When two husbands are better than one

SPITI VALLEY, HIMACHAL PRADESH, India — An array of stars twinkled over Himalayan peaks towering nearly three miles high, while below in the chilly darkness a husband and wife relaxed after their 120-mile pilgrimage. Leaning back in chairs in front of a guest house, warm in their woolen clothing, they appeared indistinguishable from the hundreds of others who had come to hear the teachings of a Buddhist leader.

What set them apart was the person they had left behind: the woman's other husband.

Polyandry, or the practice of one woman marrying two or more husbands simultaneously, used to be fairly common in this extremely remote area of Himachal Pradesh and in other parts of India and Tibet. With increased exposure to the outside world, fewer and fewer people now form such family structures. But just the opposite trend is true in the neighboring state of Haryana.

As polyandry fades from some of its traditional locations, like Lahaul and Spiti valleys, the lack of females in other states is fueling its resurgence.

Polyandry's roots sink deep into the soil of Buddhist and Hindu culture here in Himachal Pradesh, a week's journey from the China border. The Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu text, mentions the practice in the story of Draupadi, a princess who married five kings at once, according to Indian historian Sarva Daman Singh, who wrote the 1988 book “Polyandry in Ancient India.” Tibetans have practiced polyandry for centuries, although it is now officially illegal there.

The husband in Kaza, Baldev Nath, 50, said that “everyone is pleased” with their shared-spouse arrangement, including his older brother and their common wife, 55-year-old Dalma Tashi, although he did not allow her to participate in the interview.

“There are three causes of disputes between brothers: zar, zorou and zamin (gold, women and land),” Nath said. “If there is a common zorou, there is no dispute.” Probably about 500 families still practice polyandry in the valleys of Lahaul and Spiti, according to Bishan Lal Thakur, a guest house owner in Kaza who grew up in a polyandrous family and has served as a guide throughout the region for much of his life. This is probably around half of what the number was 100 years ago, Thakur said. It is difficult to know the exact numbers, because India's censuses do not take polyandry into account. Himachal Pradesh Deputy Commissioner Paul Rasu confirmed that polyandry was disappearing from the valleys, where more than 33,000 people live.

Avoiding property disputes may have been the most important factor influencing the region's propensity for polyandry. Spiti and its neighboring valley, Lahaul, are so high that arable land is limited and resources are scarce, conditions that cannot support a large and growing population.

When multiple men share the same wife, however, the arrangement creates a natural bottleneck to check population growth, since the woman can become pregnant only so frequently no matter how many husbands she has. Now, with road crews lumbering through the valleys and internet connections and mobile phones proliferating, contact with the outside world and the possibility of leaving the valleys for work, or spouses, elsewhere is hastening the extinction of polyandry in the region.

“This valley is so remote, 50 years ago people didn't know there was such a thing as America,” Thakur said. “When I was a boy of 9, I thought the blue sky touched the tops of the mountains all the way around. I thought this was the whole world.”

Thakur, whose mother was married to two brothers, grew up in nearby Pangi Valley, a place that shares many similarities with Lahaul and Spiti, among them, remoteness, extremely high elevation and gender ratios that officials say are — now — relatively good. Rasu said Lahaul and Spiti families have as many as 95 females for every 100 males; Pangi Valley, according to its government website, has 96 females per 100 males.

Female infanticide or gender-specific abortions are the widely accepted explanation for such disparities. Both are rampant in India, a country containing one of the most skewed gender ratios in the world.

While the gender ratio and overall situation may be improving in Lahaul and Spiti, it is getting no better in the state of Haryana. Between 1991 and 2001, the state's gender ratio declined from 865 females per 1,000 males to 861 females per 1,000 males, according to the national census. A 2007 report on Haryana's government website states that the ratio was still the same.

The skewed gender ratios in the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab are making women minorities within their own societies, enabling men to further marginalize and abuse them, according to Tulsi Patel, a professor in Delhi School of Economics University's sociology department. “There, a wife is shared by a group of brothers or sometimes even by patrilateral, parallel cousins,” she wrote in her book “Sex-Selective Abortion in India.” “Recently, in Gujarat, many disturbing reports of re-introduction of polyandry (Panchali system — one woman married to five men) have come to light.”

Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a New Delhi-based NGO dedicated to empowering women and making them more self-reliant and conscious of their rights, said she felt that polyandry, at least how it is being practiced in Haryana, is not healthy for women.

“(Young men) are not able to find brides, so they are going outside the state and establishing relationships with people of totally different cultures,” Kumari said. “One girl committed suicide because she was feeling very harassed because she didn't understand the language or the culture, and the food was different. It's not easy for a Karala girl to come to Haryana.”