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INDIA: Too Many Husbands

5 minute read

In the high Himalayas, polyandry has the sanction of immemorial legend. According to the Mahabharata, the great epic poem of India, Arjuna the Bowman, third of the five sons of King Pandu, won Draupadi, daughter of the King of Panchala, by shooting five swift arrows through a ring hung in midair. But Arjuna’s mother Kunti told him, “All things must be shared.” So the five Pandu brothers all wed Draupadi and went to live in a grand palace with crystal floors. Last week in Jaunswar Bawar, a region in the northern tip of India, the legend of Arjuna the Bowman and the whole practice of polyandry were being put to test.

Like many race myths, the legend of Arjuna clothes a simple economic fact: in the upland valleys, existence depends upon a limited number of tiny terraced fields and the careful balancing of population against food reserves. Each family avoids dividing its meager tillage in ever-diminishing lots among its progeny by having the younger sons share the wife of the eldest son. Not only does this practice reduce the number of children in each generation, and keep each property permanently within the family, but it has some other curious results. Polyandry, for some reason not wholly accounted for by anthropologists, reduces the fertility of wives, and produces an abnormal ratio of male to female births. In Jaunswar Bawar, where men outnumber women four to one and more than 60,000 people practice polyandry, only one birth was reported last year.

Rantys & Dhyantys. Jaunswar women who live with their several husbands are called rantys. Custom obliges them to treat each husband with equal favor, but it often happens that a ranty will prefer one brother to all the others. It also happens that a ranty will reject the whole pack of brothers for an outsider. After trial by the entire village, an adulterous ranty is fined the cost of a community dinner (paid for by her parents), after which her husbands may have her back, readily forgiving and forgetting because women are so scarce.

But a ranty may also divorce her husbands and return to her parents’ house. She is then called a dhyanty and has a good deal of latitude about her choice of lovers. Should she elect to remarry, however, her new set of husbands must pay the first set of husbands a sum which is fixed by the village council. Since an individual suitor is rarely able to afford paying off several husbands, a dhyanty usually has to marry another group of brothers.

Despite the freedom they enjoy, Jaunswar women are in revolt against polyandry. More and more are preferring a plethora of lovers to a profusion of husbands, and the number of dhyantys is increasing. A certain sophistication has been brought to Jaunswar Bawar by the invasion of immigrant laborers, mostly tree cutters from the plains, who have a knowing way of asking a girl whether she is a ranty or a dhyanty. But, although some dhyantys in some villages have become little better than prostitutes, the real basis of the revolt is an embarrassment many Jaunswar women have recently discovered in being married to more than one man. A Jaunswar girl who admitted to two husbands quickly added, “But I live with only one. The other is now living with my sister.” Jaunswar mothers who have been sending their children out of Jaunswar Bawar for modern schooling have been pained to see them weep when the plains children jeer: “How many fathers have you got?”

The Last Word. The government of India would like the Jaunswaris to adopt monogamy. But teams of social workers who have gone up into the hills have been driven out by village elders. Said one elder indignantly: “They asked us indecent questions.” Among the Jaunswaris themselves a reform movement, with all members taking the vow of monogamy, has been organized by a college graduate named Surat Singh. Although his movement is enthusiastically supported by the women, the menfolk are threatening to drive Surat Singh and all his followers into the plains. Now the Indian government has a new idea. Provincial Social Welfare Minister Acharya Jugal proposes to halt immigrant labor, seal off Jaunswar Bawar from outside influences, and to send in a new group of social workers, who, this time, will all be women.

But last week Jaunswar women seemed to be doing pretty well on their own account. Against a backdrop of Himalayan mountains, a pretty, 16-year-old girl was busily spinning wool while her five husbands and the village headman pleaded with her not to become a dhyanty. Said she: “I married only Gulab Singh. I will have nothing to do with his four brothers.” Said the headman: “My child, you know that by our custom, when you marry one man, you marry his brothers also.” Retorted the 16-year-old: “Gulab Singh or none. If I cannot have only one husband, I will divorce all five.”

Said an Indian government official: “The men who defend polyandry are fighting a hopeless battle. Women always have the last word everywhere.”

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