B5 Systems of Kinship in India

Topics of interest for CSE:

  1. Lineage and descent in India.
  2. Types of kinship systems.
  3. Family and marriage in India.
  4. Household dimensions of the family.
  5. Patriarchy, entitlements and SDoL.
  • Matrilineal   Bunt (KA), Garo, Khasi, Jaintia, Maliku (LD), Nair (KR)
  • Matrilocal   Garo, Khasi, Jaintia, Nair (KR)
  • Patrilocal     BuntSeparate      Maliku

Navtej Singh Case - SC read down section 377 of the IPC de-criminalising gay sex.

Rama Srinivasan says that aspirations for consensual relationships have led to non-normative relationships that are only grudgingly approved by the state.

Comparative study of Kinship

Iravati Karve says that:

  • Linguistic regions,
  • Institution of caste, and
  • Family organisationAre the most vital basis for understanding of the patterns of kinship in India.

She divides the whole country into:

  • northern,
  • central,
  • southern and
  • eastern zones

Keeping in view the linguistic, caste, and family organisation. Kinship organisation generally follows the linguistic pattern but doesn't always go hand in hand. Ex. MH has Dravidian impact, and the impact of northern neighbours speaking Sanskritic languages could be seen on the Dravidian kinship system.

Despite variations based on these factors, there are two common points:

  • Marriage is always within a caste or tribe, and
  • Marriage between parents and children and between siblings is forbidden.

Kinship in North India

In north India, there are:

  • terms for blood relations, and
  • terms for affinal relations.There are primary terms for three generations of immediate relations and these terms are not exchangeable between generation. All other terms are derived from the primary terms.

The northern zone consists the areas of the Sindhi, Punjabi, Hindi (Pahari), Bihari, Bengali, Assamese and Nepali languages. Kinship in these areas is characterised by:

  • caste endogamy and clan exogamy, (gotra/pinda)
  • incest taboos,
  • local/village exogamy.

Taboos regarding sexual relations between primary kins are strictly observed.

The rule of sasan is key to all marriage alliances, that is, a person must not marry in his patri-family and must avoid marriage with sapinda kin. Sometimes a caste is also divided into endogamous gotras or exogamous gotras as also gotras which do not seem to have any function in marriage regulations.

Considerations of caste status tend to restrict the area of endogamy. Marriage prohibitions tend to bar marriage over a wide area in terms of kinship as well as space. Cognatic prohibitions and local exogamy are strictly adhered to in marriage alliances.

Four-gotra (sasan) rule, that is, avoidance of the gotras of father, mother, grandmother and maternal grandmother is generally practised among Brahmins and other upper castes in north India. However, some intermediate and most of the lower castes avoid two gotras, namely, that of father and mother.

Kinship in South India

The Nayars, tiyans, some Moplas in Malabar region and the Bants in Kanara district have matrilineal and matrilocal kinship systems, and it is called tharawad. It consists of a woman, her brothers and sisters, her own and her sister’s sons and daughters. No affinal relation lives in the tharawad. Some consanguines are excluded (children of the males). There are no husband-wife, father-children relations in a tharawad.

In the southern zone there is the system of:

  • Caste endogamy and clan exogamy.
  • There are inter-marrying clans in the same village.
  • Castes are divided exogamous clans. Inter-clan marriages do not cover all clans.
  • Within an endogamous caste, there are smaller circles of endogamous units made up of a few families giving and receiving daughters in marriage.
  • Preferential marriages with cross cousins.

The southern zone has its peculiar features which are quite different from that of the northern part of India. Preferential marriages with cross cousins are particularly prevalent in the southern zone. The main thrust of such a system of preferential marriages lies in maintaining unity and solidarity of the clan and upholding of the principle of exchange of daughters in the same generation. (Levi-Strauss' idea)

However, there are taboos on marrying of younger sister’s daughter, levirate, and mother’s sister’s daughter. Maternal uncle and niece marriages and cross-cousin marriages result in double relationships. A cousin is also a wife, and after marriage a cousin is more of a wife than a cousin.


  • There is no distinction between the family of birth and the family of marriage in the south whereas such a distinction is clear in the northern India.
  • In the north, terms for blood relatives and affinal relations are distinct, whereas in the south many terms do not indicate this distinction clearly.
  • Separate terms are not used for affinal relatives in the south. The important factor is age, whether younger than the self or older.
  • Preferential marriage of cross cousins in south India which is absent in the North.

The southern and northern kinship systems differ in context of affinal and consanguineous relations, particularly in regard to the arrangement of kin in different genera­tions. There is no clear-cut classification of kin on the principle of generations in the southern terminology. In southern zone all the relatives are arranged according to whether they are older or younger than the self without any reference to gener­ation.

There are no words for brothers and sisters in the Dravidian languages. However, there are words for ‘younger’ and ‘older’ brothers and sisters. These terms denote respectability to the elders and not to the actual blood relationships.

Louis Dumont highlights the following points about the southern kinship system:

  • Principle of immediate exchange,
  • A policy of social consolidation with a clustering of kin group in a narrow area,
  • No sharp distinction between consanguineous and affinal kin, and
  • Greater freedom for women in society.

Kinship in Central India

The central zone comprises the linguistic regions of RJ, MP, CG, GJ, MH, and OD with their respective languages, namely, Rajasthani, Hindi, Gujarati, and Kathiawadi, Marathi, and Oriya.

