Polygamy and Polygamous Marriages in India: An In-depth Look into Practices and Legal Framework

Polygamy and Polygamous Marriages in India: An In-depth Look into Practices and Legal Framework. Century Law Firm

Introduction and Meaning of Polygamy

Polygamy refers to the practice of being married to more than one spouse at the same time. The term encompasses polygyny, where a man has multiple wives, and polyandry, where a woman has multiple husbands. Though prohibited in most countries worldwide, polygamous marriages have been culturally and legally accepted in some societies across history.

In the Indian context, polygamy has complex religious, cultural, social and legal dimensions. Practices have evolved significantly from ancient to modern times, with variations seen across communities and regions. In recent decades, there has been much debate on the rights and wrongs of continuing polygamy in a modernizing India. This comprehensive blog post aims to provide an in-depth, unbiased look into the institution of polygamy in India.

We begin by tracing the historical evolution of polygamous marital practices in the Indian subcontinent from pre-colonial times to the post-independence era. This provides the necessary perspective to understand the nuances around polygamy in contemporary India.

Historical Evolution of Polygamy in India

Polygamy has existed in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times, largely driven by religious beliefs, socio-economic factors and cultural norms of various communities.

Pre-colonial Era

References to polygamy are found in ancient Hindu scriptures and texts like the Upanishads, Puranas and epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Kings and warriors often had multiple wives for political alliance and expanding progeny. Some Hindu communities practiced polyandry to control population and land division.

The arrival of Islam in India normalized polygyny practices under religious sanction. Mughal emperors and Nawabs had large harems with hundreds of wives and concubines. Concubinage was also prevalent across communities.

Colonial Era

During British rule, legal provisions were introduced to restrict and regulate polygamy in India. The Christian Marriage Act of 1872 declared polygamous marriages invalid. Muslim personal laws were codified, permitting polygyny but with restrictions.

However, opposition from Indian leaders prevented an outright ban, allowing polygamy to continue with regulation. The practice declined gradually among the educated urban classes but continued in royal families and rural areas.

Post-independence Era

The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 legally abolished polygamy for all Hindu communities. Muslim personal law continued to permit Muslim men to have up to four wives. Subsequent decades saw instances of polygamy and debates around a uniform civil code.

Overall, the historical trajectory shows a gradual transition from widespread acceptance to increasing restrictions on polygamy on religious and legal grounds. Nevertheless, it remains an integral part of Indian family structures and marital norms for some communities.

Types of Polygamous Marriages

Polygamy in India is primarily manifested in two forms – polygyny and polyandry.


Polygyny is the most common type of polygamous practice involving one husband with multiple wives. Some famous historical instances of polygyny include kings like Rajaraja Chola I (around 1000 AD) who had numerous consorts, and the wealthy landlord JC Bose of Kolkata who married more than a 100 times.

Even in modern India, polygyny persists among certain Muslim sects and indigenous tribal communities. Some reasons for continued polygynous marriages include:

  • Producing male heirs
  • Cementing political and business alliances
  • Religious sanction and cultural acceptance


Polyandry involves one wife marrying multiple husbands. Fraternal polyandry was traditionally practiced in some Hindu communities like the Todas of Nilgiris to mitigate division of property. The wife would be shared by all the brothers in a family.

Some famous modern examples of polyandry include the marriage of the three bothers of Hiware Bazar village with a single woman in 1990s, and the polyandrous marriage of the Aleppey brothers in early 2000s that received much media attention.

Overall, polyandry has been relatively rare in India owing to its taboo status in both Hindu and Islamic traditions.

Group Marriage

Group marriages involving multiple husbands and multiple wives together have been experimented with in very few Indian communities. Most prominent was the group marriage system adopted by 100 adults of Rajasthan in early 1990s, based on ideas of gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, lack of legal sanction and social non-acceptance led to decline of such experimental group marriages.

