Thursday, August 18, 2016

Relationships: The Nayar of India

I was digging through some old papers and found a bit of research I’d done ages ago on the diversity of cultural understanding of marriage in the past and present. It made me curious to Google some of these societies and just compare it to what I’d written.

I think it's important to share things like this because European colonization of the globe lead to a lot of social/cultural homogenization that left modern folks confused about which aspects of human behavior are socially derived, and which biologically derived. This difference often doesn't matter, but when someone makes a presumption that life-time sexual exclusivity with a single monogamous partner is the normal/natural state of human beings--intending that this means we've evolved as monogamous beings--they're misunderstanding the history of how this was often forcibly spread about the globe, and the amazing variety of relationship and family types that thrived quite well in many other areas.

Particularly annoying is when people claim that monogamy in the nuclear family Western Civ sense is somehow better for bringing up children. In fact, there are many perfectly great working models for child rearing that have been utilized and continue to be utilized, around the world today. Our model is just one, and not even necessarily the most optimal.

Cultures like the Nayar challenge these assumptions and stereotypes in a way that can encourage other options which may work better for people, depending upon their situations. And with that, I give you a very small nugget for consideration.

From my old research, a section about the Nāyar/Nair of India:
Here, a young girl should go through a four-day ceremony (which marks her status as a married adult) that connects her to a man, her “ritual husband.” A necklace with a pendant is placed on her, showing that she is, in the Nayar sense of the word, “married.” But she’s not going to settle down with her “husband” to start a family. Instead, she now can, and is expected to, have many lovers, or “visiting husbands,” come to see her in the “great house” (the place where her mother’s family looks after her). It is uncommon for a visiting husband to sleep with her more than one night in a row.
As long as the girl has been ritually married, her children are considered legitimate; if she gives birth before the ceremony, she is punished. So, the ritual husband has nothing to do with her family unit, but he is absolutely necessary to legitimizing her children.
Citation: Edgar Gregersen, Sexual Practices, The Story of Human Sexuality (New York: Franklin Watts, 1983), p.130

So, I went online and sought out further information on the Nayar, and here are some other sources and their descriptions:
Marriage and Family
Marriage customs among the Nayars have evoked much discussion and controversy in India among both jurists and social scientists. There was considerable subregional variation as well as variation by subcaste and family prestige. Details presented here refer to south Malabar and the former Cochin State. There were two kinds of marriage: talikettu kalyanam (tali [necklet]-tying ceremony); andsambandham (the customary nuptials of a man and woman). The tali-tying ceremony had to be held before puberty and often the ceremony was held for several girls at the same time to save on expenses. Depending on the group the tali could be tied by a member of a linked lineage (often two Nayar Lineages that frequently intermarried were linked to one another and called enangar lineages), by a member of a higher subcaste of Nayars, by one of the matrilineal Ambilavasi (temple servant) castes, or by a member of a royal lineage. By the mid-1950s, it became common for some girls to have the tali tied by their mothers. It is still controversial as to whether this ceremony was ever a formal marriage or if originally it was simply an age-grade ceremony, since it often included a large number of girls ranging in age from 6 months to 12 or 14 years. Women did observe formal mourning practices for the men who tied their talis, and in some instances—for example, if the girl was close to puberty—it was possible that the Marriage might be consummated during this ceremonial period. How often this occurred is unknown. By contrast, sambandan involved a man having a "visiting husband" relationship with a woman. While such relationships were considered to be marriages by the woman's family, especially when they occurred with males of higher subcastes or castes, the males tended to view the relationships as concubinage. Traditionally Nayar women were allowed to have more than one "visiting husband" either simultaneously or serially.
Unlike most Hindus, Nāyars traditionally were matrilineal. Their family unit, the members of which owned property jointly, included brothers and sisters, the latter’s children, and their daughters’ children. The oldest man was legal head of the group. Rules of marriage and residence varied somewhat between kingdoms.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Nāyars in the central kingdoms of Calicut, Walluvanad, Palghat, and Cochin had highly unusual marriage customs that have been much studied. Before puberty a girl ritually married a Nāyar or a Nambūdiri Brahman. The husband could visit her (but was not obliged to); in some cases ritual divorce immediately followed the ceremony. After puberty the girl or woman could receive a number of visiting husbands of her own or a higher caste. Nāyar men might visit as many women of appropriate rank as they chose. Women were maintained by their matrilineal groups, and fathers had no rights or obligations in regard to their children.

- MK

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