The Todas

Polyandry Among the Todas

. . . . The Todas have a completely organised and definite system of polyandry. When a woman marries a man, it is understood that she becomes the wife of his brothers at the same time. When a boy is married to a girl, not only are his brothers usually regarded as also the husbands of the girl, but any brother born later will similarly be regarded as sharing his older brothers’ rights.

In the vast majority of polyandrous marriages at the present time, the husbands are own brothers. A glance through the genealogies will show the great frequency of polyandry, and that in nearly every case the husbands are own brothers. In a few cases in which the husbands are not own brothers, they are clan brothers, i. e., they belong to the same clan and are of the same generation. . . . .

There is only one instance recorded in the genealogies in which a woman had at the same time husbands belonging to different clans, . . . . and in this case the men were half-brothers by the same mother, the fathers being of different clans. While I was on the hills, there was a project on foot that three unmarried youths belonging to three different clans should have a wife in common, but the project was frustrated and the marriage did not take place.

It is possible that at one time the polyandry of the Todas was not so strictly ’fraternal’ as it is at present, and it is perhaps in favour of this possibility that in the instance of polyandry given by Harkness the husbands were obviously not own brothers. It must be remembered, however, that this case came to the notice of Captain Harkness because the polyandry had led to disputes, and, as we shall see shortly it is in those cases of polyandry in which the husbands are not own brothers that disputes arise.

The arrangement of family life in the case of a polyandrous marriage differs according as the husbands are, or are not, own brothers.

In the former case it seemed that there is never any difficulty, and that disputes never arise. The brothers live together, and my informants seemed to regard it as a ridiculous idea that there should ever be disputes or jealousies of the kind that might be expected in such a household. When the wife becomes pregnant, the eldest brother performs the ceremony of giving the bow and arrow, but the brothers are all equally regarded as the fathers of the child. If one of the brothers leaves the rest and sets up an establishment of his own, it appeared, however, that he might lose his right to be regarded as the father of the children.

If a man is asked the name of his father, he usually gives the name of one man only, even when he is the offspring of a polyandrous marriage. I endeavoured to ascertain why the name of one father only should so often be given, and it seemed to me that there is no one reason for the preference. Often one of the fathers is more prominent and influential than the others, and it is natural in such cases that the son should speak of himself as the son of the more important member of the community. Again, if only one of the fathers of a man is alive, the man will always speak of the living person as his father; thus Siriar (20) always spoke of Ircheidi as his father, and even after Ircheidi is dead, it seems probable that he will so have fallen into the custom of speaking of the latter as his father that he will continue to do so, and it will only be when his attention is especially directed to the point that he will say that Madbeithi was also his father.

In most of the genealogies, the descent is traced from some one man, but there can be no doubt whatever that this man was usually only one of several brothers, and the probable reason why one name only is remembered is that this name was that of an important member of the community, or of the last survivor of the brother-husbands.

When the husbands are not own brothers, the arrangements become more complicated. When the husbands live together as if they were own brothers there is rarely any difficulty. If, on the other hand, the husbands live at different villages, the usual rule is that the wife shall life with each husband in turn, usually for a month at a time, but there is very considerable elasticity in the arrangement.

It is in respect of the ’fatherhood’ of the children in these cases of non-fraternal polyandry that we meet with the most interesting feature of Toda social regulations. When the wife of two or more husbands (not own brothers) becomes pregnant, it is arranged that one of the husbands shall perform the ceremony of giving the bow and arrow. The husband who carries out this ceremony is the father of the child for all social purposes; the child belongs to the clan of this husband if the clans of the husbands differ and to the family of this husband if the families only differ. When the wife again becomes pregnant, another husband may perform the pursütpimi ceremony, and if so, this husband becomes the father of the child; but more commonly the pursütpimi ceremony is not performed at all during the second pregnancy, and in this case the second child belongs to the first husband, i. e., to the husband who has already given the bow and arrow. Usually it is arranged that the first two or three children shall belong to the first husband, and that at a succeeding pregnancy (third or fourth), another husband shall give the bow and arrow, and, in consequence, become the father not only of that child, but of all succeeding children till some one else gives the bow and arrow.

The fatherhood of a child depends entirely on the pursütpimi ceremony, so much so that a dead man is regarded as the father of a child if no other man has performed the essential ceremony.

In the only case in the genealogies in which the husbands of a woman were of different clans, it happened there were only two children, and that one father gave the bow and arrow for the first child and the other for the second.

If the husbands separate, each husband takes with him those children who are his by virtue of the pursütpimi ceremony.

There is no doubt whatever as to the close association of the polyandry of the Todas with female infanticide. As we have seen, the Todas now profess to have completely given up the practice of killing their female children, but it is highly probable that the practice is still in vogue to some extent. It has certainly, however, diminished in frequency, and the consequent increase in the proportion of women is leading to some modification in the associated polyandry.

