20080228-braid of unmarriedmaybe girl purdue.jpg
Braids of an unmarried girl
Tibetans, Sherpas, Ladakhis, Mustangese and other Himalayan peoples in remote areas still practice polyandry, a custom in which a woman can have two or more husbands. Many cultures practice polygamy, the custom in which a man has more than one wife, but polyandry is very rare. Mustang history chronicles the reign of one queen who was married to three kings. In Tibet the husbands are often brothers, which is why it is most commonly called "Fraternal Polyandry".

Even today, there are polyandry families in some rural areas of Tibet. On my trip to Tibet in January 2015, my 40-something guide said polyandry was most widely practiced in Kham, in eastern Tibet and Sichuan Province, where she is from. She said her husband’s mother had four husbands, all of them brothers. I wanted to ask her a lot of detailed questions about her own experience with polyandry but felt it was too nosey and intrusive. In any case, my guide didn’t see anything strange about the arrangement.

The Chinese have not been tolerate of polyandry and for the most part it is not practiced in Tibet or China today. In Ladakh and India, polyandry was officially ended in 1941 with the "Buddhist Polyandrous Marriages Prohibition Act." One Ladakhi man told National Geographic "Polyandry was good for Ladakh because we have a poor country and it kept our population from growing too large." After the act was instituted the population started growing at a rate of 16 percent.

Fraternal Polyandry in Tibet

In most cases the husbands of women with multiple husbands are brothers. Sometimes children are not sure who their real fathers are. Tibetan women have traditionally lived with one brother at a time while the others were away fighting, herding, trading or spending time in a monastery. The oldest brother is generally regarded as the father of the children, who refer to all the brother-husbands as father. The custom is believed to have evolved to make the inheritance of property an easier process and prevent the break up of plots of land.

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “Fraternal polyandry “is one of the world's rarest forms of marriage but is not uncommon in Tibetan society, where it has been practiced from time immemorial. For many Tibetan social strata, it traditionally represented the ideal form of marriage and family.” [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

Himalayan polyandry has traditionally worked something like this: if an eldest daughter married an eldest son, the next oldest brother of the husband also married the girl. The eldest brother became the head of the household but if he left on a caravan or took a herd of sheep to a high pasture he was replaced by next brother. If their was a third son he usually remained single, became a monk, or married a widow or the daughter in a family with no sons.

Mechanic of Polyandry Families in Tibet

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “The mechanics of fraternal polyandry are simple. Two, three, four, or more brothers jointly take a wife, who leaves her home to come and live with them. Marriage ceremonies range from all the brothers sitting together as grooms to only the eldest one formally doing so. The age of the brothers plays an important role in determining this: very young brothers almost never participate in actual marriage ceremonies' although they typically join the marriage when they reach their midteens. [Source: "When Brothers Share a Wife" by Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987; Goldstein wrote in this while he a professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University \=/]

“The eldest brother is normally dominant in terms of authority, that is, in managing the household, but all the brothers share the work and participate as sexual partners. Tibetan males and females do not find the sexual aspect of sharing a spouse the least bit unusual, repulsive, or scandalous, and the norm is for the wife to treat all the brothers the same. Concern over the delicate question of which children are fathered by which brother falls on the wife alone. She may or may not say who the father is because she does not wish to create conflict in the family; she may also be unsure who the biological father is. \=/

“Offspring are treated similarly. There is no attempt to link children biologically to particular brothers, and a brother shows no favoritism toward his child even if he knows he is the real father because, for example, his other brothers were away at the time the wife became pregnant. The children, in turn, consider all of the brothers as their fathers and treat them equally' even if they also know who is their real father. In some regions children use the term "father" for the eldest brother and "father's brother" for the others, while in other areas they call all the in such cases, all the children stayed in the main household with the remaining brother(s), even if the departing brother was known to be the real father of one or more of the children's brothers by one term, modifying this by the use of "elder" and "younger". \=/

Tibetan Polyandry Family

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “Eager to reach home, Dorje drives his yaks hard over the 17,000-foot mountain pass, stopping only once to rest. He and his two older brothers, Pema and Sonam, are jointly marrying a woman from the next village in a few weeks, and he has to help with the preparations. Dorje, Pema, and Sonam are Tibetans living in Lirri, a 200-square-mile area in the northwest corner of Nepal, across the border from Tibet. [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

“When I asked Dorje why he decided to marry with his two brothers rather than take his own wife, he thought for a moment, then said it prevented the division of his family's farm (and animals) and thus facilitated all of them achieving a higher standard of living. And when I later asked Dorje's bride whether it wasn't difficult for her to cope with three brothers as husbands. she laughed and echoed the rationale of avoiding fragmentation of the family and land, adding that she expected to be better off economically, since she would have three husbands working for her and her children'. \=/

