Your Customs are Unusual!

An anthropological exploration of marriage customs and societal practices

9 min readFeb 17, 2024

When I first stumbled upon anthropology in 2020, I had no idea what it was all about. In fact, I had heard its name for the first time. This field studies humans across space and time — Socio-cultural, Biological, Prehistoric as well as Linguistic aspects.

As I delved deeper, I was truly taken aback by the incredible diversity of customs and practices that exist across the globe. From marriage rituals to societal norms, each culture seemed to have its own unique tapestry woven with history, social dynamics, and economic factors.

I realized the importance of not just focusing on STEM subjects but also embracing the arts and humanities. While science and technology drive progress, it is our understanding of human behavior, culture, and society that truly shapes our world. In this journey of discovery, I’ve come to believe that learning about diverse cultures and traditions is essential for building empathy, fostering understanding, and creating a more inclusive society where every individual is valued and respected.

Drawing insights from “In Search of Ourselves” by NK Vaid and “Anthropology” by Ember & Ember, I embark on writing a series of articles on this subject, starting with this on the rich tapestry of marriage customs and societal practices across the world.

✏️ Lets begin with the definition of marriage.

The first anthropological definition of marriage that appeared in 6th edition of Notes and Queries (1951) by Royal anthropological Institute of Britain quotes,

“Marriage is a union between a man and a woman (well, not always) such that the children born to the woman are recognized as legitimate offspring (Todas of Nilgiris decide legitimacy by Purusuptimis — bow & arrow ceremony) of both partners”

After a long debate Kathleen Gough, an american anthropologist after studying Nayers of Malabar defined marriage as,

“A relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons (This excludes male to male marriage, legally recognised in Scandinavian countries), which provides that a child born to a women under circumstances not prohibited by the rules of the relationship, is accorded full birth-status rights common to normal members of his society or social stratum.”

We’ll observe below how Edmond Leech and M. Fortes’ assertion about the impossibility of creating a universally applicable definition of marriage remains valid.

📝 Societies have norms that direct the choice of a partner.

These rules influence the nature, structure and functions of marriage to a considerable extent. According to Needham there are,

Preferential Rules

  1. Endogamy: Marriage within a defined social unit like caste, tribe or a professional group. This helps maintain purity of blood and in retention of customs and traditions.
  2. Exogamy: Marriage outside a defined social unit that exists within the endogamous unit like family, lineage or gotra. It prevents competition and conflict within the group thus promoting stability.

Prescriptive Rules

  1. Cousin marriage: This can be wither Parallel cousin marriage or Cross cousin marriage. M. Fortes research suggests that societies practising cousin marriage are politically quite stable.
  2. Levirate - Sororate: These are secondary forms of preferential marriages. Levirate involves marrying the deceased brother’s wife as seen in Siwai of S.Pacific. And sororate involves marrying wife’s sister. If the wife is alive, it results in sororal polygyny. This help in continuity of relationship between two kin groups.

👥 Marriages can be either monogamous or polygamous


An individual is married to only one spouse at a given time. The Indian Hindu society prefers a man to have a single wife throughout his life. Contrastingly, in American society, a man can practice ‘serial monogamy’ or ‘serial polygamy’ where he may have a series of wives after divorcing previous ones.


An individual is married to multiple spouse at the same time. It can be of three sub-types.

  1. Polygyny: A man is married to multiple women at the same time as seen in many Islamic communities.
  2. Polyandry: A woman is married to multiple men at the same time, as seen in some societies of Tibet, India and Nepal. It may be found associated with female infanticide or where women’s role in subsistence is regarded as minimum or they are involved mainly in the childbirth and socialisation. Fraternal polyandry, where husbands are brothers is common among the Todas of Nilgiri and Gujjars of Rajasthan. While non-fraternal polyandry is found among the Nayars of Kerala.
  3. Polygynandry: Several men are married to several women at the same time. DN Majumdar reported one such instance among the Khasa’s of Uttarakhand.

