Sociology Index


Polyandry is a marriage structure where a woman has more than one husband at one time. Polyandry is Polygamy in which one woman has two or more husbands at the same time. Polyandry is rare, but when it is found there is often fraternal polyandry, in which the husbands are brothers. The term polyandry is also used where a female animal has more than one male mate.

Polyandrist is a person who practises or favours polyandry, that is, a woman who has several husbands at the same time. The term polygamy covers both Polygyny and polyandry.

The dynamics of polyandry: kinship, domesticity, and population on the Tibetan border.
Levine, N. E., University of California, Los Angeles, California, USA.

Abstract: Polyandry, the simultaneous marriage of two or more men to a single women, is cross-culturally rare and has been little studied. The book investigates polyandry as it is practised among the Nyinba, a culturally Tibetan group resident in northwestern Nepal.

It uses ethnographic data to explore polyandry's cultural and social parameters and the multiple factors that enter into individuals' decisions to remain in their polyandrous marriages, or, as rarely happens, to dissolve them. This leads to a critique of arguments that find a determinant materialist logic in polyandry and seek its causes in exogenous circumstances.

The Nyinba practise fraternal polyandry. Every man who has brothers, with the rarest of exceptions, marries polyandryously, and virtually all the brothers remain in intact, fraternally polyandrous marriages throughout their lives. The analysis encompasses a wide range of interactions in polyandrous household system, the constraints of mountain agriculture, and regional economic and labour systems; and, ultimately, between kinship, domestic economy, and population dynamics. Polyandry among the Nyinba affects interpersonal relationship in marriage and in family life.

Matriarchy, polyandry, and fertility amongst the Mosuos in China
Nan E. Johnsona and Kai-Ti Zhanga, Department of Sociology, Michigan State University
Journal of Biosocial Science (1991), 23:499-505 Cambridge University Press
Copyright 1991, Cambridge University Press
A survey of 232 households of the Mosuo minority group in Yunnan Province, People's Republic of China, suggested that polyandrous matriarchy did not raise the birth rate per household, but lowered the community birth rate by restricting many women's chances of marrying. The results imply that tolerance by the national government of polyandry within certain minority groups (e.g. Mosuos and Tibetans) will not prevent but may aid the attainment of zero population growth by China in the twenty-first century.

Draupadi’s Husbands: A Brief Study of Polyandry in Contemporary Himalayan Cultures
Abstract: The Paharis of India and the nearby Tibetan Nepali are two of the few peoples who practice fraternal polyandry, the marriage of multiple brothers to a single woman. Practitioners and proponents of polyandry offer several reasons for the continuation of this practice, including polyandry’s enhancement of biological fitness in offspring, the abundance of available marriageable men compared to women, polyandry’s economic benefits within the society, and the perpetuation of a polyandrous tradition established in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. However, further research demonstrates that each of these reasons is actually inadequate and nocurrent explanation exists for polyandry’s continued practice among the Pahari and Tibetan Nepali.
Polyandry, the marriage of a woman to multiple husbands, is first recounted not in historical texts, but in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata, the princess Draupadi is married to the five heroic Pandava brothers, and the Pahari of Himalayan India have continued this practice of fraternal polyandry through the centuries. Paharis, or mountain people, are a separate culture of India characterized by several diversions from mainstream Hinduism, including the institution of polyandry, and a separate linguistic dialect. Their centuries-old trading partners to the north, the Tibetan Nepali, also practice polyandry, which is generally believed to have been introduced to them by the Pahari (Berreman1962). The unique qualities of polyandry and its universal rarity have encouraged continued anthropological investigation among both Paharis and Tibetan Nepali. Several hypotheses have attempted to explain the continuation of polyandrous marriage, including the enhancement of biological fitness, the demographic inequality between men and women, economic benefits in the system of familial partition, and even a particular spiritual devotion to the Mahabharata. However, despite the variety of hypotheses, no conclusive evidence suggests that practice of polyandry is preferable to polygyny or monogamy.

The enhancement of biological fitness:
Polyandry does not empirically increase the biological fitness of offspring within amarriage. Although polyandrous marriages do ensure some variation of alleles within a familial population, the probability of transferal of alleles from father to children decreases with the number of husbands within a polyandrous marriage (Beall and Goldstein 1981).

The decrease in the number of offspring further decreases the chance of transferal of alleles to a further generation. Thus, polyandry “does not appear to enhance the fitness of individuals who practice it, and in fact, seems to entail substantial reproductive sacrifice” (Beall and Goldstein 1981:5).

The demographic inequality between men and women
A general theory presented for polyandry is the insurance of marriage for all eligible individuals in societies where there is a surplus of men (Heath 1955, cited in Berreman 1962). In Jaunsar Bawar, a polyandrous Pahari community, there is an expectantly great shortage of women. However, in nearby and monogamous Garhwal, there is a high surplus of women (Berreman 1962), a trend which suggests that polyandry may be the cause and not the solution to a shortage of available wives.

The economic benefits in a system of familial partition
By far the most convincing explanation of polyandry lies in the standard division of familial property among both Pahari and Tibetan Nepali societies. Both societies practice familial partition, in which land holdings and resources are divided more or less equally among all legitimate sons, with smaller land holdings and resources also available to illegitimate sons. In order to mitigate the partition of land, brothers are reunited under one household by marriage to a common wife. The sons of their polyandrous union are also expected to marry in polyandry, thus retaining the entirety of family land holdings through generations.

Indeed, the wealthiest of three Tibetan Nepali communities, Ladog, is also the one which practices polyandry most consistently, where not only do more women marry brothers, but also marry more brothers within the same family (Levine 1987). Ideal as polyandry may seem to the system of partition, it is not the only form of marriage practiced in either the Pahari region or in Tibetan Nepal.

Thus, the economic benefits of polyandry are often outweighed by the number of brothers who partition land from the family in monogamous unions and the divisive effect of such partitioning among brothers who choose polyandry.V. Hindu tradition. The Pahari people also offer another reason for the continuation of fraternal polyandry: a particular spiritual devotion to Draupadi and her husbands in the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata maintains that the Pandavas traversed Pahari lands during their wanderings, and Paharis claim that polyandry is conducted in traditional remembrance of these heroes (Berreman 1962). However, the Mahabharata is a poor source in which to find the virtues of polyandry. Draupadi is the only woman of the epic involved with a polyandrous marriage; her husbands are the sons of a polygynous union, and, in fact, each of her husbands maintains at least one personal wife of his own. Paharis find sexual access between the wives and brothers of monogamous marriages as acceptable and desirable as the legitimized union of brothers in polyandry. (Berreman 1962). Thus, the emulation of the Pandavas through polyandry is an insufficient explanation of its presence, since not all marriage traits of the Pandavas are equally respected by the Pahari.

Thus, no solution provided by either the peoples who practice polyandry or varied anthropological hypotheses on the subject succinctly and completely explains its continued practice. Polyandry does not increase the biological fitness of offspring; in fact, it decreases the likelihood of transferring desired traits and alleles. In the system of partitioning, in which complete and continued practice of polyandry is the most sensible means of retaining family land holdings, the total participation of brothers in polyandrous marriages is rare and land holdings are still often divided amongst families. Finally, the same epic text that provides the traditional foundation for polyandry also provides the foundation for an inequality of marriages among brothers and polygyny, neither of which are practiced to the same extent as polyandry in either Tibetan Nepal or the Pahari region. Lack of substantial support for polyandry demonstrates its anomaly among marriage institutions of the world and further studies among other polyandrous cultures in India and Nepal are necessary to discover the benefits of polyandry in a contemporary society.