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Folk-Lore/Volume 32/Garo Marriages, 1

Garo Marriages.

It may help to remove misunderstandings if this examination of Garo marriages begins with a transcript of the exact text of the passage in the Assam Census Report for 1891, on which Sir James Frazer bases his view that “among the Garos marriage with a mother’s brother’s widow appears to be a simple consequence of previous marriage with her daughter.”[1] The text is as follows: “Mr. Teunon informs me of a case in which a man refused to marry the widow who was in this instance a second wife, and not his wife’s own mother; and the old lady then gave herself and her own daughter in marriage to another man. In a dispute regarding the property which followed, the laskar reported that the first man having failed to do his duty, the second was entitled to the greater part of the property.”[2] In this case, therefore, the marriage with the daughter followed as a consequence of the marriage with the widow. This case is described by Sir James Frazer as a case “in which a recalcitrant son-in-law flatly declined to lead his aged mother-in-law to the altar, whereupon the old lady in a huff bestowed not only her own hand but that of her daughter to boot on another man, thus depriving her ungallant son-in-law of an estate and two wives at one fell swoop.”[3] The “plain tale from the hills” may be interpreted in a different manner when we remember that the mother-in-law becomes the chief wife of the son-in-law,[4] so that in this case, the widow, who was a second wife (and not the man's mother-in-law), would have ranked in social precedence above the daughter already married.

The "recalcitrant and ungallant" son-in-law doubtless realised with Sir James Frazer that marriage with the daughter involved marriage with the daughter's mother in order to secure the enjoyment of the estate. But the tale is not quite clear. It does not say definitely that the mother of the girl he had married was still alive and available. This may have been, and probably was not, the case, since the man refused to marry a second wife, having married the daughter of the senior wife. It is not very probable that he would have refused had he not believed that he had good grounds for refusing to marry the second widow. But what the statement in the Census Report does prove is that in the case cited marriage with the daughter was a consequence, not a cause, of the marriage with the widow. Further reference to Major Playfair's account shows that we have three definite marriage schemes in vogue among the Garos, each of which turns on marriage with the widow. In the first, the cross-cousin marriage, there is a male cousin available, and he has to marry the daughter of his father's sister, ultimately marrying the widow, often therefore his own aunt, as is noted in the Assam Census Report. Then there is the institution known as the nokrom marriage.[5] By this, when no cousin is available, a man of her father's group is chosen and marries the daughter, with the ultimate liability of the mother-in-law. Finally, when there is no nokrom available for a widow to marry, "she is governed by the law of akim., which lays down that a widow or widower may not marry again without the permission of the family of the deceased husband or wife, and then only into their respective motherhoods. ...

The law is especially hard on the women. They are the owners of all property, and the relations of a deceased husband will often keep his widow waiting for years for a mere child. By the time the child is of marriageable age the woman is already old. In such a case the young husband is always allowed to marry a young girl as well, so the widow is kept unmarried for years for the sake of her property."[6] The nokrom and the cousin live in the house of the father-in-law.[7]

Clearly economic motives govern the present method of working this system, by which provision is made for a consort to replace the father-in-law. It is clear that the man settles in enjoyment of the property, as the successor of his father-in-law in possession of the mother-in-law, not as son-in-law and husband of the daughter. These facts, taken with the precedence allowed to the widow in the new menage, indicate that the marriage with the widow is the key to the system which notably creates "a sort of dual control over all property, the balance being in favour of the wife's machong" (motherhood).[8]

It is worthy of note that the motherhood of the deceased husband exercises rights over the succession, and as "husband and wife must belong to different septs and motherhoods,"[9] the duality of the social structure is an essential feature of Garo polity.[10]


  1. Folklore in the Old Testament, ii. 454.
  2. Assam Census Report, 1891, p. 229.
  3. Folklore in the Old Testament, ii. 453.
  4. Playfair, The Garos, p. 69.
  5. Playfair, ibid. pp. 72, 73.
  6. Playfair, ibid. pp. 68, 69.
  7. Playfair, ibid. p. 73.
  8. Playfair, ibid. p. 73.
  9. Playfair, ibid. pp. 64, 66.
  10. India Census Report, 1911, p. 253.