhimi Ram went off to start a new life. Years later he attended his daughter’s marriage as an ordinary guest, not as father of the bride.

“He got some money and wanted to move on,” Sukh Dayal Bhagsen said.

The changes have only accelerated in the last two decades, as waves of technological innovation and economic reform have sent eddies even to these distant valleys. Cheap passenger cars made it easier to connect physically to the outside world. Telephones, and now cellphones and broadband Internet, made virtual connections possible. A liberalizing economy brought new jobs. Everyone became a little richer. Everyone had more options.

Among Neelchand Bhagsen’s generation there was no question: They would all have their own marriages and lives. Unlike those in his father’s generation, who had no schooling at all, Mr. Bhagsen not only completed high school, but also got a bachelor’s degree and became a teacher.

He saved up enough money to buy a plot of land on the Beas River in the Kulu Valley, near the city of Manali. He built a sturdy brick house there to share with his wife and son, and planted a vegetable garden with radishes, beans and okra. He has prospered. This year he is adding a second floor to the house, to accommodate the many relatives who come to stay with him during the harsh valley winters.

His could be any suburban nuclear family, anywhere in the world. His life could not be further removed from the unusual family in which he grew up. No one, it seems, mourns polyandry’s passing.

“That system had utility for a time,” Mr. Bhagsen said. “But in the present context it has outlived its usefulness. The world has changed.”

By Lydia Polgreen