The Asian kingdom where polyandry is still alive.
They’ll say you are bad
or perhaps you are mad
or at least you
should stay undercover.
Your mind must be bare
if you would dare
to think you can love
more than one lover.
― David Rovics
What is polyandry? Well, in Bhutan polyandry is a form of polygamy where a group of men, usually brothers, have in common something less than common: a woman, one dear wife for all to love, honour and cherish, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Sound kinky? Let’s pause and think about it.
How does it make you feel? Are you disgusted, indifferent or curious? Are you frowning or are you smiling?
What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Freedom, debauchery or betrayal? Some say it’s an acquired taste.
Do you see any practical issues with it? His children…whose children? Is sharing fun, or does it breed jealousy in the long run?
Whatever your opinions, one thing is certain: polyandry has been around for a long time. It was practiced in ancient Sparta, the Iron Age, Roman Britain and is still customary in remote parts of India, Nepal, Bhutan, South Africa and Tibet. At one time, more than fifty societies around the world embraced polyandry.
In the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan, while the “more than two” practice is not legal, it is certainly customary. Bhutanese women may by custom be “married” to several husbands. In almost all cases, the form of polyandry practiced is fraternal, where a group of brothers share a wife. Non-fraternal polyandry is rare.
I am here to find out why, when many people struggle to maintain one casual relationship, some enter willingly into a multiple simultaneous marriage (or, as I like to call it, “merry cage”).
What about two’s company, three’s a crowd? I guess it turns into three’s company, four’s a crowd, four’s company, five’s a crowd and so on.
Was polyandry born out of necessity? Is it now kept by choice?
Does it really work?
And by the way….
Is It All About Sex?
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… Or, perhaps not. The truth is never black or white, is it? As I found out, in this case, it has more than fifty shades of grey.
Let’s dive into it.
In the small settlement of Laya in northern Bhutan, the traditional practice of polyandry was born out of economic reasons.
Located 3800m (12,467ft) high in the Himalayas, in Northern Bhutan, Laya is accessible only by a gruelling eight hour hike from the closest town, Gasa. In this independent community of around 110 houses where polyandry has been practiced since, like, forever, I meet an old woman who is married to three brothers, the youngest one just a few years older than her eldest daughter.
“Building a house of your own is expensive. It is better to live together,” she explains. “Here, so high up, we cannot grow many crops. We need to trade cheese for rice and other products. When one husband goes for trading he is gone for days, sometimes weeks. But the others stay here, with me. They take care of the yaks and help me with the house and the children. It’s good. I feel safe.”
“Speaking of kids, do they know who their real father is?” I ask.
“No. The men don’t know, the kids don’t know. Why should they know? Only I know. Better.”
Indeed, if no man knows which child is his, then they are all happy to provide for all the children.
“And the men? Are they happy?”
“Sure they are happy. No one forces them. It’s their choice, a wise choice. With more people taking care of things, they have less things to worry about and more time to relax. Also, by marrying only me, their land doesn’t get divided between different families, the yaks, the cows, they all stay with the family. This way, we all live a very comfortable life.”
“Aren’t they jealous? I mean, they all share you. None has you only for himself.”
“Jealous? No. Yes. Maybe.” She pauses. She is not quite sure of this. Then, she continues, changing the topic: “Where there are brothers at the time of marriage who are too young to get married, they may join the household later.”
“What about love?”
“What about love?” She laughs, clearly amused at my question. “I have been married for the last seventeen years and everything is going well in our lives. Isn’t that enough? I love all my husbands equally.”
I turn quiet, not knowing what to think. I remember what I wrote in one of my books, When Dreams are Calling: “There is no triangle. In love, there are always only two people.”
Was I wrong? What if there are many kinds of love and many ways to love someone, all as varied and unique as we are? Aren’t all love stories, no matter how long they last, no matter in what circumstances they are born, equally beautiful?
After all, love isn’t always a natural and spontaneous affair, flowing freely, uninhibited. Sometimes, it grows on us with time.
Should we really tie love to the idea of one soul mate? Should we really reduce love to one big, ah-may-zing romantic love?
Maybe for the men, emotionally speaking, being the third wheel is not quite the best place in the world to be in…
Maybe the women are the third wheel, a convenient means to a financial end…
Whatever the intricacies, the arrangement certainly adds stability, economic security, prosperity for all those involved. And, for the women, it is also an insurance policy against the risk of losing a husband, a provider for her children.
So, who knows, perhaps in a peculiar sort of way, sharing is caring …
For now, all I’ve learned is that in Laya, polyandry is not at all about sex. There are valid, economic reasons why both the men and women of Laya embark on such a journey.
Speaking of sex, I wonder… how does it work between three brothers? I mean, is there a night schedule?
As I find out, there is. When duty calls, you’re on. The rest of the time, well, restraint and discipline are the magic words. Sometimes one of the men might get lucky and be asked to do some overtime. It is not uncommon during the night, if she’s unhappy, for the woman to change beds.
Hey, girls just wanna have fun… or so I’ve heard.
In fact, there are studies showing that, while in men the decline in sexual prowess is relentless, in women, sexual desire doesn’t fade with age. If, by sixty-five, half of all men are out of the game, as are virtually all ten years later, women, even in their sixties, are still capable of leaping from orgasm to orgasm, until they are physically drained. I say, Go girls!
This is how our bodies work. Even when men can’t boss around the boss, women can’t stop craving it. The end.
Bearing this in mind, isn’t polyandry at least an interesting option, if not a marvellous one? I mean, does it sound so bad to have an extra husband, ten or even twenty years younger, without being frowned upon, or called an unfaithful… you know.
It might sound frivolous or promiscuous, but you can’t deny that while we don’t die from not having enough sex, sex does make us happier and healthier people.
In Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, a married Bhutanese woman who I just met, jokes that she has an MBA Licence – Married But Looking. I am not sure how does “MBA” stand for “Married But Looking.” But, I smile, knowing that she is only half joking.
Because in Bhutan, love goes round and round and around.
Need more inspiration to discover Bhutan? Find our suggested itineraries here or check out our Bhutan itineraries to discover more in this spectacular region.