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Where marriage is far from CONVENTIONAL.


Driving from Chakrata to Sawra, a tiny hamlet tucked behind a hill in Uttarakhand, a state in northern India, is a thrilling yet chilling experience. The puckered-up mountains, with patches of green here and there, look quite enticing. There are primates hopping on the branches of tall deodar and cheer trees, oblivious to the steep heights or precarious cliffs.

The cool breeze seeping through the engine of the car makes your toes go numb. The rickety road with mounds of landslide rubble rustled up on its left and a few open drains flowing across (signs of habitation on hills above by) from left to right makes for a dangerous climb.

You are in Jaunsar-Bawar, the tribal valley that is famous or infamous -- depending on whether you are for or against puritans -- for its tradition of polyandry and polygamy. The valley is split in two with Bawar, the snow-clad upper region and Jaunsar, its lower half, together housing over 400 villages. Though the residents of the two regions speak different dialects -- Jaunsari and Bawar bhasha (a Hindi variant) -- and wear different attire, they claim to be descended from same forefathers -- the Pandavas, heroes of the Mahabharata epic -- and follow an analogous culture. And both practice polyandry and polygamy with families of multiple husbands and multiple wives coexisting in harmony.

"There are at least 50-60 polyandrous and polygamous families in Jaunsar-Bawar. In Monti village, four brothers have one wife. In Sidi, Soopa had three wives. His son has [outdone] him and married four times. It's another matter that two of his wives died and the third split from him," said Moham Singh (name changed at his request), our local guide for the Jaunsar-Bawar tour.

The Jaunsaris have strong reasons for following polyandry and polygamy. While they attribute polyandry to the Pandava brothers -- Yudhishthir, Bheema, Arjuna, Nakul and Sahadev -- their devtas (deities) who shared Draupadi amongst themselves, for polyandry, they say more wives mean more hands to do domestic chores, farming and cattle rearing.

More often than not, it's the people from affluent castes and those with large landholdings who practice polygamy. Bhagat Singh, a farmer in Pokhri village, for instance, has three wives.

While one of them looks after the house, another takes the cattle out for grazing. The third is responsible for the upkeep of the farms.

Another interesting feature of polyandry is that though the brothers share one wife, the children sired by them only carry the name of the eldest brother.

"For all practical purposes -- except sex -- the wife belongs to him. He marries her. The children born of such arrangement write his name for a father," Singh, who hails from Sidi Barkoti, a village in Jaunsar, said.

Easy divorce proceedings

Unlike the so-called civilised world in India where it takes years and, at times, a lifetime in courts to get out of a failed marriage, in Jaunsar it is much easier to attain a divorce and remarry.

"It's known as Chhoot or Kheet [abandon] in local parlance. The only thing is in such cases, either the wife's family or her prospective lover will have to pay compensation to the husband," said Arvind, a worker with a non-government organisation (NGO) who has worked with the Jaunsars.

During Magh Mela, the biggest festival of Jaunsars, the festivities continue for a month beginning with the sacrifice of a goat in the second week of January. During this time, the tribals drink Pukhai (a kind of locally brewed beverage); indulge in songs and dances) and pray to Mahasu devta, a powerful deity who they believe is another form of Shiva, one of the three main gods in the Hindu pantheon. All Jaunsars settled outside return to their homeland to celebrate this festival.

The Jaunsars basically live on agriculture, animal husbandry and bee keeping. Unfortunately for them, agriculture is largely dependent on rain and natural sources of water. Their buffaloes are quite adept in negotiating the heights.

They tend bees in the warmer parts -- generally the ground floor -- of the house and collect honey for personal consumption and sale. The tribe has no access to medical facilities with hospitals only located in Chakrata, the hilly town, which is several hours drive. They make do with herbs they collect.

It is widely believed that King Virat, an accomplice of Pandavas ruled Jaunsar-Bawar, then known as Varnawat, during the Mahabharata period. Virat's daughter Uttara was married to Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna.

The region still has the ruins of Lakshagriha, the incendiary palace Duryodhana built to burn his cousins the Pandavas alive. The Pandavas, who were in disguise, were believed to have escaped unhurt to Chakrawati town, the present-day Chakrata.

They were said to have spent considerable time in Viratnagar, the ruins of which are supposed to be scattered on a ridge known as Chorani Dhar or Birat Khai. The Pandava brothers were supposed to have ruled over parts of north India from Hastinapur, a town in Western Uttar Pradesh, several thousand years ago.

Unique culture

From left: Babita, a Jaunsar woman poses in her home while a young boy from her community takes a breather from tending to his goats. A Jaunsar woman does the family's laundry while her daughter cowers behind her.

Narendra Kaushik/Gulf News

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 19, 2011
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