Karbis Of Assam

Ethnology on the Karbis also Known as Mikirs

Kinship Terminology And Concept of Prescriptive Asymmetrical Cross-Cousin Marriage Among the Karbis

Posted by Administrator on September 2, 2009


By Morningkeey Phangcho

Alan D. Coult summed up the seemingly complex relationship between ‘cross-cousin marriage system’ and ‘kinship terminologies’ in a rather very simple manner. In his essay, “Kinship terminology and fallacy of preferential marriage”#, he wrote—“Once certain features of Kinship terminology are understood, one may analyze them completely in a few minutes time using exceedingly simple method: Technique which closely follows those employed by Tax (1937 a)#. With an understanding of the structures of the kinship terminologies, the issue of prescriptive versus preferential marriage is well understood.”

In the following short discussion, I will try to analyze the ‘marriage system’ of the Karbis and the corresponding kinship terminologies. Among others, anthropologists have identified two basic types of cross-cousin marriages. Again, cross-cousin marriages are either —1) Asymmetrical (only maternal or paternal cross cousin) and 2) Symmetrical (both maternal and paternal cross cousin).  Karbis follow asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage from the mother’s lineage only.

Again, there are two types of marriages among various human groups. One is known as Prescriptive while the other is Preferential.

There are various tribes in the North Eastern India, who follow the pattern of ‘asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage’ like the Garos, the Thadou Kukis, the Sema Nagas and the Lotha Nagas besides the Karbis#. For those having non-anthropological background, ‘asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage’ means marriage solemnized between either “a man and his MBD (mother’s brother’s daughter)” or  “ a man and his FZD (father’s sister’s daughter)” but not both.  The Karbis fall into the first of the two i.e. marrying MBD. Unlike other communities as mentioned here, the Karbis follow prescriptive but not preferential asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage system as it was always believed.

This fact could be well understood by following the studies done earlier by Sally Falk Moore# and also by trying to understand the terminologies of the kinship system of the Karbis. The terms for both the MBD and wife or her sisters is the same for a Karbi. Which is unlike other above mentioned tribes who also allow oblique marriages such as the Sema Nagas for whom WBD§ marriage appears in genealogy studies done by Hutton (1921, 131-3, 144) #, the Thadou Kukis who also have the same term for wife and WBD that is potential spouse (Shaw, 1929, 141)# or the Garos who have the custom that a man marries his MBD and also marries his uncle’s widow, thus assuming the anomalous position of husband to both the mother and the daughter (Playfair 1909, 68)#, which is considered a taboo and disgraceful among the Karbis.

The kinship terminology of the Karbis follows the rules of succession as prescribed by Allan D. Coult for the Fox Indian, which is unlike any other neighboring tribe of the Karbis and also the practice of prescriptive asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage i.e. allowing marriage of only the MBD but not FZD. The terminology for WBD and wife is not the same as it could be observed. WBD would be “Munhai” where as wife will be “Piso” or potential wife would be either “Korpi” or “Tepi” which is similar to MBD.
(§MBD = Mother’s Brother’s Daughter, FZD = Father’s Sister’s Daughter, WBD = Wife’s Brother’s Daughter )

To understand more about the Karbis since old times following the prescriptive asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage but not preferential can also be seen from the customary marriage rules of marrying MBD which are further asserted by the kinship system and terminologies as discussed above. The rule of being fined if not married to MBD few years back asserted it beyond doubt.

Further to illustrate the technique of analysis, let us refer to the consanguineal terminology of the Karbis. We will find that it is exactly the same as that of the rules of succession of the Fox Indian as shown by Allan D. Coult for prescriptive asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage, which collaborate with our understanding of the marriage system and the kinship terminology patterns of the Karbis.

The rules of terminology in Karbi are based upon the rules of succession of the Fox Indians as illustrated by Coult:

1) The offspring of “Father’s”, “ Mother’s “ and “ Mother’s Sister” are siblings.
2) The offspring of “siblings” of same sex are “Sons” or “Daughters”
3) The offspring of “siblings” of opposite sex are “ Nephews’ and “ Nieces”
4) The offspring of “Sons”, “Daughters”, “Nephews” and “Nieces” are “Grandchildren“.
5) The offspring of “Grandchildren” are “Great-Grandchildren”
6) The offspring of “Mother’s Brothers” are “Nephews” and “Daughter-in-Laws”
7) The offspring of “Father’s Sister” are “ Brother-in-laws” and “Nieces”

From the above simplified rules of terminology, we can very well understand why marrying a girl, whose mother has the same clan as that of the boy’s mother is prohibited among the Karbis as they are considered as brother and sister according to rule 1 and violation of this rule is considered as an incest.

Prescribed matrilineal cross-cousin marriage (marrying MBD) is reflected in the fact that the category ‘Ong’ includes not only the maternal uncle but also his sons and grandsons, the relative generation being identified by only using appropriate suffixes (hai, sar, so).#
Now comparing the rules laid down by Coult for the Fox Indians with the rules of succession of the Karbis, we are not surprised that it is almost a copy and hence could be said to adhere to the rules which describe a tribe to be following prescriptive asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage system unlike other neighboring tribes, who seem to be following the preferential type after analyzing and comparing the kinship system and rules of terminology with the other similar tribes from other parts of the world.

Had the Karbis been following the preferential type of asymmetrical cross cousin marriage, one of the rules laid down for kinship terminology would be violated and so as to avoid that, indeed it was prescriptive in nature in earlier times and still it should have continued. Certainly the present social changes amongst the Karbis in terms of the present practices of marriage, but it is observed to be a significant locus of instability and violation of the existing kinship system.

The misconception that Karbis practice preferential asymmetrical cross-cousin marriage could be attributed to the fact that very little scientific ethnological research has been done on the Karbis by the Karbis themselves, and also due to the social changes and the changing perspectives amongst the new generation Karbis for the last few decades or so. Ethnological studies on the Karbis by Karbi researchers should be encouraged, primarily for the better availability of more correct ethnological data for further references for the benefit of the coming generation and researchers.




#  Current Anthropology, Vol 13, No. 1 ,( Feb 1972) , pp. 110-112, Published by The University of Chicago Press.

#  Tax, Sol. 1937 a, “ Some problems of social organization”, in Social Anthropology of North American Tribes, pp. 1-33, Published by the University of Chicago Press.

#  Moore , Sally Falk , April 1963, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol 65. No. 2, pp. 296-311, Published by Blackwell Publishing on behalf of American Anthropologist Association.

#  et.al.

#  Hutton, J. H. , 1921, The Sema Nagas, Macmillan and Co., London.

#  Shaw, William, 1929, Notes on the Thadou Kukis

#  Playfair, Alan, 1909, The Garos, London, D. Nutt

#  Bouchery, Pascal, Jan 2008, Kinship Terminology of the Karbis and its Studies, Karbi Studies, Angik Prakashan, Guwahati.

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