Polyandry a Social System in India: Now State of Disappearance

Author: Madan Mohan. L

What is Polyandry?
Social scientists believe that it is derived from Greek word ‘Polyandria’, made up of ‘poly’ means many and ‘andria or andry’ means men (ary) referring to the condition of a woman having many men. Notes and Queries in Anthropology defines polyandry ‘by which a woman is permitted to have more than one husband at the same time’. According to Kapadia “polyandry is a form of union in which a woman has more than one husband at a time, or in which brothers share a wife or wives in common”. According to Goldstein “polyandry is a form of marriage where two or more male share a bride”, and to Berreman it is a “form in which a woman has more than one husband at a time”. Sangree and Levine is of the view that “the term ‘polyandry’ can be used in reference to any situation in which a woman is married to two or more men simultaneously”, Rapson adds to this and writes that “strictly speaking, epic polyandry is the marriage of one woman to a family of brothers’. Briffault opines that “the converse or complementary of the rule of sororal polygyny is that of fraternal polyandry i.e., that a woman contracts a marriage with a member of another family she marries all the marriageable males of the family”.

The polyandry has three main requisites namely a woman, more than one man and marriage or social sanction of the union or legitimate social union. Thereby indicating clearly that legitimacy (of marriage) of a woman with more than one man in polyandry is a must. In other words the recognized legitimate plurality of husbands to a woman is polyandry. A union without marriage can be termed as’cicisbeism’ or ‘concubinage’.

Types of Polyandry

So as far as its types are concerned polyandry has been divided into two types depending upon the kind of relation the different husbands have among themselves. The husbands may be brothers or not at all related. Thus this relational affinity divides polyandry into two: 1. Fraternal Polyandry in which husbands are all brothers: 2. Non-Fraternal Polyandry in which husbands are non-related.

Fraternal Polyandry

In this the husbands of the woman are all brothers. This type of polyandry is common among the Khasas of Dehra Dun. Among other tribes where fraternal polyandry is present in some or the other form, mention may be made of the Gallongs Mala Madessars, Mavilans, etc. of Kerala. Rivers opines that the Todas practise fraternal polyandry but it is not much in practice these days.

Non-Fraternal Polyandry

In non-fraternal polyandry, the husbands of a woman need not be fraternally related to each other. A woman is free to choose partners from among the persons other than her husband’s brothers. She successively lives in the apartment of her different husbands and while she is staying with one, the other husbands have no right to enter. Among the Todas of Nilgiri a woman has perfect liberty to choose any individual as her mate. The woman, having several husbands, makes the arrangement in such a way that she spends the first month with, say, the first husband, the second month with the second, the third, and so on, or, according to as she allots the months. The Nayars are considered to be a specific case for the non-fraternal polyandry. Aiyappa is of the view (in our personal discussions) that this type of polyandry or polyandry as such has now become a thing of the past. The Kotas also practise this kind of polyandry. Against it to some extent are found tribes like the Karvazhies, Pulayas, Muthuvans and Mannans in Kerala.

What lead to the origin and development of polyandry? Prince Peter in his momental work on polyandry (The Study of Polyandry), categorized the various causes reasons (for polyandry) into five categories namely historical, demographic, sociological, economic, and personal. But the most vital and important cause ‘ecology/environment’ has not been included as a distinct important cause. ‘Thus we group the various causes, which might gave rise to polyandry, into following five categories.

Historical View

Majumdar writing on Jaunsaries people inhabiting Jaunsar-Bawar of Dehradun district, U.P. remarks that polyandry in Jaunsar-Bawar has been reinforced the mythology of the Pandavas from whom the Khasas trace their origin. On the other hand, Prince Peter writes “with regard to the polyandry of the Mahabharat in India, Vysasa says that the custom of taking more than one husband has existed in the country since time immemorial. It is therefore historically justifiable”. Basing his generalization on the circumstances and availability of information, Briffault writes that “the practice of polyandrous marriage among the Indo-Aryans of the Punjab is associated with other survival of a more archaic and tribal order of society, which are culturally identical with usages of the polyandrous people of Hindu-Kush, when the invaders came to India.

Ecological Impact

The environment, however, dictates its own terms and customs grow out of necessity and human invention. Symons consider polyandry to be a product of harsh or ‘unnatural’ environment in which man recognizes that ‘half a loaf is better than none’ Singh writing on Polyandry in Ancient India writes that “life was hard as ever in the high mountaineous terrain and polyandry decidedly helped sibling and family unity. The growth of population was held in check by confining the procreative power of many males to a single female, even as women feel more secure with many husbands in an inhospitable environment”.

The “ecology is perhaps the most important factor in favour of polyandry to have flourished in the North-Western Himalayan societies. Polyandry among Khasas was perpetuated by their physical environment as well as by the biological and social factor of Khasas life among the other group it does not reflect the impact of physical environment or of the biological factor. Van den Bargha and Barash opined, “Polyandry lined to very special conditions such as severe ecological conditions”. “An analysis indicates that wherever polyandry was prevalent, the environment was harsh and this social institution might have been a result of adoption”.

