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Tibet Mandala
mandala To share and promote interest in Tibetan culture, people and land

Tibetan Marriages

by Sun-Inn Shih
October, 1996
Chinese Version


Marriages in Tibet take many different forms. The most common one that is exercised in all regions and classes is polyandry where there are one wife and two or more husbands. The husbands are usually brothers of the same clan otherwise they are swored brothers. It is the elder brother who has the decision making power to choose the bride and all children are officially his. One clan has only one leader - the elder brother. He is the father of all the children, and is the owner of the land and/or stock that belong to the clan. Sometimes a younger brother decides to be a monk and gains ownership to land or stock; the property he acquires is the clan's property. A younger brother may decide to go out on his own and start his own family. In that case, he forfeits all his right to the family property and his relationship to the bride is discontinued.

In traditional Tibet, the bride does not know about the marriage till only days ahead. The marriage is usually arranged by her parents. She is usally in her early teens. After the ceremony, she returns to her parents' home and will join her husband(s) after puberty.

The Tibetan wedding ceremonies usually include some type of opposition and hostility. Some, for example, involve abduction and follow up payment of the bride.

Monogamy is more popular in Amdo area. It has become more popular in all areas of modern Tibet. In Tibetan refugee camp in india, the young Tibetans are relying more on themselves in finding their mate.

Polygamy where there are one husband and two or more wives is limited to the nobility and the rich. Songtsen Gampo, the Buddhist king of Tibet in the seventh century, had five wives. By marrying princess Wen chen and princess Bhrkuti he was able to form ties with China and Nepal. Two of his wives were from foreign lands that he conquered.

The wives in polygamy marriages are usually sisters or at least considered to be sisters. Sometimes Instead of marring at once to the groom, the sisters or swored sisters simply remain available should one of them die.

The marital relationship is not limited to the above three forms. It can turn into a very complex scenerio in the old Tibet. Many brothers can marry to many sisters. Father and son can share a wife as well as mother and daughter can share one husband. Given the the wife is not the son's mother and the husband is not the daughter's father.

One very unique part of Tibetan marriage is that when a woman is widowed, she is encouraged if not obligated to remarried the brother, the son, or the father of the deceased. (Again, I assume the son is not the son of the widow. If anyone know otherwise, sent me a mail.) Tibet has a sense of strong tight clan, which might be one of the reasons for the unique flexibility of marital relationships.

Another interesting note is that sex seems to be a very liberated and integrated part of Tibetan life. I can not help but share the following from one of my reference. This is an excerpt from one Tibetan medical text regarding the healthy schedule for sexual intercourse.

Two to three times a day in winter;
every two days in spring and autumn;
once every fifteen days in summer.

It is easy to get the impression that Tibetan women as a whole are suppressed sub citizens. In fact, Tibetan women are very free economically and sexually. They often manage their family finanace and they can own properties. This makes divorce an option for them. In polyandry marriage, they are able to make request for additional husbands of their choice. From what I gathered in the literatures, this rarely happens, nevertheless, it is a possibility.


References

  1. Stein, R.A., Tibetan Civilization , 1972, Standford University Press.
  2. Dunham, C. and Baker, I. and etc, Tibet: Reflections from the Wheel of Life , Abbeville Press.