The Disappearing Practice of Polyandry
The traditional practice of polyandry in Laya was born out of necessity – the remoteness of the place. Located up in the highlands, Laya remained largely inaccessible.
The customary practice of polyandry in Bhutan, a form of polygamy in which a woman takes two or more husbands at the same time, is no longer popular in Laya.
Even though there are still some women with two or more husbands, these are really holdovers from the past. Times have changed. The younger generation of women in Laya prefer to have a single partner to having multiple partners.
The practice of polyandry was born out of necessity
The traditional practice of polyandry in Laya was born out of necessity – the remoteness of the place. Located up in the highlands, Laya remained largely inaccessible. Even today, it is a gruelling eight hours’ walk from Gasa.
As a small and independent community, trust was important. An inhabitant of this village, Laya Gup Lhakpa Tshering said, “Laya was remote, detached and remained hidden in the mountains. Marrying an outsider was looked down upon.”
“People preferred to live together as not many could afford to build a house of their own. So the custom of marrying more than one husband was common,” said Lhakpa Tshering.
Being in the highlands, people could not grow many crops. Trading was difficult as travelling from Laya to another town would take days, sometimes even a month’s journey across the border in the north.
When one husband went for shopping in Punakha, which took at least four days, the other left with cattle to the pastures higher up. That was how the Layaps ensured that they lived a comfortable enough life. Polyandry in Laya was born out of economic challenges.
Change is coming to the remote highlands of Laya
However, the winds of change is sweeping through the remote village of Laya. A small school and a basic health unit have been established. Cordyceps collection has been a blessing to the people of the community.
The residents of the village are by far wealthier today than they were a decade ago. The road from Gasa to Laya has reached Koina, a boggy little stretch in the fog where tourists and government officials heading to Laya stop to catch their breath and a quick snack.
Moreover, cultural change is palpable in Laya. The community’s traditional dress is a relic of the past as more youngsters opt to dress in more modern garb. Even houses are not built the in the traditional Laya-style anymore. There is a construction boon of a sort going on in the village and builders are hired from the east.
Dorji, 52, from Neylu said: “Children today prefer getting married with a single partner. There is no way we can force them otherwise.”
However, Tshering, 29, from Lungu has two husbands. They are brothers. She got married to the elder one when she was 16. One is a carpenter, the other looks after horses.
“We don’t face any problem as my husbands are brothers. And we need not depend on each other in difficult times,” said Tshering. “But things are changing now. People are becoming more independent.”
With the opening up of more economic opportunities, it looks like change in this village up in the highlands is certainly inevitable and there is possibly no turning back.
By Nima (This article has been edited for the Bhutan Times)