Set against the backdrop of high desert mountains in Rajasthan, a state in northwest India, is the small town of Derasar – a border community where polygamy is not just encouraged but insisted upon as a social norm.
Lying 550 kilometres from the state capital of Jaipur, this community feels like a step back in time for anyone who drives through it. Here, men dress in traditional full-length angarkhas (a native wrap-like top), opulent scarves, and intricate jewellery that pay homage to their Rajputana history.
But that’s not the only tradition they’ve kept alive.
For generations, men here have also been marrying twice and living with two wives together, and only having children with wife number two.
The group follows Rajput traditions – a Hindu sect that falls within the “warrior” Kshatriya caste – that have historically accepted polygamy. But there is another enduring superstition that allows this controversial practice to thrive even today.
It is believed that the original settlers in the region always failed to conceive in their first marriage and so they would engage in a second relationship hoping to bring a child into the family.
“This practice is a rite of passage. Here, men are often discouraged from consummating their first marriage, and shamed if they fail to conceive a child in their second,” Karan, 25, told VICE. He was born in Barmer, one of the largest districts in Rajasthan, and moved to Derasar in 2011.
“But the hegemonic view of masculinity, social monitoring, and a life based on an unfounded legend can be painful, forcing men to abandon Derasar and its social construct,” he added.
Karan – who, like the other men interviewed in this piece, asked us to withhold their last names for privacy – is one of the few young men in Derasar who have managed to escape the town and its oppressive practice.
“I got engaged with my first partner in 2017 and decided to find a steady source of income to support my family before the second marriage,” he explained. Then the pandemic happened.
“During the first year of lockdown, I fell in love with my then-fiance, now-wife and refused to marry again. I was accused of trying to disrespect my community and was forced against my will to marry a woman whom my parents chose for me. The social pressure to conceive a child and grow the family was enormous, even when the pandemic was raging. Three months later, bowing to the norms in our community, I consummated the marriage with my second wife, and we both ended up testing positive for the virus.”
After spending less than a year in Derasar following his second marriage, Karan left for the city of Ahmedabad in the neighbouring state of Gujarat with his first wife. While he doesn’t plan to reconcile with his family who ignored his many requests for acceptance of his monogamous life, Karan’s second wife understood and supported his decision to escape.
When they reach their late teens, men in Derasar are compelled to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and forefathers without question or reference to the rest of the world. They are discouraged from dating and forced to choose one of two paths: stay celibate or get married twice before having children with the second wife.
Women who share a husband live in the same house and help each other through childbirth and droughts that frequent this rain-starved area, creating households where every task is shared. Another reason men marry multiple women is to get free household labour for the time-consuming and backbreaking task of procuring water from distant water bodies or wells. In some cases, women agree to become “paani bais” or water wives, and believe that this is required for the survival of the family.
But with rising unemployment and exposure to different worldviews, more people in Derasar are rejecting preconceptions and the societal expectation of men as the family’s breadwinner.
An estimated 400 families live in Derasar. There were only 97 resident families in 2011, according to official records, but residents say the number has only increased since then, despite its restrictive norms on family life.
Mahinder, 35, said that he had to marry [a third time] after his second wife died due to complications during childbirth.
“It wasn’t sinister, but I couldn’t believe that the mysticism of this precedes the value of human life,” he said. “I couldn’t even mourn my second wife who was a loving partner, and I felt pushed into a cruel sexist practice where women are treated poorly.”
After his second wife’s death, Mahinder struggled with depression and thought praying more and spending time with his three children would help. But when he lost his job as the pandemic took hold in early 2020, he began to question being part of the cult.
“I couldn’t keep up with the expenses for both my partners and had to take all my kids out of school. If I would have married once and had kids when I could afford a better future for them, the future would look different than now.”
Mahinder’s life crumbled as the pandemic wore on.
Already neck-deep in debt, he had to sell most of his land to sustain his family through the pandemic, in January 2021. The pandemic hit Rajasthan hard, and local businesses refused to hire new workers. When his first wife had to seek treatment for a minor injury, he had to mortgage his home.
“What is so wrong with adopting a child in need, or committing to a single person for love? What is wrong with prioritising healthcare and economic stability for your family? I wish more men and women would realise the price they pay to keep this practice alive,” Mahinder told VICE.
Dakshit, a 29-year-old software developer who left Derasar in 2019 along with about a dozen other men, said the hardest part of escaping the cult was relearning the definitions of family, marriage, and the hows of building a healthy relationship.
“A man who chooses a traditional monogamous family is shamed for turning their back on the community, but if he chooses to marry twice, he can find himself bound to Derasar where the practice is common enough to be accepted,” he told VICE. “It can keep a person from their dreams, romantic and fulfilling relationships, and even from truly living. I was captive to a restrictive gender society that discouraged monogamy and ostracised me for talking about love.”
The cult’s practices also pose a legal risk. In India, polygamy is considered illegal except for Muslims and residents of certain protected regions. This means marriages with second partners, as in Derasar, are legally void.
VICE tried to speak to several women from Derasar but they declined our requests. Dakshit says his younger sister who still lives in Derasar often talks to him about the lack of education and opportunities in the village, which forces many to just follow tradition even if they don’t agree with it.
Dakshit believes Derasar can become a place of reflection where, just as he did, both men and women in the village can start over.
“The conversation around marriage, commitment, relationship, gender equality, and mental health underwent a massive change in India,” he said. “Men are fleeing to find their own way of life because they can. Women, on the other hand, are still unable to lead individualistic lives in Derasar or Barmer, where polygamy still exists but is hardly ever discussed.”
Last summer, Dakshit married his long-term partner from high school, Mani, who doesn’t belong to the polygamous community, and the couple has since moved out of Derasar. He hopes his brother and other family members will also come to the realisation he had.
“Derasar taught me about family and community living,” he said. “But now I am moving away to learn about myself a little more.”