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Serga mathang and serga khothkin in Eastern Bhutan
Serga mathang and Serga khothkin are Tsangla (dialect spoken in eastern Bhutan) phrases, literally meaning "golden cousin" and pertain to consanguineous marriage. As it suggests, marriage among immediate cross cousins is comparable to amassing a coveted gold. Serga mathang is an expression for the daughter of one's father's sister or of one's mother's brother.

Mathang is a term associated with female cross cousin. Similarly, Serga khothkin applies to male cousin. The cross cousins' parents are called serga ani (aunt) and serga ajang (uncle).

Cross cousin marriage takes place between serga mathang and khothkin. The marriages among parallel cousins are very rare. They are equated to progenies of the same parents and hence considered as incest.

However, there are some cases of parallel cousin marriages. Cross cousin marriage is forbidden by social precepts and is a social taboo in western Bhutan. However, an aphorism that "the nephew deserved his maternal uncle's daughter" points to the existence of cross cousin marriage both in western and central Bhutan.

The institution of marriage is influenced by cross cousin rules, which specify that a man should marry his cousin of different parentage, who are biologically related : matrilateral, patrilateral and bilateral cousins. In eastern Bhutan, all three types of cousin marriages are present, and female cousin in all three is referred as serga mathang. Bilateral cousin marriages are considered to be the best of all. The presence of an elaborate system of marriages within kinship members serve to maintain alliances and exchanges between biologically related groups.

Rural people in eastern Bhutan are particular about their matrimonial alliances. They favour endogamy, which is a bonding factor for communal identity and social organisation. In a sharchop society, marriages among relatives are considered as ideal and continue to remain entangled in the web of social structure. The popularity of such alliances can be associated with a variety of social, cultural and economic advantages. But there is today an increasing doubt cast on the serga mathang concept, as a social impediment, on moral and medical grounds. As liberal ideas of love and individual choice penetrate deeper into the rural communities, this tradition is already in retreat. Those whose spouse choice is influenced by new attitude prefer mate selection based upon romance, intimacy and compatibility. Social status, wealth and value of the immediate cousins no longer incline them to marry their cousins.


Possible Origins of Serga Mathang Custom

There are no reliable records depicting the historical beginning of this marital custom. Tsangla people believe that they are the descendants of the six ruling clans who are descendants of Tsangma, the son of Gyalpo Thrisong Detshen. This endogamous marriage might have got entrenched within the tsangla community mainly to maintain the communal identity and perpetuate lineage. Another assumption is that, in medieval Bhutan, there were different groupings based on ethnic differences. Intermarriage among various groups might have been discouraged. Marriage between nobilities and commoners were rare. The families of nobility preferred marriage within their own group. This might have restricted marriage within the close relatives.

Cultural and physical isolations of one village from another due to geographical barriers might have reinforced endogamy tradition. An arranged marriage based on close ethnic ties used to be popular in olden days. Neighbour married neighbour for many generations. The segregation of different communities by various barriers inevitably forced each secluded community to confine their marriages within themselves. Cross cousins were allowed to marry each other even in western Bhutan. The social stigma imposed on cross cousin marriages in this part of the country seems to have been introduced recently. Change in this practice can be partly attributed to modern legal and social concepts.

Author: Lham Dorji, Researcher of the Centre for Bhutan Studies
The Journal of Bhutan Studies
This article was contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper
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