|DHAKA Wednesday 20 March 2013|
A young Indian woman has spoken out about being married to five husbands, all of whom are brothers.
Rajo Verma, 21, lives in one room with the siblings and they sleep on blankets on the floor.
The mother-of-one, who sleeps each night with a different brother, does not know which of her five related husbands is the father of her 18-month-old son.
The set-up may seem peculiar, but it is tradition in the small village near Dehradun, Northern India, for women to also marry the brothers of their first husband.
She told the Sun: “Initially it felt a bit awkward. But I don’t favour one over the other.”
Rajo and first husband Guddu wed in an arranged Hindu marriage four years ago.
Since then she has married Baiju, 32, Sant Ram, 28, Gopal, 26, and Dinesh, 19 – the latest in the line of husbands – who married her as soon as he turned 18.
“We all have sex with her but I’m not jealous,” first husband Guddu – who remains the only official spouse – said. “We’re one big happy family.”
The ancient Hindu tradition of polyandry was once widely practised in India, but is now only observed by a minority.
It sees a woman take more than one husband, typically in areas which are male dominated.
In fraternal polyandry the woman is expected to marry each of her original husband’s brothers.
It is thought to have arisen from the popular Sanskrit epic of Mahabharatha, which sees Draupadi, daughter of the King of Pancha being married to five brothers.
The practice is also believed to be a way of keeping farming land in the family.
Rajo said she knew she was expected to accept all of her husbands, as her own mother had also been married to three brothers.
She said they sleep together in turn, but that they do not have beds,” just lots of blankets on the floor.”
She added: “I get a lot more attention and love than most wives.”
Most of us know about traditional polygamy in the sense of one husband having many wives. It’s practiced all over the world, including clandestinely in the United States. But where are the cultures in which one woman has many husbands? And what are they like? Take a look at the relatively rare practice of polyandry.
When people on the news mention that this or that country, culture, or compound “practices polygamy,” I tend to prick up my ears. Generally, if it’s making the news rather than the culture section, it means that the practice is what should be more accurately described as traditional polygyny. While there are modern-day “poly” people who have multiple partners of either sex, and there are traditional plural marriages in which one man takes many wives, one woman taking more than one husband is extremely rare anywhere. Outside of Paint Your Wagon — come for Clint Eastwood singing, stay for a woman nonchalantly marrying two guys — polyandry is almost unknown, but it’s not unpracticed.
There are a lot historical mentions of polyandry. Julius Ceasar wrote that the ancient Britons were a polygamous society in which sometimes men could have multiple wives and sometimes women could have multiple husbands. The Irigwe people of Nigeria practiced a woman having co-husbands, until their council voted to outlaw it in 1968. Until then, women moved from house to house, taking on multiple spouses, and the children’s paternity was assigned to the husband whose house the woman lived in at the time. Women in the ancient Amazon had multiple husbands, as well as men having multiple wives.
Polyandry evolved, like many other marriage systems, as a pragmatic way of property management and population control. Like many other pre-birth-control cultures, the people in the parts of India that climbed the Himalayan mountain range, had a limited amount of farming land and a lot of sons. Those in medieval Europe dealt with the problem by dividing their properties or by giving the property only to the eldest son while the others went to the army or the church.
People in these Indian societies simply found a girl who was approximately the age of all of the brothers, and married her to all of them. They all stayed in the same house and worked the same land. One woman would only bear so many children, but each man got a chance to be a father, and got a secure living. The children all knew their biological father, but the practice was to call the eldest man “father,” and his younger brothers “uncle.” That system remained in place until only two generations ago — when money and opportunities to live comfortably elsewhere started coming into the land, allowing men to get jobs or buy land and leave the marriage. It’s not uncommon for sixty to eighty-year-old women to have multiple husbands still.
It is not common for younger women to have multiple husbands. Polyandry seems to be dying out faster than polygyny, and for one main reason — economic opportunity. In an interview, a man in Nepal explained the tradition this way: “You can even be rich living with a shared wife. Property has to be divided if you live with a separate wife. This makes you poor and you cant have enough food to eat.” Of the forty-eight households in the town in which he resides, fifteen of them are polyandrous. Shared wives are also not uncommon. In other towns, though, children of polyandrous marriages are beginning to get teased, and brothers who don’t want to share a wife are striking out on their own. As more of the outside world penetrates the community, men have more of a secure chance to make their way out of the town and have enough to eat with a wife of their own. The same opportunities aren’t necessarily there for women in polygynous marriages.
Polyandry :Brothers share a wife in Himalayas
Between them, they now have three sons aged eight, six and four.
“I wanted to share this bond with my brother because life would be easier for both of us,” said Pasang, 25, speaking at the family home in Simen village, 4000 metres above sea level and five days’ walk from the nearest town.
Traditionally part of the caravans that plied the route between Nepal and Tibet, the people of Upper Dolpa still follow the trade, leading yaks that bring salt from Tibet and rice from the southern Terai plains.
In the thin air high above the tree line, arable land is in short supply and farms are tiny.
But polyandry prevents the practice of each generation of a family dividing their holdings, and food supplies just manage to cover the locals’ basic needs.
Marriages are typically arranged, with a family picking a wife for their oldest son and giving the younger brothers the chance to wed her later.
In some cases the wives will even help raise their future husbands, entering into sexual relationships with them when they are considered mature enough.
