Polyandry in Ceylon/Sri Lanka


There is an old  Sinhala saying where four breasts cant get along, four heads can.

Many are under the impression that polyandry was some ancient/mythical social structure ( (e.g. Draupadi in the Mahabaratha).

To the the contrary it was prevalent till modern times  in Sri Lanka/Ceylon, Nepal and certain groups in India.  In Ceylon polyandry was prevalent till the 1950’s in the remote parts of the Kandyan kingdom, e.g. Nuwara-Kalaviya. Apparently there is a rise in fraternal polyandry in the  Malwa region of the Punjab  (see wiki on Polyandry).

The dynamics and customs of polyandry differ among the various cultures. I’ll only write about polyandry in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

There were two types of unions, Deega amd Binna (those terms are still kind of used or understood). Diga was where the woman went to the man’s house. Binna was weh the man went to the woman’s house.

Deega: Where a woman went man/mens house. When she went to the men/mens house she was entitled to a share of the property that belonged to the house and income thereof. So if a woman had a union with 3 men she was entitled to 1/4th of the property and its income.

Knox, mentions that the dowry was considered the property of the wife and she was free to take it away, should the marriage be a failure. Among the things that were given as a part of the dowry Knox mentions slaves, cattle, tools and money. NOTE: Dowry was movable assets, not land.

Now at some point the woman gets tired of the men, or the men get tired of the woman.  The woman will move back to her house (note I did not say parents house). When she moves back, her house property share has to be given back to her.

Binna:  Thats when a man moves into the woman’s house.  This could be a womans first unions or after she walks away from a Diga union and she is back in her house.  They can get an income from either administering or working the woman’s share of the property.

Binna or Diga, the children remain in the house they were born and will inherit a share with other children also born in the house. The children dont belong to the parents, they belong to the house.
The Sinhalese names are based on the house. e.g. Galaha Lekamge Sunil. Written in English custom it would be Sunil of the Secretary’s house in Galaha (a village). The suffix “ge” pronounced “gay” means house or of.

Some key points that made the system work.
The house was an entity and had property (rice paddy, coconut groves etc). The property was not necessarily adjacent to the house.
Property could not be bought or sold.
Children belong to the house, not to either parent.
Minimum children: Infanticide and abortion were practiced. Infanticide was not gender based, but because the “horroscope” was bad.
Virginity for women and men was a non issue.

Knox (1681) says (1681):

  • “In this country each man, even the greatest, hath but one wife; but a woman often has two husbands. For it is lawful and common with them for two brothers to keep house together with one wife, and the children do acknowledge and call both fathers”.
  • These women are of a very strong and courageous spirit, taking nothing very much to heart, mourning more for fashion than affection, never overwhelmed neither with grief of live. And when their husbands are dead, all their care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without.”
  • Their marriages are but of little force or validity for if they disagree and mislike one another, they part without disgrace…. Both women and men do commonly wed four or five times before they can settle themselves to their contention.”
  • As soon as the child is born, the father or some friend apply themselves to an astrologer to inquire whether the child was born in a prosperous planet and a good hour or in an evil one. If it is found to be in an evil they presently destroy it.”



Robert Knox (1681) “An historical relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies”.  Complete book is online
Knox was captured by the Kandyan King and was kept for 20 years. Escaped and wrote about life in the Hill Country. Supposed to have inspired Defoes, Robinson Crusoe