Afanasyev rightly and aptly remarked that “Society and the natural environment are organically interconnected, and as a result of their interconnection arises a quality not inherent fighter in nature or in society separately” Crook surmises on Prince Peter’s write-up that it “reveals the association between ecology, inheritance and polyandry”. At another place writing on Ladakhi polyandry he submits polyandry’s origin “in an ecologically adapted culture. It seems likely that early tribals settlements may have evolved polyandrous tendencies as a way of solving their ecological problems”.

The emergence and existence of polyandry may be due to various factors, but social institution-polyandry is intimately associated with the ecology, and ecology is one of the most important determinant of polyandry”. Raha and Coomar thinks that “there is a reason to believe that polyandry may be a product of a peculiar ecological condition or peculiar ecological condition may have helped in the development and nourishment of polyandry”. Thus it can be reasonably argued that ecology (environment) is one of the main determinant or cause of polyandry.

Hindu Tradition

Mahabharata maintains that the Pandavas travelled the India during their wanderings, and provides the traditional foundation for polyandry also provides the foundation for an inequality of marriages among brothers and polygyny, neither of which are practiced to the same extent as polyandry in either Tibetan Nepal or the Pahari region. Lack of substantial support for polyandry demonstrates its anomaly among marriage institutions of the world and further studies among other polyandrous cultures in India and Nepal are necessary to discover the benefits of polyandry in a contemporary society.

Demographic inequalities between men and women

One of the most important much discussed and probable cause for polyandry lies in demography. The disparity in sex-ratio may be one of the main reasons for prevalence of polyandry. Singh referring Mclennan writes “The origin of exogamy must be referred to that want of balance. And the origin of polyandry, too, must be referred to the same cause”. On the other hand, Drew was of the opinion that “Polyandry alters the proportions of the sexes in the children born-lessons the number of females, but this is hypothetical”. Breeks says the Toda whose polyandry is undoubtedly connected with scarcity of women and its practise depends now on means of individuals.

It is suggested that where polyandry existed, there is a surplus of male children but deficiency of female arises in all parts of India as a biological phenomenon and was never confined only to the areas of polyandrous communities. The growth of population was held in check by confining the procreative power of many males to a single female in polyandry. Another aspects are “to check the increase of population in regions from which emigration is difficult” or for preventing and under increase in the number of the family. Few such as Rivers, suggested that polyandry generally results from female infanticide, but Walton pointed out that “there is no trace of this having existed in Jaunsar-Bawar’ though polyandry was / in prevalent there. The literature on female infanticide bears out clearly that polyandry can’t be a result of female infanticide, but paucity of females may be an additional factor for prevalence of polyandry along with ecology.

Raha and Mahato is of the opinion that “as the Himalayan regions have inhospitable weather condition, limited resources the insufficient supply of food required the limitation of the growth of population, and the existence of polyandry has helped to solve these problems to great extent”.

Economic benefits

The economy has been assigned as one of the major factor for polyandry by various researchers (Westermarck, Saxena, Kapadia, Furer-Haimendrof, Parmar, and others). Shishaudhia is of the view that in Jaunsar-Bawar “this unequal distribution of family property among the brothers has indirectly encouraged the continuation of polyandrous joint families in the region”. On the other hand Westermarck opined that it is possible that “poverty and paucity of women easily may be a combined cause of polyandry”. The “two reasons for polyandry meager estate and additional labour (and) third theory, custom arose as a by-product of feudalism”.

Sometime it is combined with ‘scarcity of land’ to prevent division of estates ‘property’ and high bride price. In Kinnaur “Polyandry in former days directly encouraged by the state through penalties exacted on partitions”. (Punjab State Gazetteerm, Shimla Hill State, Govt. of Punjab). Furer-Heimendorf thinks “property consideration plays a significant role in the formation of polyandry”. Singh writes “when the wealthy practice polyandry, that is because they want to keep their wealth undivided, and their influence unimpaired. When the bride-price in some areas is too high for a single individual to afford, many men pool their resources to purchase a common wife”. There had been a long discussion on the role of economy in maintenance of polyandry and most of the researchers feel that it is one of the main causes for polyandry and must have worked with other forces.

An analysis of various reveals that there is not one cause, which gave rise to polyandry and its perpetuation, but the institution is multi-causative, some play greater role and some play supportive role. But this is a collective manifest of various causes. Thus the single-cause theory does hold good. The most important and major causes are Ecology, Demography and Economy, besides many others which might have acted as a catalyst or supplemented to other causes for polyandry. The space and time might have given rise to polyandry in different communities at different times in different parts of world due to various (and / or different) causes. The cumulative effect of various causes must be responsible for polyandry, and thereby man adjusted himself to the time and space. Thereby multi-causative theory is the only explanation for the emergence and existence of polyandry.


