Polyandry vanishing in Merak
Education, development and need for less labor have been linked to the slow death of the practice
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.