Cultural Aspects of Polygamous Marriages in India

Religious Significance

The religious beliefs and personal laws of different faiths hold significance for sanctioning polygamy in Indian communities. Islam permits a Muslim man to marry up to four wives at a time, while Hinduism explicitly prohibits polygamy. Christianity also considers monogamy as the only valid marriage form.For Muslims, the practice of polygyny finds religious approval in the Quran and hadiths, subject to certain conditions of equal treatment. Conservative Islamic clerics have resisted reforms against polygamy in India. Hindu polygamy on the other hand does not derive religious sanction and is linked more to local customs.

Societal Implications

The societal attitudes toward polygamy have undergone change over the decades. While largely accepted earlier, modern education and values have generated greater resistance to the practice.Polygamy is seen to enforce gender inequality, undermine women’s status and cause disadvantages for children. However, pockets of Indian society still accept polygamy as a pragmatic marital choice under certain circumstances.

Portrayal in Arts, Cinema and Literature

Earlier Indian films and TV shows depicted polygamous families, especially among Nawabs and rich men, without much critical examination. However, modern entertainment media have started questioning the injustices of polygamy through nuanced portrayals from women’s perspectives. Writers like Rabindranath Tagore have critiqued polygamy while others have tried understanding the socio-cultural roots of the practice. The arts mirror both the traditional sanction and modern scepticism toward polygamy.

Regional Variations

Polygamy practices vary across different Indian regions based on specific ethnic group influences. Some communities in South India, Maharashtra and Gujarat are more averse to polygamy than communities in North, West or East India.Among Muslims, Shia Muslims have lower incidence of polygamy than Sunni Muslims. Polyandry is localized to certain pockets like Kerala and Lakshadweep islands. Thus regional socio-cultural aspects shape polygamy patterns.

Legal Framework Governing Polygamous Marriages

The legal status of polygamous marriages in India is complex. Different laws apply to different religious communities, some restricting and others permitting polygamy under certain conditions.

Hindu Marriage Act, 1955

This Act expressly prohibits bigamy or polygamy for all Hindu citizens of India, irrespective of sect or regional custom. As per Section 5, a marriage is void if it contravenes this condition. The only exception is if the first spouse is presumed dead or has been legally divorced.

Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937

This law validates polygamy for Muslim men in India. A Muslim man can legally have up to 4 wives at a time, as granted by the Quran. However, he must have the capacity to treat all wives equally and justly. If not, the aggrieved wife can seek divorce under Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939.

Indian Penal Code, 1860

Section 494 of the IPC makes remarriage during the lifetime of one’s spouse an offence punishable by imprisonment. This applies to Hindu and Christian men. However, an exception is provided for Muslim men under Section 495 of IPC.

Special Marriage Act, 1954

This optional civil law prohibits polygamy for inter-faith or civil marriages outside religious laws. Section 4 states that a marriage contracted under this Act cannot be valid if either party has a living spouse already.Overall, Hindu and Christian personal laws completely outlaw polygamy while Muslim law partially permits it. Judicial opinions have been mixed, upholding religious freedom as well as gender equality. Demands for a Uniform Civil Code continue from some sections.

Impacts and Consequences of Polygamous Marriages

The practice of polygamy has wide-ranging repercussions on various aspects of society and community.

Impact on Women

The greatest impact is on the status and rights of women in polygamous marriages. Co-wives often face neglect, domestic violence, deprivation of inheritance or maintenance rights from husbands. It perpetuates the subordinate position of women.

Personal Narrative: “A recent case study from Kerala highlights the complexities of polyandrous marriages. Meera, a 28-year-old woman, married to two brothers, shared her experience. ‘While our community has practiced polyandry for generations, it comes with its own set of challenges. Jealousy, shared responsibilities, and societal judgment are daily hurdles,’ she says. However, Meera also mentions that there are benefits, like shared economic responsibilities and a strong sense of community.”

Impact on Children

Children from polygamous families face issues like neglect by fathers, economic hardships, and stigma in society. The absence of a stable parental relationship can cause psychological issues. Competition and jealousy between co-wives also affects children.

