The custom of more than one spouse with Brokpas(The people of Merak )

10 October 2007
The custom of more than one spouse with Brokpas(The people of Merak ) Npd

The custom of having more than one spouse is an existing practice with the Brokpas

27 August, 2007 – When Tshering got married 38 years ago, it happened very quickly.
One day, her parents told her that they had arranged for her to marry a man, she had never met before, from a neighbouring village in Merak gewog. She was nineteen then.The very day she reached her husband’s house, she was informed that she would also become wife to two younger brothers of the man she had been matched with.

Tshering is now 57, a mother of seven children, and leading a contented life with her three husbands. She lives in a two-storey

stone house situated in the centre of Merak village. “With everyone taking charge of different responsibilities, we have a comfortable life together,” Tshering told Kuensel in her wavering voice, her weatherbeaten face breaking into a smile. The oldest of the three husbands served as head of the family and the two younger brothers constantly moved with the family’s herd of yaks.A few years ago, Tshering became a grandmother after she got herself a daughter-in-law via a wife for her two sons. “When the entire family is together, the house gets quite noisy with three generations in one place,” said Tshering.
However, for most of the year, her husbands and sons are out with the yaks and the elders at home keep busy stocking up for them. “It’s only during the two winter months when we migrate to warmer valleys that we get to stay together,” she told Kuensel.
Tshering intends to keep the tradition alive and wants to see her grandsons marry a single wife if she happens to “live long enough.”“This is the best solution to make life easier,” she told Kuensel. “Moreover, what belongs to the family remains with the family.”

In the small community of brokpas in Merak and Sakten gewog in Trashigang, where yak herding is the main occupation, polygamy, the custom of having more than one spouse, is an existing practice. There are more than 300 households in Sakten and 255 in Merak.
“Brokpas, the Hidden Highlanders of Bhutan” a book by Raghubir Chand states that both polygamy and polyandry are accepted norms with brokpas, depending upon which practice offers highest economic benefit. It says, “Marriage in the brokpa society is not a sacred institution but more a matter of economic convenience.”
The book also states that the idea of sharing a wife by several brothers was governed by the desire to preserve the family’s wealth and integrity.Kuensel found that, in most cases, one of the brothers would stay away from the hut while others dealt with household chores. In case of three husbands, one of the brothers was solely responsible for trading livestock goods.According to the brokpas, in the past, women had four husbands. Now, most brokpa women have two husbands. The women not only took care of weaving, cooking and fetching firewood, but also went to deliver basic provisions to their husbands at the pasture and stayed with them on a rotation basis. “It’s a good practice because our lifestyle is such that we remain away from home most of the time and we need someone to look after the house and, at the same time, deliver our rations,” said Lobzang Tshering, Tshering’s eldest husband.

“I always got along with my brothers and, besides, my wife treats all of us equally,” he said. A number of sources on the Internet state that while polygamy was a widespread institution in ancient civilizations, it remains in practice in a few individual countries and is firmly established on the continent of Africa and in the Islamic world.One source cited that while polygamy was common historically and occurs today in certain parts of the world, polyandry (a woman having more than one husband) has always been a rarity and existed in a handful of obscure tribes.

Village elders in Merak and Sakten said that the practice was passed down from generation to generation. Some say the practice was part of a culture derived originally from their lineage dating back to medieval Tibetan practice.For Dechen Wangmo, 26, marrying the two brothers six years ago was a relief from the backbreaking work-load she had to handle at her house. “In such a place, it’s very difficult to lead a life with a single partner,” she said.But such marriages, like other marriages, have not always been a happy story. Since the relationship was on the basis of convenience and not of love, their marital status was rather fragile. In recent years, one of the households in Merak had three husbands but one of them had left, following a dispute with his brothers over household matters.There were also incidents in the past, where brothers had married a single woman but had later parted amicably. While one brother would sacrifice the wife, the property was divided equally between the two.

One of the village tshogpas (representative) also mentioned that multiple husbands had a negative impact on living standards of the family as it led to high birth rates. He said the health of the offspring was also poor.Sakten gup (village headman) Phurba Wangdi told Kuensel that the marriage procedures were elaborate in the past but few followed them now.“Earlier, it involved about three meetings for the marriage,” he said. On an auspicious day, the boy’s parents visited the bride’s house carrying three palangs (wooden containers) of ara (home-brewed liquor).On the second meeting, the boy’s parents again pay a similar kind of visit, during which they confirm the girl’s consent or refusal. The third meeting is the marriage, after which the bride is brought to the husband’s house. “But, except for a few, many prefer to keep their marriage simple ,” said the gup. Today, as the living standards of brokpas continue to rise with development, the younger generation prefers to forego this tradition of their parents and grandparents and is in favour of a single partner.“I don’t like the idea of sharing my wife with my brothers,” said Karma, a 19-year old herder in Merak. “I’ll find a job that will sustain my wife and family.”While there is no researched data available, villagers say about 45 percent of the existing households practiced polygamous marriage.

By Kesang Dema in Merak ,