Dorje's family represents some of the potential dangers of a polyandrous marriage. “He is fifteen years old and his two older brothers are twenty-five and twenty-two years old. The new bride is twenty-three years old, eight years Dorje's senior. Sometimes such a bride finds the youngest husband immature and adolescent and does not treat him with equal affection; alternatively, she may find his youth attractive and lavish special attention on him. Apart from that consideration, when a younger male like Dorje grows up, he may consider his wife "ancient" and prefer the company of a woman his own age or younger. “ \=/

Problems with Tibetan Polyandry

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “Although Tibetans see an economic advantage to fraternal polyandry, they do not value the sharing of a wife as an end in itself. On the contrary, they articulate a number of problems inherent in the practice. For example, because authority is customarily exercised by the eldest brother, his younger male siblings have to subordinate themselves with little hope of changing their status within the family. When these younger brothers are aggressive and individualistic, tensions and difficulties often occur despite there being only one set of heirs. [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

“In addition, tension and conflict may arise in polyandrous families because of sexual favoritism. The bride normally sleeps with the eldest brother, and the two have the responsibility to see to it that the other males have opportunities for sexual access. Since the Tibetan subsistence economy requires males to travel a lot, the temporary absence of one or more brothers facilitates this, but there are also other rotation practices. The cultural ideal unambiguously calls for the wife to show equal affection and sexuality to each of the brothers (and vice versa), but deviations from this ideal occur, especially when there is a sizable difference in age between the partners in the marriage. Although men and women do not find the idea of sharing a bride or bridegroom repulsive, individual likes and dislikes can cause familial discord.” \=/

Why Is Polyandry Practiced in Tibet


Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “The widespread practice of fraternal polyandry is not the outcome of a law requiring brothers to marry jointly. There is choice, and in fact, divorce traditionally was relatively simple in Tibetan society. If a brother in a polyandrous marriage became dissatisfied and wanted to separate' he simply left the main house and set up his own household' In such cases, all the children stayed in the main household with the remaining brother(s), even if the departing brother was known to be the real father of one or more of the children'.” [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

“The Tibetans' own explanation for choosing fraternal polyandry is materialistic. Exotic as it may seem to Westerners' Tibetan fraternal polyandry is in many ways analogous to the way primogeniture functioned in nineteenth-century England. Primogeniture dictated that the eldest son inherited the family estate, while younger sons had to leave home and seek their own employment-for example, in the military or the clergy. Primogeniture maintained family estates intact over generations by permitting only one heir per generation. Fraternal polyandry also accomplishes this but does so by keeping all the brothers together with just one wife so that there is only one set of heirs per generation'. \=/

“While Tibetans believe that in this way fraternal polyandry reduces the risk of family fission, monogamous marriages among brothers need not necessarily precipitate the division of the family estate: brothers could continue to live together, and the family land could continue to be worked jointly. When I asked Tibetans about this, however, they invariably responded that such joint families are unstable because each wife is primarily oriented to her own children and interested in their success and well-being over that of the children of the other wives. For example, if the youngest brother’s wife had three sons while the eldest brother's wife had only one daughter, the wife of the youngest brother might begin to demand more resources for her children since, as males, they represent the future of the family. Thus, the children from different wives in the same generation are competing sets of heirs, and this makes such families inherently unstable. Tibetans perceive that conflict will spread from the wives to their husbands and consider this likely to cause family fission. Consequently, it is almost never done.” \=/

Debunking the Conventional Wisdom on Tibetan Polyandry

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “Two reasons have commonly been offered for the perpetuation of fraternal polyandry in Tibet: that Tibetans practice female infanticide and therefore have to marry polyandrously, owing to a shortage of females; and that Tibet, lying at extremely high altitudes, is so barren and bleak that Tibetans would starve without resort to this mechanism. A Jesuit who lived in Tibet during the eighteenth century articulated this second view: "One reason for this most odious custom is the sterility of the soil, and the small amount of land that can be cultivated owing to the lack of water.” [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

“The crops may suffice if the brothers all live together, but if they form separate families they would be reduced to beggary." Both explanations are wrong, however. Not only has there never been institutionalized female infanticide in Tibet, but Tibetan society gives females considerable rights, including inheriting the family estate in the absence of brothers. In such cases, the woman takes a bridegroom who comes to live in her family and adopts her family's name and identity. Moreover, there is no demographic evidence of a shortage of females. In Limi, for example, there were (in 1974) sixty females and fiftythree males in the fifteen- to thirty-five-year age category, and many adult females were unmarried. \=/