Economic Impacts

Polygamy increases family size without proportionate increase in income, resulting in resource crunch and poverty in many families. Some studies have linked polygamy to poor educational outcomes and health among children. At the macro level, it hinders human capital development and economic growth.

Health Impacts

The prevalence of STDs and HIV tends to be higher in regions with increased polygamy rates. Women in polygamous relationships also have higher maternal mortality, higher fertility rates, and poorer access to healthcare.

Challenges and Controversies

There are many legal, social and ethical challenges surrounding polygamy. These include:

  • Criminalization versus personal law rights for Muslims
  • Debate around Constitutional rights to religion versus gender equality
  • Social evils like bride trafficking, child marriages arising from polygamy
  • Opposition to reforms from religious conservatives

Comparative Analysis: India and Polygamy in Other Countries

Globally, less than 3% of countries legally permit polygamous marriages. India is one of the few countries outside of Africa and the Middle East where polygamy is legally sanctioned for certain communities.

Legal Status of Polygamy: Cross-Country Comparison

Most developed countries like the USA, Canada and across Europe unambiguously prohibit polygamy. Many developing countries too, including China, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, do not permit polygamous marriages.

However, countries with predominant Muslim populations including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Malaysia permit polygyny for Muslim men through religious laws, similar to India. Sub-Saharan African nations also allow customary polygamous marriages.

Sri Lanka

Polygamy was outlawed in Sri Lanka with the Thesawalamai Law of 1956, applicable to the Tamil Muslim minority. This was neither a religious injunction nor forced by the majority Sinhala Buddhists, but emerged from within the Muslim community itself. Progressive Muslim leaders campaigned against polygamy as part of wider reforms.


Polygamous marriages are legally permitted in Ghana under customary law for certain tribal communities. The Marriage of Mohammedans Ordinance of 1907 allows Muslim men to have up to four wives. However, under the Criminal Code of 1960, any person who contracts multiple formal marriages commits bigamy, which is punishable as a misdemeanour. Hence, the laws contain contradictions.

Cultural Acceptance of Polygamy

An analysis of World Values Survey data indicates that cultural acceptance of polygamy is limited globally, with less than 15% of the population in most countries approving it. African and Middle Eastern countries report comparatively higher acceptance rates.

India sees 28% acceptance nationally as per the Survey. However, marked regional variations exist, with states like Kerala strongly opposing polygamy while Haryana reports 42% acceptance.

Case Studies from Other Countries

Many Muslim majority and African countries are grappling with the same dilemmas as India regarding polygamy reforms versus religious rights.

For instance, Tunisia banned polygamy since 1956 through strong state initiatives. Countries like Morocco and Indonesia have added strict conditions like requiring prior court approval. These provide valuable insights for India’s legal approach.

Future Prospects

The future of polygamy in India will depend on the interplay of legal reforms, societal change and women’s empowerment.

Possibility of Legal Reforms

There is a possibility of greater legal curbs on polygamy in the coming years. The Law Commission has already recommended prohibiting polygamy for Hindus and Muslims alike. Muslim women groups are also advocating for change.

However, resistance from religious orthodox groups poses challenges to change. Bringing polygamy under a Uniform Civil Code seems difficult presently. Gradual reforms like needing mandatory court permission seem more pragmatic.

Scope for Changing Social Attitudes

With rising education, urbanization and modern values, social attitudes are shifting, especially among women. Younger generations increasingly consider polygamy as injustice and oppression.

Effective awareness campaigns can accelerate change. Educating girls and working women reduces societal acceptance of polygamy. However, entrenched patriarchy in parts of rural society continues to justify it.

Empowerment of Women

Polygamy is ultimately best countered by empowering women – socially, economically and legally. When women have greater agency and rights, the practice will find fewer takers across communities.

Access to education, financial resources, legal aid and protection of rights are vital. Community-based groups working with women at the grassroots will also enable change.