🫂 The means of acquiring mates may vary.

‘Andi’ among the Hos of Kolhan, Chotanagpur: Boy’s father negotiates with the girl’s parents and arranges their marriage by paying the bridewealth.

‘Rajikhusi’ among the Hos: A boy elopes with a girl with her consent either ceremonially or with pre-arrangement.

‘Batta Satta’ among the Gaddis of Himachal: A man can have a wife only if he can give a female in exchange, her age being immaterial.

In fact, exorbitant amount of marriage payments may result in such alternatives.

  • Among the Tiv of Nigeria, sister exchange is ideal so much that the bride received for the exchange of sister gets latter’s name and status within the family.
  • Among the Gonds of Chotanagpur, the term ‘Dudh Lotawa’ is used to describe the right of a daughter giver to seek a daughter back. This can happen in the same generation or different generation.

According to the Peoples of India Project,

  • Marriage with a “mother’s brother’s daughter” exists in 2368 communities. Eg, among ‘Lovedu’ of S.Africa.
  • Marriage with “father’s sister’s daughter” is reported in 2040 communities. Eg, among ‘Ashanti’ of Ghana & the ‘Trobrianders’.
  • Maternal uncle-niece marriages take place in 336 communities.

‘Bariana’ among the Gaddis of Himachal: The bride price is given as a gift to the other party. This should not be taken as paying to purchase a thing.

‘Dhangar’ among the Mundas of Chotanagpur: Mundas serve their father-in-law as Dhangar. This is a substitute to pay out the bride price in the form of service for a period till its money value is paid.

‘Ceremonial Capture’ among the Nagas: The man captures a woman and marries her, sometimes due to high bride prices. The practice is declining due to the fear of law. So, few tribes now follow ‘Ceremonial Capture’ to keep this tradition alive.

‘Probationary Marriage’ among the Nicobarese: The boy is allowed to live with the girl of his choice for a few days to understand each other before marriage. If it does not end in marriage, girl’s family is compensated with money.

‘Gol-godheri’ among the Bhils of Gujarat: The young boy is required to prove himself courageous, only then free to choose his life-partner. This has turned into a ceremony called ‘Gol-godheri’.

‘Anadar’ among the Hos: A woman, in order to marry an unwilling man, thrusts herself on his family. If she persists their torture for a long period, she gains acceptance. It is looked down upon by the tribals.

👭 Same sex marriages!

In some cultures, a biological female or male is expected to take on the opposite gender role and become the wife or husband in the union.

In various African societies, including the Nandi of Kenya, female-female marriages have been documented. These marriages occur when a woman is unable to produce a male heir through a conventional marriage. This woman, even if her husband is still alive, will become “husband” to a younger female and “father” the younger woman’s future children. No sexual relations are permitted between the female husband and the new wife (or between the female husband and her Own husband). Rather, the female husband arranges for her new wife to have a male consort in order to have children. However, if asked who their father is, children of such a marriage will name the female husband.

Cheyenne Indians allowed a married man to take a third-gender as a second wife.

Before the British took control over what is now Sudan, Azande warriors of Africa who could not afford wives often married boy-wives. In fact male to male marriages are legally recognised in many Scandinavian countries today. However, it remains unrecognised by social scientists as it doesn’t fulfil any social objective.

👻 Ghost marriage!

Among the British Columbians in Canada, if an unmarried man dies, his rights can be acquired and inherited by someone else. Mostly, elder brother marries on his name and his wife is called the wife of the ghost.

😵‍💫 Marriage is not always customary.

Among Na of Yunnan in southwest China, men and women lived their entire lives with their respective maternal kin. They practice sese, the consensual sexual union of an unmarried couple. When a couple agrees to see each other, the man visits the woman discreetly in the evening and returns to his own residence the next morning. The offspring is normally take the woman’s family name and are raised by her family.

