Polyandry vanishing from Laya

Earlier, lack of enough provisions for survival compelled Layap women to marry multiple partners but with modernization and income generation from cordyceps collection, women are settling for one husband

The custom of marrying multiple husbands, or polyandry, is well known in the picturesque valley of Laya in Gasa dzongkhag but today it is turning a rare practice.

Polyandry which was practiced for survival is slowly facing a natural death with just six women in Laya’s population of 1,000 in five chiwogs married to several men each.

Once upon a time, daughters of almost every family in Laya, about 24km away from Gasa, would marry more than one man but the community after embracing modernization and the huge income that comes with cordyceps collection, is abandoning the age-old tradition.

The prime reason for this, however, is the legalization of cordyceps collection back in 2003, which changed the economic dynamics in the village. Though there are other sources of income for the Layaps, cordyceps remain the main source of income for them.

In almost all the cases, polyandry practiced is fraternal where a group of brothers share a wife. Non-fraternal polyandry, where a group of unrelated men share a wife, is rare.

When Zam from Thongra chiwog married her first husband she was 19. After two years, at the age of 22, she married her second husband. Between them, they have three children.

Surrounded by her friends, Zam, now 49, smiles as her friends tease her about having two husbands. She says it was a love marriage and there was a belief that if a woman marries more than one husband her family would prosper.

“Though there are people who talk behind my back, it does not bother me. As far as we are happy, I do not care about what people say about me.”

Asked which of her husbands she loves more, she blushes.

“I love them both equally. Our secret of happiness is I do not differentiate between my husbands. At one given time, one of my husbands will be with the yaks in the mountains while my other husband stays with me at home and helps with the housechores.”

Tshering Pego, 29, from Pazhi chiwog but originally from Lobja married her first husband, a 33-year old and later married his brother, a year younger to him. Together, they have three children.

Cheki Wangmo, 44, married to two brothers said her marriage was borne from love and they have three sons. “I have been married for the last 17 years and everything is going well in our lives. I love both my husbands equally.”

About 4,000m above sea level and more than six hours’ walk from Ponjothang till the nearest road point, arable land is in short supply and farms are tiny. Villagers have to walk down to Punakha, a two-day journey for rations.

In Laya, polyandry works well when there is division of labor between the husbands – one to look after the yaks while the other helps the wife in the fields. The husbands take turns to be at home.

Lhaba, 32, from Lubcha chiwog said that during the time of their forefathers, almost every household practiced polyandry but today, with development and change in lifestyle, the trend is declining. “With not enough food to feed the family, women married more husbands to provide for the household but now, women marry only one husband.”

Laya comprises Tokor, Pazhi, Neylu, Trongra and Lung chiwogs with the nearest road point reaching till Kohina but one can drive till Ponjothang.

Chencho Dema from Laya