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Kinship in the Mountains of Garhwal



Kinship is a rather complex societal notion; it generates a new meaning when placed in different cultures, contexts and locations. My father and mother, both, hail from the mountains of Garhwal in the state of Uttarakhand. Garhwal consists of two primary regions: Tehri and Pauri. My matrilineal ancestors lived in a village called Saklana, one of the many little villages in Tehri. My patrilineal ancestors were from a village called Nauti Gaon (the root for my surname – Nautiyal), in Pauri. Around seventy years ago, there was a mass migration from the mountains to the Dehradun valley, below, where several families settled in the hope of finding economic and medical stability. Two such families were my patrilineal and matrilineal ancestors. Fast forward a few generations later, and my parents were wed via an arranged marriage in Dehradun. My kinship chart depicts me as the ego, tracing back four generations. The accompanying chart, along with my knowledge of my Garhwali lineage represents the famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s idea of endogamy and exogamy and reflects a sense of family beyond biological parenthood. A Sense of Family Beyond Biological Parents Due to the remoteness of the Garhwal region, medical assistance, especially during labour, was an uncommon occurrence. According to my paternal grandmother, one was considered lucky to give birth with the help of a dhai (midwife), while having access to an actual doctor was a privilege extended to a select few. Both my paternal grandparents as well as two of their children were born in cowsheds, while the rest of the family members (including my father) were born in Dehradun (once they had migrated to the valley below). Evidently, the conditions and amenities for childbirth were scarce, unhygienic and resulted in plenty of mothers dying while delivering the child. My own paternal grandmother’s mother died while giving birth to her, leaving her father with a motherless child. Similarly, my paternal grandfather’s first wife died while giving birth to my eldest aunt, after which he married my paternal grandmother. Lastly, my maternal grandfather’s father had two wives, both of which died, after which his third wife bore him three sons. All these incidents of death during childbirth, rendered the offspring without a biological mother. Malinowski argues that the family “embraces the two princples essential to procreation – motherhood and fatherhood.” (Malinowski 28). However, in these situations the notion of “motherhood” vanished and the father was expected to remarry at the earliest. This commonality of death during childbirth created a new fabric of what it means to be a family in Garhwal. My ancestral family, due to the geographical restrictions, was often forced to cultivate a new sense of family, one where offspring who did not have a biological mother were considered as much a part of the family as the other siblings. Convergence of Endogamy and Exogamy Until the mass migration to Dehradun occurred, it was uncommon for marriages to take place between the two regions of Pauri and Tehri. There was a comfort in marrying within clans that resided on the same side of the mountain. This was perhaps to keep children in close proximity or with the purpose of strengthening and developing individual tribes. However, once the mass migration took place, these two communities, now settled in Dehradun, found solace in each other. The idea of distinct ‘clans’ dissolved and they unified over their common mountain lineage. Therefore, the union of my mother and father (who both descended respectively from Tehri and Pauri) could at one time have been considered exogamous, yet due to the migration, became an endogamous union. Evidently, Malinowski does not consider the possibility of clans collating to form bigger clans, due to reasons such as relocation – which can potentially transform exogamy into endogamy. Malinowski’s understanding of kinship is derived from his study of primitive societies. Yet, whether we call a society primitive or complex, a basic structure of kinship exists in both. This structure is then molded to give rise to its cultural, religious and societal significance. Malinowski’s ideas, coupled with a more refined understanding of my own lineage, has led me to realise that the universality of kinship is best represented with the understanding of its specificity in different contexts.

(Devika Nautiyal is an undergradudate student at Ashoka University, Sonepat)