“The second reason is also incorrect. The climate in Tibet is extremely harsh, and ecological factors do play a major role perpetuating polyandry, but polyandry is not a means of preventing starvation. It is characteristic, not of the poorest segments of the society, but rather of the peasant landowning families. In the old society, the landless poor could not realistically aspire to prosperity, but they did not fear starvation. There was a persistent labor shortage throughout Tibet, and very poor families with little or no land and few animals could subsist through agricultural labor, tenant farming, craft occupations such as carpentry, or by working as servants.” \=/

Population Growth, Unmarried Women and Tibetan Polyandry

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “An alternative reason for the persistence of fraternal polyandry is that it reduces population growth (and thereby reduces the pressure on resources) by relegating some females to lifetime spinsterhood. Fraternal polyandrous marriages in Limi (in 1914) averaged 2.35 men per woman, and not surprisingly, 3l percent of the females of child-bearing age (twenty to forty-nine) were unmarried. These spinsters either continued to live at home, set up their own households, or worked as servants for other families. [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

“They could also become Buddhist nuns. Being unmarried is not synonymous with exclusion from the reproductive pool. Discreet extramarital relationships are tolerated, and actually half of the adult unmarried women in Limi had one or more children. They raised these children as single mothers, working for wages or weaving cloth and blankets for sale. As a group, however, the unmarried woman had far fewer offspring than the married women, averaging only 0.7 children per woman, compared with 3.3 for married women, whether polyandrous, monogamous, or polygynous. While polyandry helps regulate population, this function of polyandry is not consciously perceived by Tibetans and is not the reason they consistently choose it. If neither a shortage of females nor the fear of starvation peryetuates fraternal polyandry, what motivates brothers, particularly younger brothers, to opt for this system of marriage?” \=/

Jonathon Stoltz of the University of St. Thomas wrote: “All available evidence shows that the practice of polyandry in Tibet creates a situation in which a very large percentage of females (from these agrarian regions)—perhaps more than 30 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 49—are unable to marry (Goldstein). There are limited options available for these unmarried women. A few are able to stay within their families’ households, and others are lucky enough to start their own, independent households as single women. [Source: “The Ethics (and Economics) of Tibetan Polyandry” by Jonathon Stoltz, University of St. Thomas, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014 >>>]

“In some cases, unmarried women become servants in village households, and, in other cases, women will become servants within households in Lhasa or other large Tibetan cities. (In practice, women who leave their home villages to become servants [’bangs mo] in cities typically do so before they reach a marriageable age. But this practice of sending young girls to the city to become servants is no doubt effectively used as a means by which to reduce the number of unmarried women living in agricultural regions.) As domestic servants, they have limited economic or educational opportunities, and women who act as servants in urban areas face uncertain prospects of marriage. >>>

“In this way, the utilitarian support for polyandry is partially undercut. It is true that polyandry offers economic benefits to the male offspring of agrarian families, both by preventing family possessions from being divided in subsequent generations and by increasing the productive capacities of a single family. It is also true that polyandry benefits (at least economically) the women who enter into polyandrous marriages. Yet, precisely because of the way that polyandry works, it implies that a vast number of women born into agrarian households will never secure marriage, and thus it is far from clear that this form of marriage promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of people within Tibetan agricultural communities. >>>

“In my view, it is with these unmarried women where we find the most significant moral problem with polyandry. Women in farming areas who find themselves in arranged polyandrous marriages tend to lead relatively good lives. But the significant percentage of women who cannot secure marriage face difficult lives. Moreover, because families in Tibetan agricultural communities are patrilineal, the well being of unmarried women in these communities is not considered important to address.” >>>

Younger Brothers and Tibetan Polyandry

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “Although the per person family income could increase somewhat if brothers married polyandrously and pooled their wages, in the absence of inheritable land, the advantage of fraternal polyandry was not generally sufficient to prevent them from setting up their own households. A more skilled or energetic younger brother could do as well or better alone, since he would completely control his income and would not have to share it with his siblings. Consequently, while there was and is some polyandry among the poor, it is much less frequent and more prone to result in divorce and family fission. From the perspective of the younger brother in a landholding family, the main incentive is the attainment or maintenance of the good life. With polyandry, he can expect a more secure and higher standard of living, with access not only to this family's land and animals but also to its inherited collection of clothes, jewelry, rugs, saddles, and horses. In addition, he will experience less work pressure and much greater security because all responsibility does not fall on one "father." For Tibetan brothers. the question is whether to trade off the greater personal freedom inherent in monogamy for the real or potential economic security, affluence, and social prestige associated with life in a largeq labor-rich polyandrous family. [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

