Fraternal polyandry among the olden-day Sinhalese
by ASIFF HUSSEIN - Sunday Observer July 27 2003
The Sinhalese custom of fraternal polyandry where a wife would be shared in common by several brothers has long fascinated those interested in local society and culture. The practice euphemistically referred to as 'eka-ge-kema' or 'eating in one house' is no longer legal, though it is possible that it may still be surviving in some remote areas.
The practice is also known to have existed among other Asian peoples such as the folk of Tibet and Sikkim, the Jats of the Punjab, the Tiyyans of Kerala and the Todas of the Nilgiri hills until fairly recent times, though it is a moot point whether its existence among the Sinhalese was due to a common origin, culture contact or independent development on parallel lines.
Polyandry was unknown among the Vedic Aryans nor contemplated in the smrtis. The earliest reference to the practice is perhaps that of the Mahabharata where we find that Draupadi was the common wife of the five Pandava brothers. Draupadi's polyandrous marriage may have well been an historical event, for if it were not so, the author of the epic who is at his wit's end to justify it, would have quietly kept silent over it, as pointed out by Dr.A.S.Altekar in his 'Position of women in Hindu civilisation' (1938).
The polyandrous proposal was justified by Yudhishthira on the ground of family tradition. Altekar who observes that polyandry was not prevalent amongst the Aryans of the Vedic age has advanced an interesting theory to explain its occurrence among the Pandavas. Observing that polyandry was still current to some extent among a few non-Aryan tribes of Kashmir and Tibet, he says that it is probable that the Pandavas were following a custom which may have been borrowed from either of these provinces.
He notes that this would suggest that they belonged to a stock of Aryans different from that of the Kauravas, and that they entered India via the Gilgit Pass in Kashmir or through Nepal.
Altekar's theory has much that could be said in support of it, especially in view of the findings of the renowned Indologist Asko Parpola who contends that the Pandavas were a new wave of Aryans as distinct from the Vedic Aryans who hailed from Central Asia before establishing themselves in Northern India. Says Parpola in his Coming of the Aryans (1988): "The white skin colour of the Pandavas, reflected in the names Pandu and Arjuna and the associated myths, together with their polyandry which is new in India but has parallels among the Saka tribes, suggests that they belonged to a new wave of Aryans, which had recently arrived in India".
If this indeed be the case, it is not impossible that the early Sinhalese inherited the custom of polyandry from the Pandyans of Madhura whose women the Vijayan settlers espoused after they had colonised the country. The Pandyans were evidently of Aryan stock and related to the Pandavas of the north as suggested by the Tamil work Purananuru which refers to the Pandyans as Pancavar, implying descent from the 'five (Pandu brothers)'.
Another Sangam age work, the Cilappatikaram refers to them as Kavuriyar, suggesting that they were connected to the Kuru line to which the Pandus belonged. That the practice was a well established tradition among the Pandavas and their offspring is suggested by its existence among the Aryan Khasas of the Cis-Himalayan region such as the Dehra Dun district who trace their descent to the Pandavas (Some aspects of the Cultural life of the Khasas. D.N.Majumdar. 1940). It is also possible however that fraternal polyandry amongst Aryan folk arose from an extended form of niyoga which permitted relations between a wife and her husband's younger brothers. Such a custom is said to have prevailed amongst the Jats of the Punjab during the 19th century (Recht und Sitte.Julius Jolly. 1896).
Be that as it may, it is unlikely that a custom prevailing in the Punjab would have found its way to Sri Lanka as there is no evidence of any invasions from or relations with the Punjab area in historic or pre-historic times.
It is more likely that the custom would have been inherited from the Pandyans whose relations with the country go back as far as the 6th or 5th century B.C. It is also possible however that the custom may have been borrowed from South India where it is known to have prevailed among certain Dravidian-speaking peoples such as the Nayars and Tiyyars of Kerala or may have even been an independent development that arose as a result of certain socio-cultural factors such as poverty, a desire to control population and to prevent the fragmentation of family properties.