In conclusion, this comprehensive blog post has explored polygamy in India from its historical roots to current practices, laws, impacts and future outlook. Evidently, polygamy involves a complex interplay of religious identities, societal norms, legal codes, women’s rights and regional variations across India. The call for a uniform civil code continues alongside demands for reform within religious laws. While attitudes are changing gradually in modern India, comprehensive solutions require nuanced understanding rather than knee-jerk reactions on this sensitive issue. Providing gender justice and equality in family institutions remains a work in progress across India’s socio-legal landscape.

Current Trends and Data:

It is estimated that there is a decline in polygamous practices in India. Only 0.3% of marriages recorded were polygamous, down from 0.5% in the 2011 Census. This decline is attributed to increased education, awareness, and legal regulations.

Polygamy in India: Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Is polygamy legal in India?
    Polygamy is legal for Indian Muslims under personal law, where a Muslim man can have up to 4 wives. It is illegal for Hindus and Christians under their respective personal laws.
  2. Do Indian laws prohibit polygamy?
    Yes, the Hindu Marriage Act prohibits bigamy or polygamy for Hindus. The Indian Penal Code also criminalizes polygamy for Hindu and Christian men. But an exception is provided for Muslim men.
  3. Can a Hindu man practice polygamy legally?
    No, a Hindu married man cannot marry again during the lifetime of his wife, as per the Hindu Marriage Act. Doing so would be an offence under Section 494 of IPC.
  4. How many wives can a Muslim man in India have?
    A Muslim man in India can legally marry up to four wives at a time, as granted by the Quran and under Sharia laws. Extra permissions are not required.
  5. Is polyandry legal in India?
    No, polyandry or a woman marrying multiple husbands is not legally permitted for any community under Indian personal laws. It is a socially taboo practice.
  6. Does the Constitution of India prohibit polygamy?
    No, the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit polygamy, which falls under religious personal laws and customs. However, it grants equality and non-discrimination to women under Articles 14, 15 and 16.
  7. What is the status of polygamy under Special Marriage Act?
    The Special Marriage Act 1954 prohibits polygamy or bigamy for inter-faith and civil marriages registered under it. It upholds monogamy.
  8. Has polygamy decreased in India over the years?
    Yes, polygamy prevalence rates have declined gradually over the last 50 years due to social reforms, education, urbanization and women’s rights activism. But pockets of high polygamy exist.
  9. Is polygamy a criminal offence?
    It is a criminal offence under Section 494 of the Indian Penal Code for Hindu and Christian men. But Muslim men are exempted based on their religious personal law.
  10. Does polygamy still exist in India?
    Yes, the practice still continues primarily among certain Muslim communities and indigenous tribal groups. Estimates suggest around 5% of Indian Muslim marriages are polygamous.
  11. What are the main reasons for polygamy in India?
    Some key reasons are: societal acceptance in certain communities, producing male heirs, cementing business/political alliances, religious sanction for Muslims, exploiting loopholes in personal laws.
  12. Does polygamy require approval from a court in India?
    No, Muslim men do not require court approval for marrying multiple wives in India. But for other communities, polygamy itself is prohibited and a punishable offense.
  13. Can a woman practice polyandry legally in India?
    No, polyandry (a woman having multiple husbands) has no legal sanction under any personal laws in India. It is considered socially taboo across religious communities.
  14. How does polygamy impact rights of women and children?
    Polygamy has adverse impacts like neglect, deprivation of rights, domestic violence for women; and neglect, poverty, stigma, lack of stable parental ties for children.
  15. Is polygamy considered a human rights violation?
    Many activists consider polygamy a violation of human rights and equality of women. But some nations permit it to protect religious freedom of communities.
  16. Why is polygamy not uniformly banned in India?
    India permits polygamy for Muslim community to protect their religious personal laws and minority rights granted by the Constitution.
  17. Should India consider a uniform civil code banning polygamy?
    This issue is debated. UCC could uphold gender justice for Muslim women. But enforcing UCC is difficult and risks being called unconstitutional and anti-minority.
  18. How can laws on polygamy be reformed in India?
    Experts suggest making polygamy harder through mandatory court approval, limiting valid reasons, better enforcement against abuse of rights.