“A brother thinking of separating from his polyandrous marriage and taking his own wife would face various disadvantages. Although in the majority of Tibetan regions all brothers theoretically have rights to their family's estate, in reality Tibetans are reluctant to divide their land into small fragments. Generally, a younger brother who insists on leaving the family will receive only a small plot of land, if that. Because of its power and wealth, the rest of the family usually can block any attempt of the younger brother to increase his share ofland through litigation. Moreover, a younger brother may not even get a house and cannot expect to receive much above the minimum in terms of movable possessions, such as furniture, pots, and pans. Thus, a brother contemplating going it on his own must plan on achieving economic security and the good life not through inheritance but through his own work. \=/

“The obvious solution for younger brothers-creating new fields from virgin land-is generally not a feasible option. Most Tibetan populations live at high altitudes (above 12'000 feet)' where arable land is extremely scarce. For example, in Dorje's village. agriculture ranges only from about 1 2,900 feet' the lowest point in the area, to 13,300 feet. Above that altitude, early frost and snow destroy the staple barley crop. Furthermore, because of the low rainfall caused by the Himalayan rain shadow, many areas in Tibet and northern Nepal that are within the appropriate altitude range for agriculture have no reliable sources of inigation. In the end, although there is plenty of unused land in such areas, most of it is either too high or too arid'. \=/

Feudalism and the Economic Rational for Tibetan Polyandry

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, ““Even where unused land capable of being farmed exists, clearing the land and building the substantial terraces necessary for irrigation constitute a great undertaking. Each plot has to be completely dug out to a depth of two to two and half feet so that the large rocks and boulders can be removed. At best, a man might be able to bring a few new fields under cultivation in the first years after separating from his brothers. but he could not expect to acquire substantial amounts of arable land this way. In addition, because of the limited farmland, the Tibetan subsistence economy characteristically includes a strong emphasis on animal husbandry. [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

“Tibetan farmers regularly maintain cattle, yaks, goats, and sheep, grazing them in the areas too high for agriculture. These herds produce wool, milk, cheese, butter, meat. and skins. To obtain these resources, however, shepherds must accompany the alrimals on a daily basis. When first setting up a monogamous household, a younger brother like Dorje would find it difficult to both farm and manage animals. In traditional Tibetan society, there was an even more critical factor that operated to pelpetuate fraternal polyandry-a form of hereditary servitude somewhat analogous to serfdom in Europe. \=/

“Peasants were tied to large estates held by aristocrats, monasteries, and the Lhasa government. They were allowed the use of some farmland to produce their own subsistence but were required to provide taxes in kind and corvee (free labor) to their lords. The corvee was a substantial hardship, since a peasant household was in many cases required to furnish the lord with one laborer daily for most of the year and more on specific occasions such as the harvest. This enforced labor, along with the lack of new land and ecological pressure to pursue both agriculture and animal husbanclry, made polyandrous families particularly beneficial. The polyandrous family allowed an internal division of adult labor, maximizing economic advantage. For example, while the wif'e worked the family fields, one brother could perform the lord's corvee. another could look after the animals, and a third could engage in trade.” \=/

Changes Tibetan Polyandry After Chinese Control of Tibet

Melvyn C. Goldstein wrote in Natural History, “Although social scientists often discount other people's explanations of why they do things, in the case of Tibetan fraternal polyandry, such explanations are very close to the truth' The custom, however, is very sensitive to changes in its political and economic milieu and, not surprisingly' is in decline in most Tibetan areas. Made less important by the elimination of the traditional serf-based economy, it is disparaged by the dominant non-Tibetan leaders of India, China, and Nepal. New opportunities for economic and social mobility in these countries, such as the tourist trade and government employment, are also eroding [Source: Melvyn C. Goldstein, Natural History, March 1987 \=/]

Chloe Xin of Tibetravel.org wrote: “The number of monks in Tibet in 1950 was about 110,000 -- which would be the equivalent per capital of the U.S. having 27 million monks, of which about 35 percent would be of marriageable age. This creates a shortage of available males; and in many sparsely populated areas, it is hard to find a suitable spouse. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org <>]

“Initially, when Tibet got liberated, political systems in many regions of Tibet remained unchanged. Then starting between 1959 and 1960 political reforms changed the land ownership and taxation systems. Professor Melvyn Goldstein believed this had a direct impact on Tibet's traditional marriage system. With the change of the social stratification as a result of land ownership and taxation systems, the du-jung and the mi-bo lower classes were the first to avoid the intra-marriages that characterized the older society. <>

“However, as part of its population control measures, the Chinese government later forbade polygamous marriage altogether under family law. Even though it is currently illegal, after collective farming was phased out and the farmed land reverted in the form of long-term leases to individual families, polyandry in Tibet is de facto the norm in rural areas. the rationale for polyandry, and so it may vanish within the next generation.” <>

Image Sources: Purdue University, China National Tourist Office, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html, Johomap, Tibetan Government in Exile

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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