The earliest record we have of polyandry among the Sinhalese is perhaps the Magul Maha Vihara inscription of Vihara-maha-devi belonging to about the 14th century where we find the queen calling herself the chief consort of the two brother kings named Perakumba (Perakumba de-be-raja-daruvan de-denata aga mehesun vu vihara-maha-devi). The brother kings referred to in the epigraph are evidently two petty kings who wielded independent authority in the Ruhuna country at the time.
The practice did not escape the notice of the European writers of the colonial period who have left us vivid descriptions of the custom as it existed then. The Portuguese historian Joao Ribeiro says in his Fatalidado Historica da Ilha de Ceilao (1685) that once the marriage ceremony is concluded, the first night of consummation is allotted to the husband, the second to his brother, the third to the next brother, and so on as far as the seventh night, when if there be more brothers, the remainder are not entitled to the privilege of the eldest six. "These first days being past, the husband has no greater claim on his wife than his brothers have; if he finds her alone, he takes her to himself, but if one of his brothers be with her, he cannot disturb them. Thus one wife is sufficient for a whole family and all their property is in common among them. They bring their earnings into one common stock, and the children call all the brothers indifferently their fathers".
The Dutch missionary Philip Baldaeus in his Description of Ceylon (1672) says that the Sinhalese recommend that the conjugal duty be performed by their own brothers and cites the case of a woman resident of Galle who "had confidence enough to complain of the want of duty in her husband's brother on that account". The English writer Robert Knox says in his Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681):"In this country each man, even the greatest, hath but one wife; but a woman often has two husbands. For it is lawful and common with them for two brothers to keep house together with one wife, and the children do acknowledge and call both fathers".
The last substantial account of the practice is perhaps that of Sir James Emerson Tennent in his monumental work Ceylon (1859) where he says that polyandry prevails throughout the interior of Ceylon, chiefly amongst the wealthier classes; of whom, one woman has frequently three or four husbands, and sometimes as many as seven. He notes that as a general rule, the husbands are members of the same family, and most frequently brothers. The custom was however not to remain legal for long for the British outlawed it the same year, though it is known to have survived for a considerable period thereafter.
Ponnambalam Arunachalam observed in Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907) that "Polyandry, though illegal, continues to exist among the Kandyan peasantry, especially in the case of brothers. The law against polyandry is evaded by not registering the union at all or by registering it as with one brother only".
As to how this peculiar custom could have survived for so long is not a difficult question to answer, given the nature of the Kandyan and the other societies where it is known to have prevailed. Poverty, a desire to limit family size and to keep property undivided in families appear to have been the major factors that have contributed to the survival and possibly even the emergence of polyandry in these societies. One major factor that seems to have contributed to its popularity in the days of the Kandyan Kings was evidently the practice of Rajakariya or compulsory service to the state exacted from the land-holding male populace.
Tennent records that an aged chief of the Four Corales, Aranpulle Ratemahatmeya informed him in reply to an inquiry addressed to him, that the prevalence of polyandry was attributable to the fact that when the people gave their attendance at the royal palace, and at the residences of the great headmen, besides contributing labour on the lands of their lords and accompanying them in their distant journeys. "During such intervals of prolonged absence their own fields would have remained uncultivated and their crops uncut, had they not resorted to the expedient of identifying their representatives with their interests, by adopting their brothers and nearest relatives as the partners of their wives and fortunes".
This is supported by the studies of Prince Peter of Greece (Polyandry and the kinship group. 1955) who took into account the polyandry of the Kandyan Sinhalese, the Kerala Tiyyans and the Tibetans and concluded that there existed a greater unity and solidarity of sibling groups among those practicing fraternal polyandry. He also emphasised the economic function of polyandry which intensified this unity and solidarity.
In conclusion, it should be stated that despite the marginal benefits if at all polyandry offers, its potential harm certainly outweighs these. Uncertainty over paternity and the resultant social disorder may be cited as some of the strongest arguments that could be brought against it in modern society. The Kandyans of yore however do not seem to have been the least concerned about it.
They simply did not bother themselves with these complex matters. Perhaps they could not afford to.