— “There is no jealousy” —
Unlike most men in conservative, predominantly Hindu Nepal, husbands in polyandrous marriages handle domestic duties, helping with cooking and childcare, while women are in charge of the money.
Polyandry also works as a form of birth control as a woman can only get pregnant so many times, regardless of how many husbands she has.
The polyandrous household doesn’t usually acknowledge which husband is the biological parent, with the children calling father and uncles “dad”.
Polyandry breaks many Western sexual taboos and often fascinates outsiders, but locals see it as natural and beneficial.
Shitar Dorje, 30, married her 37-year-old husband Karma a decade ago.
Karma’s younger brother Pema entered into the marriage a few years later after finishing studies in Buddhist philosophy.
“If it ever happens that we are all in the house at the same time, then my elder brother sleeps with my wife,” said Pema, 30.
“In my case there is no jealousy. I don’t feel bad about the fact that when my brother is in the house our wife is with him. If I felt jealousy, then I would go and marry someone else,” Pema said.
Life is simple but difficult in Upper Dolpa, 500 kilometres from the bustling capital Kathmandu.
Sanitation is threadbare, modern healthcare almost non-existent and women toil all day breaking rocks in the arid valleys or harvesting crops under a blazing sun.
Polyandry works well where there is a division of labour between brothers – one to look after livestock, one to help the wife in the fields and one to join the trade caravan.
Many also see it as a kind of life assurance, highlighting the added security for women of an arrangement which means they will not be left alone if one husband dies.
According to Dutch charity SNV, which has well-established links to the area, life expectancy is just 48 for men and 46 for women.
— “We had turns sharing the bed with my wife” —
Thajom Gurung, 60, from the isolated village of Saldang, lost her husband Choldung to cancer around 30 years ago.
But she was already married to both of his older brothers and now lives with the one surviving sibling, Choyocap, 67.
“When we were all together in the house we had turns sharing the bed with my wife — no one worried about it,” said Choyocap.
Until recently, Upper Dolpa’s isolation preserved a way of life that has withered in many other places but increased tourism is shining a spotlight on a once-ignored land.
On the roofs of stone houses, where once only prayer flags hung, satellite dishes have begun to sprout, allowing Dolpalis a glimpse at a modern world whose images of romance stand in sharp contrast to their own.
SNV says that while 80 per cent of households practised polyandry a generation ago the figure is now down to one in five, and it is expected to die out within perhaps two generations.
For now though, it is being kept alive by a generation for whom marriage is about pragmatism and survival in one of the world’s most harsh environments.
“Polyandry is about keeping family together when life is hard,” said Choyocap Gurung.
“With many brothers the household is stronger and the children have a better chance for the future.”
HIMACHAL PRADESH, India — Amar and Kundan Singh Pundir are brothers. Younger brother Amar breaks rocks in a mine for a living. Kundan farms their small piece of inherited land. They live in a beautiful but remote hillside village in the clouds of Himachal Pradesh, India.
Both aged in their 40′s, the two brothers have lived together nearly their whole lives. They are poor and share just about everything: Their home, their work and a wife. “See we have a tradition from the beginning to have a family of five to ten people. Two brothers and one wife.” Kundan says.
They practice what is known as fraternal polyandry — where the brothers of one family marry the same woman. Why…? Tradition and economics.
Life is hard here. The village is precariously perched on the side of a very steep hill about 6,000ft up. Most of the villagers survive off tiny plots of cropland. In this difficult terrain there is not enough land to go around. So, instead of finding separate wives and splitting up their inherited property, the brothers marry the same woman and keep their land together.
Wife Indira Devi says life with two husbands is not easy. “We fight a lot.”
But like any married couple they fight mostly over mundane stuff, except there are three spouses instead of two. “Usually it’s about chores, why didn’t you do this…? Why didn’t you do that…?” she says. But one thing they agreed on was the need to have children; they have three. So how does a married trio deal with sex…?
“We make shifts, change shifts and sleep on alternate days. We have to make shifts otherwise it won’t work,” Kundan says. “To run our families we have to do this, overcome the hurdles as well and then we have to control our hearts from feeling too much,” Amar adds.
To outsiders their arrangement may seem odd, but in the village of about 200 it is the norm.
Typically the marriages are arranged and women have two husbands. But some wives have three or four depending on how many brothers there are in a family. Polyandry is illegal in India but socially acceptable here. No one from the government seems to bother the villagers about the law. “It’s been going on for ages. My sister in law has two husbands, my mother in law also has two husbands,” Indira says.
He and his younger brother have already discussed it and will marry the same woman.
Daughter Sunita is not so sure.
“I would like one husband,” she says.
But when asked if she will marry for love or tradition, Sunita’s answer makes it clear the tradition of marrying more than one man will continue with the next generation. “I will never leave our tradition even if I have to forgo love. I will never spoil my parents’ reputation and my brothers.”
And as to the question of which husband is the biological father of the children — the Pundir’s don’t know and don’t care. “For me everyone is the same, my mother and my fathers are the same. My mother and my fathers are like God to me,” 17-year old daughter Sunita Singh Pundir says. Even as modern society arrives in this ancient village through satellite dishes and mobile phones, the Pundirs say they want their age-old tradition to continue with their children. “Absolutely,” eldest son Sohna says.