Polyandry in Tibet: Several Husbands, One Wife

Marriage Customs in the Himalayan Highlands

Tibet, Dongsa Village, farmers sifting wheat in field
Tibet, Dongsa Village, farmers sifting wheat in field. Christopher Pillitz / Getty Images

What Is Polyandry?

Polyandry is the name given to the cultural practice of the marriage of one woman to more than one man. The term for polyandry where the husbands of the shared wife are brothers to each other is fraternal polyandry or adelphic polyandry.

Polyandry In Tibet

In Tibet, fraternal polyandry was accepted. Brothers would marry one woman, who left her family to join her husbands, and the children of the marriage would inherit the land.

Like many cultural customs, polyandry in Tibet was compatible with specific challenges of geography. In a country where there was little tillable land, the practice of polyandry would reduce the number of heirs, because a woman has more biological limits on the number of children she can have, than a man does. Thus, the land would stay within the same family, undivided. The marriage of brothers to the same woman would ensure that brothers stayed on the land together to work that land, providing for more adult male labor. Fraternal polyandry permitted sharing of responsibilities, so that one brother might focus on animal husbandry and another on the fields, for example. The practice would also ensure that if one husband needed to travel -- for instance, for trade purposes -- another husband (or more) would remain with the family and land.

Genealogies, population registers and indirect measures have helped ethnographers to estimate the occurrence of polyandry.

Melvyn C. Goldstein, professor of anthropology at Case Western University, in Natural History (vol. 96, no. 3, March 1987, pp. 39-48), describes some details of Tibetan custom, especially polyandry. The custom occurs in many different economic classses, but is especially common in peasant landowning families.

 The eldest brother usually dominates the household, though all the brothers are, in theory, equal sexual partners of the shared wife and children are considered shared. Where there is not such equality, there is sometimes conflict. Monogamy and polgyny are also practiced, he notes -- polygyny (more than one wife) being practiced sometimes if the first wife is barren.  Polyandry is not a requirement but a choice of brothers. Sometimes a brother chooses to leave the polyandrous household, though any children he may have fathered to that date stay in the household.  Marriage ceremonies sometimes only include the eldest brother and sometimes all the (adult) brothers.  Where there are brothers at the time of marriage who are not of age, they may join the household later.

Goldstein reports that, when he asked Tibetans why they don't simply have monogamous marriages of the brothers and share the land among heirs (rather than splitting it up as other cultures would do), the Tibetans said that there would be competition among the mothers to advance their own children.

Goldstein also notes that for the men involved, given the limited farmland, the practice of polyandry is beneficial to the brothers because work and responsibility are shared, and younger brothers are more likely to have a secure standard of living.

 Because Tibetans prefer not to divide the family's land, family pressure works against a younger brother achieving success on his own.

Polyandry declined, opposed by political leaders of India, Nepal and China.  Polyandry is now against the law in Tibet, though it is occasionally still practiced.

Polyandry and Population

Polyandry, along with widespread celibacy among Buddhist monks, served to slow population growth. 

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834), the English cleric who studied population growth, considered that the ability of a population to stay at a level proportional to the ability to feed the population was related to virtue and to human happiness. In An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798, Book I, Chapter XI, "Of the Checks to Population in Indostan and Tibet," he documents a practice of polyandry among the Hindu Nayrs (see below).

 He then discussed polyandry (and widespread celibacy among both men and women in monasteries) among the Tibetans.  He draws on Turner's Embassy to Tibet, a description by Captain Samuel Turner of his journey through Bootan (Bhutan) and Tibet.

"Hence religious retirement is frequent, and the number of monasteries and nunneries is considerable.... But even among the laity the business of population goes on very coldly. All the brothers of a family, without any restriction of age or of numbers, associate their fortunes with one female, who is chosen by the eldest, and considered as the mistress of the house; and whatever may be the profits of their several pursuits, the result flows into the common store.

"The number of husbands is not apparently defined, or restricted within any limits. It sometimes happens that in a small family there is but one male; and the number, Mr. Turner says, may seldom exceed that which a native of rank at Teshoo Loomboo pointed out to him in a family resident in the neighbourhood, in which five brothers were then living together very happily with one female under the same connubial compact. Nor is this sort of league confined to the lower ranks of people alone; it is found also frequently in the most opulent families."

More about Polyandry Elsewhere

The practice of polyandry in Tibet is perhaps the best-known and best-documented incidence of cultural polyandry. But it has been practiced in other cultures.

There is a reference to the abolition of polyandry in Lagash, a Sumerian city, in about 2300 B.C.E.

The Hindu religious epic text, the Mahabharata, mentions a woman, Draupadi, who marries five brothers.  Draupadi was the daughter of the king of Panchala. Polyandry was practiced in a part of India close to Tibet and also in South India. Some Paharis in Northern India still practice polyandry, and fraternal polyandry has become more common in Punjab, presumably to prevent the dividing of inherited lands.

As noted above, Malthus discussed polyandry among the Nayrs on the Malabar coast of .South India.  The Nayrs (Nairs or Nayars) were Hindus, members of a collection of castes, who sometimes practiced either hypergamy -- marrying into higher castes -- or polyandry, though he is reluctant to describe this as marriage: "Among the Nayrs, it is the custom for one Nayr woman to have attached to her two males, or four, or perhaps more."

Goldstein, who studied Tibetan polyandry, also documented polyandry among the Pahari people, Hindu farmers living in lower sections of the Himalayas who occasionally practiced fraternal polyandry. ("Pahari and Tibetan Polyandry Revisited," Ethnology. 17(3): 325-327, 1978.)

Buddhism within Tibet, in which both monks and nuns practiced celibacy, also was a pressure against population expansion.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Polyandry in Tibet: Several Husbands, One Wife." ThoughtCo, Oct. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/polyandry-in-tibet-3528444. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, October 31). Polyandry in Tibet: Several Husbands, One Wife. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/polyandry-in-tibet-3528444 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Polyandry in Tibet: Several Husbands, One Wife." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/polyandry-in-tibet-3528444 (accessed December 14, 2017).