July 16, 2010

"One Bride for Two Brothers"

Interesting NYT article on the decline of polyandry (one wife, multiple husbands) in the Himalayas, one of the few places where it was ever observed. In contrast, polygyny (one husband, multiple wives) is going strong (e.g., the President of South Africa, the late father of the President of the United States).
MALANG, India — 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. ... “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. ...

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....

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 Kullu, 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 part 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. When he attended his daughter’s marriage years later, it was as an ordinary guest, not as father of the bride.

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

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 Kullu 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.”

This is a good example for my overall view of human nature. Rather than

- Everything in an arbitrary social construct; or,

- In contrast, there are absolute human universals

Instead, I say, there sure are a lot of patterns. But when it comes to proclaiming something as universal and immutable human nature, never say never ... at least not about the kind of thing people like to argue about (nobody is interested in the fact that air-breathing is a human universal).

Instead, there are tendencies. Polyandry goes strongly against human tendencies, but under some harsh conditions, it can exist as a cultural norm. But, as people get more money, they tend to rebel against the cultural construct of polyandry and live more in harmony with their natures.


Geoff Matthews said...

I would think that a system like this, where you have a large number of women who do not get married, would lead to either infanticide against daughter or prostitution for unmarried women.

Billare said...

The article demonstrates the essential truth about polyandry, contrary to the fervent hopes of some cultural anthropologists who wished otherwise: it is basically the province of only desperately poor men, and even then only in severely challenging environments. Give them just a hint of modern wealth and the institution becomes non-existent.

kurt9 said...

Polyandry is presented in Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", which BTW is probably one the best pieces of social fiction ever written.

rob said...

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.

It takes a rough environment to select for birth control practices. It would only get selected for when the opportunity cost of having a child then rather than later is high. Most tough environments are random enough that low discount rates aren't selected for. Environments that select for birth control also select for future time orientation (which corellates pretty well with IQ). Populations selected for "facultative" birth control typically end up shaping their environments to the extent that naturally repellent practices like sharing a woman that you also have to invest in are no longer necessary.

Anonymous said...

Since 1500BC, Hinduism has approved Multi-brother polyandry in special circumstances

Multibrother Polyandry shows up in the Mahabharata epic

In all cases, the multiple husbands are brothers

Non-brother husbands are not allowed

The castes who do this also do a high amount of female infanticide

This should go away as laws get more enforced

Anonymous said...

Steve has just written the next 100 years of material for Jewish comedians. Replace "cousin-marrying hicks" with "wife-sharing dots," and there you go.

This is going to wind up in "Borat 2" for sure, and you won't even be listed as a consultant.

as said...

What happens to the extra women?

If some women are taking more than their fair share of men...

Anonymous said...


I think it could easily be our womanly natures to have more than one husband in our lives. One can do the housework; the other can bring home the bacon; the other do the outside work; one of them could do the household accounting chores. And, of course, they all must be good in bed. all be a b

Bring it on!

Anonymous said...

This is going to wind up in "Borat 2" for sure, and you won't even be listed as a consultant.

It wont because jews dont regard these Himalyan dwelling types as their enemy, hence no need to ridicule and denigrate them.

Kylie said...

Anonymous said..."I think it could easily be our womanly natures to have more than one husband in our lives. One can do the housework; the other can bring home the bacon; the other do the outside work; one of them could do the household accounting chores. And, of course, they all must be good in bed."

And while the men are puttering around doing all that scutwork, the women will finally have time to advance medical research, develop the next generation of technology and maintain the infrastructure. I look forward to seeing what energy sources female scientists develop to replace those nasty old patriarchical fossil fuels.

Anonymous said...

Two or three women for the poor woman to clean up after and have cheat on her. I can't see this particular system working much better for women than polygamy. There would be tensions between the brothers over who got to sleep with the woman or who would HAVE to sleep with the woman if none of them was attracted or loved her or if one was more in love than the others. That's what happens in polygamous marriages between women. Constant power struggles. In a best case scenario, the brothers would see it as a joint business interest and would fight less over property.

Anonymous said...

One can easily imagine that there is a fair bit of selection going on, both at the genetic level and at the level of the families the author chose to write about.

At the genetic level, we would expect to weed out genes the predisposed males to fight against these practices. Those that stayed and destroyed their reproductive success weeded themselves out of the gene pool. Others would simply leave for better areas.

At the level of the article, it is clear that they only selected the feel-good stories and the positives for those women who are too stupid to understand the ramifications.

sabril said...

"What happens to the extra women? "

I was wondering this same thing. As I understand things, polyandry mainly took place in landed families. So the extra women in landed families would be free to marry unlanded men.

Also, I would guess that a man in a polyandrous marriage (or any marriage for that manner) would be free to take a mistress if he can find one.

So basically I think that one should not assume that polyandry is the mirror image of polygamy. One should not assume that a man in a polyandrous marriage is expected to be faithful to his wife just as a wife in a polygamous marriage is expected to be faithful to her husband.

Anonymous said...

extra women can also be sold or otherwise transferred to richer neighboring groups, castes, nations etc. If they had internecine warfare and slave rading, female captives would be a natural commodity for export. Just look at the west to east female slave trade in precolonial Africa.

Anonymous said...

These castes practise female infanticide and in some cases, sell off their daughters to prostitution