It has been stated by most of those who have written about the Todas that the custom of polyandry is dying out, but a glance at the genealogies will show that the institution is in full working order even in the case of the infant marriages which are being contracted at the present time. There is, however, some reason to believe that it is now less frequent for all the brothers of a family to have one wife in common. A study of the genealogies shows that often each brother has his own wife, or that several brothers have more than one wife between them. It seemed to me, however, almost certain that in these cases the brothers have the wives in common. In compiling the genealogies, one informant would give me the names of two or more brothers each with one wife, while another would give me the name of one brother with two or three wives, and would say that the other brothers had the same wives. When I pointed out the discrepancy and asked which was the true account, they usually said it made no difference and were almost contemptuous because I seemed to think that there was any disagreement between the two versions. I think it probable that it has become less frequent for several brothers to have only one wife in common, but I am very doubtful whether this indicates any real decrease in the prevalence of polyandry.

It seems to me that the correct way of describing the present condition of Toda society is to say that polyandry is as prevalent as ever, but that, owing to the greater number of women, it is becoming associated with polygyny. When there are two brothers it does not seem that each takes a wife for himself, but rather that they take two wives in common.

. . . . From the foregoing account it appears that a woman may have one or more recognised lovers as well as several husbands. From the account given of the dairy ritual, it appears that she may also have sexual relations with dairymen of various grades—that, for instance, the wursol, on the nights when he sleeps in the hut, may be the lover of any Tarthar girl. Further, there seems to be no doubt that there is little restriction of any kind on sexual intercourse. I was assured by several Todas not only that adultery was no motive for divorce, but that it was in no way regarded as wrong. It seemed clear that there is no word for adultery in the Toda language. My interpreter, Samuel, had translated the Commandments shortly before my visit, and only discovered while working with me that the expression he had used in translating the seventh Commandment really bore a very different meaning.

When a word for a concept is absent in any language it by no means follows that the concept has not been developed, but in this case I have little doubt that there is no definite idea in the mind of the Toda corresponding to that denoted by our word ’adultery.’ Instead of adultery being regarded as immoral, I rather suspected, though I could not satisfy myself on the point, that, according to the Toda idea, immorality attaches rather to the man who grudges his wife to another. One group of those who experience difficulty in getting to the next world after death are the kashtvainol, or grudging people, and I believe this term includes those who would in a more civilised community be plaintiffs in the divorce court.

In nearly every known community, whether savage, barbarous or civilised, there is found to exist a deeply rooted antipathy to sexual intercourse between brother and sister. In savage communities where kinship is of the classificatory kind, this antipathy extends not only to the children of one mother, but to all those who are regarded as brothers and sisters because they are members of the same clan or other social unit. In some communities, such as those of Tortes Straits, this antipathy may extend to relatives as remote as those we call second and third cousins, so long as descent through the male line from a common ancestor and membership of the same clan lead people to regard one another as brother and sister.

It is very doubtful whether this widespread, almost universal abhorrence is shared by the Todas. I was told that members of the same clan might have intercourse with one another, and in the preliminary ceremony for the office of palol, a special part was taken by a woman who possessed the qualification that she had never had intercourse with a man of her own clan, and it was said it was far from easy to find such a woman. When I collected this information, it seemed clear that this meant that a woman who, before marriage had belonged to a given clan, had never had intercourse with a man of that clan. But since a woman joins the clan of her husband, and since, marriage taking place at an early age, the woman belongs to her husband’s clan from this early age, it has since occurred to me that an alternative explanation of the restriction is possible, though it does not seem to me to be likely. It is possible that what is meant is that the woman should never have had intercourse with any of her husband’s clan except those who are properly her husbands. If this explanation were the correct one, the prohibition would seem to be directed against practices resembling communal marriage, and would be interesting evidence in favour of the existence of this type of marriage, since there are no prohibitions against what does not exist nor has ever existed. As I have said, however, I think it very unlikely that the prohibition is to be interpreted in this way, but I regret very greatly that it did not occur to me to inquire carefully into this point on the spot.

So far as I could tell, the laxity in sexual matters is equally great before and after marriage. If a girl who has been married in infancy, but has not yet joined her husband, should become pregnant, the husband would be called upon to give the bow and arrow at the pursütpimi ceremony and would be the father of the child, even if he were still a young boy, or if it were known that he was not the father of the child. I only heard of one case in recent times in which an unmarried girl had become pregnant. In this case a man who was a matchuni of the woman was called in to give the bow and arrow, but he did not regard himself as married to the woman and did not live with her. That some stigma was attached to the occurrence may possibly be shown by the fact that this woman remained unmarried for some years, and then only married a man who was certainly below the general standard of the Todas in intelligence. The child, a daughter, of the woman died soon after birth, so that I had no chance of ascertaining whether the irregularity of her birth would have had any influence on her position in Toda society. If, however, a child is born without the pursütpimi ceremony having been performed, it is called padmokh and an indelible disgrace attaches to it throughout life.

From any point of view, and certainly from the point of view of the savage, the sexual morality of the Todas among themselves is very low. It is an interesting subject of speculation how far this laxity is the result of the practice of polyandry, for since low sexual morality brings in its train various factors which tend to sterility, we may have here, as Mr. Punnett has suggested elsewhere, a reason why polyandry is so rare a form of marriage. The practice of polyandry must almost inevitably weaken the sentiment of possession on the part of the man which does so much to maintain the more ordinary forms of marriage. —W. H. R. RIVERS n/a, , 515–32 (Macmillan, 1904).

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Chicago: The Todas in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 484–489. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . The Todas, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 484–489. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , The Todas. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.484–489. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from