Polyandry van­ish­ing in Merak

Ed­u­ca­tion, de­vel­op­ment and need for less la­bor have been linked to the slow death of the prac­tice

Business Bhutan - - Nation - Jigme Wangchen from Merak, Trashigang

In the east­ern dzongkhag of Trashigang, the re­mote Merak ge­wog nes­tled high in the moun­tains is akin to a pris­tine par­adise: pre­served in all its nat­u­ral glory.

Nearly 3,500-4,000m above sea level, the high­land is a stun­ning place sur­rounded by views of moun­tains tow­er­ing above the val­ley.

The hid­den mag­nif­i­cent land of Merak is breath­tak­ing as it is hum­bling.

It is a cold af­ter­noon in Merak and quiet as well. These past few weeks have been busy for all the Mer­ak­pas col­lect­ing fire­wood as win­ter-chill nips fin­ger tips and noses.

The once re­mote com­mu­nity now has mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties like school, Ba­sic Health Unit and elec­tric­ity. The road to Merak has served to fa­cil­i­tate de­vel­op­ment in the ge­wog and the Mer­ak­pas’ life­style is un­der­go­ing a sea-change.

In par­tic­u­lar, the tra­di­tion of polyandry, an age-old prac­tice, par­tic­u­larly fa­mous in Merak has been sharply de­clin­ing over the years.

In fact, polyandry in on the verge of van­ish­ing among the high­landers.

Thirty one year San­gay Zam who owns a one-storey house in the cen­ter of the vil­lage of clus­tered stone houses is one among the few women who is mar­ried to two hus­bands; broth­ers.

Her home is warmer than the harsh weather out­side as she keeps her wood­stove burn­ing the whole day and year round as does ev­ery house­hold in Merak.

To es­cape the freez­ing con­di­tions of win­ter, her younger hus­band Pema Tashi who looks af­ter the yaks has now re­turned to the vil­lage. “My el­der brother and I are mar­ried to the same woman but we don’t have any mar­i­tal prob­lems,” he ex­plains while sip­ping a cup of hot suja.

San­gay Zam’s el­der hus­band has gone to Mon­gar for busi­ness as most times he sells lo­cal pro­duce at the mar­ket.

Ac­cord­ing to vil­lage el­ders, in the past, polyandry used to be prac­ticed by ev­ery woman in Merak and it was com­mon for them to marry all the broth­ers in a fam­ily. The tra­di­tion was passed down through the gen­er­a­tions in or­der to pre­vent an­ces­tral land from shrink­ing through in­her­i­tance. Ad­di­tion­ally, the fam­ily could pool their re­sources this way.

San­gay Zam said that the main rea­son be­hind polyandry was that high­landers needed as many help­ing hands as pos­si­ble to rear live­stock. “Ini­tially, I was mar­ried to the el­der brother. But since I had to take care of many chores back in the vil­lage, I had to marry the younger one too,” she said.

When she was a child, San­gay Zam saw women mar­ried to as many as four hus­bands and only a few mar­ried one hus­band. “The main rea­son, ac­cord­ing to our grand­par­ents, was that since we de­pend on an­i­mals for liveli­hood, man­power is re­quired in the fam­ily.”

An­other woman, Pema, 65, is mar­ried to three hus­bands and is a mother of five. She is weav­ing a chuba (thick jacket for men made from yak hair and sheep wool) out­side her home as she lis­tens to songs from her old tape-recorder.

Aum Pema said that high­landers in olden days used to de­pend solely on live­stock for liveli­hood. “To look af­ter the an­i­mals, we re­quired man­power so I was mar­ried to the three broth­ers,” she said.

The old­est of her three hus­bands served as the head of the fam­ily, one was re­spon­si­ble solely for trad­ing live­stock goods and an­other brother looked af­ter the yaks, liv­ing a semi­no­madic life as the fam­ily ex­plored fresh pas­ture­land for the an­i­mals.

Aum Pema said that the women not only take care of weav­ing, cook­ing and fetch­ing fire­wood but de­liver ba­sic pro­vi­sions to the hus­bands at the pas­ture and stay with them in turns. “To­wards win­ter, all hus­bands re­turn to the vil­lage and stay to­gether till the sea­son ends and the cold.”

The women of Merak have been man­ag­ing time with their hus­bands this way since way back.

Fur­ther, Aum Pema said that she in­tends to keep the tra­di­tion alive in her fam­ily and wants her grand­sons to marry a sin­gle wife if she lives long enough. “This is the best so­lu­tion to make life eas­ier and to keep the fam­ily prop­erty within the fam­ily.”

An­other high­lander, Kin­zang Dorji and his younger brother who is mar­ried to the same woman said that polyandry is a norm among Brokpas. “In our so­ci­ety, eco­nomic con­ve­nience mat­ters more than any­thing.”

“I al­ways got along with my younger brother and be­sides, my wife treats both of us the same,” he added.

Merak Gup Lama Rinchen said that one rea­son that polyandry is van­ish­ing these days is be­cause un­like in the past, the Mer­ak­pas do not rear as many sheep and yaks. “Nowa­days, Mer­ak­pas rear less num­ber of yaks and as much la­bor is not re­quired,” said the Gup.

The Gup also said that di­vorce rate among polyan­drous part­ners has in­creased in re­cent years. Although there are no of­fi­cial fig­ures, in­creas­ing di­vorce rate among polyan­drous mar­riages show that the tra­di­tion is no longer pop­u­lar among to­day’s gen­er­a­tion.

Sim­i­larly, the Kha­toed Chi­wog Tshogpa in Gasa, Rinchen Wangdi, said that most youths are against polyandry. “Since most of them are ex­posed to ed­u­ca­tion and mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties, the tra­di­tion is seen as old-fash­ioned,” he said. “The im­prove­ment in liv­ing stan­dards among the high­landers is also con­tribut­ing to the de­cline of the tra­di­tion.”

He at­trib­uted re­cent de­vel­op­ment ac­tiv­i­ties in the com­mu­nity for the de­cline of polyandry. When mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties are avail­able, ev­ery­thing be­comes easy for the high­landers and less man­power is re­quired now.

Kar­mal Lhamo, who stud­ied till class X, said that youth are no longer in­ter­ested in polyandry as it em­bar­rasses them. “If we marry more than one hus­band, we would be con­sid­ered in­fe­rior by our friends.”

In olden days, high­land women were not sup­posed to marry a man out­side their vil­lage and ev­ery mar­riage was ar­ranged but few mar­riages are ar­ranged now.

And of course, polyandry has not al­ways been syn­ony­mous with happy end­ings.

Tashi Dema, a young Mer­akpa woman said that since polyandry was based on con­ve­nience and not love, mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ships among the part­ners re­mained rather frag­ile.

She also men­tioned that mul­ti­ple hus­bands had a neg­a­tive im­pact on the fam­ily’s liv­ing stan­dards as it led to high birth rates.

“Our par­ents want us to keep the tra­di­tion alive but I think dif­fer­ently,” said Tashi Dema. “I think we will not be able to ful­fill their wish as even if they ar­range our mar­riage it wouldn’t last long.”

Mean­while, some vil­lage el­ders said that the prac­tice was passed down through the gen­er­a­tions while oth­ers said that it was part of a cul­ture de­rived orig­i­nally from their lin­eage dat­ing back to me­dieval Ti­betan prac­tice.

Ac­cord­ing to the Merak Gup, though there are no ex­act records of polyandry in the ge­wog, there may be 10-15 polyan­drous mar­riages as of now.

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