Defining Marriage

Anthropologists start their consideration of marriage by formulating a cross-culturally valid definition that can cover the numerous variations they have recorded. In general, Western cultures consider marriage as an exclusive and permanent bond between a man and a woman that is centrally concerned with assigning sexual rights in each of the partners and establishing parental responsibility for the children of the union. In its traditional form, it also organizes parents and children into domestic groups in which basic roles are allocated according to age and gender. This specific institutional pattern has been heavily sanctioned in moral and legal codes. Variations and changes, such as same-sexed marriages, are seen as an affront to a divinely ordained order. However, other cultures have developed very different conjugal arrangements, which suggest that other solutions to basic human problems have worked in different social contexts and that changes in Western patterns might not necessary lead to social and moral decay. As a case in point we will consider an East Indian system that differs radically from Western practices and has inspired a broader definition of marriage.

In her classic study of Nayar marriage arrangements, Kathleen Gough, considers both the general anthropological position that marriage is a universal and that it performs a similar set of functions in different societies (Gough 1959). The Nayar are an upper caste group, who are organized politically into small kingdoms and territorially into localized matrilineal descent groups. Although many of their practices have changed after the imposition of British colonial rule, a reconstruction of their traditional system suggests that no substantial marital institutions were present, at least from a Western perspective. On reaching puberty, a woman could entertain an indefinite number of lovers, usually between three and eight, without any public concern over sexual fidelity or paternal responsibility, the two basic features of marriage in European societies. Women would assume the responsibility for raising children within matrilineally constructed households, focusing on mothers, daughters, and sisters. The domestic group also included male members of the matrilineage, i.e. the women's brothers. However, since their main activities were devoted to warfare, all but the eldest men were usually absent during the better part of the year.

In spite of the apparently casual attitudes towards sex and fatherhood, a number of rules were strictly applied and failure to observe them could lead to severest punishments: ostracism and death. The most important focused on two ritual acts: the tying of the tali and the payment of the midwife's fees. In the tali ritual, girls and boys from allied lineages collectively performed a symbolic wedding ceremony in which each "groom" tied a gold ornament on his "brides" neck. In the successive rites the couple was secluded and may or may not have engaged in sexual activity (usually the girl was too young). At the conclusion of the ritual no specific rights or obligations between the couple were established, other than the expectation that the "wife" and her children would make special mourning observances when her "husband" died. However, without the tying of the tali, a woman could not engage in any sexual activity. If she gave birth, her child would be considered to be illegitimate. After the ceremony, she could start receiving lovers provided that they did not come from a lower hereditary caste or subcaste as she did. When the woman bore children, one of the lovers was expected to acknowledge his paternity by presenting gifts to the midwife who assisted in the delivery. While this, like the tali tying, was an almost exclusively symbolic act and incurred no subsequent responsibility, it was considered essential to both the legitimacy and the status of the child insofar as it provided an assurance that it was not the product of a relationship between its mother and a socially inferior man.

The Nayar case imposes a strict test on the understanding of marriage, as it completely dispenses with the child-care functions so strongly emphasized in Western understandings and differs in its concepts of sexual exclusiveness and propriety. It does however impose an important set of rules and fulfills functions that are quite understandable in the context of a lineage and caste based society. The rites and regulations assume the following significance appropriate the broader Nayar social order:

  1. They reflect and enforce a morality that permits open sexual relations provided that they are contracted within the limits of caste membership and uphold standards of hereditary purity.
  2. They contribute to the focusing of social relationships within the caste.
  3. They represent and underscore long term alliances among localized matrilineages, which along with caste groups constitute the core components of the society.
  4. They underwrite the legitimacy and social statuses of newly born children.

According to these observations, along with a consideration of other variations such as woman-woman marriage, Gough suggests a broadened definition of marriage as follows:

Marriage is a relationship established between a woman and one or more other persons, which provides that a child born to the woman 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.
Although her example and definition have attracted a good deal of criticism (Bell 1997), they at least point to the range of variation that marital forms and functions have assumed and the problem of a cross-culturally valid designation.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created: September 2003