Polyandry, or the practice of taking multiple husbands

Added over 4 years ago

 By Linda Heaphy. Copyright 2012


The five Pandava princes- heroes of the epic Mahabharata – with their shared wife-in-common Draupadi

The five Pandava princes, heroes of the Indian epic Mahabharata, with their shared wife-in-common Draupadi

Polyandry is the practice of one woman taking two or more husbands. The custom evolved in human cultures where resources, particularly land and food, were scarce, and/or where women were allowed to own property or ancestral titles of rank.  In some parts of the world it occurred in areas where women themselves were scarce, for example in cultures where female infanticide was routinely carried out, or where females were less likely to survive to adulthood. Polyandry allowed men to pool their resources and live comfortable lives that might otherwise be denied to them and their children.  And in these relationships, the women often enjoyed a very high status.

Polyandry was practiced at the dawning of human civilisation and across the world: throughout the Indian subcontinent, in areas such as the Canadian Arctic and in parts of Africa, China and the Americas. We know that in some ancient Celtic societies, women were allowed to own property and therefore marry more than one husband, because Julius Caesar complained about it along with several other Britton customs. Around 2300 BCE the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash abolished the custom of polyandry entirely in Mesopotamia. Polyandry was also prohibited successively by the monotheist faiths Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In today’s world, a recent survey of tribal societies indicates that 83.39% of them practice polygyny, 16.14% practice monogamy, and only 0.47% practice polyandry. And in almost all cases, the polyandry practiced is fraternal, where a group of brothers share a wife. Fraternal polyandry was also believed to be the norm historically. Nonfraternal polyandry, where a group of unrelated men share a wife, is virtually nonexistent because of its inherent instability: a group of unrelated men would be far less willing to share the parenting of a completely unrelated child, no matter the immediate benefits.

In pockets of India, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet the custom of polyandry continued until relatively recently, particularly amongst the many minority peoples of the region. While the custom has now been banned in Tibet by Chinese authorities, in India the practice seems to be dying a natural death. Increasing resources and opportunities allow men to leave resource-poor areas and find jobs and wives elsewhere. And all of this has happened in the space of a single generation. As one Malang Indian local, the son of a polyandrous marriage, put it in an interview to the New York Times in 2010 “That system had utility for a time. But in the present context it has outlived its usefulness. The world has changed”.

 tibetan polyandry

A little northeast of Lhassa, among the mountains that cover that part of the great plateau of Tibet, the explorer Bonvalot found a large population. It is in these valleys that some of the rivers of India have their headquarters. This region, says the New York Sun, is peculiar as the part of Tibet where polyandry is the custom, and this feature of social life has given Tibet some notoriety, because there are very few parts of the world in which polyandry is practised. Bonvalot thus describes the custom as it exists in Tibet.

A family has a daughter. A young man wishes to enter the family, to live under its roof, and become the husband of the daughter. He consults with the parents, and if they arrive at an agreement in regard to the amount of property he is to turn over to them, he takes up his abode in the hut and becomes the husband of the daughter. It may be that there are other young men desirous of partaking of the same good fortune. They are not at all deterred by the fact that the girl is already provided with a husband. They present themselves at the hut, make offers of certain property, and, unless the first husband has paid what is regarded in Tibet as a very large sum in order to secure the young woman as his exclusive possession, she becomes likewise the wife of these other claimants for her hand, and the whole family live together in the same hut and in the utmost harmony.

It rarely happens that a young man thinks so much of the girl he weds in this peculiar fashion as to be jealous of others who also desire to be her husband. Now and then, however, such a case arises, and then there is likely to be bloodshed. He is a happy young man who is wealthy enough to become the sole lord and master of his wife. It is a question entirely of money. If the young Tibetan is rich enough he buys a wife and remains the only master of the household. Sometimes, also, the husband acquires sufficient property to buy out the interest? of the other husbands and then they retire from the field. They are generally content if they receive back a little more money than they paid for their interest in the young woman. The children are always regarded as belonging to the woman, and the fathers lay no claims upon them. Polyandry is not established by law, but it is a custom which probably arose at some time when the female population was less numerous than the male, and it has been continued largely on account of the poverty of the people. Polygamy is practiced as well as polyandry.

While the poorest men have only a fractional interest in one wife, the rich men of the community have several wives. The chiefs have as many as they can buy. Financial considerations, therefore, have all to do with questions of matrimony.

From Polyandry In Tibet - A Country Where Women Have Several Husbands Apiece. - Financial Considerations Rule All Matrimonial Questions in the Land of the Lama, But Jealousy It Not Popular. Syndicated, The Piqua Daily Call (Oh.), Apr. 6, 1892, p. 4


References and Further Reading

Kinship and Marriage. Linda Stone, 1997. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

One Bride for 2 Brothers: A Custom Fades in India. The New York Times, July 16 2010

Polyandry, or the practice of taking multiple husbands. 2012 Esther Inglis-Arkell.           

Polyandry. Brian Schwimmer, 2003.

Polyandry. Wikipedia. Accessed 17th July 2012

Why are There Virtually No Polyandrous Societies?  by Satoshi Kanazawa, 2008, The Scientific Fundamentalist, Psychology Today.


Tags: India, Polyandry, Tribal Customs


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