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When two husbands are better than one

Polyandry in the Himalayas is a complex affair. Not surprisingly.

Women laborers work in an onion field at Rambha village of Karnal district in the northern Indian state of Haryana on April 30, 2009. A shortage of females in this area has led to more people participating in polyandry, or the phenomenon of a woman taking more than one husband. (Vijay Mathur/Reuters)

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.