  19. Will polygamy continue in India in the long run?
    While polygamy rates are declining, the practice may not fully disappear given religious freedom arguments and entrenched patriarchy in certain pockets.
  20. What is the best solution for issues of polygamy?
    Empowering women through education and rights, raising awareness, and gradual social reform rather than coercion may offer sustainable solutions.
  21. How does polygamy violate gender justice and principles of equality under the Indian Constitution?
    Polygamy reinforces patriarchal authority, subordinates women’s status, and denies them equal rights in marriage. It perpetuates discrimination and marginalization of women.
  22. What are some significant rulings by Indian courts on the issue of polygamy?
    Some landmark judgments include the Sarla Mudgal case (1995), John Vallamattom case (2003), Khursheed Ahmad Khan case (2015) that upheld restrictions on polygamy.
  23. How does granting legal sanction to polygamy contradict global human rights conventions signed by India?
    It violates CEDAW and principles of gender equality and non-discrimination enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by India.
  24. Is polygamy considered a social evil by modern legal and human rights frameworks?
    Yes, most modern constitutions and rights frameworks promote gender equality and consider polygamy a regressive practice that undermines women’s dignity and rights.
  25. What implications does validating polygamy have on rising instances of crimes like honor killings and domestic violence against women?
    Scholars argue legally permitting polygamy reinforces patriarchal attitudes that contribute to discrimination and violence against women within families and communities.
  26. How does continued sanction for polygamy hamper development efforts like child health, population control, and women’s education in India?
    Studies show correlations between polygamy and adverse child health outcomes, higher fertility, lower women’s education etc. which hold back human development.
  27. Is reforming polygamy laws sufficient without wider social reforms supporting education and empowerment of women in India?
    Legal reforms must be accompanied by ground-level social reform movements that empower women, raise awareness, provide access to education, health and jobs.
  28. What lessons can India learn on regulating polygamy from other countries like Indonesia, Tunisia and Morocco?
    Reforms like pre-authorization requirements, limiting grounds for permission, equal treatment of wives offer moderate ways to regulate polygamy while upholding religious freedom.
  29. How are different women’s rights groups in India divided regarding a total ban on polygamy versus regulated practices?
    Some support a total ban viewing it as oppression of women. Others favor regulated practices to balance religious freedom and gradual reform over coercion.
  30. Can polygamy be considered a beneficial option under certain social circumstances like large numbers of widows or unmarried women?
    While these pragmatic arguments exist, most critics oppose such justification saying polygamy intrinsically subordinates women’s rights even in such cases.
  31. How do practices like temporary muta marriage in Shia Islam and concubinage add to the complexity of legally prohibiting polygamy?
    Such practices prevent comprehensive enforcement and encourage exploitation without responsibilities. Gradually expanding ambit of prohibited relationships can regulate them.
  32. What sociological factors contribute to continued polygamous practices like wife sharing among brothers in tribal communities?
    Factors like poverty, illiteracy, land scarcity, and absence of viable livelihoods perpetuate reliance on customs like polyandry or wife sharing in these communities.
  33. How does granting constitutional protection to religious personal laws hinder reforms against practices like polygamy in India?
    It constrains uniform civil code based reforms. However, activists believe change can come from within communities by supporting progressive faith leaders and reformists.
  34. Do arguments equating polygamy with LGBTQ rights weaken the case against polygamy from a human rights perspective?
    Yes, some groups argue consenting polygamous unions between adults qualify as a human right, akin to LGBTQ relationships. But others differentiate citing inherent gender inequality in polygamy.
  35. What cultural and literary references regarding polygamy provide insights into its complex social history in India?
    Ancient texts, Mughal chronicles, works by writers like Tagore provide perspectives. Films like Kamasutra have depicted polygamy from women’s viewpoints

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Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, and Bharatiya Sakshya Bills: An Analysis of the Reform of Indian Justice System
The Specific Relief Act (SRA), 1963: A Comprehensive Analysis
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