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I am 3/4ths Sri Lankan (Jaffna) Tamil, 1/8th Sinhalese and 1/8th Irish; a proper mutt. Maternal: Grandfather a Govt Surveyor married my grandmother of Sinhalese/Irish descent from the deep south, in the early 1900’s. They lived in the deep South, are generally considered Sinhalese and look Eurasian (common among upper class Sinhalese). They were Anglicans (Church of England), became Evangelical Christians (AOG) in 1940's, and built the first Evangelical church in the South. Paternal: Sri Lanka (Jaffna Tamil). Paternal ancestors converted to Catholicism during Portuguese rule (1500's), went back to being Hindu and then became Methodists (and Anglicans) around 1850 (ggfather). They were Administrators and translators to the British, poets and writers in Tamil and English. Grandfathers sister was the first female Tamil novelist of modern times I was brought up as an Evangelical even attending Bible study till about the age of 13. Agnostic and later atheist. I studied in Sinhala, did a Bachelor in Chemistry and Physics in Sri Lanka. Then did Oceanography graduate stuff and research in the US. I am about 60 years old, no kids, widower. Sri Lankan citizen (no dual) and been back in SL since 2012. Live in small village near a National Park, run a very small budget guest house and try to do some agriculture that can survive the Elephants, monkeys and wild boar incursions. I am not really anonymous, a little digging and you can find my identity.

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6 years ago

This is fascinating and thanks so much for sharing sbarrkum. Sanathana Dharma has always had large matriarchal streams.

A question if I might. Assume Prince Vijaya was a Hindu. Prince Vijaya’s descendants (Sinhala) gradually transformed from Hindu to “Hindu Buddhist”. At some point some Sri Lankans started calling themselves “Buddhist” without “Hindu” in front of it. Do you or others have any speculation about pre Hindu culture or faiths? Or is that unknown and mysterious. There are legends of Yakshas. But wouldn’t Yakshas be Hindu?

Could the Yakshas be some type of non homo sapien sapien modern hominid? Yakshas are not considered human beings. Of course they might be aliens 😉

6 years ago

Keep posting sbarrkum. Very interesting and quite alien. Most of us are not commenting because we know very little about the culture.
My mother toungue is Konkani and I did dig up and found that Konkani and Sinhala share common word for son, daughter and younger brother of the father.

6 years ago
Reply to  sbarrkum

There is no concept of “religion” in Sanathana Dharma. As a result Hindus for tens of thousands of years assumed everyone was a Hindu. All Buddhists were what we would now call Hindus for centuries after the passing of Buddha. They would have been Hindu Buddhists similar to Siddha Siddhanta (18 Siddha) Hindus, Kashmiri Shaivism Hindus, Shakta Hindus, Advaitin Hindus, Vaishnav Hindus. Hindus have an enormous variation of paramparas or religions as it were inside the mother religion. Even now Hindus consider Buddhists to be be a Hindu sect and as a result Buddhists participate in major ancient Hindu organizations such as the Akhara. Technically at least 3 of the 4 founders of the 4 schools of Tibetan Buddhism are dual hatted–meaning they are simultaneously considered Hindu Shaivite Naths and Tibetan Buddhist masters. Buddhism and Hinduism are so intertwined.

The Indologists have massively distorted the dates of historical events in Asia. Buddha was likely born before 1000 BC:
Since Vijaya was alive during the time of Buddha, this implies that Prince Vijaya was born before 1000 BC too.

The Yakshas and Rakshashas were clearly Hindus and vastly more knowledgeable about the Vedas, Vedas and scriptures than homo sapien sapien moderns. In fact they taught humans many of these things. They also had far longer life expectancy than humans (more technologically advanced medicine?). Were vastly more intelligent, powerful and advanced than humans. They physically looked different than humans (described as larger and far far more beautiful.) This is why I suspect they were either a different species (with a more ancient and advanced culture, civilization and technology), or some type of aliens (that have subsequently left earth). Maybe they were a different type of Hominid.

Yakshas and Rakshashas are sister species–very similar to each other.

Nagas are very different from Yaksha and Rakshashas. Naga are believed to be aliens from the direction of the Naga star (called the dragon star by the Chinese and Hydra star by the Greeks and Romans):
Some might say that they had bodies on earth but souls from the Naga star. There is no consensus among Hindus. Notice how Nagas play a large role in almost all or all the ancient cultures including Egypt, Sumeria and the Mayans.

6 years ago
Reply to  AnAn

Hindu is a later creation. Why don’t you imagine a space without defined religion? What is the religion of an elephant? Start from there and go …

6 years ago
Reply to  AnAn

Hindu is a creation of the Greeks!

