Marriage Across Cultures: India

This writer has vast experience in life, and has seen many varieties of people. In one of the colleges where he had the good fortune to teach, there came for a short time a retired subedar major from the army, employed by the college in the role of a section officer in the school of architecture. This particular gentleman had a habit of describing the various things that he had seen during his time in the army, which was spent fruitfully in all corners of the country.

The subedar major often narrated his time spent on a mountain top in the north-eastern part of India. It seems that the impression that a particular routine of life on that mountain left on him was deep. Apparently a local tribal lived on that mountain with his nubile daughter. The daughter was at an age when fathers in those regions start worrying about finding a groom for them, and grooms start lining up to meet the hopefully comely beauty. One healthy bare-chested young man used to run up the mountain with a torch in his hand, and present a bottle of honey to the 'old' man. The old man used to permit the young man to meet his daughter and spend a few nights with her. (n.b. The subedar major was a native of western U.P., and the exact word that he used for the object carried by the young suitor was 'torch'. I would surmise from this that the torch in question was a battery powered flashlight).

The young man used to go away after his allotted time, only to come back again after a few days, and –the girl permitting– the father and the athlete used to repeat the whole performance. Evidently this was not the only mountain in those sparsely populated parts where such a thing was happening. The deal here was that a) If the young suitor kept coming back, b) the father kept greeting and meeting him, c) the girl kept allowing him to spend time with her, and d) If he could impregnate the girl within a year, then he could take her home to his own mountain. If he however failed in his endeavour, then he would go away and never return again, yielding his place in her boudoir to the next strapping lad that came along with a torch and a bottle of honey.

Many readers will have recognised in this tale the phenomenon commonly described as being engaged. This was a de facto conditional engagement like all engagements in the world (although many engagements worldwide are not conditional in a de jure sense). The condition here was to test the strength, dedication, virility, and fertility of a suitor before letting him have a wife. There was no wedding ceremony as such, but the courtship was rich with symbolism and ritual –essential ingredients of weddings the world over.

Once this writer had the opportunity to work and live in the Lion City. A charming Chinese estate agent found him a room with an Indian family in one of the auspiciously numbered suburbs on the north line of the MRT. The time spent in Singapore was hectic with long working hours at the office on Orchard Road, and practically no time for relaxation. However one got the opportunity to view Sun TV and Tamil culture from close quarters during the times spent at home with Aunty Gunashagiri, Uncle Naidu, and Siva and his younger brother –the one with long hair, and a ghunghroo in one ankle. Aunty Gunashagiri and Uncle Naidu had an elder daughter who was married and whose husband was working in some security wing of the government. They had a cute young daughter and a baby son, and all four used to visit the house often –the children staying back for some time with granny.

Apparently Siva was a possible suitor for his young niece; in fact a preferred suitor, with the right of first refusal. This is a phenomenon known as avunculate marriage. A few movies on Sun TV also showed glimpses of this totally acceptable system in Tamil Society. The wife in such a marriage is her own niece, and the groom is his own uncle-in-law. Strange though it may appear to many in northern India, this is a fairly common practice amongst the people of a number of Indian states. Fifty percent of marriages in the villages of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are consanguineous marriages –marriages between people who are related by blood.

Similarly, Punjabi Aroras in northern India have been commonly known to practice marriages between sons and daughters of brothers and sisters. An Arora girl living in this writer's neighbourhood is married to a man who is technically her uncle. In other castes also this has been observed, especially amongst those who migrated from western Punjab at the time of partition. So it can be said that such marriages are commonly practiced in specific communities in many parts of India.

There exists a phenomenon of exchange marriages in some Punjabi castes. In this system the brother and sister are married off to another brother and sister. In Pakistan and Afghanistan this phenomenon is called Watta-Satta. The logic behind this system is to keep a double pressure on all the spouses to not leave their spouses and to treat them properly.

A similar but not identical phenomenon is prevalent in many many castes and cultures not only in India but across the world, in which two brothers marry two sisters. In Hindi movies also it is commonly shown that the brother of a husband falls in love with the sister of the husband's wife, i.e. his own brother's sister-in-law. The movie Hum Aapke Hain Kaun had a similar theme.

Many castes have a system where if the elder brother dies, then the younger brother marries his wife, his own bhabhi. This has also been shown in at least one hindi movie, based on a popular novel named Ek Chaadar Maili Si. An interesting question comes up here. What if two brothers married two sisters, and one of the brothers dies? Apparently the answer in olden days was that the remaining brother used to be made married to two sisters in such an eventuality. This was done amongst Jats and some others, though it would be interesting to know how Muslim Jats reacted to such situations, considering the fact that marriage of one man with two sisters is prohibited according to Islamic scripture.

The Jats and the Jatts of Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, and a few other states avoid marrying persons who have even one out of two, three, or four gotras in common with them. The four gotras which used to be traditionally considered were 1) father's gotra (or own gotra), 2) mother's gotra, 3) paternal grandmother's gotra, and 4) maternal grandmother's gotra. If any one out of these four gotras of the boy and girl were common, then they could not marry each other, as they were considered to be brother and sister.

Let me explain this more clearly for the benefit of those who are unable to wrap their heads around this concept. Say for example that the gotras relevant to the boy are 1) Malik 2) Siwach 3) Shaukeen and 4) Gehlot; and the gotras pertaining to the girl are 1) Dabas 2) Dahiya 3) Lamba and 4) Malik, then the boy and the girl could not marry each other, because Malik is common for both.

In later times, this came down to exclusion of first three gotras only, to the exclusion of Nani's (maternal grandmother's) gotra. So these days the boy and girl in the foregoing example are eligible to marry each other, because Malik is the fourth gotra for the girl. Now, in many parts of the country, only the first two gotras are excluded.

Further, marrying a girl from your own village –no matter what her gotra– was prohibited and remains prohibited. This is because all girls of your own village are considered to be your sisters. The much maligned Khap Panchayats (maligned by a campaign led by the TOI group publications and channels) are against the practice of same gotra and same village marriages. They are not against inter-caste marriages provided that the boy and the girl do not belong to the same village.

In Islam, a man can marry up to four wives, as long as he can keep all of them equally happy. He is not allowed to marry two sisters, a mother and a daughter, and a few other combinations. Although this is permitted in the Sharia, many Islamic countries do not allow polygamy. Anyway it is easier said than done to keep two or more women equally happy. Anybody who has ever tried to or has ever been forced to try to have two relationships at the same time knows what this writer is talking about. In India, the current legal position on this issue is that of uncertainty.

Polyandry was common in mountainous parts of India in earlier times, and traces of it remain to this day. One woman could marry a number of brothers, and it was often not clear which child was from which father. This led to preservation of land holdings within one family. Since land was and is scarce in the hills, this tradition served a useful purpose. There have been reports of polyandry from agrarian communities in Punjab in the past and in recent days also –perhaps triggered by depleting land holdings.

Matriarchy can be seen amongst some communities in India, as is matrilocal residence post marriage. The Jaintia, Khasi and Garo communities have matrilocal, patrilocal as well as neolocal residence post marriage. Nair communities in Kerala have a similar system. Matrilocal residence occurs when the woman is an heiress, otherwise the other two types prevail.

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Published by Manish Udar

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Last updated on 22nd August 2015
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