Fraternal Polyandry and Land Ownership in Kinnaur, Western Himalaya

Abstract

I explore fraternal polyandry, a significant but rare social institution, and its relationship with changing land ownership patterns in Kinnaur, Western Himalaya. Kinnauri fraternal polyandry, a common traditional marital practice where one woman marries two or more brothers, is a complex cooperative strategy that has alleviated environmental uncertainty for those living in harsh environments. In a region with land, resource, and labor scarcity, strong social networks reduce risk and support livelihoods. Drawing on qualitative ethnographic research, I analyze the link between polyandry and land ownership in Kinnaur and suggest that declining polyandry is contributing to land partitioning and consequently changing patterns of land tenure. This process is further exacerbated by climate change. Smaller landholdings and the associated increase in the number of independent households may have significant long-term economic consequences. Shifting marital customs reflect wider social transitions, largely driven by increased exposure to the broader market and modernization.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Kinnauris practice a variety of cultural values including different marriage arrangements and levels of intimacy. The Kinnauri Scheduled Tribes, for example, are much more open about intimacy than the inhabitants of the plains.

  2. 2.

    Inheritance or descent through the male line.

  3. 3.

    Married people reside with the parents of the husband(s).

  4. 4.

    These numbers may have increased in recent years with climate change opening up previously uncultivable land.

  5. 5.

    Kinnauris refer to polyandry as ‘common marriage.’

  6. 6.

    Children refer to their fathers as ‘younger father,’ or ‘elder father,’ depending on the age of the co-fathers.

  7. 7.

    A further example occurred under the begar system (from the Farsi word, bikar, or “without work”, i.e., free labor) the Rajah of the Bashahr Empire demanded corvée services where each household was obliged to provide a healthy male member who became the property of the state serving as a soldier or a servant (Allan 1991; Cunnigham 1844). This practice was later adopted by the British and forced on the Indians. The polyandrous family system safeguarded the household against the loss of a male member’s income and labor.

  8. 8.

    The relationship between Hinduism and polyandry is complex and beyond the scope of this research. Polyandry has been mentioned in both Vedic and post-Vedic literatures (Parmar 1975).

  9. 9.

    While concrete data are lacking for Kinnaur, further research could explore this possibility.

  10. 10.

    Bigha is a traditional land measurement system. In Himachal Pradesh, five bighas are equal to about one acre; twelve bighas are equal to one hectare.

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Dr. Rahimzadeh was affiliated with Fulbright Nehru Academic & Professional Excellence Award and Institute of Economic Growth during the time of research.

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Rahimzadeh, A. Fraternal Polyandry and Land Ownership in Kinnaur, Western Himalaya. Hum Ecol 48, 573–584 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-020-00181-1

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Keywords

  • Fraternal polyandry
  • Land partition
  • Human-environment interaction
  • Climate change
  • Kinnaur District
  • Western Himalaya
  • India