For most Hindus Hinduism still doesn’t exist. This is why Hindus don’t understand why everyone in the world isn’t a Hindu! This is why Hindus constantly talk about sameness. The famous Hindu hug.

Raj Darbhanga
Raj Darbhanga
6 years ago
Reply to  sbarrkum

Chandragupta Maurya was definitely a Hindu. Shudra’s (who we now call OBC’s) were a core part of the Hindu society. The only ones outside of Hindu society would have been the tribals who lived mostly in the highlands of central and eastern India in separate civilizations. And even that’s not an absolute. Among the tribals, the ones that came into contact with and eventually joined the Hindu society formed the Dalit classes (doing jobs like leather handling).

Although we can’t be certain about his exact lineage now, the politically powerful Koeri caste (an OBC group) in Bihar claims him as one of their own. Historians are uncertain; Buddhist texts claim he is from noble lineage. But the BJP is happy to go along with this for political purposes. Everything that I’ve read suggests that were was some movement in the caste system throughout time, maybe not a lot, but definitely some. Many great kings throughout history in the world have been talented usurpers, “commoners”.

Other examples include Lord Krishna, whose depicted as slight of frame and dark skinned, and from his background story was of Yadav (OBC) origin, becoming a great warrior. Though this is religious, like the stories of Buddha and Jesus probably has some strong basis in historical fact. If it were just the Aryan Brahmins concocting this stuff, why would they choose to have a God that came from common origins to rise and become a king? Certainly wouldn’t be the kind of message to give folks if the goal is to maintain the societal order. But these details of social mobility are present (if in slightly altered form) due to their basis in historical fact.

6 years ago
Reply to  Raj Darbhanga

RajDarbhanga, Krishna continually was offered kingship and refused. Krishna was always the real power driving everything that happened everywhere. Intelligent beyond cleverness and beautiful beyond withstanding. Sweet as the the stars when everything stops.

The greatness of Sanathana Dharma is that nothing is ever censored or made to look any better than it is. The concept of offensive speech, art or thoughts do not exist. And limitations on them do not exist. From time immemorial the Arya peoples enjoyed a freedom that no country possesses today–India included.

The Arya civilization was a meritocracy based on hierarchies competency and capacity with extraordinary social mobility. Exceptional people changed Varnas. And rules were continually broken based on what was right and best. For example Bhishma had a rule than no one younger than 50 could be Prime Minister; yet broke this rule to crown a 13 year old PM based on competence and capacity.

The Arya civilization had greater property rights (was more libertarian) than any country now existing. [Countries today have eminent domain powers and extreme tax and regulatory powers over private property.] Ancient countries use to borrow money in large quantities–which proves that lenders had recourse to ensure that debts were honored.

The eastern scriptures are full of questions. And answers. And more questions. Everyone is free to interpret according to their own insights.

The beauty and greatness of it is beyond description.

The wise Darah Shikoh called it the “Kitab al-maknun” sung about in the holy Koran. And I very much agree with him. The Persians read Dara Shikoh’s works and cried tears beyond number in joy and bliss; and tears of what cannot be described in words. The indescribable roar within the sound of silence. The stopping and the flowing. Eternity and never. The infinitude between one instant of time and the next sequential unit of time. Nothing and everything.

6 years ago
Reply to  sbarrkum

sbarrkum by your definition there may never have been any people who are part of Sanathana Dharma 🙂

neo Liberalism is not western. Neo Liberalism was common during the life time of Krishna.

Democracy isn’t western.

Marxism/Modernism/Structuralim/Post Modernism are themselves partly inspired by a shallow misinterpretation of eastern texts and eastern culture. Karl Marx as a young man was fascinated by India. Ferdinand de Saussure did his PhD on Panini’s grammar. Most of the enlightenment scholars were fascinated by the east and deeply studied the east.

6 years ago
Reply to  sbarrkum

most of “western thought” are permutations of “eastern thought”. They is no clear line of demarcation between them.

Brown Pundits