Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet

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The custom of several brothers making one woman their common wife to keep the ancestral property entire and undivided is said to have had its origin in Khams, where it is to this day extensively practiced. . . . The wife is claimed by the younger brothers as their wife only so long as they continue to live with the eldest one. When they separate from their eldest brother they cannot ask him to pay compensation for their share in the wife, and she remains the lawful wife of the eldest brother.1

At the time of the last census polyandry as practiced in Sikkim and Eastern Tibet was inquired into by Mr. Earle, then Deputy Commissioner of Darjeeling, on the basis of a set of questions drawn up by me in 1891. The information collected was carefully verified and may be regarded as substantially correct:

"If the eldest of a group of brothers marries a woman, she is regarded as the common wife of all the brothers. It does not, however, necessarily follow that she will cohabit with all the younger brothers. She exercises much liberty in this respect, and it will depend upon her pleasure as to whether she will cohabit with any particular younger brother. If the eldest brother (i.e., the real husband) dies, the wife passes to one of the younger brothers according to her own selection. Should her choice fall on the next brother, she will still be the common wife of the younger brothers. Should, however, she select any of the younger brothers, she will be the common wife only of those younger than him, and, if he be the youngest, she will be his wife only. If the eldest brother of a group of brothers does not marry, but the second or third brother does so, then the wife will be the common wife of such second or third brother and his younger brothers only. Elder brothers, in such cases, will separate and leave the family, having no claim on the wives of the younger brothers. Cousins, both on the father’s and mother’s side, and half brothers may be admitted as members of the group of brothers only if the husband agrees and has no brothers of his own. Several cousins cannot take a wife between them except in the instance just quoted. There are instances in the Darjeeling district, but apparently not in Sikkim or Tibet, of a number of men, not brothers or near relations, taking a wife between them, but this appears to be a novel practice introduced for purposes of economy. There appears to be no tradition of any such custom in Sikkim and Tibet in former times."2

[In Ladak] if the elder brother dies, the wife, provided she has no children, can rid herself of his brothers, who are her minor husbands, by a simple ceremony. One of her fingers is attached with a thread to a finger of her dead husband. The thread is then broken and by this action she is divorced from the corpse, and consequently from the two surviving brothers at the same time.1

1SaratChandraDasn/an/an/an/a, , 327.

2 Risley, H. H., The People of India, 211 (London: W. Thacker & Company; Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co. By permission).

1 Knight, E. F., Where Three Empires Meet, 139.

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Chicago: Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from