The five Pandava princes, heroes of the Indian epic Mahabharata, with their shared wife-in-common Draupadi
The custom of taking multiple wives, or polygyny, is well known. The opposite custom, the taking of two or more husbands or polyandry, is rather less well known, and is becoming a very rare practice indeed in the modern world...
The word polyandry comes from the Greek,Poly (many) andAndros (man) and literally means 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”.
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.
Linda has a Honours degree in Marine Biology and a PhD in Ecology from the University of NSW, Australia. She has travelled extensively and is a passionate writer on subjects as diverse as the role played by women throughout history, tribal communities and their customs, symbology and ethnology, talismans and their history. Occasionally she also writes about her travel experiences, her new life on a 25 acres in the Northern Rivers region of northern Australia and her black miniature poodle Phoenix. She is currently writing her first book on talismans.
In 1989 my father Bernard packed in his house painting business and set off for two years on a backpacking trek to the remotest corners of the world. When he finally arrived in the oasis city of Kashgar, China, he was so impressed with its history that he decided to start a new life collecting and selling exotic goods from all over the world. For 2000 years the legendary city of Kashgar was a melting pot of ideas and a key trading post on the historic Silk Road. It was this unique combination of philosophy and trade that my father wanted to recreate at home.
Starting in markets in 1991, he opened his first store in the Sydney suburb of Newtown in 1994. I gave up my own career as a government scientist to join him in 2000 and soon convinced my partner Ian to join us in what was to become the Family Business.
Today our version of Kashgar stocks a hugely diverse range of furniture, rugs, textiles, antiques, handicrafts and jewellery sourced from over twenty different countries including India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Our collection includes contemporary and tribal silver and gold jewellery, a unique range of headhunting curios, antique Buddhist relics and a collection of one-off necklaces, earrings and bracelets that I design and create myself using the beads and jewellery making techniques of ethnic minorities from around the globe.
Kashgar is a philosophy as well as a store. We are committed to supporting traditional artisans and small village communities by selling authentic handcrafted goods which are personally collected by us. By supporting traditional methods of design and production we hope to encourage local cottage industries which have a low impact on the environment and help ethnic minorities maintain their self-sufficiency into the 21st Century. We are particularly committed to assisting women around the world and to this end have worked with several organisations including the Hua Bin Women's Union of Vietnam, the East Timorese Women's Association and Tikondane in Zambia. Time honoured means of craftsmanship and traditional ways of life are disappearing as people all over the world give up their identity in favour of jeans and T-shirts. We see our trade as a means of staving off the inevitable encroachment of the 21st century, assisting communities to decide for themselves which parts of the western world they wish to incorporate (medicine, education) and which they wish to reject (prostitution, drug production, begging and servitude to warlords). We encourage our customers to think of the handicrafts and artifacts they buy from us as an investment: a piece of history and a way of life that may soon be gone forever.
Kashgar has recently closed its retail outlet and gone completely online.
In the past our pieces appeared in many movies including The Hobbit, Mission Impossible 2, Queen of the Damned, Scooby Doo, Moulin Rouge and Wolverine, and in many televisions series, as well as in plays, commercials and exhibitions. We've found special pieces for individual customers as well as for film sets, event management companies, hotels, businesses, consulates and embassies. The uniqueness of our stock means that we are also very appealing to interior and fashion designers with a taste for the exotic.
There is something for everyone at Kashgar - collectors, the curious, those looking for a special present or for something unique to adorn the home. Most of our items are one-off specialties; other pieces we only stock in small quantities so as to continuously offer a wide and ever-changing range of interesting products. We are also packed with ideas for decorating home and work premises that will challenge your established concepts of design and storage.
Please enjoy - Linda Heaphy
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