The Sutlej River originates in Tibet. It flows in a northwesterly direction and enters India, at a point directly below the Shipki La border pass, which is in Himachal Pradesh. It then changes direction and flows south-west. Its major tributary, the Spiti River, flowing southwards almost parallel to the border, meets the Sutlej just a few kilometres from its Indian entry point, near Namgia, which is our last village on the HindustanTibet road.
The area is a high-altitude, mountainous terrain; a cold desert, desolate and far removed from civilisation, containing just a few sparsely-populated villages.
Several decades ago, when there were only mule tracks in the region, I was given the task of cutting a motorable road through the cliffs that lined the Sutlej-spiti junction, for easier access to the Spiti valley.
A local boy Chona, around 15 years old, worked as a dish washer in our mess. He knew passable Hindi and was eager to learn more, so that he could go down to the plains for a job. In those days there was almost no employment available in that area.
There is a common phenomenon in most of our Himalayan border areas. Shortly before noon, a wind springs up along the river valleys, and starts blowing up dust and sand. The wind then increases to such intensity that, within half-anhour or so, it becomes almost impossible to work outdoors due to the dusty haze. I have encountered this sort of freakish weather behaviour, in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
As a result of which, we were forced to start our work early in the morning, as soon as there was light, and call it a day at lunch time. Since there was no TV in those days, and transistor radios were just making an appearance in the metros, while newspapers took 10 days to reach us, we spent the afternoons and evenings in idle chatter, somehow passing time. Having found something to do, I started giving Hindi lessons to Chona, after lunch was over and he had washed the dishes. I soon discovered that he was a fast learner.
During my interaction with Chona, he often referred to his
chhote baap (younger father) and bade baap (elder father), both of whom were obviously alive. At first, I thought that bade baap meant his grandfather, but then Chona told me that both were around 40 years old. My curiosity was naturally aroused, so I questioned him about it; he tried his best, but could never properly explain why he had two fathers instead of the normal one. Then one day I got a chance to visit Chhango, his native village. “Juley!” I greeted the headman. He smiled in surprise at receiving the traditional salutation from a plainsman, and greeted me in return. After we settled down, he offered me a glass of chhang, the local firewater. I had tasted chhang earlier and knew that, compared to the stuff produced by modern distilleries, it tasted fairly awful. However, not willing to insult my host, I accepted the proffered drink.
We discussed a few community matters, and then I asked him how was it that my student had two fathers.
“It is a local custom,” he explained. “A tradition going back many thousands of years. All the sons of a family, no matter how many there are, marry a single girl. She serves as a wife to all of them. As per my knowledge, it started when the Pandavas, after winning the Mahabharata war, passed through this area on their way to the Himalayas. They took a few days’ break here. When our ancestors found out who they were, they were treated like honoured guests, and requested to give us some points of advice as to how we should conduct our lives. When our forefathers learnt that all five brothers had a single wife, we started following the same practice.”
I had to be content with that explanation, though I realised that there must be some other reason for the polyandry being practised in that area. This was because the Mahabharata clearly mentions that, apart from having a common wife, Draupadi, the Pandavas had individual wives also.
It was almost a year later, when I met a government official from the same area, that I found out the truth.
“The real reason for the practice of polyandry in the region is purely economic,” he informed me. “Due to the scanty rainfall and a rocky soil, very few crops can be grown here. However, since we have hardly any road connection with the plains, the people here perforce have to survive on what they can get milk and meat from the animals that they rear. To add to their problems, they also have no concept of family planning. As a result, almost every married woman produces a child every year. But any large-scale increase in the population would, under the existing circumstances, lead to widespread hunger and starvation. Thus, by resorting to polyandry, each family can beget only one offspring a year, thereby limiting the area’s population automatically. As for the girls who can’t get married, they all become nuns.”
I marvelled at the ingenuity of whosoever it was, who first thought up this simple solution to a complicated and potentially lifethreatening problem. It was an absolutely outstanding example of jugaad (innovation). We
THERE IS A COMMON PHENOMENON IN MOST OF OUR HIMALAYAN BORDER AREAS. SHORTLY BEFORE NOON, A WIND SPRINGS UP ALONG THE RIVER VALLEYS, AND STARTS BLOWING UP DUST AND SAND.