  • Languages are of Sanskritic origin and have affinity to the northern zone.
  • There are pockets of Dravidian languages. Some impact of the eastern zone.
  • Tribal people have their unique situation compared to other people in the region.

In regard to the central zone the following points may be noted:

  • Cross-cousin marriages are prevalent which are not witnessed in the north zone.
  • Many castes are divided into exogamous clans like the north zone.
  • In some castes exogamous clans are arranged in a hypergamous hierarchy.

However, none of these features are found all over the zone. Ex. In RJ Jats follow two-gotra exogamy along with village exogamy; Banias practise four-gotra rule; and Rajputs have hypergamous clans. Feudal status is an important consideration in marriage alliances. Rajputs are not a homogeneous caste. They put a lot of emphasis on purity and nobility of descent. The fact of being a hero and a ruler has been a major consideration. Symbolic marriages (marriage with sword) were common practices. Status of mother on either side is also a factor in marriage alliances.

Cross-cousin marriage among the Kathi, Ahir, Ghadava, Charan, and Garasia castes is quite common. Kolis and Dheds and Bhils (tribe), allow both types of cross-cousin marriages. Thus, Rajasthan and Gujarat largely follow northern pattern. The terminology is Sanskritic in origin and some kinship terms have central Asiatic derivation.

Karve observes that in MH, Sanskritic and the Dravidian traits hold a balance with a slight dominance of the former. Northern languages spoken are like Gujarati, Rajasthani, Himachali and Hindi. The tribals in the area speak Mundari. The Dravidian languages are mixed up with the Sanskritic languages. Kinship structure here is a little different from both zones.

Marathas have as many as 96 clans. Among these, there are concentric circles of mobility and status. Ethnically, there is no homogeneity. There are panchkula, a cluster of five clans, then there are ‘seven clans’, and all are hypergamous divisions. No taboo is attached to bilateral kinship like north zone. Parallel-cousin marriages aren't allowed. There is also taboo on paternal-cousin marriages. Generally, preference for a man’s marriage is with his maternal cross-cousin. Sisters can and do marry the same man. Brothers generally avoid marrying two sisters. Levirate is practised among the northern Kunbis. However, exchange marriages are avoided.

The tribal people in OD like Gonds, Oraons and Konds speak Dravidian languages, and their kinship system can be equated with that of the Dravidian-speaking people. The Munda, the Hondo and the Saora speak the Mundari languages. The Oriya-speaking people have the same type of caste divisions as are found in northern regions with slightly different names.Brahmans in OD seem to be immigrants from UP, BH and MP. Aranyaka Brahmanas and Karans (Kayasthas) do not allow cross-cousin marriages. Some agricultural castes allow cousin-marriages, but others prohibit. Junior levirate is found among the poorer classes.

Kinship in Eastern India

The eastern zone is not compact and geographically it is not contiguous like other zones. Besides northern languages, Mundari and Monkhmer languages are also spoken. The main communities are Korku, Annamese, Saka, Semang and Khasi. The other languages are Mon, Khmer and Chain. The area consists of a number of Austro-Asiatic tribes.

All the people speaking Mundari languages have patrilineal and patrilocal families. The Ho and Santhal have the practice of cross-cousin marriage. But till the father’s sister or the mother’s brother are alive, they cannot marry their daughters. This condition makes cross-cousin marriage a rare. The Bondo people, for example, do not have taboo on cross-cousin marriage, but one does not find an example of cross-cousin marriage among them, as reported by Verrier Elwin.
The Ho and Munda have separate dormitories for bachelors and maidens and they indulge in pre-marital sexual relationships. Sometimes these relationships result into marriages but quite often the marriage mate is different from the mate of the dormitory days. All these people are divided into exogamous totemic clans. A person must marry outside of the clan and also outside of the circle of near relations like first cousins.

Money is given for procuring a bride. Service by the would-be-husband in girl’s father’s house is also considered as bride price. After marriage one establishes his separate household, but may keep his younger brother and widowed mother, etc., along with him in his newly established house. The Mundari people differ from the rest of India by not having joint families. People maintain patrician relations by common worship of ancestors and residence. They extend help to each other but live independent life.

The Khasi of Assam speaks Monkhmer language, and they are a matrilineal people like Nayars, but are quite different from them. The Nayars have a matrilineal joint family and husbands are only occasional visitors. The Khasis have joint family with common worship and common graveyard, but the husband and wife live together in a small house of their own. After death the property goes to mother or youngest daughter.

If there are no female relatives, widow gets half of the property if she opts not to remarry. A man’s position is like that of a Hindu bride in the patri-family. But there is difference because the Hindu bride is incorporated as a member of her husband’s family whereas a Khasi husband is considered as a stranger. A woman enjoys a great amount of freedom. After divorce children are handed over to her. The Khasis have:

  • Clan exogamy.
  • Marriages of parallel cousins is not allowed.
  • Cross-cousin marriage is rare.


Both rigidity and flexibility exist side by side in regard to values and norms in kinship systems. These are reflected in regard to divorce, widow remarriage, incest taboos, caste endogamy, clan exogamy, rule of avoidance, family structure, systems of lineage and residence, authority system, succession and inheritance of property etc.

However, kinship continues to be a basic principle of social organi­sation and mobilisation on the one hand and division and dissension on the other. It is a complex phenomenon, and its role can be sensed even in modern organisations. Migration, mobility and education have weakened the kinship systems and rules of clan organisation because members of a caste/sub-caste or of a clan do not live at the same place. Matriliny in Kerala has almost withered away. In north-east also it has become weak.

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