🤷 The onset of marriage without getting married…

Societies use different social signals to indicate that a marriage has taken place.

The Taramiut Inuit of the Arctic: Among the Taramiut Inuits, an engaged couple’s success at producing ofspring marks the onset of marriage. Engagement is arranged by the parents before or at the onset of kids puberty. Subsequently, the young man undergoes a trial period by moving in with his betrothed’s family. If the woman gives birth to a baby within a year, they are considered married and the wife relocates with her husband. If the couple does not conceive, the young man returns to his family without a wife.

The Trobriand Islanders: A couple show its desire to marry by sleeping together regularly and showing themselves together in public. When a girl accepts a small gift from a boy, it indicates approval from her parents. Soon after, she moves into the boy’s house, shares meals with him, and spends the day together. Eventually, word spreads that the couple is married.

The Kwoma of New Guinea: The girl lives for a while in the boy’s home. When the boy and his mother is satisfied with the match, she waits for a day when he is away from the house. Until that time, the girl has been cooking only for herself. The mother instructs the girl to prepare his meal. Upon his return the young man nearly finishes eating, his mother informs him that his betrothed cooked the meal, and his eating it means that he is now married. The boy customarily rushes out of the house, spits and expresses distaste for the food. A ceremony then makes the marriage official.

The rich tapestry of marriage customs offers a glimpse into the complexities of human relationships and societal norms. As an rookie in anthropology, delving into these customs has been an eye-opening journey, revealing the depth and diversity of cultural practices within India’s tribal communities.

👁 Another perspective

As we delve deeper into the intricacies of cultural practices, I confronted myself with other side of such societal norms. From ancient customs to contemporary practices, women have been treated as commodities, traded and exchanged to fulfil economic, social, and cultural obligations.

In ancient cultures, women were often seen as symbols of wealth and status, leading to practices like foot binding, where tiny, malformed feet known as “lotus feet” were considered desirable for marriage despite the immense pain involved.

Lets delve into some instances from across the World.

‘Vani’ in Pakistan is an age-old tribal custom that gives females in marriage to males of another tribal group to settle a dispute. Child brides blot tribal Pakistan — Aljazeera

‘Swara’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan entails handing over a girl in marriage to an aggrieved family as compensation to settle a feud. Usually one girl is offered but the number can go up to three. Women or property? — Dawn

‘Leblouh’ in Mauritania involves force-feeding young girls to make them obese, which is considered attractive and increases their value as brides. Mauritanian forced-feeding regime to fatten girls for early marriage — Jusoor Post

‘Kamalari’ in Nepal involves sending young girls and women from poor families to work as indentured servants in the houses of the rich landlords. They do not receive any monetary benefits from their employers. Instead, male members of their families are given an annual sum or provided with grains against the annual work carried out by these servants. Kamalaris are still not free — My Republica

‘Devadasi System’ in S.India involves the dedication of young girls to temple service. Initially religious but often led to exploitation, particularly among lower castes. Temple destruction during the medieval period contributed to its decline, causing economic hardship for Devadasis who turned to prostitution for survival. Despite being outlawed, remnants of this practice persist today, highlighting ongoing challenges in combating exploitation and abuse. Devadasi System In India — Indian Institute if Legal Studies

They sound dark!

However, in order to truly comprehend these traditions, it’s essential to delve into the historical, social, and economic contexts that shaped them. By doing so, we can avoid simplistic judgments and appreciate the intricacies of human societies and their diverse cultural expressions.

It’s imperative to engage in meaningful dialogue and reflection, acknowledging both the richness and the challenges posed by these customs. By fostering understanding and empathy, we can strive for a more inclusive and equitable society where every individual is valued and respected.

As we strive for understanding and empathy, I invite you to share your own marriage customs or any intriguing traditions you’ve encountered by commenting below. Let’s celebrate the diversity of human culture and learn from each other’s experiences.

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