The Return of Polyandry: Kinship and Marriage in Central Tibet.

Heidi E. Fjeld

232 pages, 2022, 99.00 GBP (Hardcover), Free online (Open Access)

Berghahn Books



Reviewed by Santiago Lazcano 

“Everybody wants a better life”
(Drolma, Gongbo’s house nama)


The polyandrous form of marriage (a woman married to two or more men who are usually brothers) has always aroused surprise and curiosity in the West. In the Tibetan world, polyandry or zasum has historically been present in many places as a marriage option available among others when organizing the family and kinship system. In rural Central Tibet in the 21st century, contrary to what might be expected, modernity and economic development did not lead to a weakening of polyandry, but rather to a strong resurgence of this marital option.

This growing phenomenon did not escape the sharp eye of the Norwegian anthropologist and Tibetologist Heidi Fjeld, who in The Return of Polyandry presents us with a very comprehensive study of polyandrous marriage in rural central Tibet in the early 2000s. Her work proves to be very necessary and contributes to fill an important gap, since (with a few exceptions), the handful of previous studies date back several decades and have not been carried out in Tibet proper but in the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas. Fjed develops what she calls “a historical ethnography” of polyandry, and the wider kinship system, in a peasant village in the central province of Tsang, Central Tibet. The location of the study is the village of Sharlung (a pseudonym coined by the author) which is located in Panam County of Shigatse Prefecture.

Her work is the result of field research during several periods between 2000 and 2005, in addition to the use of other written sources. The fieldwork was made possible thanks to Tibet University, as well as an exchange agreement signed by the Tibet Autonomous Region government and the rectors of Norwegian universities. The author combines observational and conversational techniques in her research. She interviews members of all households in Sharlung but focuses on fifteen households with whom she has prolonged and regular conversations, especially the eight people in the house of the village headman (who was her host household) and five other key interlocutors. She also includes monks and nuns, and leaders of the area in his survey, and she also interviews ritual experts and skilled workers of low status origin. Her study also benefits from the valuable input of a local Buddhist scholar who accompanied her as interpreter, guardian, observer and research assistant.

The book is structured in 6 chapters that together, and according to her own words, give rise to “a sense of movement; into, and out of, the house”; and through which she examines the different elements that make up the polyandrous phenomenon:

Chapter 1 discusses the causes of the resurgence of polyandry in Tsang. It points to the decollectivization of 1980 – and the access of poor peasants to land that came with it – as the trigger for the return to a preference for fraternal polyandry. Having land to keep, the presence of several husbands increases the possibilities of earning income by diversifying productive activities, and the close relationship between male siblings also works in favor of this system. This helps to preserve the corporate household.

Chapter 2 explores the different ways by which one becomes a member of the household in Central Tibetan peasant society, be they filiation, marriage, or adoption. Although the importance of patrilineal ideology is more theoretical than practical, filiation provides the structurally central positions within the polyandrous household, where the logic of maximizing male labor within the established unit prevails.

Chapter 3 tells us about the relationships between the co-husband brothers and the authority of the eldest brother or genshö (who socially encompasses the others), the leadership and representation of the household, common fatherhood, the distribution of sexual access or kora khor, models of masculinity, and conflicts between members of the household.

Chapter 4 examines the essential role of the nama or wife and the negotiation of female leadership in the household. The nama starts from her subordinate position and depends on her skills and disposition (in domestic tasks and the fair sharing of affection to their husbands) to acquire a central role in the household.

Chapter 5 reviews the house as a cosmological space and its ritual and protective nature. It also goes over its spaces vertebrated by a vertical axis, reflecting the hierarchy of space and man, in a context where the high is pure and the low is impure.

Chapter 6 finally deals with the networks of mutual aid between the houses and the morality of obligation and the principle of mutuality by which they are governed. It also discusses the exclusion of people and households of lower or impure class (menrik), and the fear of ritual pollution or drip.


The book presents an exhaustive analysis of the factors leading to the choice of polyandry by more and more people, and of the roles played in the family by its different components. Economic explanations are at the heart of the analysis. As Drolma says, everyone wants to live better, and polyandry ensures the indivisibility of land and the increase of material wealth, as well as spreading the workload and limiting population growth. But Fjeld also accurately shows us the immaterial wealth of the polyandrous household, by examining the corporate house – and its human and non-human inhabitants – as well as its important ritual and social significance.

The sociocultural constitution of the corporate household or khyimtsang in Sharlung fits the characteristics that Lévi-Strauss confers on the house as a “moral person” or “corporate entity”: it has a name, material and immaterial wealth, biography and reputation, and interacts with other houses. This being so, and given that houses are the sites of kinship creation and constitute the core of kinship groups in Sharlung, Fjeld adopts a house perspective inspired by Lévi-Strauss’s concept of the house as “moral person” (personne morale). She explores “the house” as an analytical device and shows us the potential of seeing Tibet as a “society of houses” as a means to overcome the contradictions between the theoretically prevailing patrilineal ideology there and actual practice. This analytical approach makes it possible to look beyond the rigidity of norms, descent ideologies and grand patterns of kinship. The house is the central organizing unit, it protects from the environment and provides a sense of belonging. But it also contains a history and a status, defines social identity, and generates rights and duties before the community.

The centrality of the household and its interconnection with polyandry reflect the flexibility and pragmatism of the Tibetan kinship system and may serve as an example for what the author terms “kinship of potentiality.” Shared kinship principles offer Tibetans cultural possibilities and potentialities as they maneuver in social and political contexts that affect kinship sensibilities. Marriage forms are socially accepted organizing principles, and one or the other may be employed depending on circumstances. The change in marriage practices depends on cultural and political transformations and on multiple external and internal factors. Thus, some dominate in certain contexts, while others continue to exist in the background.

Polyandry is a possibility to be considered among various forms of organization, it is a potential: the forms of marriage are flexible, and the motivations for the choice are pragmatic (in the case of Central Tibet both the traditional land tenure taxation system and the contemporary one that gave poor peasants access to land incentivize its practice). The availability of this wide range of principles and practices -that form and are formed by the kinship of potentiality- is shared in all Tibetan societies.

The author explores the different aspects of polyandry through ethnographic and life stories of specific people who tell in the first person how they perceive themselves and their relatives and neighbors, and how they negotiate the difficulties and emotions they experience. She examines the causes and consequences of its evolution over time and shows the role of polyandrous marriage in the social structure of central Tibet. The book is written in a straightforward and readable style and the text is also accompanied by beautiful color photographs to illustrate it.

This excellent work will be of great value to not only Tibetologists and scholars of anthropology of kinship, but also to anyone interested in learning about polyandry as a social and cultural phenomenon, or curious about the social and family organization of Tibetan regions.


Santiago Lazcano studied Social Anthropology at the Complutense University of Madrid and currently works as a librarian. He is passionate about the Tibetan and Himalayan world, and is especially interested in the ethnohistory and social history of Tibetan and Himalayan populations.