“The earliest known proof of polyandry comes from Sumer the Harappan civilization (had) link with ancient Sumer”. According to Singh “the practice of polyandry, known alike to the gods and men, harks back to the age of the Rigveda. The Vedas, the Sutras and the Smritis, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Buddhists texts as well as the Jains, Kautilya and the Kamasutra all attest its existence in early India. And the evidences of literature is reinforced by the later iconography and art and by the presence of polyandrous pockets from Tibet in the north right down to Ceylon in the South”. The equivocally of the prevalence of polyandry in India in the past, specially when Draupadi got married, is very clear from earlier writings. Rigveda certainly permits polygamy though monogamy may have been the rule probably, polygamy, though allowed, was practically confined to the Rajanya class, polyandry is not referred anywhere in the Rigveda. The few passages in the wedding hymn in which “husbands” (plural) are spoken of in connection with a single wife can be explained on a mythological basis.

On the other hand, Wheeler opines that “the marriage of one wife to many brothers was an existing institution”, during the period when Draupadi got married. But in Muir’s view polyandry might have been practiced even prior to Pandava period and must have “fallen into disuse or have become discredited”. Kapadia inclined to agree with Muir’s view and writes “polyandry seems to have discredited as a cultural trait from the time of the Aitareya Brahmans (800 B.C.). Where it was said that a man could have many wives but a women could have only one husband. The Mahabharata reiterates this tradition. To have many wives is not adharma on the part of man, but to violate the duty owed to the first husband would be a great adharma in case of women”.

Westermarck writes ‘generally speaking polyandry in north India is restricted to non-Aryan Tibetan or Dravidian - tribes or castes yet it is often supposed to have existed among the early Aryans”. Polyandry “was once practiced by the peoples of cis-Himalayan tract in northern India and among some tribes of the pre-Dravidian or Dravidian groups in South India. It is supposed to have once been a trait of the Brahmanic culture from the classic instance of Draupati and some vague allusion to polyandry in the Vedic mythology. Polyandry among these groups and tribes presents different patterns and has different origins and development”. It was not confined to poor people, but was also found among ‘higher class’ people.

Westermarck gave a good account of prevalence of polyandry in the four continent of the world, namely America, Asia, Australia and Africa. In Indian sub-continent, the institution was mainly prevalent in Himalaya, South India and in few other pockets here and there. Westermarck, Prince Peter, Singh, Majumdar, Tyagi and Tewari, Kapadia, Rivers, Iyer and among many others who have detained about polyandry. Basing on these writings and the research on the polyandry it can be easily said that the institution was prevalent (and in few cases even now) among various communities. Among few communities it was a well-established practice, whereas in others it was doubtful. But none-the-less, some kind of polyandry, it is said, has existed among them in one or other form.


The practice of polyandry, which has been reported earlier not only from Indian sub-continent, but from other parts of the world has been “vanishing fast”
Tyagi, Tewari and Singh was of the view that “practice of polyandry ceased to be respectable in the middle country or Madhayadesa from the Gupta period onwards”. At another place he writes that “increasing contact with the non-polyandrous society of the plains is making serious inroads into their distinctive family organization; and their polyandry is perhaps on the way to comparative obsolescence. The operation of varying economic and political factors apart, the disappearance of polyandry from large parts of India can be partly explained in terms of the ‘castes’ and individual exclusiveness that Brahmanism promoted and that militated against the clannish proclivity of polyandrous households. That clannish or tribal feeling, was, however, kept alive by caste; and even polyandry could not totally be uprooted. But now the feelings are eroding and polyandry is disappearing fast.

Mann was of the opinion that increase in literacy and education along with outside contact etc. in Ladakh do not favour polyandry. Somewhat similar are the views of Raha and Coomar. When they write “modern education, cash and market economy, better communication and transport, new legislation, immigration of the nonpolyandrous people from the plains and lower hills etc. are the factors responsible for the decline of this type of marriage”. Polyandry in Himalayas in disappearing. Bhat writes “changes, both planned and unplanned, growing contact with the plains and impact of growing public authority and of modern technology, couched in capitalistic economy precipitate changes in the sub-systems of polyandry.

According to Iyer, Polyandry is said to be “fast dying out among these and other caste man, owing to the influence of western civilization”. In the course of the 19th century polyandry was dwindling away among the Nayars and many now be said to be extinct.

This institution of polyandry may die its natural death. There may be many reasons, such as ban on female infanticide; industrialization and urbanization, which effects family type and leads to monogamy; individuals psychology; social / economic / political constraints, women’s awareness of their rights, etc. It is also possible that monogamous mass majority is forcing micro-minority of polyandry to disband the archaic institution. And thereby polyandrous people may simply imitate their neighbourly monogamous people. The institution of polyandry in various communities has died out and in many others, such as Ladakhis, Jaunsaris, etc., where it existed earlier, are at various stage of disappearance and decay. In a nutshell polyandry may be wiped out in India (but may remain in few cases in some isolated pockets) by the end of this century or at the end of first quarter of next century. Thus in future, it will remain only in the books, especially as ethnographic material of the past.


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